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Pre-College Experience in Physics

Pre-College Experience in Physics 2016
Fiona Nichols-Fleming and Genevieve Schroeder
University of Rochester
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Rochester, NY


The Pre-College Experience in Physics (PREP) is a summer program for high school females
aimed at fostering interest in the natural sciences and increasing female representation in
physics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematic) fields. The
program is held on the University of Rochester River campus, in Bausch and Lomb Hall.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy is house in this building, along with research
laboratories, a library, classrooms, and office space. This commuter program runs for three
weeks in July from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The program is free to all attendees.
This year’s 25 PREP participants came from 16 public and private schools all over the
greater Rochester area representing both suburban and rural neighborhoods. The
students’ arrived with varied academic backgrounds: most had studied trigonometry and
geometry though some were preparing to take Calculus II in the coming school year.
Coming into the program, none of the girls had taken a physics course. Many
enthusiastically stated in their applications that they would be taking either AP or Honors
physics come the fall, but as of the beginning of PREP none had any experience in the
subject. The participants also reported a wide range of scientific interests. Many expressed
a definite desire to pursue the natural sciences, engineering, and/or medicine, with an open
mind to considering a wide range of career paths, from becoming a marine biologist to an
astrogeologist.


An average day at PREP consists of lectures and demonstrations on a particular physics
concept. The material is then supplemented with activities, labs, and hands on
demonstrations. To further bring into perspective the many paths you can take with
physics, we also incorporated tours of research labs, a tour of a medical building, and
presentations by professional researchers from the University. Our goal was to provide the
participants with fun, hands-on experience in physics that was relaxed while still being
educational and challenging. Given that the participants had a wide range of math
backgrounds and no prior experience with physics, we focussed on physics concepts
instead of formulas, and did math problems as a group when necessary. Our ambitious
program was met with an encouraging level of interest among the participants – we were
pleased by the excellent questions that were asked every day.


Faculty members (almost all women) frequently visited to give the participants a new
perspective on their research and to answer questions about their career and experiences.
The participants enjoyed meeting the professors and were not shy about asking
challenging and perceptive questions. The PREP participants were also able to visit many
University of Rochester research facilities on campus and at the medical center over the
course of the program, which not only presented them an exposure to new fields of study,
but insights into the daily life of a scientist. In addition to lab tours, they also had a tour of
the Laboratory for Laser Energetics. The participants also met with a University Office of
Admissions counselor, as well as a doctor at the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging, where
they were able to see how an MRI machine works.


One key component of the program is arranged meetings with many undergraduate
students doing research over the summer in various fields of study. Every PREP participant
met a few times with several undergraduate women. These meetings allowed the girls to
see how lecture concepts are applied in a research setting, discover new interests, and get a
better understanding of how science is “actually done”. Undergraduates who spent time
with the girls were majoring in physics, astronomy, optics, chemistry, biology, and chemical
engineering and attended a variety of colleges. These undergraduates served as role
models for women in science and gave the students the opportunity to network, have their
questions answered directly, and learn about all science and college has to offer.
The PREP Program specifically highlights particle physics. Since this was most of the girls’
first exposure to the topic, many found it fascinating. To give the students a well-rounded
introduction we organized lectures, demonstrations, experiments, and a look at real
particle physics research conducted at the University of Rochester. To supplement the
instructor lectures of particle physics, Professor Regina Demina spoke with the students on
symmetry, the fundamental forces, particles, and the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment
at CERN. The particle physics component of the program got the girls to think about the
world from an entirely different perspective and challenged their conventional views on
how our universe functions.


Two additional key components of the PREP Program are the Rube Goldberg competition
and the individual research projects. For the Rube Goldberg competition, the students are
placed into groups and given an assortment of random materials – cardboard boxes, legos,
hot wheels tracks, and other toys– and asked to build a machine that had several unique
reactions. The students were required to include the Newtonian forces they learned about
in their machines and must be able to explain them. This helped the girls apply their
knowledge and improve their engineering and teamwork skills. The girls loved working on
these projects, a few of them said it was their favorite part of the program. The theme of the
projects this year was the Pixar movie Inside Out.


For their individual projects, the girls researched the physics of their topic of choice and
created a poster. Our goal was to familiarize the students with the research process, help
them become more comfortable presenting in front of others, and allow them to explore
physics in the context of one of their own interests. We arranged for a tour of the physics
library that showed them how to use the library search databases of a university as well as
locate books so they did not rely solely on the internet. The girls were given class time to
work on their posters and therefore had plenty of time to ask questions and gain feedback
on their work.


On the second to last day of the program, the girls presented their posters to the class, as
well in a poster session open to the physics department. The physics department and all
those who spoke, gave tours, or helped out with the PREP program were invited to browse
the posters and ask the girls questions. The students were proud to showcase their work
and many of the guests were impressed by the caliber of their work and all the material
learned. Many of the students were nervous about presenting during the poster session but
later reported that it was a very rewarding experience.


The goal of the PREP Program is not only to foster an appreciation of physics in young
women but also to improve problem solving, group work, and research skills. We try to
help them realize career potentials and show them that science can be both fun and
fulfilling. Through PREP self-evaluations, we noted that many of the women felt their skills
improved and their interest in STEM fields increased after completing the program.
Participants stated that the program improved their ability to understand concepts and do
experiments. They also felt more confident in their ability to apply scientific concepts to
real life problems, as well as becoming more adept at working in a group to complete a
task.


The PREP program has a great deal to offer young women interested in physics and other
STEM fields. One benefit to the PREP program is its ability to be flexible to the needs and
interests of its participants, and the time to cover a variety of subjects. Another is the
ability to connect these girls with other women in STEM fields. Above all, the girls were
able to leave this program with new friends and experiences to inspire them to pursue
their interests.