Most of the students in the College of Letters & Science may be away for the summer, but that doesn’t mean the action has stopped on campus. Our faculty and staff are still living out the Wisconsin Idea, both in Madison and all over the world. This is a story in our Summer Snapshots series.
Mike Randall leans back in his chair as a slightly mischievous smile creeps across his face.
“What are you guys ready for today?” he asks, knowing full well the answer that’s coming.
“BUNGEE JUMPING!” is the nearly in-unison response from the 13 sixth-graders facing him in a fourth-floor classroom in Chamberlin Hall.
The kids aren’t indulging any thrill-seeking behavior today, though. Instead, they’re using toy dolls and rubber bands to run a physics experiment.
Randall is the outreach coordinator for the Wonders of Physics, a program in UW-Madison’s Department of Physics with funding from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation that aims to educate – and entertain – the public and, in particular, pre-college students. Randall, who took over the position in Aug. 2011, travels around the state – and sometimes beyond – to put on shows to youngsters throughout the school year.
During the summer, Randall works with a variety of groups, including various summer camps run at UW-Madison. Among those is College for Kids, a School of Education pre-college program created in partnership with Greater Dane County school districts. That’s the camp Randall is collaborating with on this particular Wednesday morning.
Each sixth-grader has a doll; a few of the five boys in the class had to borrow spare Barbies from their female classmates, while one had a Ken and another a jumbo-sized Superman action figure. They pair up to do some testing with meter sticks, one rubber band at a time, and plot their data. The goal is to extrapolate their numbers to determine how many rubber bands they’ll need to use for the big drop, a 250-centimeter plunge from the top of a ladder using a pull-and-release apparatus.
“Talk amongst your fellow scientists,” Randall says as the kids begin their testing. “This is how stuff gets done in the real world.”
All in all, Randall estimates he’s presented to between 20,000 and 25,000 people since arriving at UW-Madison.
“There is no slow time,” he says. “August is probably as slow as it gets.”
That’s mainly because of the nature of the program. The Wonders of Physics has traditionally been a one-person operation, so Randall handles everything from booking the shows to building new toys. He’s actively recruiting volunteers and would like to eventually create satellite programs that could be run by graduate students in cities around the state. Overall, he wants to make the program run more efficiently while also making a greater impact.
“Twenty-thousand people may sound like a lot. It’s nothing, it’s just nothing,” he says. “It’s not even scratching the surface when you think about how many school kids there are in the state of Wisconsin or beyond.”
“My primary goal is to get them excited, to get them interested, to pique that curiosity, light that spark,” he says. “Secondary goal is to teach, and even then I give them just the really fundamental stuff, and I try to break it down to them in very common terms.”
Randall, who has a physics degree from Nebraska Wesleyan, has a wide-ranging background. He worked in air pollution research, developed instrumentation for rocket engines and was involved with classified projects for the military before getting into education. That began with a job at an ocean education company in California (run by a former expedition leader for famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau). Randall then worked as a private tutor, taught high school and finally spent two years at the Edgerton Explorit Center, a hands-on science center in Aurora, Neb., before coming to UW-Madison. He credits his science education with giving him the skills to try different career paths. And he hopes that the Wonders of Physics can play even a small role in laying that foundation for the kids who see it.
“I’m not saying that every kid who watches the Wonders of Physics is going to go on and become a scientist – and that’s not even that important,” he says. “But if they can start at least looking at science from a different perspective, recognizing that it does apply to their lives …
“I defy you to come up with a subject that physics doesn’t involve. … If you understand why things happen the way they do, that’s got to give you some power.”
After the first run, the kids make adjustments and line up to see if their dolls will fare better the second time around.
“Once that spark is lit, then their own curiosity, it’ll just, just like a fire, it will spread,” Randall says. “At least that’s the goal.”