Raising the Next Nobel Prize Winners in Physics

Physics is a family affair: Five father-son duos have won a Nobel Prize in Physics - more than in any other category. So what spurred on the children’s interest, and how was it fostered?

For Albert Einstein, also a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, it was when his father showed him a compass at age 5, inciting his curiosity at why invisible forces would always deflect the needle.

We speak with John Hauptman  and EunJin Bang from Iowa State University about their new book: “Children Doing Physics: How to Foster the Natural Scientific Instincts in Children” and ask how teachers and parents can help today’s children become tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners.

ResearchGate: Why do you start your book with a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn”?

John Hauptman and EunJin Bang: Because that is the basic premise of the whole thing. We believe that actually doing things has several effects. First of all, doing experiments and making measurements imprint the experiences very well and, secondly, actually making something yourself that works is what psychologists might call empowerment or ownership.  I remember very well the huge feelings of pride when making something.

Why did you write this book and who is it intended for?

JH, EB: This was for a science content course mandated for Elementary Education majors. In the process of teaching it, we soon realized two things:  first, we had to teach the future teachers some physics but, more importantly; we had to teach them how to teach their future elementary students.  The idea was to teach physics by getting the future teachers to do the same experiments that their elementary students would be doing. There was no textbook for this, so we wrote one.

RG: What are some of the experiments you recommend?

JH, EB: Solar panels are really great because you actually generate power and make a toy car go.

We also recommend doing historical experiments by actual scientists. For instance, you can measure motion the way Galileo did with inclined planes to find the relationship among force, mass, and acceleration. Or you can make a simple motor like Faraday did to see the relationship between a magnetic field and an electric current. You can also measure charge the way Coulomb did with electroscopes.

When we look at these experiments, we see STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) integration done beautifully. STEM integration is in demand. Why not bring these experiments into the classroom and let the children do a little design engineering to improve a measurement?  For instance, when Galileo did his experiment, he didn’t have a stopwatch. He had to engineer a tool to measure time.

RG: Many of the experiments you recommend can also be carried out at home. Was that your intention – or just the beauty of physics and its “toys”?

JH, EB: That was not the intention, although home schooling parents can easily do all of this at home. The main fact (in American elementary schools) is that teachers don’t have useful budgets for science, so these experiments should all be done with materials that can be bought at a hardware store or supermarket.

RG: Five father-son duos have won the Nobel Prize in Physics.* Why do you think that is?

JH, EB: This topic is interesting and very complex, and we’re probably are not the people who understand it!  If we could add our two cents, we see this as “mentoring across the kitchen table” which can be fantastically empowering.  Seeing your parent accomplish something unique is certainly motivating, but not all children have this opportunity.  It would be good if in some much smaller measure this could be allowed for school children.

EB: As an example of "mentoring across the kitchen table," two of my nephews recently performed several experiments from our book. We measured the diameter of all of our family members' hair (mother, brother, aunt, and grandmother) using a hair from each family member, a red laser light, a ruler and a piece of paper.

measuring diameter of a hair

We also made a homopolar motor (similar to Faraday’s first motor) using a magnet, a wire, and a battery. It took us about three to four minutes and the kids had a blast!!

And I've just realized all the experiments we did happened to be on a kitchen table!

RG: Einstein's first “wonder” was when his father handed him a compass when he was five. Do you remember your first “wonder?” - or are there others you've heard that you'd like to share?

JH, EB: We’d say right away that Richard Feynman’s father gave him a magnet that did the same wonderment effect on him. Every good experimental physicist we know played with physics toys they’d built themselves; for example, particle physicist David Nygren built an electrical oscillator out of army surplus parts and, when he turn it on, it snowed out the television sets in Settle over a square mile.  Other examples are Carlo Rubbia, Luis Alvarez, and Robert R. Wilson.  Feynman, Rubbia and Alvarez were Nobel Prize winners in particle physics, and Wilson built Fermilab, the main US particle physics laboratory.

RG: There's a current lack of physics teachers in the UK, US and other parts of the world. What's the impact of this now and in the future?  

JH, EB: The impact is huge on the economy, on the health and welfare of the nation, on our well being, and on our technological civilization. Few people realize that the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee, a single mathematician working at CERN (a European federally supported physics lab), or that nearly every single instrument in a hospital came from a physics lab.  In order to build a transcontinental magnetically levitated bullet train, a nation needs a lot of science and engineering talent, something like the US space program in the 1960s.  The National Academy of Science wrote a report many years ago titled “Rising Above The Gathering Storm” detailing the problems of a weak educational system.

RG: When I was younger, my favorite science lesson was building a structure around an egg to stop it shattering when dropped from a fair height. I now see you have a whole chapter on this! What are children meant to take away from this experiment? And what advice do you offer teachers planning a lesson on it?

JH, EB: That’s a wonderful experiment and I’m pleased you still remember it so well!  The physics is simply the correspondence between work and energy. This is a universal problem encountered in many different contexts. This is also an important and classic problem---gradually slowing to a stop so that the force is never large enough to break an egg, or a person inside a car, for example.

One egg is easy and the success rate for our students on this experiment is high. In most cases, students use the strategy of slowing down before their egg hits the ground.  They do this with mainly two strategies (e.g. balloons and parachute). So, the extension experiment that makes this more challenging is using two eggs. Now, the two eggs touch each other. You really have to make the landing delicate. That really forces you to land the eggs gently.

RG: What effect do you think your book has on the people who read it?  

JH, EB: It’s a textbook for elementary teachers in training to learn how to teach physics. The course where it’s read is fun and also rewarding when students say afterwards that they are confident and no longer have a fear of physics.  Most of these teacher candidates (and they are 95% female here) have never soldered a wire, or measured currents and voltages, or measured mass and time, but in this course they do this and much more.  Simply doing solves so many problems, maybe like Ben Franklin said.


*William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg (1915); J.J. Thomson (1906) and George Paget Thomson (1937); Niels Bohr (1922) and Aage N. Bohr (1975); Manne Siegbahn (1924) and Kai M. Siegbahn (1981); Hans von Euler-Chelpin (1929) and Ulf von Euler (1970),

Experiment photo and video courtesy of Eunjin Bang; feature image courtesy of TheGiantVermin