While many teenagers enjoy their summer break on the beach or at theme parks, a small group of high school students spent a week at the University of Central Florida getting over their fear of physics.

UCF held its free one-week physics camp in June to help students explore, create and learn about physics in a fun way, said professor Enrique Del Barco.

Del Barco used an outreach grant from the Group of Magnetism of the American Physical Society to start the program and recruited graduate students from the College of Sciences to run it. Those graduate students worked one-on-one with 17 local students.

“We’re really trying to get rid of this negative stigma about physics,” said Cameron Nickle, a student coordinator with the camp. “Students usually learn physics with their teacher writing formulas up on the board, and while formulas are important we want to show that you can learn about physics and have fun.”

Each day the students split up into groups and conducted experiments. The complexity of the experiment depended largely on the comfort level and knowledge of physics among the students. For example, younger students built pendulums one day during camp and explained what factors made the pendulum swing faster or slower.

The students came up with a hypothesis to explain why the pendulum would swing faster and then they tried different mathematical formulas to see if they were right. Eventually they got it right and it made perfect sense when they saw it in action.

“There’s this mental roadblock with physics because everybody always tells you how hard it is,” Nickle said. “But if we just give these students the tools with no instructions and let them figure it out on their own, it suddenly doesn’t become so difficult anymore.”

Alexandria Bias from Lake Nona High School said she was grateful for the opportunity to study physics in a stress free environment.

“Of the three fundamental sciences, physics was the most daunting in my opinion, but after the experience I had at camp, I definitely am no longer scared,” she said. “The camp was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about physics. I especially liked the lab tours because it showed that the complicated things we got to learn about actually could be put to use in answering scientific questions.”

For UCF students, the camp gives them an opportunity to give back to the community, and helps them become better teachers, organizers and even fundraisers.

“We’re really hoping to find some sponsors for the camp because this is such a great idea,” said graduate student Priyanka Vaidya. She is one of the camp coordinators and is already working to identify partners who may be able to help with funding the camp in the future. “Students really need to see that physics is amazing and this would be a fantastic way to give more students access.”

For Del Barco, keeping the camps free is important for many reasons, but one is particularly important to him.

“It promotes inclusivity,” Del Barco said. “It does not leave anyone out. Usually these camps are expensive. This prevents low-income students to access early exposure to STEM fields, which is particularly important in the case of minorities.”

The camp organizers reached out to local high school physics teachers to get the word out and encourage students, especially those from underrepresented groups, to participate. The participants came from across Central Florida and represented schools such as Melbourne, University, Lake Nona and Timber Creek high school among others. Attendance was about 50 percent each of boys and girls.

Through multiple partnerships, UCF runs two other free STEM-related camps called Biology Integrated Orlando Training and Enrichment Camp https://ucfbiotec.wordpress.com/ and Orlando Chemistry Tutoring and Enrichment and Training Camp https://ucfoctet.wordpress.com/  .

For more information on next year’s physics camp, contact camp coordinators Priyanka Vaidya (priyankavaidya@knights.ucf.edu), Rebecca Cebulka (rcebulka@knights.ucf.edu) or Cameron Nickle (cnickle@knights.ucf.edu), or visit https://sciences.ucf.edu/physics/physicos/.