The University of Utah
Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah

Physics Is Fun: AAPT Meeting & More

From the @theU website.

Adam Beehler

The basement of the James Fletcher building has no windows, but the view is anything but boring. Dozens of rows of exhibit cases burst with wires, gadgets and myriad materials fit for a mad scientist’s workshop. The scientist himself stands out from the chaos in a technicolor shirt and a tie-dye lab coat. Adam Beehler, the lecture demonstration specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the U’s own Bill Nye; he uses the facility to develop and build demonstrations to help instructors teach complex physical concepts with engaging activities.

On April 14-15, Beehler will present some of his demonstrations at the Idaho-Utah section’s American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) spring meeting, hosted at the U. Educators from universities, colleges, and high schools from the two states will share research and strategies aimed at improving their teaching. It also reinvigorates the passionate scientists, like Beehler, who dedicate their lives to making physics accessible for people who think they could never understand it.

“A lot of people are intimidated by physics. There’s a stigma attached to it, that the math is really hard and only smart people can do it. But it can be understood,” says Beehler, sitting at a desk inside the facility. “I like broadening people’s horizons to recognize that physics is everywhere around us. It’s why you don’t fall down when you sit on your chair, why you feel warm or cold. It’s why you can see me, why you can hear me. We deal with it every day, but people don’t realize it.”

The Spring Meeting

The AAPT is a national organization aimed at “enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Lecture demonstrations have been an effective and entertaining tool for teaching science concepts for hundreds of years; the Idaho-Utah AAPT annual gathering allows regional educators to show off their new demos, and to support one another. The overarching goal is to get inspired with new ideas and motivation to go at it for another year, says Beehler, who serves as vice president of the regional chapter.

The spring meeting kicks off Friday, April 14 with a “share-a-thon,” where physics educators present demonstrations that they use in their classrooms to bring abstract physical concepts to life. People of all ages and science backgrounds are welcome to attend the free public demos in the James Fletcher Building, room 103 from 7:30-9:30 p.m.

“It’s a group of Bill Nyes getting together. It’s great,” says Kathrine Skollingsberg, public relations specialist for the Department of Physics & Astronomy and co-organizer of the conference.

Anyone can register for the meeting; the fee includes the Friday banquet and Saturday’s activities with a catered breakfast and lunch. Kevin “The Dark Ranger” Poe of Bryce Canyon National Park will deliver the keynote address about diversity in physics, and the solar eclipse happening in August. Students are invited to present their research or outreach efforts at the poster competition for cash prizes, and all will hear talks from fellow educators. The weekend wraps up with a tour of the Utah Nano-Fabrication Laboratory, and a raffle.

The raffle is more than a gift giveaway — it’s an opportunity for high school teachers to access resources to create engaging physics lessons. Sponsors donate typical raffle swag, such as books, science toys and gift cards. In addition, many of the meeting’s attendees donate some of their own equipment and teaching materials to the raffle to help out those without the means to obtain these supplies on their own. If high school teachers need things that are unavailable, they write them down for the AAPT organizers. The AAPT members spread the word to colleagues to find the items, says Skollingsberg.

“It’s really hard to teach kids physics in high school and maintain that interest into higher education,” she continues. “Resources can be difficult to come by. So, the college-level AAPT members do everything they can to make sure everybody has what they need.”

The U’s Own Bill Nye

The Friday night public demo show offers a glimpse into Beehler’s role as a lecture demonstration specialist; he designs, develops and refines presentations that illustrate physical concepts and engage the students to make predictions and say, “How did that happen?”

“The instructors don’t always know how to fit demonstrations into the curriculum. That’s where I can come in and help,” says Beehler. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s your research?’ To teach better, specifically with demonstrations. I develop, evaluate and fix demos. Demos can be effective, because they teach the physics well, but they might still be boring. They can be cool, but not effective. Or they can be effective and zesty.”

When physics students learn about electrical circuits, Beehler rolls out a zesty demo that deals with voltage, electrical currents and resistors. He hooks up a skinny, short circuit to a power source. He ramps up the voltage to send a power electrical current into the wimpy wire circuit. The current meets a lot of resistance, and physically heats up the wire until it starts glowing red. It gets so hot it will break.

“So, I’m burning something in class. It lights up, throws off some sparks, then breaks in half,” says Beehler. “That’s zesty, right? And it teaches about fuses!” Beehler asks.

Community Engagement

Beehler shares the engaging presentations outside of the halls of physics and astronomy. He has developed demos that illustrate concepts in math, engineering, meteorology and computer science. Institutions across the United States have adopted his demonstrations because of how effectively they increase student learning. Beehler also goes into elementary and middle school classrooms around Salt Lake City.  His dedication to science education was recognized earlier this year when he was awarded the Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology in Higher Education.

“Some higher up administrators gave me the medal because they recognized that community engagement has its place, and is useful, and can affect the economic welfare of the state. I’ve always felt that way —that’s why I do it,” Beehler says. “I’ve gone into classrooms, and the students have been intimidated or scared. They say, ‘I don’t like physics.’ But after a demonstration show they’ll say, ‘I like it now. I hope you’re still teaching when I get to the U.’ They want to go to college, and won’t rule physics out when they get there.”

Beehler has reached over 65,000 students and members of the general public through various community engagement activities. Together with the rest of the Department of Physics & Astronomy’s robust outreach efforts, the reach is much greater. Yet the groups lack sufficient financial support to do more effective community engagement. Many passionate scientists like Beehler end up using their own resources.

“For everybody, it’s a labor of love,” says Skollingsberg. “There are other places where they have amazing resources, and we’ve seen what’s possible.”

The College of Science and the Department of Physics & Astronomy are quite supportive — both co-sponsored the Idaho-Utah AAPT spring meeting, which kept registration costs down, and have offered academic credit for attendees. Beehler hopes administrators will see the Governor’s Medal as evidence of the value of community outreach, and allocate more tangible support for the day-to-day efforts to increase the public’s appreciation of physics.

“A lot of people will criticize community outreach or demos. They say, ‘Oh, it’s just fun. They’re not learning anything.’ Maybe. But are they less scared about physics now?” asks Beehler. “Now they have a good taste in their mouth, and some point later, they may take a physics class, as opposed to blowing it off and saying, ‘No. That stunk. I’m never going to go there ever again.”

Press release available here.


Physics student Ethan Lake awarded prestigious Hertz Fellowship

Ethan Lake becomes 2nd Hertz Fellow for the U.

Ethan Lake, an undergraduate student in physics and math at the University of Utah, has received the prestigious and highly competitive Hertz Fellowship, a $250,000 grant for up to five years of graduate study in the STEM fields. Lake is one of only 12 students nationally to receive this award and the second Hertz Fellow for the U. The first Hertz fellow was in 1989, when Eric Kelson received the award.

Etahn Lake applies his physics knowledge to defeat gravity. Here, Lake celebrates the victory atop a desert tower in Castle Valley, southern Utah.

“Ethan’s receipt of the Hertz Fellowship has opened the door for other U students to follow in his footsteps,” said Ruth Watkins, senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the U. “We have no doubt Ethan will continue to make a significant contribution to research and be an excellent representative of our university and state.”

The Hertz Fellowship, established in 1963 by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, seeks to support America’s most promising students in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences who possess technical talent and the potential to solve difficult, real world problems. This year, 721 students applied and went through a rigorous merit-based process. The top 150 applicants were invited for an in-depth technical interview and of those, 40 were invited back for a second interview, with each interview increasing in difficulty.

“I found the application process, especially the interviews, to be intellectually rewarding and very enjoyable,” said Lake. “I would definitely encourage other students to apply.”

Lake’s passion for science began a world away in astrophysics. In his first year at the U, he joined professor Zheng Zheng’s computational astrophysics group where he studied the environments surrounding galaxies in the early universe and the gravitational microlensing of extrasolar asteroid belts.

“I’m extremely impressed by Ethan’s strong learning and research abilities and by his curiosity and creativity,” said Zheng. “He is truly exceptional.”

In the summer following his second year, Lake made an impulsive decision to switch to condensed matter theory, and began working on a problem in theoretical superconductivity with professors Dima Pesin and Oleg Starykh.

Ethan Lake, undergraduate student in physics and math, has received the prestigious and highly competitive Hertz Fellowship, a $250,000 grant for up to five years of graduate study in the STEM fields.

“Ethan has progressed steadily from a theoretical physics novice learning such basic theory as unitary transformations and second quantization to an expert in exotic p-wave superconductivity and many-body perturbation theory,” said Starykh. “This progress is truly amazing and in my experience, unprecedented.”

In fall 2015, Lake joined professor Yong-Shi Wu’s group to study topological quantum matter and in spring 2016 Lake was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater scholarship for excellence in STEM research. This past summer he attended the premier summer school on topological quantum matter at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the school’s 17-year history, Lake was one of only three undergraduate students invited to participate. He also participated in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergrads program with Michael Hermele, associate professor of physics, also at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“His strong interpersonal and collaborative skills are extraordinary for someone who has advanced to the frontiers of science so early in his career,” said Hermele. “Ethan is on a trajectory to become one of the leading lights of theoretical physics in the 21st century.”

During his undergraduate career, Lake has written six first-author publications with another three papers either submitted or in progress. Through his research, he has collaborated with scholars at various institutions around the world, including Princeton University, Caltech, CU Boulder, Peking University and Tokyo University.

Click here to see the full list of Ethan's publications on the arXiv.


“I’m very grateful to the mentors I’ve worked with for their constant patience, and I appreciate the freedom they’ve given me to explore and think about research problems independently,” added Lake.

Lake is currently studying the role that topology plays in condensed matter theory and quantum information theory. In this field, he has found a balance between his aptitude for abstract mathematics and his desire to work on problems that can be tested by experiment. He plans to perform related work in graduate school, while pursuing a doctorate in theoretical physics.

“I’m psyched to use the freedom this fellowship grants me to explore different areas of theoretical physics. Graduate school is going to be a ton of fun,” said Lake.

Official Announcement from the Hertz Foundation

* * * * *

Additionally, Ethan has also been awarded the 2017 College of Science Research Scholar Award, as well as the National Science Foundation's 2017 Graduate Research Fellowship. Click here to see the full list of awardees, and to learn more about the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Full Press Release


Frontiers of Science with Dr. Frank Brown

Thursday, April 20, 2017 @ 6:00 p.m. - Frontiers of Science with Dr. Frank Brown! "The Omo-Turkana Basin, East Africa: A Treasury of History" in room 220 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Building (ASB) on the U of U Campus!


with Dr. Frank Brown,
College of Mines & Earth Sciences, University of Utah

The Omo-Turkana Basin, East Africa: A Treasury of History

Image Credit: College of Mines & Earth Sciences

Date & Time: Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 6:00pm

Location: 220 Aline Skaggs Building at the University of Utah
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Lake Turkana, the last major lake in East Africa to become known to Europeans, has been studied since the 1900s. Since then, The Omo-Turkana basin has yielded a treasure trove of fossil and anthropological findings, including the only Cretaceous dinosaurs from East Africa, specimens of the Miocene primates, early evidence of bipedalism, the oldest record of stone tools, the oldest known Homo sapiens (195,000 years old), and much more.

In this talk, Dr. Frank Brown will discuss the importance of the Omo-Turkana Basin as a site of historical and contemporary importance for research and technological innovation in paleoanthropology and scientific innovation.

Frontiers of Science is free and open to the public. Please arrive early, as seating and parking will be limited. Click here to learn more about the Frontiers of Science lecture series.


Tabitha Buehler Receives College of Science Award for Teaching Excellence

Dr. Tabitha Buehler

The College of Science's 2017-2018 Award for Teaching Excellence has been awarded to Dr. Tabitha Buehler, an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. This award recognizes Tabitha's accomplishments in challenging and stimulating the intellectual curiosity of her students.

The department congratulates Dr. Buehler for her accomplishments, as well as commends her for her ongoing dedication and enthusiasm for teaching, education, and outreach!



Science Night Live with Dr. Stefan Patrikis

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 @ 6:00 p.m. - Science Night Live with Dr. Stefan Patrikis! "Symmetry And The Primes" at Keys on Main (242 South Main Street) in downtown Salt Lake!


"Science Night Live public lectures offer a casual social and educational event in downtown Salt Lake. All events are held at Keys on Main (242 South Main Street), beginning with a social at 5:30 and a lecture at 6:00 p.m. Free and open to the public! Must be 21 years of age or older. Right across the street from the Gallivan TRAX station."

with Dr. Stefan Patrikis,
Department of Mathematics, University of Utah

Symmetry And The Primes

Date & Time: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 6:00pm (Social begins at 5:30pm)

Location:Keys on Main (242 South Main Street)
View Map

First we learn to count; next we learn to multiply. From the interaction of these two elementary operations emerge the prime numbers, the building blocks of the integers.

The patterning of the primes continually reveals itself to be richer than mathematicians could ever have expected. A well-placed application of 18th century number theory exploits the richness of this patterning to build the public-key cryptography algorithms that secure many of our electronic communications. Number theory in the 21st century, while still grounded in the study of the primes, takes form through surprising connections with geometry, topology, algebra, and analysis, and even suggests bizarre and tantalizing analogies with fundamental physics.

These astonishing connections express previously hidden symmetries in the prime numbers, which we are only in the very first stages of understanding. In this talk we will explore how elementary questions of arithmetic lead us to this strange mathematical landscape.

Science Night Live is free and open to the public 21 or over. Please arrive early, as seating and parking will be limited. Click here to learn more about the Science Night Live lecture series.



Frontiers of Science with Dr. Dan Nocera

Thursday, March 30, 2017 @ 6:00 p.m. - Frontiers of Science with Dr. Daniel G. Nocera! "The Global Energy Challenge: A Moral Imperative for the University" in room 220 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Building (ASB) on the U of U Campus!


with Dr. Daniel G. Nocera,
Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy Harvard University

The Global Energy Challenge: A Moral Imperative for the University

Date & Time: Thursday, March 30, 2017 at 6:00pm

Location: 220 Aline Skaggs Building at the University of Utah
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Climate change is an existential threat to society as we continue to meet energy demand with carbon-based fuels. Energy demand is set to grow in the coming decades, mostly driven by 3 billion people currently without access to reliable energy and an anticipated 3 billion new inhabitants of our planet by mid-century. Increasing global living standards, expanding access to education, and improving health outcomes are all inextricably linked to a need for greatly increasing access to affordable, reliable energy. Meeting this future global energy need for 6 billion new energy consumers, together with current energy users, with the expanded use of fossil fuels is inconsistent with a low-risk climate pathway; and yet, those fuels often remain the most affordable and widely available despite continued declines in the costs for zero-carbon energy technologies.

Frontiers of Science is free and open to the public. Please arrive early, as seating and parking will be limited. Click here to learn more about the Frontiers of Science lecture series.


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