October 13, 2008

Students Interact With Physicists

By Julie K Buzbee

By Julie K. Buzbee


MERIDAN -- Some of Rod Smith's science students at Jefferson West High School in Meriden get to spend their class time on the Internet.

But they aren't surfing the Web or updating their MySpace pages. These teens are interacting with world-class physicists as part of the Adopt-a-Physicist program.

A few years ago, Smith found out about the program that connects high school physics students to people with bachelor's degrees or higher in physics via online discussion forums. He applied, and his 2006 class was one of 100 around the world that was chosen to participate.

"Ideally, they get to ask experts some really involved things, such as 'Can you explain chaos theory?' or 'What is the string theory?'" Smith said.

Two of Smith's physics current classes participate in the program -- the only ones in Kansas of 150 schools chosen. The students have adopted doctorates Gary White, of College Park, Md., and Mary Fuka, of Boulder, Colo.

White directs the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honor society, at the American Institute of Physics, where he also is assistant director of education.

Fuka is research director for Terralliance, a small oil and gas exploration company.

"I'm developing new methods to find oil and gas," she said. "I manage a team of physicists, applied mathematicians and geoscientists."

Fuka began as a theater major, but ended up majoring in physics.

"There's not very much about my career I'd describe as typical," Fuka told the students. "One of the best parts of becoming a physicist is learning how to get down to the fundamentals of a difficult problem, whether it be in physics, science, medicine, engineering or business."

Chase Farrant, 17, said he wasn't at all familiar with physics when the school year began. He just needed another science class, "a genuinely challenging one," he said.

Farrant said he is impressed not only with how the physicists answer questions, but also with the speed in which the students' questions are answered.

"It's interesting to talk to somebody you don't even know, and you can ask them anything," he said.

Smith said the response to him as a teacher is fast as well.

"I get e-mails of the questions my kids just asked a minute ago," he said.

Whisper Livingston, 17, said it is the subject matter that intrigues her the most.

"We get to talk about random things such as black holes," she said. "We don't talk about that in everyday class."

And the students aren't the only ones asking the questions, Livingston said.

"He's also asking us questions," she said of White.

And White is enjoying himself as much as the students.

"Some of my favorite days are when I get to see students learning something new," he said. "I especially enjoy the opportunities that physics affords me to think deeply about all kinds of things, from the trivial to the profound, and I also enjoy the chance to implement new programs and ideas that benefit young people."

Julie K. Buzbee is a freelance writer in Topeka. She can be reached

at [email protected]

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