Little Shop of Physics

2017 Highlights & Questions

Our traveling program continues to be the core of our efforts. In 2017, we visited over 20 schools and shared our hands-on science program with over 10,000 students. Our 2016-2017 tour theme was Discovery Begins With You, a personalized version of the CNS motto.

  • Are there opportunities to coordinate our school visits with College or University efforts?
    • Connecting with schools near the National Western Center?
    • Competitions to raise awareness—”win a school visit”? (A recent effort with CenturyLink led to 90 entries.)

The Little Shop of Physics is the final lab in each of our introductory courses each semester, a valuable capstone experience for our students. Each semester, over 1500 undergraduates explore and experiment with our hands-on experiment stations. We take advantage of the fact that the Little Shop stations are set up in our teaching labs to host schools who visit campus. This is also an opportunity for CSU undergraduate students to have a valuable outreach experience. In December, 2017, we hosted visitors from 10 schools, and employed nearly 100 undergraduate volunteers.

  • Are there other opportunities to connect with visiting groups or to be part of University recruiting efforts?

Our 2017 Open House was the biggest to date (though it was surpassed by the 2018 Open House) and included partners from across campus.

  • How could we leverage this event to aid the College and Departments?
    • Increased focus on partners?
    • Opportunities for fundraising?

We took the show on the road, with major support from Halliburton, to Native American reservation areas (Spring Break 2017, May 2017, October 2017, Fall Break 2017) and made other connections with reservation schools and teachers.

  • For this program, is there anything we should add or change?
    • School visits or workshops?
    • Increase on-campus events?

Our ongoing Pharos-funded program of developing materials for PSD classrooms continues. We have now developed kits of instructional materials for all grades K-8, and are collecting our teaching materials into a web resource; here is a sample page.

  • How could we connect with other efforts on campus?
  • Could we consider a science lab course for future teachers—tools & techniques for teaching science?

Our expertise in science education allowed us to continue to develop instructional materials that are used widely across the country, including “What the Physics?” videos that will be part of the most recent edition of the Knight, Jones, Field College Physics textbook.

  • Are there ways we can coordinate or work with other efforts on campus to leverage resources and increase impact?

We started 2017 with a visit to CSU’s Todos Santos Center, working with students at several schools in Todos Santos and Pescadero. A gallery of photos is here.

  • How important is the relationship with Todos Santos, and what form should it take?
    • Teachers or students?
    • CSU staff or CSU students?

We finished 2017 by traveling to Namibia for a series of teacher workshops and school programs, certain our most ambitious international outreach effort yet. The final element was a week-long program of building hands-on science projects with University of Namibia preservice teachers that we shared at an open day at a high school in Windhoek.

  • How important are such international efforts?
  • How can we involve students in such efforts?

Additional Opportunities

LSOP is a wonderful training ground for future teachers and future scientists. In the past decade, over a dozen current high school teachers have come through our ranks, and students planning for research careers gain valuable experience as well.

  • Are there ways that we could formalize or improve the experience for future teachers or future scientists?
  • Are there ways that we could involve more future teachers and future scientists in our efforts?

The partnership with the CNSLC (for example, Get Your Science On, now a student-directed program) is ongoing and evolving.

  • How can we best engage students and provide them with meaningful experiences?

Challenges: Funding, Personnel & Organizational Structure

In 2017, we received outside funding from several sources:

  • Halliburton (STEM Pathways, connections with Native American groups): $35,000
  • B2Gold (teacher workshops and school programs in Namibia): $35,000
  • CenturyLink (TackleSTEM, school visits & school programs & Open House): $30,000
  • Pharos Fund (materials for PSD classrooms): $15,000

We also received many small grants and donations.

We received major support from CNS ($100,000) plus a modest contribution from the Department of Physics. The CNS contribution is spelled out in a memorandum; it is a three-year commitment. We are in the second year.

We receive funding in support of specific programs and activities, but our sources are generally reluctant to pay for staff salaries. Our grants do not, as a rule, include overhead.

This all creates some challenges:

  • We don’t have base funding, so our staff are on special appointments. For people starting out, the lack of security is troubling, and it is challenging to ask people to give significantly of their time and talents outside of normal work hours (as we do), to make such a major commitment to the University, without a sense of commitment from the University. Staff are always on the lookout for other opportunities with better long-term prospects.
  • The salaries that we offer are quite modest, and there is no good way to give a significant increase.

The folks who work for the Little Shop of Physics are a creative and energetic bunch, and are eager to contribute in other ways to the educational mission of the University.

  • Adam Pearlstein teaches courses for the Department on a regular basis. He has become known as an effective and caring instructor.
  • Heather Michalak teaches physics and astronomy lab sections, and hosts public viewing nights. She has gone far above and beyond what is expected of a lab instructor, developing new activities, training other instructors, and providing technical and organizational support.

The Little Shop of Physics is housed in a Department; the scale of our outreach efforts is far beyond what a Department might be expected to perform. The Little Shop staff came on board during the CMMAP grant, when we had significant funding for staff. We have an informal understanding from the Department that staff will be included in the Department’s teaching efforts (to the benefit of the Department, I might add; Heather and Adam are both excellent teachers) but there is reluctance to give staff formal, long-term appointments. (The Department would, understandably, prefer that instructors be hired through a rigorous search process rather than come to the program through an ad hoc process.) This reluctance feeds the impression that their efforts are undervalued.

Basically, the Little Shop of Physics grew and expanded in a manner and to a degree that was not anticipated; we didn’t plan for this. We have grown into a program with an international reputation for effective science outreach driven by staff members who are an important part of the teaching program of the Physics Department. But the program and the staff have no long term stability and face considerable uncertainty regarding the future.

There are some basic questions here:

  • Is there a possibility for a level of base funding that we could use to pay staff, allowing them to transition to regular appointments with the possibility of advancement and salary increases?
  • Are there other responsibilities that we could take on that would provide for more stability?
  • Are there other organizational models that could be considered?

Further Questions

For additional details and information, please contact Brian Jones or see the Little Shop of Physics website.