Physics Camp Aims to Hook Girls on Science Before Interest Wanes

Girls in phsyics camp launch a water balloon

Dallas-area middle-schoolers test their knowledge of physics principles by launching water balloons with giant slingshots as part of UT Dallas’s 2012 Physics Camp for Girls.

Gaining hands-on experience with giant slingshots, model rockets and home-made hot air balloons at a UT Dallas summer camp might just inspire more seventh- through ninth-grade girls to stick with science.

That’s the idea behind the UT Dallas Women in Physics (WiP) annual Physics Camp for Girls, which consists of three one-week sessions that began June 4.  In addition to slingshots and rockets, campers have been measuring the temperature of the sun, experiencing underwater astronaut “training” in a swimming pool, learning about atmospheric physics and exploring the science behind the Mars rovers, among other activities.

Girls interviewed at the Transit of Venus viewing

Stephanie Maddamma, 14, is interviewed by a Dallas TV news crew as she demonstrates how to use a Sunspotter telescope to track the transit of Venus on June 5 at the UT Dallas Physics Camp for Girls.

As an added bonus, the first week’s campers had an opportunity to use telescopes to observe the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event that won’t happen again for 105 years.

“Middle school is a time when many girls lose interest in science,” said Dr. Mary Urquhart, associate professor and head of the Department of Science and Mathematics Education at UT Dallas. “We want to provide a positive and exciting physics experience for girls who have an aptitude for physical science, but might be losing interest in the topic.”

During one recent activity, the girls used a device called a force pusher to determine how much force it takes to move objects that are on wheels. As camper Evan Jones, 12, of Carrolton explained, they were learning about “basically the action-reaction law of Newton.”

Teams of campers also used a marble launcher, which looks like a small toy cannon, to figure out the optimal angle that will shoot a projectile the maximum distance. Based on their data, the girls put their new-found knowledge to practical use – using giant slingshots outside to try to hit their instructors with water balloons.

The UT Dallas WiP student group was established in 2003, and Urquhart – a planetary scientist by training – has been an adviser from the beginning. The students created the summer camp for middle school girls and offered the first one in 2004.

girls learning optimal angle for shooting projectiles

Limor Cohen, 12,  adjusts the angle of a marble launcher. The goal of the experiment – find the launch angle that will propel the marble the farthest distance.

With dozens of applicants for a limited number of spots, the WiP group expanded the 2012 summer camp to accommodate nearly 60 campers over three weeks. Applicants, who come primarily from North Dallas area schools, must submit an essay and get a science teacher’s recommendation to be considered for the free camp.

“There’s still a disparity when it comes to how many women go into professions in the physical sciences,” said Georgia Stuart, director of the WiP Physics Camp and a 2012 UT Dallas graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences. Stuart is a participant in the University’s UTeach Dallas program, which enables students to earn their teaching certificate at the same time they earn their undergraduate science degrees.

“We hope to inspire more girls to consider majors and careers in physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering and other technical fields,” said Stuart, who is pursuing her master’s degree  in teaching through UTeach Dallas. “Even for the girls who don’t go into a physical science, we hope that they gain a good deal of scientific literacy, which is extremely important in today’s world.”

Funding for the camp comes in part from UTeach Dallas, UT Dallas’s Department of Science and Mathematics Education, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamics Investigation (CINDI), a joint NASA/U.S. Air Force-funded project at UT Dallas’s William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].