The big blue bus rolling through the backroads of North Central Florida isn’t just transporting students.
It’s changing lives with science.
On one side of the bus’ interior, energy races up the length of two contacting wires making a Jacob’s Ladder. On the other, a tube made of plastic contains a tornado. And if the sun is just right, a plastic TV screen can heat the sidewalk enough to bake cookies on it.
Physics Bus Gainesville rolled into town this spring to pique interest in physics. The non-profit organization targets children of all ages, but adults are also encouraged to partake in experiments. Hair dryers, microwaves and old projector TVs became instruments to teach onlookers about the basic theories of physics.
Co-director of the Physics Bus, 23-year-old Amber Medina, said the main job of the bus is to engage and spark creativity in whomever steps onto the bright blue bus.
“Our mission is to support sustainability, creativity, community and science,” Medina said. “Science is not just like, five dudes in a room with a lab coat, you know, staring at a beaker.”
Alachua County had a 49 percent passing rate last year in science for students in the 8th grade, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Jamie Aulton, a teacher at W. A. Metcalfe Elementary School, invited the Physics Bus to the school to perform science demonstrations to the students in June.
“I get really excited because with science in public schools. There’s not enough hands-on resources,” she said.
Medina said Physic Bus’ first attempt to branch out was in the Hawthorne area, but hopefully the bus will soon be able to go around smaller towns in North Central Florida, like High Springs and Waldo.
“There’s not a lot of money for museums in these small towns, so that what we’re here for,” Medina said, “It supports our mission to make science accessible to everyone and to bridge the gap.”
During the Physics Bus pop-up event in downtown Gainesville earlier this summer, co-director Chris Discenza, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, used a plastic tube and a stereo to show how sound waves can make plastic beads dance.
The homemade materials are designed to be relatable and easy to understand so that a professor, student or even a child can teach others, Discenza said.
“I feel like a kid learning stuff from another kid is gonna be a bit better than me explaining and using big words, which I try not to do,” he said.
“Physics is this really scary word that people associate with equations and letters they’ve never seen,” Medina said, “They don’t really know the technical words they need to use to describe things.”
Erik Herman, Chris Discenza and Kip Perkins founded the organization in 2003 after helping with science demonstrations while they attended the University of Arizona.
Herman said the group recognized how science could be intimidating and tried to find a way to remedy that.
“We kind of needed a play area to kind of express ourselves using physics in a fun and creative way,” he said.
An Indiegogo campaign allowed Herman to raise more than $6,000 to buy two buses. One stayed in Ithaca, New York, and one was brought to Gainesville when he heard his co-founder, Discenza, was attending UF.
Medina joined shortly afterward as co-director of the Gainesville initiative.
Discenza recognized how Gainesville and surrounding areas would benefit from another science resource in the area.
One of Physics Bus’ missions is to inspire curiosity in the community. But it’s struggling to fuel the bus when its only source of income is what the two directors put into the project out of their own pockets.
The non-profit is waiting on a grant from the American Physical Society for $9,000. But the grant won’t take them a long way, Medina said.
The directors hope to continue with their mission regardless of the financial outlook.
“We just want to get kids to build things and spark some creativity when they walk on the bus,” Medina said.
They have plans to connect with robotics clubs in public schools and tour surrounding rural areas where science is less readily available, according to Medina. The first step toward this is building awareness.
Chase Floyd, 12, played with the blender bike and the old tv screen that works as a lens at the pop-up event in downtown Gainesville. The first-time visitor to the Physics Bus said he was excited to try out the exhibits and see how they worked.
“I don’t know, I think it’s really cool,” he said.
Floyd runs his finger over the plasma globe to control the forks of crackling energy inside the glass sphere. He calls his brother, Joseph Floyd, 10, to try out the device.
“The value is in the everyday. It’s seeing something greater than what’s in front of you,” Medina said. “(The children) just instantly know there is more to the world than what is right in front of your face.”