OU students and faculty develop science demos, strengthen belonging in STEM

Last fall, Petrels in a First-Year Seminar taught by Associate Professor of Physics Dr. Mariel Meier showed their passion for science through a new outreach project — one that brought the first-year students to a local elementary school to teach scientific principles.

The students spent their first semester at Oglethorpe developing a variety of demonstrations, including a bicycle-powered generator to explore energy and power; a fire tornado to explain air flow; and a ring of nitrogen-cooled metals to show quantum levitation. Simple and engaging, these demonstrations help younger students wrap their minds around intangible scientific concepts.

A student pedals a bicycle-powered generator

A student pedals a bicycle-powered generator

“The physics outreach project is a way that we, as enthusiastic STEM majors, can share our love of the subject and spread it to the new generation,” says Maxwell Mahaffey ’27, a student in the class. “I wish that I got to do this in third grade. I think the kids really learned a lot.”

The benefits of this project are two-fold, according to Dr. Meier. While young students learn new concepts through fun, engaging demonstrations, Oglethorpe students solidify their scientific identities and build lasting relationships with their peers.

“My main drive was finding ways to get students involved so that they can see themselves as scientists. And so that when the classes get really hard — and they do get really hard in physics — they know that that’s still a space where they’re meant to be and that they can persevere,” says Dr. Meier.

This outreach is one of 11 campus initiatives recently subsidized by the university’s Strategic Plan grant fund totaling $100,000. In support of the university’s revitalized mission and vision, this project is intended to be one of the many ways the university is building a more inclusive learning environment for its students.

An application for the grant was authored by Dr. Meier and students Dexter Benefield ’25 and Miles Paras.

The idea to further expand the reusable demonstration library was also inspired in part by the success of last year’s Atlanta Science Festival event, which brought more than 150 families to campus. Teams of more than 65 students, faculty and staff hosted an afternoon of family-friendly experiments, introducing young children to a variety of scientific concepts. Oglethorpe University will once again participate in the Atlanta Science Festival in March 2024.

With the conclusion of Dr. Meier’s First-Year Seminar course, Oglethorpe’s Physics Club — co-led by Damiah Denson ’26, Jamie Lester ’24 and Dexter Benefield ’25 — will begin planning additional outreach events in the spring semester using these demonstrations. The physics club will also work to further expand the available demonstrations to represent a range of scientific disciplines in their outreach.

“I think STEM education is really important for young children,” said Benefield. “People are going to run into problems all their life and I think that being able to think critically — to think outside of the box, view things from different angles — is definitely a skill that STEM helps teach. If you can think of any problem as an equation that you can rework, then you can find a solution much easier if you can look at it from different angles.”

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