Today, lots of schools have hands-on STEM learning opportunities, but CSU’s Little Shop of Physics was really one of the originators. Since the early 1990s, CSU physics instructor Brian Jones, LSOP director, has been showing kids both little and big that physics can be fun. Jones says that when he and his team of undergraduates put together a presentation for elementary and middle-school students, they always start with wonder, finding something that captures the students’ imagination, gets them thinking and questioning and then excited about the basic scientific principles they discover for themselves.
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(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)
How did the Little Shop of Physics program get started?
Like many of the best things in my life, it began in failure. I was running the teaching lab when I first came to Colorado State in the 1980s. The physics department would get requests to do demonstration shows at schools – a lot of equipment set up on a table and then we would demonstrate various physical principles. I went to a middle school in Windsor, and the kids weren’t paying attention. They were passing notes, talking to each other. They weren’t particularly interested in what I had to say. And so I kind of gave up and said, ‘Why don’t you all come down and try some of this stuff out?’
They were really psyched about that, and I realized that they don’t want to watch me do science. They want to do stuff themselves. They’re middle school kids. They want to get their hands on things and touch things and explore and experiment. They want to be the scientists.
So I went back to campus, and presented my idea to put together a program where we don’t show them stuff, we let them do stuff, we put the tools into people’s hands, let them explore and experiment, let them be the scientists. We had this thing called the Little Shop of Physics at Colorado State where once a year we set up cool stuff and let people play with it. So we had the nucleus, we decided to just go big. We went to our first school in 1990, and it really took off.
Why are programs like this, that connect young people to science in a way that is silly and fun, so important?
The best science – and the best problem-solving of any kind – is done when you have very diverse teams. And with the problems that are facing our world, we need a really diverse group of thinkers cogitating about how to solve these problems. But the way that science is traditionally taught doesn’t attract a diverse group of people.
Whenever I tell people I’m in physics, they say, ‘Oh, that’s not my thing. I’m not good at math.’ or ‘It just never made sense to me.’ And that hurts me a little bit, because I think everybody should think physics is exciting and cool. But I think people have been turned off because of the way we typically teach physics. It’s very mathematical and formal.
What we want to do is catch kids early before they’ve ever had formal classroom experience and show them that this is what physics is. It’s just trying a bunch of stuff and seeing what happens. It’s thinking about these silly questions and seeing if we can come up with answers for them.
We have some really good data that shows that after we’ve been to a school, students are much more likely to say science is something that they want to study and something they think they can do. In a 40-minute slot, we can change the way kids feel about their ability to do science, and we do that because we approach them with this silly, fun, engaging thing where there’s no barriers. We tell them to touch everything, get your hands all over stuff. There’s nothing too ridiculous to try; we want to see what you come up with.
That open way of encouraging exploration allows the kids the freedom to engage and develop the way they feel about themselves. And that’s what sticks.
They won’t necessarily learn any physics when they visit the Little Shop of Physics, but they will learn something about themselves, which is that they are creative problem-solvers and they have what it takes to do science.
Your big in-person open house returned this spring after being canceled by the pandemic, and attendance was impressive – over 5,000 attendees, even though it was outdoors on a really windy day. What was that like for you?
It was remarkable. Our whole focus is to put stuff into the hands of students, and have Colorado State University undergraduate students be the guides for this experience, and we couldn’t do that during the pandemic. That interpersonal interaction is absolutely key. The kids are going to try something, be excited, and turn around to show it to the college student who is there to share their joy. That is what I live for.
This year’s event was magic. There were 200 CSU students there, setting up amazing stuff they had developed and just letting the kids go wild with it, exploring and discovering and having all these experiences. That was a truly joyous day for me, being in the company of all these students and the community sharing their joy.
These events aren’t just about encouraging the younger generation to get excited about science. You also have a lot of CSU students – and former CSU students – participating.
We want the CSU students to see that they have within themselves the capacity to engage the younger students, and serve as a role model, like a big brother or sister, only cooler. The reason we can do Little Shop of Physics is because of the students at Colorado State University. We’re a land-grant school and we have this mission to give something back, to connect with the community and to serve the community.
And I think our students understand that and they are willing to volunteer their time to build stuff. They’re willing to get up at 4 in the morning to drive to a school in Denver. They’re willing to spend these long days doing science with kids, and they’re willing to humble themselves in a way to connect with the students. That makes that difference.
I couldn’t do this at another institution. I think CSU is a rare place, and I’m glad I landed here because I don’t think if I was someplace else, I would have the opportunity to do this thing that I do.