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Faculty Profile: Kendra Sibbernsen

Spring 2011 | Archives

Instructor Brings Physics to Life with Hands-On Experiments

Kendra Sibbernsen

Vital Stats

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 postsecondary education.

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 said.

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 member.

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.

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