Seeing the world differently

'Little Shop of Physics' lets kids get their hands on science

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

ST. MICHAELS, Ariz., March 21, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: A trio of St. Michael Indian School students walks through the displays Monday in St. Michaels.

SECOND FROM TOP: St. Michael Indian School first-grader Maiara Woody smiles as a Colorado State University student looks on Monday in St. Michaels.

THIRD FROM TOP: A St. Michael Indian School student holds her hand up to the floating beach ball Monday.

O ut of the 100 plus hands-on science projects that were part of Colorado State University's "Little Shop of Physics" lab on Monday at St. Michael Indian School, Leandra Slim enjoyed the "Horseshoe Magnet" exhibit the most.

The "Horseshoe Magnet" exhibit, like the name implies, is an electromagnet. It consists of a horseshoe wrapped in wire, and when electric currents flow through the wire it makes a magnetic field. The magnetic field then magnetizes the horseshoe, making it a very strong magnet.

"It's amazing how things can connect," said the 17-year-old, who enjoyed how the horseshoe would attract pieces of bolts through its electric current.

The "Little Shop of Physics," a K-12 hands-on science program at CSU, was on full display at St. Michael Indian School on Monday. On Tuesday, the lab made its way to Borrego Pass Community School in Borrego Pass, N.M., and later in the week to Aztec High in Aztec, N.M.

Students from CSU's Native American Cultural Center, the Little Shop of Physics and the College of Engineering's Women and Minorities in Engineering Program were on hand to show students how science can be fun.

The one-week tour by CSU students and staff across the Four Corners is also a recruitment drive to attract Native American students into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic fields, said Ty Smith, the center's director.

"Outreach to youth is a priority for my office, especially since we're the only land-grant university in the state of Colorado," said Smith, who added CSU's Native American Legacy Award for non-Colorado Native American students reduces tuition to Colorado-resident rates.

Smith added the lab is a "fun and exciting" way for students to learn and experience physics – the study of matter and its motion through space and time.

Aaron Benally, program coordinator for WMEP, was also on hand to encourage students like Slim to consider studying one of the STEM fields during their undergraduate study.

"It is something attainable," Benally said. "It's possible."

About 36 self-reported Native Americans/Alaskan Native students are enrolled at CSU's College of Engineering, Benally said.

One of those is Kirtland, N.M. native Derrick Benallie, 29.

Benallie, a fourth-year student, said the advancement of technology is a major reason why he's studying electrical engineering with a concentration in optics.

"There's a lot of new research going into design which is all open to optics, communications, electronics and energy," Benallie said.

Benallie added he volunteered on this weeklong spring break recruitment trip to show prospective Native students, like him, that it is possible to be in one of the STEM fields.

Aaron Benally added that the low trend of Native students in the STEM fields needs to change, and he hopes the Little Shop of Physics lab sparks an interest in the youth.

"A lot of these projects are handmade items you can find throughout the home," Benally said. "Some can be built from your homes and students can see that."

Besides the Horseshoe Magnet exhibit, students also had the opportunity to experience both projects that are made for daylight and those best seen in the dark.

One project that appealed to freshman Courtney Hale, 15, was the "Ultraviolet Mirror."

Asked why, she replied, "When you look into the mirror, everything bright you're wearing starts to glow."

With plans of becoming a film actress one day, Hale said after experiencing the physics lab on Monday she might change her mind and study a STEM major.

"Their visit makes it sound fun," she added.

Other hands-on projects students had the chance to try out included "Blood Shadows" and "Phantom Light Bulb."

At the "Phantom Light Bulb" exhibit, students saw a real, inverted image of a light bulb that is made by a concave mirror when looking at eye-point at the light bulb socket.

For the "Blood Shadows" exhibit, students saw the transparent power of white light when they placed their hands under the light to see their bloodstream.

The scientific reasoning behind this phenomenon, according to Little Shop of Physics Director Brian Jones, is that most of the body's tissues are "pretty transparent."

The Albert Einstein-looking Jones explained that white light is made up of all the colors, but shorter wavelengths like blue and violet scatter out leaving the long wavelengths. Once that happens, he said, the longer wavelengths, like red, scatter less. Infrared scatters so little it makes it through the hand. The blood in the veins, however, blocks infrared light, thus making it possible to see the dark shadows against one's lit up skin.

Jones added the lab, whose theme this year is "Discover a New Dimension," teaches students about how science is a process.

"Kids are natural scientists," he said. "They push buttons. They turn dials and they try different things to see what happens. That's really what science is. You try something to see what happens…and try something else."

Also, Jones said, the lab provides a resource for science and math high school teachers to help students see the world differently.

"The STEM fields are very great promise for individuals because there is a lot of opportunity there and it's also important for us as country," Jones said.

Though he couldn't remember which school on the Navajo Reservation invented the "Blood Shadows" exhibit, Jones said he enjoys how the indigenous worldview diversifies science, adding there is a need for Native STEM professionals.

"…The kids here, they see the world differently," he said. "It helps me see how it is important to have a diverse group of people in science."

This is the 10th year the Native American Cultural Center and the Little Shop of Physics have traveled to the Four Corners Region for spring break.

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