There were “oohs” and “aahs,” as well as wrinkled noses and a few “ew, yucky” expressions as two Georgia College physics students poured slimy mud into a plastic container.
Their audience was a group of gifted first and second graders from Midway Hills and Lakeview Primary Schools in Baldwin County. One girl said, “That’s like disgusting chocolate,” as her classmates took turns stirring the muck with popsicle sticks.
Nearby, another group of youngsters smooshed blueberries and blackberries inside plastic baggies. Other kids were busy hooking fishing lines and magnets to bobbins.
Little did they know that—within minutes—the mud, berries and fishing bobbins in wavy water would make electricity.
It was all part of Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge’s third Renewable Energy Workshop, funded by a $2,500 grant from ENGAGE—Georgia College’s Quality Enhancement Plan that supports outreach with community partners.
“It’s a good time,” said senior physics major Robert Andrews of Milledgeville. He enjoyed the demonstrations as much as the youngsters. Together, they squashed berries—using the fruit’s dye, mixed with a titanium dioxide solution, to generate electricity.
“I’m not really used to working with kids,” Andrews said. “So, it’s nice to bring physics down to their level. It teaches them how stuff actually works.”
About 60 gifted Baldwin students attended the most recent workshop—a fun mix of noise, games, experiments and the ever-popular solar-powered golf cart rides.
The biggest challenge for his thermodynamic and research lab students, Mahabaduge said, was simplifying information so 7-and 8-year-olds could understand. They used creative games and household items to illustrate difficult concepts.
The mud experiment was “a big version of a battery,” showing how energy is generated from a “microbial fuel cell,” said Kyle Castleberry, a senior physics and mathematics double major from Covington.
A wad of aluminum inside a container of mud was connected by saltwater-soaked rope to another wad of aluminum inside a second container of water.
“We’re using anaerobic bacteria found in mud at the bottom of rivers to break down food inside soil,” Castleberry said, “and that creates a much more eco-friendly energy.”
Several kids murmured, “whoa,” as a voltage multimeter showed electrical currents being generated by mud.
Castleberry created the hands-on experiment by remembering himself at their ages. As a child, he loved breaking things apart and rebuilding them. Whenever there was an experiment in school, he was always first in line.
Luke Walsh of McDonough is a senior physics major with minors in math and computer science. He was also excited by science as a youth. Being able to explain physics to children helps him make sense of what he’s learning.
“If it makes sense to us, then we can explain it to them,” Walsh said. “If you can teach it, you know what you’re talking about.”
Seniors Adian Burleson, a physics major from Fayetteville, and his partner Matt Dallas of Athens—who’s double majoring in physics and math—showed youngsters how waves push bobbins up and down in water. This causes a magnet inside wire-coiled plastic tubes to also move up and down, resulting in electricity.
Like many science experiments, some fail to work. For example, trouble with tiny motors caused a solar experiment with Legos and a wind turbine demo to fail. Both will be incorporated into next spring’s renewable energy workshop.
This realistic process—what works and what doesn’t—is what Kimberly Pearson, gifted facilitator at Midway Hills Primary, brings her students to see.
“Both the big kids and the little ones benefit from this experience,” she said. “My students are always so excited to be able to learn from college students. Some of them have never actually been on campus before, and their reactions are priceless—full of wonder and awe.”
The first Renewable Energy Workshop in 2016 was the brainchild of Pearson’s son. To fulfill an assignment in Mahabaduge’s renewable energy class, he wanted classmates to teach his mother’s students about sun, wind, water, biofuel and other sustainable forms of energy.
“The elementary gifted standards are all about developing research skills and problem solving,” Pearson said. “When my primary students see college students doing the same thing, it gives them a real life purpose for what we do. It also gives them a vision of what they will be able to do in the future.”
By the end of the workshop, Mahabaduge was already making plans with senior physics major Nick Palmer of Forsyth County. Palmer had so many ideas for the next event—like making electricity with potatoes and using candles in water to generate enough power to charge a cell phone. His face lit up, realizing they’ll have to lengthen the workshop from a few hours to a full day.
That’s why Mahabaduge holds these renewable energy workshops with physics students. He enjoys seeing their excitement, as they relay what they’ve learned to the young.
KhaDeem Coumarbatch, a senior physics major who moved to Georgia from St. Thomas, said he especially identifies with kids from impoverished backgrounds. For him, it's all about possibilities.
“Educating the younger populations is one of the best things we can do as physics majors,” Coumarbatch said. “When you grow up in an environment like I did—being a scientist feels so unattainable.”
“But I personally want to show them,” he said, “It’s right there. You can touch it. Be curious. There are people out there just like you doing this.”