Immersive science experiences re-engage K-12 students
June 8, 2023

Backed by 3M, Physics Force and Energy and U provide premiere live shows demonstrating the power of uniting science, technology, engineering, and math.

This spring, two STEM programs, powered by 3M and led by faculty teams in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (CSE), will bring their energy-packed shows to audiences on the U of M Twin Cities campus and in Rochester. Physics Force and Energy and U strive to re-engage students’ interest in the sciences.

Capturing young imaginations

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At a recent Physics Force event, a seasoned performer is suspended atop a 15-foot tower, poised to be dropped. Across the stage, a cannon is loaded and ready with a ball in the muzzle. As the cannon is fired the performer is dropped toward a mat on the stage, and - with perfect timing - the ball arrives in his hands mid-flight. This is “The Monkey in the Tower,” one of the many demonstrations showcasing physics for the K-12 students packed into Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

The auditorium has been prepped for this moment—the science has been explained, but they still watch the performer ascend the tower with bated breath. When the cannon bursts forth and the performer is dropped, it’s hard to tell what happens first. In a few seconds, the performer is safely on the mat, ball in hand, the sounds of gasps and delight still echoing through the room.“The Monkey in the Tower” is one of Physics Force director and U of M physics professor Shaul Hanany’s favorite parts of the show. “It’s a very nice piece of physics,” he says. “The audience loves it—the kids love it, the performers love it, and I love it.”

Physics Force, which performs for K-12 audiences, reaches 30,000 students per year (25,000 in the Twin Cities and 4,500 in Rochester). Over its nearly 40 years history, the Physics Force has reached more than half a million spectators. Physics Force’s shows run in January and May–when faculty are available to perform and elementary and secondary schools are still in session. The 10-person troupe also performs at the Minnesota State Fair and visits schools upon request.

Reaching young people at a critical time

Energy and U emphasizes STEM education for 3rd to 6th grade students. Research shows that kids tend to turn away from science around the prepubescent time period. “Interestingly, a higher proportion of girls don’t turn back toward science,” says Energy and U program director and U of M chemistry professor Aaron Massari. “We feel like this is a good time to be making a good impression on kids—but in particular, younger girls to get them thinking about STEM as a career.”

Part of the experience for kids in Energy and U is a trip to the Twin Cities campus. “For a lot of the schools that we are serving, this is one of the few field trips they get to take in the entire year,” says Massari. “It’s really important to bring kids to campus. There’s value in having kids be in the seats, in a college classroom. It gets them to start envisioning themselves in that environment and even think about going into STEM in the first place.”

Energy and U reaches about 10,000 students each year during two week-long runs in January and May. Through a collaboration with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Energy and U also now features a Spanish language adaptation. The production is an Emmy winner–awarded for the streaming version of “Energía Y TÚ.”

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Getting students in the door: the impact of 3M support

3M’s support has played a key role in making Physics Force and Energy and U successful, particularly when it comes to providing students with a reliable way to get to the shows. Both programs offer busing scholarships, available as grants to schools that apply and are awarded based on greatest need. Busing students in, whether to the Twin Cities or in Rochester, opens the shows up to a much wider audience.

Some schools bus in from as far as Wisconsin and all across southern Minnesota to see Physics Force shows, for example. “Our primary focus on funding is to expand how many kids and how wide an area we can bus in from,” says Massari. “That’s why funding from 3M is so important–this program helps to re-engage kids at a critical age through a fun, foundational experience.”

Massari’s team is also looking toward the future, by preparing to launch a complementary curriculum for attendees to complete in-classroom the week before they attend Energy and U and for a week after.

“Giving kids a chance to engage with the material more than once will give them the best opportunity to really engage with the lessons,” Massari says. “By the end of each show, they’re able to more accurately answer questions we ask them at the start of the show: Can energy be created? Can energy be destroyed? What laws really rule how energy moves through and around us? By the end of each show, kids are shouting out the correct answers and excited to share what they now know.”

Images from recent Physics Force event

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Energy and U hit a big milestone at the end of its 2023 season. Read more.