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Alices in Scienceland
Local high school students get an inside view of the physics life, thanks to the Alice in Wonderland program.


For one month this summer, 11 girls from Austin-area high schools will get a taste of the physics good life as participants in the Alice in Wonderland program. The girls will even get paid a $1,000 stipend.

The immediate goal of the program, says physicist Alex Demkov, is the same as that of most summer programs for bright high school kids—to challenge the kids’ intellects, to expand their sense of the possibilities, and to let them have some fun. The long-term goal, and the reason Demkov’s gotten money from the National Science Foundation to provide the stipends, is to help redress the rather embarrassing gender imbalance in the discipline of physics.

“My daughter is in elementary school,” says Demkov, “and every year I go to talk to her school about what I do, and the girls always seem very interested in physics, more interested than the boys, in fact. But that seems to die off by high school, for reasons I don’t really understand.”

The inspiration for the program came to Demkov, in 2005, when he had the good fortune to be approached by Elaine Chang, a local high school student who’d seen him give a public lecture.

“I was so inspired by physics, and fascinated by what he had to say,” says Chang, who’s graduating from Stanford University this spring. “I approached him and asked if I could work in his lab over the summer.”

Not only did Chang end up working in Demkov’s lab, she inspired him to create the Alice in Wonderland program, helped put him in touch with her physics teacher at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in Austin, and helped him brainstorm what the program would look like.

The structure since that first summer has remained roughly the same. For the first two weeks of the program the students go to physics camp. They get lectures from graduate students on big topics in contemporary physics, visit faculty labs to see what cutting edge research looks like, and take field trips to companies like Freescale and Sematech, where physics is being used every day to make things and money.

The students are also issued UT ID cards, and are encouraged to spend their afternoons visiting the library, taking in lectures on campus, and just hanging out with other kids who are passionate about science.

For the last two weeks the students join a faculty lab, where they get the chance to participate in the ongoing research. Among the host faculty are Elaine Li, who uses ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy to study quantum dynamics; Mark Raizen, who slows down atoms to study their properties; and biophysicist George Shubeita, who looks at how proteins move cellular cargo at the molecular level. Students also work at the Center for Computational Materials, whose director, professor Jim Chelikowsky, has helped to fund the program.

The hope, says Demkov, is that over the course of the month the students (and particularly the female students) will experience physics in a way that’s different from whatever it is in the classroom that seems to be turning them off.

“I think most children have no idea what a practicing scientist does,” he says. “They think physics is an electricity experiment, or a ball rolling down an inclined plane. I think this is a good way to expose them. It’s not like high school physics.”

The program wraps up with a colloquium in which each student presents a summary of her work to her fellow students, parents, graduate students and faculty. After lunch, they receive graduation certificates and a commencement talk by emeritus professor Dr. Cecile Dewitt-Morette, who recounts some of her experiences working with physics legends like Einstein and Enrico Fermi.

Alice in Wonderland is supported by the National Science Foundation (DMR-0606464).
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