Melon Physics: Williams College Summer Outreach

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Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action

Melon Physics: Williams College Summer Outreach


Ellery Galvin, SPS Member, Williams College, with contributions from the Williams College SPS Chapter

This summer, the Williams College SPS chapter designed an afternoon of “Watermelon Adventuretime Excursions.” About a dozen Williams College student researchers in physics, computer science, and math traveled to Windsor Lake to compete in a series of artistic, athletic, engineering, and eating challenges. Onlookers gazed at heaping armfuls of melons. Each team created a melon mascot by combining a melon with three random objects, and improvised a skit with a theme, a cheer, and a name.

One athletic challenge had competitors race with their melons in the water along the length of the beach. Thankfully, though the water in the melons makes them heavy, the rinds are lighter than an equivalent volume of water, so they float! The lifeguards were intrigued and amused by the competition.

Back at Williams, teams had 60 minutes to engineer the longest bridge able to bear a rolling melon. They used only cardboard, twine, croquet mallets, duct tape, and trash bags. Judges awarded extra points if the bridge remained standing after being impacted by a falling melon. As evidenced by the post-test mess, a melon dropped on a flat surface breaks easily since the force of impact is imparted on a small area.

When all the sticky flesh of the unlucky melons was cleaned from the lawn, everyone gathered around a plate of luckier melons for yums and laughs. The event cultivated friendships between related academic departments and exploited the unique physical features of watermelons. It also encouraged the people at Windsor Lake to think about physics and to meet our welcoming students. In future versions of this event, we will invite younger students to teach them the physics of melons and connect them with undergraduates who love sharing the fun of physics.

During the year, our chapter has focused on making the department more approachable. On Thursday nights, we enjoy snacks prepared by students as a way of resting busy minds. Students from all class years, alumni, and professors often attend weekly lunches. Some days we share our experiences, describe changes we want to see in the curriculum, or advise one another; on other days, we imagine Velcro theme parks or estimate the number of leaves on a nearby mountain. Our hope is that everyone, from the seniors linearizing Einstein’s equation for the study of gravitational waves to the spectators of lakeside watermelon antics, will feel like a friend of physics. //

Students Emily Stump, Ian Shen, and Iona Binnie pose with “Melanie the Melodic Melon.” The cheer reads, “The melons, the melons, we greet them with a song!” and is a parody of Williams’ alma mater song. Photo by Ellery Galvin.

Judge Kirby Gordon drops an unlucky melon onto a bridge. Photo by Iona Binnie.

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