Uplifting Students with Hovercrafts: A Smooth Introduction to Physics

SPS Chapter Awards

Uplifting Students with Hovercrafts: A Smooth Introduction to Physics

2018–19 SPS Future Faces of Physics Award

Rhodes College

Project Lead: Evan Main
Chapter Advisor: Brent Hoffmeister
Project Summary: The Rhodes College SPS chapter launched an outreach initiative focused on engaging underprivileged elementary students in the Memphis area. Our goal was to get these students excited about physics by building and riding hovercrafts.

Our SPS chapter is known for its wild demonstrations, so building a hovercraft that could lift four students at once was the perfect project for our daylong outreach initiative, made possible in 2019 by our Future Faces of Physics Award. Through this initiative, we taught students physics concepts, created a working hovercraft that can be used in future demos, and established a relationship with a new elementary school.

Working with one class at a time, we engaged with around 90 fifth-grade students from Idlewild Elementary School, which has a culturally and economically diverse student body. Each session began with a presentation about how hovercrafts work and introduced concepts like pressure and buoyancy. We worked through a real example of a physics problem and were happy to find that the students weren’t too intimidated.

After the presentation, we revealed a surprise—the students would be building their own balloon-powered hovercrafts, an activity they really seemed to enjoy. The crafts were simple, elegant, and physically analogous to the big hovercraft we built for the event. It was a lot of fun to watch the students get creative with their designs and then use their hovercrafts.

We then had another surprise: It was time to ride the big hovercraft! Powered by a leaf blower, our fully functional hovercraft is entirely electric—making it safe and not too loud—and can lift four students at once. Some students were apprehensive at first, but once they saw their classmates zooming around like they were riding an air hockey puck, they were sold.

Throughout the day, we made note of whether the students were engaging with the activities and—most importantly—having fun. We could see that many of them had an active interest in science and creating. Some students were so excited about their hovercrafts that they modified them over lunch, using lunch trays to increase their surface area. Genius!

The response of the teachers and administrators at the school was very encouraging, and the SPS members who helped make the event possible gained new skills—including event organization, communication, and working with young students—and became better friends along the way. Our SPS chapter as a whole was strengthened by this outreach opportunity, and we’re looking forward to including more members next year. Our thorough documentation of this process will help our chapter plan future outreach events.

By building and testing hovercrafts, we provided a fun and interesting demonstration, and judging by all the smiles and laughter throughout the event, we accomplished our goal. We loved watching the students’ faces light up when they realized they would be riding a huge hovercraft during school. We hope this was an experience they’ll never forget and that their enjoyment of the activity inspires them to pursue physics in the future.

Project lead Evan Main tests out the big hovercraft. Photo by Anna Murphree.

For more details on this project, visit our SPS award page at spsnational.org/awards/future-faces-physics-award/2019/rhodes-college.