HANDS-ON PHYSICS PROGRAMS FOR MIDDLE LEVEL STUDENTS
Meera Chandrasekhar1 and Jennifer Geib2
Abstract -- We describe a series of three female-targeted
extracurricular physics programs that we have developed
over the last ten years. The programs explore
fundamental concepts of physics, relate them to
applications, and culminate in student-built devices.
Exploring Physics, an eight-session program for female
students in grades 5-7, has eight units that explore
different concepts in physics, and is used by about 300
students annually throughout Missouri. FEST, Families
Exploring Science and Technology is a four-session
program for grades 6–7, where students and parents work
together to combine physics and engineering principles
and build a movable drawbridge. Saturday Scientist is a
three-Saturday program in collaboration with local
industries, where 8-9 grade students visit industrial sites
and learn about applied scientific principles and careers.
We also describe evaluation results, related publications,
and teacher development institutes. These programs were
developed with NSF funding, and are currently working
toward being self-sustaining.
Index Terms—extra-curricular programs, hands-on
Despite the efforts of the past three decades, the physical
sciences are still sparsely populated by females.
According to data from the National Science Foundation
 22% of females enroll in high school physics,
compared to 27% of males. In 1996, women earned 47%
of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields,
including social sciences; however, only 37% of physical
science degrees and only 18% of engineering degrees.
Much of the research on student interest in science
documents that students lose interest as they progress
through school. Using a multi-dimensional science
interest instrument  it was found that  attitude
toward science becomes less positive throughout grades
six through ten and throughout each school year in those
grades. Attitudes that were strongly positive toward
science at the beginning of sixth grade changed to a
neutral attitude at the end of tenth grade.
Several studies have documented gender differences
in attitude toward science [4, 5, 6]. Females’ attitudes
toward science were significantly more negative than that
of males. The negative attitude persisted (among eighth
grade students, ) despite females achieving higher
grades and scoring similarly on achievement tests.
Moreover, significantly more males than females join
mathematics and science extracurricular activities.
In order to positively influence both the attitudes
toward and familiarity with the physical sciences among
female students, we have developed and implemented a
series of three extra-curricular programs that span the
middle grades: Exploring Physics, for grades 5-7,
Families Exploring Science and Technology (FEST) for
grades 6-7 and Saturday Scientist for grades 8-9. The
grade groupings were chosen to match the local public
schools, and can be adapted for different school
structures. The programs are targeted to female students,
however, male students are not excluded.
Recruitment is a key concern for an extracurricular
program with a targeted audience. Having teachers help
develop programs gives us a jump on recruitment –
teachers feel a degree of ownership and are eager to
conduct the program. Several strategies are used to
advertise the programs. Teachers actively invite female
students whom they think will benefit from a physical
science program. For Saturday Scientist, brochures are
mailed home inviting the parents of targeted students to
sign their child up for the program. At some schools
participation in these extra-curricular activities allows
students to earn “club” points toward a school letter. Our
initial goal was to have at least 50% female participation.
Our numbers frequently exceed the target.
Having teachers help develop programs has several
additional benefits: they help keep programs at an
appropriate intellectual level for the students, help choose
materials and equipment that suit the hands-on skills of
students, provide formative evaluation, and anticipate
potential classroom management issues.
The Exploring Physics program was piloted in 1993, and
currently serves about 300 students annually. Exploring
Physics focuses on hands-on activities that are concept
oriented, fun, and sequenced to develop a given topic.
Several of the activities are make-and-take projects. This
voluntary, after-school program is targeted to female
students in grades 5-7, but has often been used for grades
4-8. The program is conducted at the students’ schools
and is run by science teachers who receive content
training at our Summer Teacher Institutes. It is currently
available in the local (Columbia) Public School District
and to other Missouri teachers who have taken the
1. Meera Chandrasekhar, Department of Physics, University of Missouri, Columbia MO 65211 (573)-882-2619 email@example.com.
2. Jennifer Geib, Department of Physics, University of Missouri, Columbia MO 65211 (573)-884-1270 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation through grants NSF HRD 96-19140 and NSF HRD 99-08509.
WEPAN 2003 Conference 1 June 8-11, 2003 Chicago, Illinois
Each four-week program uses one of the units listed
in Table I. Students attend 90-minute sessions twice a
week. Typically 20-40 students attend a given program.
The last session is a family evening; students show their
families what they have learned, and also interact with
hands-on style exhibits. Teachers often include popular
demonstrations, for example, activities with a Van de
Graaff generator. Eight units (e.g., Optics I) have been
developed, each with two or three modules (e.g.,
Reflection) with six to ten activities in each module. The
units topics are summarized below .
EXPLORING PHYSICS UNITS
Matter and Mechanics I: Air and
Matter and Mechanics II:
Density and Simple Machines
Optics I: Reflection and Color Optics II: Refraction and
Sound: Vibrations, Waves, and
Energy: Mechanical, Chemical,
Electrical Energy; Energy
Electricity I: Static Electricity,
Batteries, Bulbs & Switches, and
Electricity and Magnetism-II:
Magnets, Solenoids, Resistors,
Each module of a unit focuses on a few key concepts
(e.g., the reflection module explores the reflection of light
by straight surfaces, multiple mirrors, and curved
surfaces). The activity materials were developed using
the 5E learning model , using the following guidelines
to keep the “fun level” of the program high:
• A module often begins with a game or a puzzle based
on the concept. The initial activities are designed to
internalize the concept, rather than learn it formally.
• Concept development is done via activities that use
commonly available materials and simple scientific
equipment, such as digital voltmeters or ray boxes.
Student see that science is manifested in everyday
life, and also gain familiarity with laboratory
• Concepts learned are applied to build a gadget, game,
art project, or toy, thereby developing students’
building and mechanical skills. Common shop tools
are used under supervision of the teacher. Many
female students express awe at having handled an
electric drill during the program.
• Quantitative analysis of data is introduced for
students in higher grades.
• "Gee-whiz" exhibits are used on family night, and are
handled with interactive explanations so that they are
not regarded as "magic". Family night helps publicize
the program to younger friends and siblings.
A Sample Exploring Physics Module
The Batteries, Bulbs, and Switches module , which
introduces students to electrical circuits, explores the
concepts of closed circuits, contact points, and various
kinds of circuit elements: bulbs, switches, batteries,
buzzers, motors, LEDs, and photocells. This module is
suitable for grades 4-6.
The module begins with the classic activity where
students are provided with one bulb, one battery, and one
wire. They are first asked to draw two ways in which the
circuit can be connected so that it does not work and two
ways in which it will work. This activity highlights
students’ misconceptions about what constitutes a closed
circuit. Examples are shown in Figure 1, where
connecting to the glass envelope of the bulb (a) or a short
circuit (b) is construed as a closed circuit. After students
try out these circuits and do not succeed (and indeed,
touch the hot battery or wire in (b)), a discussion of
contact points and the importance of having metal-to-
metal contact follows.
STUDENTS’ MISCONCEPTIONS OF A CLOSED CIRCUIT.
Next in the module is a problem-solving activity, The
Bulb Challenge, where students examine different
diagrams of closed circuits, (like those in Fig. 1) predict
whether the bulb will light or not, give reasons for their
prediction, and then try them out. The next activity
examines the inside of a bulb and relates it to closed-
circuit concepts. In Look at Those Bulbs, students
examine an assortment of light bulbs, make diagrams, and
discuss how the filament in a bulb is connected to the
outside contacts, allowing the circuit to be completed
while simultaneously lighting up the bulb.
The next few activities utilize a puzzle board where
different devices are mounted on puzzle pieces that can be
mixed and matched (Fig. 2). Light That Bulb uses piece
A. Students draw a diagram of the circuit, and then trace
the path of the electrons, introducing the concept of a
direction for the flow of current. They are asked to
exchange the + and – terminals of the battery and observe
what happens (no change), and queried on what they must
do to turn the bulb on and off (pull a wire off a contact).
This last question leads to the next activity, entitled Enter
The Switch, which utilizes puzzle pieces A and B (Fig. 2).
Students first draw a picture of how they will connect the
circuit so that the switch turns the circuit on and off, and
then connect the circuit. Invariably, a few students
connect all terminals of all devices to each other,
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producing a short circuit! By this time students are
usually comfortable using standard symbols for devices
rather than cartoons of bulbs and batteries.
THE PUZZLE BOARD
In the next activity, Look at All Those Switches,
students examine a variety of switches (SPDT, DPDT,
DPST, push-button, etc) draw diagrams, figure out how
they work and discuss where they may be used. A
problem-solving Switch Challenge follows, where
students examine several circuits with multiple switches
and bulbs and predict how those circuits function.
The next activity is Turn On the Buzzer, (using
puzzle pieces A, B, and C, Fig. 2). Students plan the
circuit and connect the switch, battery, and buzzer. The
buzzer works only in one polarity. Next is Connect the
Motor (puzzle pieces A, B, and D). The DC motor
changes the direction in which it spins when the polarity
is reversed. Both activities reinforce the concept of the
direction of current flow.
The next activity is Adding a Photocell and LEDs
(puzzle pieces A, B, C and E). This activity introduces
modern devices to young students. The photocell is
connected in series with the buzzer, and students observe
the change in the volume of sound when a finger blocks
the light falling on the photocell. A discussion of the
buzzer “not getting enough voltage” follows. The red and
yellow LEDs reinforce the concept of current flowing in
one direction. A bipolar LED surprises students by
lighting up (in different colors) when the polarity is
reversed. Students quickly figure out that it consists of
two LEDs set back-to-back.
The advantage of using a puzzle board is that it
allows the teacher to maintain some degree of control
over the sequence of activities. In a pilot run where we
had all devices on a single board, students were prone to
just playing around and connecting devices to each other,
frequently expressing frustration that things “didn’t
work.” With the puzzle board, pieces can be given or
taken away from the students as needed. After all the
activities have been completed, however, students often
play with the devices connected in creative ways, but this
time they can answer their frustrations themselves, or
create more efficient “teachable moments.” We frequently
provide a voltmeter when a student complains that a bulb
and motor in series will allow the motor to work while the
bulb does not light. This circuit also gives us an
opportunity to address the misconception that the “motor
is closer to the battery and therefore works while the more
distant bulb does not.” This discussion sets the stage for
the next module, Simple Circuits, which addresses series
and parallel circuits.
The final activity in
this module is a student-
built device entitled My
Own Car Door (Fig. 3).
The circuit is built in a
transparent baseball card
box. The light turns on
when the lid is opened
and turns off when the lid
is shut. Students take
this gadget home.
The Batteries, Bulbs,
and Switches module
takes students about three
90-min sessions to
complete. The written
materials for this and other Electricity and Magnetism
modules have been published as a CD-ROM 
(discussed later in this paper).
MY OWN CAR DOOR
FAMILIES EXPLORING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Families Exploring Science and Technology (FEST) is an
evening program designed to give middle level students
and their families collaborative experiences in science and
technology. FEST piloted in the spring of 1998, was
developed in collaboration with industrial technology and
science teachers. About 50 students in grades 6-7
participate annually. The most effective strategy for
recruitment is to show students the final take-home
project – the working drawbridge.
FEST is structured so that students work with an
adult family member to learn science concepts through
hands-on activities and construct the drawbridge.
Students who cannot bring a family member are assigned
a buddy who works with them. The four-week program
meets one night each week for two hours. To make the
program more convenient for families, low-cost dinners
are delivered if the families choose this option.
The FEST program sessions are organized in the
following manner. In the first session, after introducing
the program, families examine a model drawbridge.
Video clips of drawbridges in movies (The Blues
Brothers, Annie) and other bridges (Tacoma Narrows
Bridge Disaster, a.k.a. Galloping Gertie) are presented.
WEPAN 2003 Conference 3 June 8-11, 2003, Chicago Illinois
Families begin the first hands-on lesson on structures.
The teacher discusses different types of stresses that
engineers consider when building structures, and the
audience often provides examples. Each family constructs
a box made from basswood sticks from one of four
structural designs: a plain box, a box with crosspieces, a
box with gussets on the joints, or a box that has both
crosspieces and gussets. The glue is allowed to dry until
the following week’s session. The class makes predictions
about what they think will happen when they test the
boxes for their ability to withstand stress. If there is time,
families begin construction on the basic structure of the
bridge sides. Families often check out the tools and
supply boxes to continue the construction at home.
During the second session families test the strength
of their boxes by loading and breaking them. They
compile class data on which boxes held the most weight
and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each design.
Each family then decides which extras (crosspieces or
gussets), if any, to add to their design of the bridge sides.
THE FEST DRAWBRIDGE
While individual families test their boxes, the rest
work on a lesson on gears. Participants investigate
combinations of gear sizes using a simple gear apparatus,
and make conclusions about the resulting differences in
input/output force and speed. The teacher also has a
bicycle and stand for families to examine. Participants
apply what they learn to the drawbridge situation by
deciding how to arrange two gears most appropriately.
Should the bridge move slowly with less power or quickly
with more power? In the end the participants decide that
it makes more sense to put the large gear on the bridge
base and the small gear on the motor, letting the bridge
raise and lower slowly while requiring less power.
Session 3 deals with electricity. In preparation for
wiring their motor, families learn about the differences
between series and parallel circuits made from Christmas
bulbs. They use voltmeters to measure and compare
voltage and discuss current in the circuits. Then they learn
how to wire a double-pole-double-throw (DPDT) switch
so that the motor can change directions, allowing the
drawbridge to be both raised and lowered. A bipolar LED
is included in the circuit to indicate the direction of
motion of the drawbridge.
The last session of the program is spent assembling
all the parts of the drawbridge. The families finish
constructing the bridge sides, if necessary; reinforce the
floor of the bridge using any design they choose;
assemble the gears, axle, and motor; wire the motor and
switch circuit; construct a switch box; and test the whole
structure. It is impressive to watch the diligence with
which the groups work to put everything together. No
one ever leaves without a complete bridge. Of course,
final decorative touches can be added later.
In addition to the science and engineering concepts
learned in this program, students and their “buddies”
leave with practical skills in using tools such as saws,
drills, wire-strippers, hammers, and multimeters. Most
importantly, the families have had the opportunity to
spend some quality time working and learning together.
The Saturday Scientist Program is a hands-on, industry-
based experience designed for junior high school students
(grades 8 and 9). The goals of the program are to provide
meaningful extra-curricular science experiences and to
increase students' awareness of potential careers in the
physical sciences. The pilot program was conducted in
1998. Each year three local industry sites host about 100
students from the three local junior high schools. The 3-
hour programs are conducted for three Saturdays each
spring, and each school rotates through the three sites.
Several organizations have hosted Saturday Science over
the past six years, including the City of Columbia Water
& Light and Fire Departments, University of Missouri’s
School of Veterinary Medicine, Industrial Engineering
and Computer Engineering departments, KOMU TV, and
the Columbia Career Center’s Laser Lab. Details and
pictures of several programs are on our website . We
describe a few of them below.
The City of Columbia Water & Light Department,
developed two programs on energy conservation and
energy production. During the energy conservation
program, students built tabletop houses from various
insulating materials, including cardboard, cardboard
covered with aluminum foil, foam insulation, drywall, and
Plexiglas. A 100-W light bulb was placed in the house as
a heat source and the students took interior and exterior
temperature readings for 12 minutes. After plotting the
data, the students estimated the steady-state temperatures
to compare the effectiveness of the building materials.,
Students examined the thermal leaks using an infrared
WEPAN 2003 Conference 4 June 8-11, 2003, Chicago Illinois
camera. The most counter-intuitive infrared picture was to
see visibly transparent Plexiglas opaque while cardboard
was virtually transparent. Students then attempted to
further insulate the houses by sealing leaks, applying
window treatments and trying other creative ideas.
During the energy production and usage program,
students measured the power usage of appliances in a
tabletop house. By modifying LED-based lights with
added resistors, the Water & Light engineers came up
with an ingenious plan that used safe 12V supplies, yet
appear to use energy comparable to air conditioners,
stoves, and refrigerators. Students then used an energy
bike to produce electricity and power the devices.
At the Career Center (Columbia Public Schools),
students made holograms and worked with optical
materials. The Career Center has a collaboration to train
optical technicians for 3M, and has a state-of-the-art
At the Robotics Lab, University of Missouri CSCE
Department, students programmed two simple mobile
robots that were designed and built from Legos .
"Freddy" is built with treads. "Willie" has two active
wheels and one passive wheel. Both are controlled with
two motors and a differential drive strategy, which is
explained to students. Three bump switches are included
as binary touch sensors – two in the front and one in the
rear. The "brain" of each robot is a Tiny Tiger micro-
controller programmed in BASIC. Low-level subroutines
were written prior to the students’ visit and provided a
form of high-level interface. A handout provided
exercises to familiarize the students with the robot
functions, after which students were encouraged to write a
program that used all of the sensors to escape from
obstacles. A maze was provided that made the task
interesting and required some strategizing.
EXPLORING PHYSICS – THE CD-ROM
A dissemination product of our Exploring Physics
program is a CD-ROM entitled Exploring Physics-
Electricity and Magnetism . The CD is intended for
teachers and students in grades 5-9, and for professional
development. We are currently using the CD (with minor
modifications) for a physics class for preservice
elementary education majors.
Over 100 hands-on activities are organized in six
modules, entitled Batteries, Bulbs and Switches
(described previously in this paper), Understanding
Batteries, Simple Circuits, Static Electricity, Resistors &
Capacitors, and Magnets & Magnetism. Within each
module the activities are sequenced to develop a few
chosen concepts. The kinds of activities vary – there are
hands-on activities, inquiry-based experimental design
activities, challenges (problem-solving activities), projects
that students can build, and student reading pages for
important background information.
The activities are designed so that the same activities
are used for professional development of teachers and for
use with students in their classrooms. The additional
depth required for teachers is built into the embedded
links. While the original Exploring Physics program was
targeted to grades 5-7, the CD was expanded for use in
grades 5-9, with some segments useful for 3-4 and 10-12.
The CD was written not only as a compilation of
hands-on activities, but also to serve as a reference.
Teachers who took our summer institutes routinely asked
for written materials that would provide the content
background needed for the hands-on activities. The CD
was therefore written with a vast repertoire of links that
provide appropriate conceptual information, a rich
collection of animations and figures, useful instructions
on equipment, several quantitative activities, handy
teacher hints, quick-check answers, and several activities
usable for assessment.
Teachers who had previously taken the summer
institutes and those who were running the Exploring
Physics programs served as formative and summative
reviewers as we wrote the CD. Following their input, we
emphasized visuals over text, favored bulleted text over
long passages, and kept linked background information
relatively short (with a few notable exceptions).
SUMMER TEACHER INSTITUTES
Soon after we started the Exploring Physics program
we realized that we needed to provide inservice
professional development for teachers who would teach
the programs. These inservice summer institutes, piloted
in 1993, have evolved to be three weeks long. They run in
a three-year cycle: Matter, Mechanics and Energy;
Electricity and Magnetism; and Optics and Sound.
Teachers learn using the same materials that we use in the
Exploring Physics program, but with additional depth.
The Electricity and Magnetism institute uses the CD-
ROM described previously in this paper .
The institutes are funded by state Eisenhower grants,
now entitled Improving Teacher Quality, which provide
tuition, room and board, and a kit of materials that is split-
funded by the grant and the teacher’s school. As of this
year the grant also provides a stipend. Many teachers use
the materials in their classrooms, and several offer the
Much of the evaluation focused on testing the
efficacy of our programs, and on attitude changes. All
evaluation instruments are available on our website .
A confidence instrument was administered (pre-and
post-) to female students taking Exploring Physics, and to
comparison groups of female and male students who did
not take the program. The females who took Exploring
WEPAN 2003 Conference 5 June 8-11, 2003, Chicago Illinois
Physics had about the same confidence pre-test scores as
those who did not take the program. The males (who also
did not take the program) had higher confidence levels
than both female groups. After the Exploring Physics
program, however, the confidence level of the female
students taking the program increased, and was equal to
or higher than that of the male students for 11 out of 12
items. The overall evaluation by the students and the
families who visited at family night has remained very
positive regardless of the Exploring Physics unit.
FEST evaluation data were collected from site visits
at the three middle schools, analysis of a modified
Science Experience Survey  (SES), buddy survey,
summative evaluation, and limited follow-up telephone
interviews. From the data collected over four years, it is
evident that students and families especially enjoy
building the bridge together, working with electricity, and
taking the final product home (66% enjoyed these areas
the most). Almost all participants would recommend
FEST to others. The high mean scores and low standard
deviations are consistent across all schools.
The overall rating of Saturday Scientist was also very
positive. Students especially enjoyed operating lasers and
making holograms, programming robots, and wiring
electrical circuits in the tabletop houses. As far as careers
related to their experiences, students cited a very diverse
list of skills they perceived to be necessary in each field.
Students ranked the ability to do math as being a high-
necessity skill for all industry sites.
Summer Teacher Institute qualitative (interviews,
surveys) and quantitative (pre- and post- test) data
indicated that the Institutes greatly expanded the
knowledge base of the participants. Teachers liked the CD
and felt it would be a wonderful resource. Several had
good insights on how to incorporate the CD into their own
classroom activities. Overall, the participants indicated
that the material of this Institute would be retained much
longer due to the expectations of the course, the usage of
material learned, the hands on re-enforcement of the
concepts, the real world applications, and the many
homework problems. They also felt they would be able to
better able to facilitate a similar knowledge gain in their
students due to the pedagogy of the Institute. Having the
kit of equipment helped them implement the hands-on
activities in their classes.
SUSTAINING THE PROGRAMS
Since grant funding for these programs ended in
March of 2002, we have had to modify some aspects of
the programs to ensure their sustainability. Some teacher
stipends have been shifted to the public school’s
extracurricular budget as a science club or as part of the
Career Ladder. For Saturday Scientist, junior high school
teachers applied and received a locally disseminated
Links to Learning grant to cover not only stipends, but
transportation costs to the industry sites. Exploring
Physics and FEST now both charge a fee to participants to
cover materials costs, but make scholarships available for
those who cannot afford the fee. Some schools have also
received funds from their PTA or have conducted
fundraisers to cover the cost of materials. The industrial
sites for Saturday Scientist have been very generous in
providing expertise and materials at their own expense.
Stipends for graduate students who helped with the
program at University sites were provided under the
original grant, and may be written into the application for
the Links to Learning grant in the future.
This work was supported by the National Science
Foundation through grants NSF-HRD 96-19140 and 99-
08509. We gratefully acknowledge the help of Rebecca
Litherland, Science Coordinator, Columbia Public
Schools, as well as Kathy Phillips and Lloyd Barrow,
University of Missouri, in the development and
implementation of all the programs above. Several
individuals contributed to the development of specific
programs: David Rainwater, Michael Wallace, Gordon
Prince, Ann Van Nest, Rodney Swope, Laura Jackson,
Stan Shollenbarger, Laura Zinszer, Thuy Nguyen, and
H.R. Chandrasekhar (Exploring Physics); Jim Helmick,
Mike Bielski, and Steve Chott, (FEST); Calene Cooper,
Marsha Tyson, Science Teacher, Nancy Ionatti, Cathy
Dwiek, Jay Hasheider, Tim Pohlman, Cerry Klein,
Rebecca Morlando, Pearl John, Stacy Woeppel, Marge
Skubic, Steve Sapp, Frank Barfield, Barbra Horrell, and
Donna Whitener (Saturday Scientist).
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