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Winter 2024

Austin Beidelman (center) and Gary Hudson (right) work together demonstrate the specific heat experiment for Saran Nern, Outreach Coordinator for Purdue Chemistry and co-creator of the Superheroes of Science YouTube channel. Beidelman is a frequent and popular guest on the channel. Photo by Steven Smith.
Austin Beidelman (center) and Gary Hudson (right) work together demonstrate the specific heat experiment for Saran Nern, Outreach Coordinator for Purdue Chemistry and co-creator of the Superheroes of Science YouTube channel. Beidelman is a frequent and popular guest on the channel. Photo by Steven Smith.

Austin Beidelman and Gary Hudson:

The men behind the mechanisms

Written by Cheryl Pierce

Austin Beidelman and Gary Hudson puppet master the experiments demonstrated in physics classrooms and labs.

When alumni are asked what they remember from classes, often it is an experiment they watched in full dazzling display. These demonstrations create a sense of wonder that can be experienced with all five senses. What people often do not realize is that these experiments are carried out with safety and precision in mind, so the Department of Physics and Astronomy has assigned these demonstrations to two highly trained specialists: Austin Beidelman and Gary Hudson.

Students in the large lecture halls of Physics are facing two doors at the front of the classroom. These doors lead to the “office” of Beidelman and Hudson. This space is as long as the instructional spaces combined and hide treasures that can produce extraordinary phenomena. With these instruments, the two can conduct physics in a hands-on, visual way for students who might be struggling with the concept as it is written in the textbooks.

Both demonstration specialists have a background in physics education at Purdue University. Beidelman studied Physics at Purdue University and obtained his B.S. in Physics Teaching in 2013 then taught Physics 1 and the physics half of Integrated Chemistry Physics at area high school Lafayette Jefferson High School. He taught there eight and a half years before joining Purdue Physics and Astronomy and has been here for two years. Hudson is starting his twelfth year with the department. He earned his B.S. in Physics and started his career as a secondary educator teaching physical science in 1974. He then spent 38 years teaching physics and all levels of mathematics at the secondary level, and even taught both subjects as a continuing lecturer at Ivy Tech for five years.

“My role model as a child was my uncle, Bill Golden who was a science/math teacher and baseball coach,” says Hudson. “He lived next door to us, so I grew up enjoying his company and developing an admiration for him as well as his work. Uncle Bill would include and encourage me to assist him from time to time in his teaching/coaching activities. These early experiences made an impact on me, so much so that I wanted to pursue a career similar to his.”

Changing course from education to demonstration was a natural career progression according to both demonstration specialists. And coming back to Purdue was like icing on the cake.

“I fell in love with Physics in high school where it jumped out to me as a way of applying the math that I was good at to the real world and understanding how and why things happened,” says Beidelman. “While I was in college I realized that I loved explaining Physics and wanted to help people understand the subject and get excited about it the same way that I did in high school, which led me to pursue teaching in that setting. When I heard about the chance to come back to Purdue and be involved with the department here, especially setting up some of the same demonstrations that I remembered from undergrad, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The duo primarily services the two lecture halls in the Physics building, but their services are available to all physics classes and they often volunteer for K-12 outreach events. The schedule keeps them hopping.  This semester alone, they have eleven courses meeting 42 times a week in the two halls. How many demonstrations they take part in depends on how many professors request.

“It is a wonderful experience to be a part of the outreach events, especially when younger children are the audience,” says Hudson. “You begin by showing them phenomena that they have given little thought about. Performing the demonstration and asking questions draws wonder and amazement from them. With a simple explanation and posing more questions, you continue to amplify their amazement and wonder. As a teacher, that moment of enlightenment in learning is what you live for. When compared to older audiences, they are more experienced and knowledgeable, so the sense of amazement is not as dramatic but you always see signs of wonderment. As a former teacher, I enjoy the reactions of all as they are learning something new.”

When good experiments go wrong

In a perfect world, every experiment would work out perfectly every time. However, sometimes, outside forces can cause an experiment to fail in front of a lecture hall full of participants. Hudson and Beidelman have learned to go with the flow when good experiments go wrong. Both have fond memories of experiments that ran adrift.

“We have a demonstration where we hold a paper cup of water over a Bunsen burner and show that it can’t catch fire until the water boils out of the cup since the water will boil at a lower temperature than the paper cup will catch on fire,” says Beidelman. The first time I set that demonstration up, I was rushing around grabbing things early in the morning and I grabbed a Styrofoam cup. Since the Styrofoam is an insulator, it wasn’t transferring the heat as well into the water and the cup melted before the water boiled, spilling water all over the demonstration table during the lecture. It was after that class that I found our large box of paper cups that I should have been using for that demonstration.”

For Hudson, the expectation of a notoriously tricky experiment ended up being the answer the students of the class were hoping for.  The demonstration is called “Tangential Velocity from a Radial Motion.”

“This demo is notorious for not working as expected, however, a professor requested it for his lecture knowing it failed a majority of the time,” says Hudson. “When it came time to use the demonstration in his lecture, he explained what should happen and prefaced the class that this demonstration seldom works correctly. He was so confident of its tendency to fail that he offered an A to every student in class if it did work. Well, to his surprise and the student’s joy it did work! The shocked professor did not want to renegotiate his promise so he gave everyone an A for the day (not for the course). After class, he inquired why the demonstration worked successfully. It was discovered by the staff that the knife used to cut the string of three whirling balls was dull, so the demonstration crew had sharpened the knife.”

Favorite demonstration

As with any profession, there are some moments that stand out and simply make for a more fun work day. When your daily routine is science experiments, there are bound to be some that are downright fun. For Hudson, the small gyroscopes make for a delightful day of science.

“My favorite is Small Gyroscopes,” he says. “By spinning a gyroscope, it will demonstrate stability. It can exhibit this stability in different orientations and supported by different figures. The gyroscope can stand on end or on a vertical extension. It will precess or rotate continuously in a horizontal plane. The gyroscope will also stand on a stretched string.”

And or Beidelman, the experiment that is his favorite to demonstrate is, well, just plain weird.

“I really like the shoot the monkey demonstration because of how ridiculous it seems to me,” he says. “We have a stuffed monkey hanging from an electromagnet on the ceiling, which is just something you can’t just do any place. You have to have the proper setup ready with the equipment in place in the classroom. It’s the type of demonstration you might never get to see somewhere else.”

Sometimes it isn’t the demonstration that stands out. It’s the reaction. Hudson says the Superconductivity Demonstration is a crowd favorite and always draws the proper amount of oooos and awwwwws.

“This is a demonstration where we place a small cubed neodymium magnet (about 8 mm on a side) on a superconductor, which is about the size of a quarter,” he says. “We pour liquid nitrogen on the demonstration and wait for the superconductor to reach critical temperature. When it does, the magnet will rise and levitate above the superconductor. We can then take a pair of plastic tweezers and strike a corner of the magnet causing it to rotate at a high rate. Because of the small size, we use a remote camera to project this demonstration on the viewing screens of the lecture hall. After class, many of the students will come to the front to better observe and video the spinning magnet.”

Taking the experiments where the students are

If Beidelman seems familiar to you and you can’t quite figure out why, it’s because he conducts these experiments for College of Science k-12 outreach via social media for the Superheroes of Science YouTube channel ran by outreach coordinators Sarah Nern and Steven Smith. Some YouTube videos that feature his demonstrations have racked up millions of views!

“I love filming the video because it winds up being just time with Sarah and Steve where I get to show off all the department’s cool toys and explain the science behind them, which was always one of my favorite parts of teaching. When I’m filming, it helps me to just pretend I’m explaining it to the people in the room with me and talk about how the demonstration works like I’m explaining it to a friend instead of worrying about it being recorded. But seeing positive responses to some of the videos and realizing that I still get a chance to help people learn about the world around me has been really encouraging since I was missing that impact a bit when I stepped out of the classroom and moved into a behind the scenes role.”

To view a couple of his favorites, check out the Hoot Tubes or the Tibetan singing bowl. “The Hoot Tubes demo has always been one of my favorite to get out and set up, particularly because it was a demonstration that I’d never seen before I got to Purdue,” he explains.

Secret ingredient: teamwork

The old adage of “it doesn’t happen in a vacuum” mostly applies with this duo and the team of professors they work with. Ok, ok, yes of course science works sometimes in a vacuum, we’ve all seen the egg in the bottle by now. But when it comes to the key to any successful demonstrations, it takes a team to educate the next generation of Boilermakers.

“I want to mention how impressed I am with all of our professors and lecturers in the Physics department,” says Beidelman. “I have the easy job of maintaining the equipment and setting it up for them, but they’re the ones who will actually use the equipment to make a point in their lectures and plan out lessons around the demonstrations that they request. I love getting to be a part of them teaching the next wave of physics students and knowing that I can do the prep work to make a meaningful addition to the lectures that they’ve put together and present to our students.”