Radhika Gupta stood on her tiptoes, holding a laser pen above her head. The 12-year-old pointed the laser down through a saltine-cracker-sized, cardboard-framed glass slide that she was trying to hold steady with her other hand.
Instead of one red laser dot appearing on the linoleum classroom floor below, three evenly-spaced dots appeared a foot or two apart. Her fellow group members slid yardsticks on the ground, trying to measure the exact spacing.
The beam was split because of the glass slide, a diffraction grating with thousands of tiny slits etched into it.
That may seem like a long way from frying insects on the sidewalk in generations past. These days, children interested in science and technology increasingly have the option of attending specialized camps around the state that are stimulating and engaging.
Just in southeastern Wisconsin, at least two dozen camps focusing on STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — are scheduled for this summer. Some are affiliated with universities; some with museums. Technology companies may get involved; General Electric, for example is sponsoring a girls’ STEM camp at Milwaukee School of Engineering and other sites across the country.
Gupta was participating in Wisconsin Heights Summer Science Camp in Mazomanie. The camp is back after two years off, one because of COVID-19 and one because of logistical issues. The camp had several tracks; Gupta was in the camp’s brand-new quantum physics track. Organizers said this was the first quantum science outreach program in rural Wisconsin. The other tracks focused on stream ecology, human anatomy and genetics.
“Quantum science, within the past 20 years, has really exploded scientifically,” said Mallory Conlon, the outreach coordinator at the Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) institute, of which UW-Madison is a member. Conlon organized the quantum portion of the science camp with the purpose of trying to make quantum science intuitive to students.
Quantum physics is a branch of science that explains how everything works at the most microscopic level: the smallest unit of charge (the electron), the smallest unit of light (the photon), and so on. Quantum physics explains how atoms work and “explain(s) how electrons move through a computer chip, how photons of light get turned to electrical current in a solar panel or amplify themselves in a laser, or even just how the sun keeps burning,” according to New Scientist magazine.
‘They’re grasping it!’
The first couple days of the science camp were filled with “lectures and snack breaks,” said Baila Khan, a camp volunteer and a public health master’s student at UW. Conlon, Khan, and other UW grad student volunteers drew diagrams; demonstrated concepts with lasers, polarizers and diffraction gratings; and conducted experiments.
Children learned about the different kinds of waves and light on the electromagnetic spectrum, about light being both a particle and a wave, and about other concepts that bridge “classical” physics with quantum physics.
Students don’t normally see this material until high school or later, but the campers — between the ages of 10 and 13 — caught on quickly.
“They’ve been talking about frequency, wavelength, spectrum; they’re understanding how light can be both a wave and a particle—that’s a hard concept to grasp, but they’re grasping it!” said Khan.
Shenal Wijekoon, 11, first became interested in physics two years ago when he did a school project on the Apollo 11 moon landing. He was excited about attending his first science camp because he had never learned about quantum physics before.
“I actually really like the camp because you get to choose what you want to do and they teach it extremely well,” he said.
Exposing young students to quantum physics concepts is becoming increasingly important. As computer chip developers reach the limit of how small and fast they can make computer processors, many are looking to quantum computers as the new frontier. Companies developing this new technology, such as IBM, say that quantum computing has the potential to process more data even faster than our current supercomputers do.
One of the goals of the center where Conlon works is get students familiar with quantum concepts so they are better equipped to solve problems in this emerging field. That’s where her camp and others come into play.
Another important aspect of preparing students to succeed in science is taking the scientific method from the classroom to real life. After they learned the basics of quantum physics, students at the Wisconsin Heights Summer Science Camp had the opportunity to come up with their own research questions, and then brainstormed methods to answer those questions.
Khan pointed out a group of students trying to figure out if the wavelength of light will impact a laser’s diffraction into water. “They wanted to jump in, but they also then realized, ‘Hey, we have to plan this out a little more and actually think about that,'” she said.
Khan, who grew up in Marshfield said she never was able to do experiments like this until she was in college. She said that the camp experience is valuable because the students are learning that science is not linear; it’s a repeating cycle of adjusting your methods and hypotheses according to your results, and honing in on the right question. As a teaching assistant at UW, Khan said she’s seen undergraduates struggling with the same process and was excited that the campers were getting to learn it at an early age.
The campers, in turn, seemed to appreciate this more free, creative approach to science, which differs from the science classes in school most of them have had so far.
“In class, it’s just, ‘Oh, take these instructions, do the experiment,'” said Raghvi Sethi, an incoming ninth grader from the Middleton-Cross Plains School District. “Here, you have to make your experiment. You don’t just follow the instructions…which is really cool. It can be challenging, but that’s also fun.”
Kurt Borcherding grew up attending the Wisconsin Heights camp and is now a counselor at the camp and sophomore at UW. He said that as a counselor, he enjoys watching the kids “go” as they drive their own discovery and learning, with just a little guidance from the staff. Borcherding also said that the most satisfying part of the week is “having a chance to see what everybody’s been working so hard on” at the poster session at the camp wrap-up on Friday.
Conlon said she hoped students walk away thinking that quantum is attainable for them.
“A lot of times people hear ‘quantum physics’ or ‘quantum mechanics’ and they’re like, ‘That’s something I could never do. You have to be so smart, or so this — something that I’m not — to be able to do it,'” she said. “I want them to walk away knowing that they could be a quantum scientist if they want to.”
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