Spring 2011 |
Instructor Brings Physics to Life with Hands-On Experiments
Who: Kendra Sibbernsen
Academic Program: Physics and Astronomy
Hobbies: In addition to toying with computers and telescopes, Sibbernsen
creates stained glass art.
Star-Gazer: Sibbernsen first fell in love with astronomy in Ainsworth, Neb.,
where she checked out a book on astronomy from the library.
Kendra Sibbernsen knows how to deal with a tough crowd. As an MCC Physics instructor, she is
tasked with teaching physics and astronomy to math-phobic college students.
Luckily, Sibbernsen has a few tricks up her sleeve. Her students learn with hands-on
experiments, real-world problems and current events and trends. By relating physics or astronomy
to students' interests and real-world experiences, she can make it interesting—and then sneak
in the math.
"If you don't make the material relevant to the students, they are not going to get it as
well," Sibbernsen said. "You need to make it pertinent and relate to their interests."
An instructor at MCC for five years, Sibbernsen has long cultivated a love of astronomy. In
Ainsworth, Neb., she remembers being a third-grade student enthralled with the stars after
checking out an astronomy book. She studied physics and astronomy at the University of
Nebraska–Kearney and University of Nebraska–Lincoln and later earned her doctorate in
At MCC, Sibbernsen is constantly looking for ways to pull in hands-on activities. With a
digital SLR camera, she discovered a way to photograph cosmic rays—high-energy particles from
space that bombard the earth in all directions. With the camera, students can examine the levels
they record of cosmic rays indoors, outdoors, with or without light or at different altitudes.
"It gets them thinking about responses that are unusual or unexpected, and that's exciting," she
Another class culminated in the launch of a high-altitude weather balloon outfitted with
student-designed pods that used sensors to measure temperature, pressure, acceleration, altitude
and more. The balloon reached an altitude of some 80,000 feet; students tracked the data and
equipment itself as it fell to the earth on a predicted path.
On her list next quarter is testing the heat properties of a space shuttle tile she acquired
through a NASA program. The idea? Take a blow torch to one end of the tile. Then pick it up with
your bare hands—a demonstration of the low thermal conductivity properties that once
protected a space shuttle. "I always like to do a lot of demos," Sibbernsen said, "to get
students to visualize it and make it relevant."
Kendra's Astronomical Activity Ideas:
Join the Omaha Astronomical Society for monthly astronomy Q&A sessions at the
University of Nebraska–Omaha.
In the spring and summer, head to Mahoney State Park for monthly Star Parties. You can
look through a telescope and get an explanation from an Omaha Astronomical Society
Go to the 2011 Nebraska Star Party this July near Valentine, Neb., where you can gaze
at the heavens with hundreds of other star partiers.