A&M professor makes physics accessible to public一and students

VIBS 660 Reporting Science & Technology: October 18, 2022

Unlike the activity of the atoms in a typical gas, downtown Bryan bustled with activity as the temperature crawled down and the sun began to set on an unseasonably hot October evening. A crowd gathered like iron shavings to a magnet around a table of Texas A&M students leading activities with seemingly random objects: tennis balls, potatoes, straws. 

At the center of the activity, Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova rushed to assist her students in between giving lively physics demonstrations of her own.

A look of recognition crossed the face of a college-aged young man in the crowd, as he and his friends passed the booth. He caught Dr. Tatiana’s attention and asked, “Can I get a picture with you? My mom loves your TikToks.”

With a wide smile and an enthusiastic nod, she stood next to him as one of his friends readied his camera, and they both grinned and gave double thumbs-up. Soon enough, the two stood in the middle of the crowd, him staring with undivided attention as she enthusiastically demonstrated the idea of center of gravity with a belt slung over a piece of plastic.

Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova (right) demonstrates the concept of center of gravity with a belt for an attendee at downtown Bryan’s First Friday on October 7.

Erukhimova earned her doctorate in physics from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1999 and joined Texas A&M University as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences in 2001. From there, she began teaching, starting with a class on atmospheric dynamics, and found a liking for it. Ed Fry, an associate head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, made outreach a priority and brought Erukhimova to the physics department in 2006 as a lecturer and to build on the department’s outreach program.

“It’s called outreach一it’s the wrong word for this, because in reality it is informal physics programs,” Erukhimova said. “These programs are equally important for the general public and our students.”

Earlier this semester, Erukhimova was named the first Marsha L. ’69 and Ralph F. Schilling ’68 Chair for Physics Outreach. She currently teaches introductory physics classes for undergraduate students.

Erukhimova founded the Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering, or DEEP, program in 2012. In DEEP, students work in teams to build hands-on demonstrations to present at public events.

The Department of Physics & Astronomy’s other programs include The Physics Show, an on-campus demonstration for students from kindergarten through high school; Real Physics Live, a video series by Texas A&M students depicting physics experiments; and demonstrations at public events like First Friday in downtown Bryan.

The department’s main annual event, however, is Texas A&M’s Physics & Engineering Festival, founded by Fry in 2003. This event offers a day of talks and demonstrations by professors and students to the public each spring. Pre-pandemic, the festival drew thousands of attendees, but went virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the festival returned in person, but was also streamed online.

“We try to (explain concepts) using hands-on demonstrations because this always helps,” Erukhimova said. “If you have a hands-on demonstration in your hand, then you can easily engage with people. … It’s a conversation, and you start this conversation with something exciting that you have in your hands.”

Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova (center, back) shows an interested child how dry ice sublimates into gas.

In addition to in-person events and programs, the Department of Physics & Astronomy has also found great success on social media. On TikTok, where Erukhimova is practically a celebrity with her lively, entertaining videos of experiments demonstrating physics concepts, the @tamuphysastr account has gathered more views and likes than even @aggiefootball.

Last August, Erukhimova, along with other researchers and former student participants, published a paper in the journal Physical Review Physics Education Research sharing survey data from the students involved in Texas A&M’s physics outreach programs. 

The research team sought feedback from current and former Texas A&M students who participated in any of five physics outreach programs: DEEP, the Physics & Engineering Festival, The Physics Show, Real Physics Live, and shows such as Just Add Science at First Friday in downtown Bryan and Game Day Physics at Aggie home games that meet people where they already are.

They sent a survey to nearly 400 current and former students, receiving 117 responses, and conducted interviews with 35 respondents. 

“Students reported they found community, they found purpose with what they are doing,” Erukhimova said. “They found motivation to continue with a physics major, because from day one, they had a chance to teach.”

About 80% of students reported a positive impact on their understanding of physics, while 85% reported a positive impact on their teamwork and networking skills. Additionally, out of the 62 physics students who responded to the survey, almost half said their confidence had increased in their choice of physics as a major.

In the interviews, students reported gaining experience with leadership and teamwork, establishing relationships with faculty and exercising creativity. They also said they learned how to explain topics to a variety of audiences and they viewed themselves as more of an expert in physics as they interacted with people who see them as a “physics person.”

“These programs help build discipline identity,” Erukhimova said. “They help to get recognition from peers and from professors. They help them grow. They help improve communication skills and presentation skills … Those are 21st-century career skills that are really in demand, no matter where they go”

This external recognition of physics identity and proficiency, as well as the benefits of interacting with peers and faculty, was especially important to female students surveyed in the study. Representation and a sense of belonging, the paper notes, is a critical factor in keeping students in higher education. Furthermore, outreach lets students display their expertise to non-physicists, and this recognition of expertise by others was especially impactful to women.

Following the publishing of this paper, the authors presented further findings on the effects of participation in outreach programs on different groups of students at the Physics Education Research Conference in 2021. This research explored the impact of informal physics programs on female students and the different ways these programs impact undergraduate and graduate students.

One of the many students who help with physics outreach is Nicole Cirigioni, a fifth-year physics student. She started with the department’s outreach programs as a freshman through a class that requires participation in either outreach or another physics-oriented campus organization. On the suggestion of another volunteer at her first outreach event, Cirigioni talked to Erukhimova about getting more involved. She joined the DEEP program, eventually becoming an outreach director for Texas A&M’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, where she recruits volunteers and otherwise helps Erukhimova with outreach events.

Cirigioni has experienced the benefits listed in last year’s research paper herself, and she cites her outreach activities as what has kept her in physics.

“Being a part of the outreach program here in physics really does make you feel like you belong in physics,” she said. “A lot of women in (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) often feel like they don’t belong there or they aren’t smart enough to be there. Getting involved with outreach really made me feel like I have a place here, I can make a difference here, and I belong here.”

Cirigioni said her involvement in physics outreach has been enjoyable and rewarding. 

“Each time we see a new kid, you see their faces light up when you teach them something new,” Cirigioni said. “(Kids have) come up to me and said, ‘I’m going to be a scientist now.’ … Hearing those things, you really feel like you make an impact on people, and it’s something that keeps you going.”

Participating in the physics outreach programs and events has also helped Cirigioni develop the skill of communicating complex concepts she learned in class to a broader audience. 

“I have to explain angular momentum to two-year-olds, to 10-year-olds, to 18-year-olds and then to 60-year-olds,” she said. “Everyone gets a different description of what it is but they also all have to be accurate.”

Cirigioni calls Erukhimova “one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet” and is the type of educator who helps as many people as possible.

“You can tell how enthusiastic she is about teaching people and about showing off her knowledge to everyone, and that makes you want to do it as well,” Cirigioni said. “She just oozes with enthusiasm and it just emanates to everyone else.”

Despite her leadership role in these outreach programs, Erukhimova emphasizes that many faculty members and students put in time and effort to make these events happen. The Department of Physics & Astronomy makes sharing science with the public a major goal, she said.

“Physics is always thought of as some ivory tower with this physicist sitting in it,” Erukhimova said. “It’s a front-and-center mission of this department to make physics accessible to the general public. I’m not on my own: there are many professors and students who share their passion with the general public.”

Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova runs an outreach booth for Texas A&M Physics in downtown Bryan’s First Friday on October 7.


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