Science Outreach

Learning science is fun. Doing science is a privilege afforded to few. One of the best things to do with these gifts is to share with others, and no group is as enthusiastic, curious, and excited about the universe as children. Interacting with kids is a special experience for anyone. Beyond any help we offer with presenting scientific content, the fact that the young (if possible) person standing in their very own classroom and talking with them is a scientist is an important step in demystifying the concept of science for many kids. Two of my favorite outreach anecdotes illustrate this:

Several outreach projects in the Duke Physics Department provide opportunities for such activities. As an organization, the department can contribute to science education by making its resources available to teachers. These include the equipment available in our wonderful demonstration facility; tours of our research laboratories; the use of the Duke Teaching Observatory; and, most valuably, the time, energy, and enthusiasm of the members of the department. This page lists some activities in which I am involved. It is intended as a resource for members of the Duke community who are looking for ways to share their education and skills, as well as for educators seeking a partner in science education. In addition to these programs, we often respond to requests from schools for some help – a science day activity, some demonstrations for a particular curriculum element, etc. This year, this type of activity has involved some 25 volunteers from the Duke community helping out at several schools in Durham and around the state. For more information contact

Projects: Forest-View Science Outreach 2006/07

Third Grade Astronomy Eighth Grade Strings Fourth Grade Electricity/Magnetism Sixth Grade Planetary Science Teacher Scientist Link Observatory

Third Grade Astronomy

One of the science goals for third grade science according to the NC Standard Course of Studies is the following physical science goal:

COMPETENCY GOAL 3: The learner will make observations and use appropriate technology to build an understanding of the earth/moon/sun system.


3.01 Observe that light travels in a straight line until it strikes an object and is reflected and/or absorbed.

3.02 Observe that objects in the sky have patterns of movement including:

3.03 Using shadows, follow and record the apparent movement of the sun in the sky during the day.

3.04 Use appropriate tools to make observations of the moon.

3.05 Observe and record the change in the apparent shape of the moon from day to day over several months and describe the pattern of changes.

3.06 Observe that patterns of stars in the sky stay the same, although they appear to move across the sky nightly.


The curriculum materials developed for this unit and adopted as a standard by the Durham Public Schools are available at The genesis of this curriculum is an illuminating illustration of the way that collaboration between teachers and scientists can be productive.

A program started in 2001 at Forest View Elementary School in Durham involved members of the Duke community in helping teachers complete this goal. The program used volunteers, mostly undergraduate students, as teachers in the classroom. Participants were paired with third grade teachers and visit the classroom once a week for about one hour. Lesson plans for the basic lessons were provided, though most participants found they wished to extend these in directions dictated by their taste and the interests indicated by the class. Hands-on activity materials and demonstrations were provided with the help of the demonstration facility in the department. The group met rather informally once a week to exchange ideas and plans for the coming week. A reasonably organized compilation of some of the lesson plans we used is available as a .pdf download. This includes at the moment only the astronomy-related lessons. A set of activities addressing the properties of light, in somewhat less completely worked form, is also available at this link.

As an enhancement to these lessons, students and teachers are encouraged to visit the Duke Teaching Observatory either individually on scheduled Open House days, or by arranging group visits. An opportunity to see in the sky some of the things discussed in class, as well as some other interesting objects, is invaluable in making the material real for students.

In 2004/05, the program involved a total of sixteen volunteers teaching in thirteen classes at four different schools in Durham. In addition to Forest View, we have been at Hillandale Elementary, E.K. Powe Elementary, and Creekside Elementary. Over the next few years, the Durham Public Schools will be introducing a standard curriculum unit and kit for this goal. After some reworking, the curriculum that has been adopted is essentially based on the lesson plans developed in our outreach project! Our main collaborator at Forest View, John Heffernan, has been awarded a Kenan Fellowship for Curriculum and Leadership Development by the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Science, and Technology at NC State University. The fellowship provides funding for John to help rework the curriculum materials to make them suitable for use by teachers statewide, as well as some assistance disseminating the results. With this help, a completely reworked version of the complete curriculum can be found here. In 2005/06 and 2006/07, work on this unit includes final improvements to the lesson plans, delivery of workshops to train teachers to use the materials, both in Durham and elsewhere. In addition, an enhanced, web-based and multimedia-enriched version is in development.

Eighth Grade String Theory?

As part of the High School course on Earth/Environmental Science, the NC Standard Course of Studies includes the following:

COMPETENCY GOAL 6: The learner will acquire an understanding of the earth in the solar system and its position in the universe.


6.01 Analyze the theories of the formation of the universe and solar system.

6.02 Analyze planetary motion and the physical laws that explain that motion:

6.03 Examine the sources of stellar energies.

6.04 Assess the spectra generated by stars and our sun as indicators of motion and composition (the Doppler effect).

6.05 Evaluate astronomers' use of various technologies to extend their senses:

At the Durham School of the Arts, this course is taught in eighth grade, and one of the teachers, Ms. Alex LeMay, has been able to include in the course a section on our understanding of the Universe as a whole, including some aspects of the general theory of relativity, fundamental issues in cosmology, and even some elements of string theory, designed around the PBS NOVA program The Elegant Universe with Brian Greene. As part of this section, I visit the school and meet with students to discuss aspects of all of this that are of interest to them. In the future, Alex and I hope to produce a public version of the lesson plans she has developed, which would allow other teachers to introduce their students to this exciting scientific development.

Fourth Grade Electricity and Magnetism

One of the science goals for fourth grade science according to the NC Standard Course of Studies is the following physical science goal:

COMPETENCY GOAL 3: The learner will make observations and conduct investigations to build an understanding of magnetism and electricity.


3.01 Observe and investigate the pull of magnets on all materials made of iron and the pushes or pulls on other magnets.

3.02 Describe and demonstrate how magnetism can be used to generate electricity.

3.03 Design and test an electric circuit as a closed pathway including an energy source, energy conductor, and an energy receiver.

3.04 Explain how magnetism is related to electricity.

3.05 Describe and explain the parts of a light bulb.

3.06 Describe and identify materials that are conductors and nonconductors of electricity.

3.07 Observe and investigate that parallel and series circuits have different characteristics.

3.08Observe and investigate the ability of electric circuits to produce light, heat, sound, and magnetic effects.

3.09 Recognize lightning as an electrical discharge and show proper safety behavior when lightning occurs.

We have worked with teachers at both Forest View and Hillandale Elementary schools in Durham on aspects of this unit. At Hillandale, seven volunteers provided hands-on activities to the entire fourth grade as part of the school's Science Day for the second year in a row in March, 2005. At Forest View, I have worked with Ms. Kim Schafer on some activities for this goal. As the third grade unit work phases out I think this may be a good topic on which to focus next. Materials created for the Hillandale Science Day are available at this link.

Sixth Grade Astronomy

One of the science goals for sixth grade science according to the NC Standard Course of Studies is the following physical science goal:

COMPETENCY GOAL 5: The learner will build understanding of the Solar System.


5.01 Analyze the components and cycles of the solar system including:

5.02 Compare and contrast the Earth to other planets in terms of:

5.03 Relate the influence of the sun and the moon's orbit to the gravitational effects produced on Earth.

5.04 Describe space explorations and the understandings gained from them including:

5.05 Describe the setting of the solar system in the universe including:

5.06 Analyze the spin-off benefits generated by space exploration technology including:

There is some overlap with activities developed for the third grade goal, and I have worked with Mr. Gregory Randall at Sherwood Githens Middle School in Durham on some activities relevant to this.

Teacher Scientist Link Program

Since 2004/05 I have been affiliated with the TASC program. Administered through the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, this is an NSF-funded program aimed at bringing inquiry-based science teaching to North Carolina schools. As part of the program, scientists are recruited to serve as contacts to whom teachers can turn for content enrichment or assistance with the program's kits. This year I was paired with teachers from Robeson and Nash county schools on the fourth grade and sixth grade goals above. I had the opportunity to visit schools in both counties and meet with students and teachers, including my first lecture ever in a gymnasium! I hope to do this again. See pictures from the visit to Lumberton in Fall 2004 and to Rocky Mount in Spring 2005.

Duke Teaching Observatory

The Duke Teaching Observatory was set up in 2002 with two main uses in mind: as a tool to enhance our teaching of astronomy to Duke students, mainly in the introductory undergraduate course Physics 55; and as a resource for outreach activities. We have had many visits by school groups to the observatory since, and on occasion have brought the telescopes out to schools for special events, such as E.K. Powe's science night or visits to Forest View and Hillandale for viewings of Mars at closest approach. This year, we are trying to open the observatory to the public every Friday at dusk, weather permitting – check the observatory web page for details or contact me to schedule a special group visit. Help from volunteers has been, and is, essential in maintaining this level of activity. If you are interested in helping out, we can sure use your help.