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Aspiring Scientists from Idaho Enjoy Chemistry, Physics Demos at USU

Thursday, May. 18, 2017

Chemistry demonstration

Doug Harris, right, senior lecturer in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry wows visiting sixth graders from Idaho’s Preston Junior High School with a hydrogen demonstration.

Physics demonstration

James Coburn, left, teaching lab supervisor in USU's Department of Physics conducts a physics demonstration with visiting sixth graders from Idaho’s Preston Junior High School.

Swat a ping-pong ball as hard as you can and, even if you’re a top athlete, it’s unlikely you’ll propel the small sphere more than 25 miles per hour. But insert the ball in a long, plastic tube, seal each end, hook up a  vacuum pump, pop a seal and, as Utah State University physicist James Coburn does, and you’ll get much different results.

“Whoa, he broke the sound barrier,” exclaimed 12-year-old Kade Lords, after the tiny ball shot through the tube and shattered a ping-pong paddle strapped across the tube’s opening.

The thrilling feat was one of many physics principles Coburn, teaching lab supervisor in USU’s Department of Physics, demonstrated to nearly 200 6th grade students visiting USU’s Logan campus from Idaho’s Preston Junior High School.

He and colleague Doug Harris, senior lecturer in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, entertained the aspiring scientists for nearly two hours with color-changing solutions, levitating objects, bulging and shrinking “marshmallow people,” Van der Graaf generators and lots of “big bangs.”

“I liked the fire and explosions the best,” said sixth grader Derek Begay.

His classmate, Reese Swainston, enthusiastically concurred.

“They were awesome,” she said.

Coburn and Harris, along with USU science and engineering clubs, receive dozens of requests from school groups for science demonstrations.

“We accommodate as many groups as we can, but our time, resources and access to lecture halls are limited,” Coburn says.

To give more of the public a chance to enjoy science fun at Utah State, Coburn conducts USU Physics’ annual November Demo Show the Friday before Thanksgiving in USU’s Eccles Science Learning Center Emert Auditorium. The 2017 show, set for Friday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m., marks the 10th anniversary of the popular gathering, which is free and open to all ages.

Coburn also coordinates public nights at the USU Observatory several times each year during fall and spring semesters on the Logan campus.

“Our astronomy students are the primary beneficiaries of the observatory, which features a 20-inch reflecting telescope,” he says. “Weather and moon phases permitting – too many clouds and too much moonlight interfere with stargazing – we try to hold several public nights each year.”

USU’s College of Science also hosts Science Unwrapped, a public science outreach program for all ages, during the academic year. Gatherings, which feature a lecture and hands-on learning activities, are free. Science Unwrapped events are scheduled for Sept. 15, Oct. 6 and Nov. 3 in fall 2017 and Jan 26, Feb. 23, March 23 and April 20 in spring 2018.

Related Links
USU College of Science Outreach
Science Unwrapped at USU 
USU Observatory 

Contact: Doug Harris, 435-797-1609,
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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