Professor develops unique way to teach physics to kids

Ushi is a blue-haired, smart (in a cool kind of way) high school student, and she loves to eat sushi and free-range chicken.

Her favorite “chill-out” is organic gardening and working on her computer. Her big dream is becoming a scientist and solving the world’s biggest mysteries. She has lots of friends but is a little shy when it comes to the subject of dating.

Oh, and Ushi just happens to be the brainchild of Alice Bean, Kansas University professor of physics and astronomy.

Ushi and the other characters on the interactive Quarked! ( Web site were conceived by Bean and a diverse team of collaborators at KU in 2003 as an entertaining method of introducing the world of subatomic physics to kids and adults.

Now, Quarked! brings subatomic physics to life through a multimedia project including the Web site, a program for schools and museums (about 4,000 kids and about 100 teachers have come to hands-on workshops at KU’s Natural History Museum) and an educational outreach program. Animated segments on the Web site focus on the adventures of Ushi (up-quark) and her best friends Danny (down-quark) and Harold (up-quark) as they take on the invisible world of particle physics in their proton subatomic universe vehicle (SUV).

Bean explained that the characters’ names come from the letters that physicists use to name the quarks: U, D, C, S, T and B.

“I thought of the premise and wanted a girl’s name beginning with U for the heroine,” Bean said. “My good friend’s wife is named Uschi. I just spelled it wrong.”

Bean admits that Ushi “is smart, but I didn’t want all the stereotype stuff. I didn’t allow anyone to put glasses on her.”

Bean admits that most people feel out of their league when it comes to experimental particle physics, “but all kids are interested in dinosaurs and astronomy. My cousin’s 5-year-old could name all the planets. I asked her what her favorite planet was, and she answered, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t been to them all yet.’ This is what we’ve got to tap into. Children love to learn stuff, and I’m worried that the current educational system throttles that learning at every stage. The so-called educational experts keep telling us that we have to teach to standards, and yet children want to learn more than we’re teaching them.”

Teresa MacDonald, director of education at KU’s Natural History Museum and outreach director for the Quarked! project, attests that assessment of the Quarked! workshops at the museum “found that over 90 percent of the students rated the program as ‘pretty fun,’ ‘lots of fun,’ or ‘really, really fun.’ Dawn Kirchner, our museum educator who teaches the workshops, confirms students’ ongoing enthusiasm during the programs, and their pride in knowing that they’re learning things that many older students have not been exposed to.”

MacDonald added: “Alice has a real passion for sharing her work with others, and feels very strongly about providing engaging science experiences for youths.”

Bean received the Steeples award for outstanding service to the state of Kansas for the Quarked! project and also was selected by students to receive the Gould Award for Undergraduate Education, which is selected by engineering students.

“Teaching is hard,” Bean said. “You can never be a master, so it is frustrating as well as rewarding. I’ve always thought that you need to get something out of every student, and not just cater to the students who are good.”

In her spare time, Bean is an experimental particle physicist, who currently belongs to two large collaborations. One includes more than 2,000 physicists from 35 countries. This summer Bean was in Switzerland, working with students from KU and other universities on the Large Hadron Collider.

Bean grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., the daughter of a father who was a chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University and a mother who was a former high school math teacher. She was always encouraged to go outside and do science projects.

“Actually, most of the female physicists from my generation that I know seem to have had a parent who was a scientist,” she said.

Her older sister was interested in geology, so the family was always “touring Northern Arizona taking pictures of rocks — it’s a good place for that, with the Grand Canyon.”

In sixth grade, Bean had to do a science project and take pictures of the stars.

“Remember, Flagstaff is the place with all the telescopes, where they discovered Pluto,” she said.

Bean is hoping that the supportive environment she grew up in can be duplicated for kids on the Quarked! site.

“I wanted to start making science more accessible to elementary school kids,” she said, “before they learned from adults that science is hard.”