The Wonders of Physics ready to hit the road

profile photo of Haddie McLean

The Wonders of Physics traveling show is back! After a three-plus-year hiatus, the department is pleased to announce that we have hired a full-time outreach specialist and restarted the program.

profile photo of Haddie McLean
Haddie McLean

Haddie McLean, a former meteorologist with WISC-TV / Channel 3 in Madison, began her new role as the Wonders of Physics outreach coordinator on August 9. After a 21-year TV career, McLean says she was looking for a new challenge — and any job that didn’t require her to wake up at 2am was just a bonus.

“I love talking to people about science. And I love seeing kids’ faces light up when they understand a topic or when they learn something new,” McLean says. “I was able to do a little bit of that in my job in TV. But in this position, I’ll get to do a ton more, and that’s what drew me to it.”

McLean’s primary role with The Wonders of Physics will be to further develop and perform the traveling show. She will also play a lead role in the development and performance of the annual shows in February, as well as participating in science outreach events and connecting with Wisconsin science teachers.

The Wonders of Physics traveling show started in the late 1980s as an offshoot of The Wonders of Physics annual shows, which first ran in 1983. Two graduate students at the time, David Newman and Christopher Watts, approached Prof. Clint Sprott — the creator of The Wonders of Physics — and suggested that they take the show on the road.

Over the years, The Wonders of Physics traveling show has gone from an all-volunteer, graduate student-led effort to one that has employed part- or full-time outreach specialists. Past funding has been provided by NSF and DOE. Now, thanks to the support of generous donors — including a successful Day of the Badger fundraising campaign — the department expects that the traveling show will be run by a full-time staff member for years to come.

“I’d like to make this show accessible to all ages, all walks of life,” McLean says. “I’d like to hit all areas of the state, if possible, and bring the university to the kids that wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to experience all that our campus has to offer.”

McLean is already busy prepping the show and hopes to be in schools by late fall 2021 (if university and school district COVID-19 policies permit it). She expects to have a general show available that is as hands-on and interactive as possible. She also plans to make the show customizable as needed, where she can work with teachers to focus the performance on the specific areas of physics that they are teaching at the time.

“My hope for the traveling show is that it’s fun and engaging, gets kids excited, and helps spark an interest in the next generation of scientists,” McLean says.

Sprott, now an emeritus professor with the department who still stars in the annual shows each February, is enthusiastic that McLean will be involved in those shows and that she is reviving the traveling show.

“After several difficult years, I’m delighted that Haddie McLean has joined us to head the Department’s nearly 40-year tradition of physics outreach and public education for people of all ages throughout Wisconsin and beyond,” Sprott says.

Anyone interested in scheduling The Wonders of Physics traveling show can email or visit for more information.

The shows are free of charge, but donations are encouraged.

Related: See the winning entries from The Wonders of Physics 2021 video contest!


Physics grad students share hands-on physics, art lessons with local fifth graders

picture of a computer screen showing a Zoom meeting where most of the individual boxes are where the students' kaleidoscopes are being held up to the camera
the 4 kits sent home with the students are laid out and opened up, revealing contents like worksheets, laser pointers, mirrors, and lenses
The at-home physics kits featured lessons on light, such as how it functions as both a particle and a wave, and how light changes as it passes through a prism. PHOTO: AEDAN GARDILL

UW–Madison physics grad student Aedan Gardill has been illustrating physics concepts with art for years, such as through his Instagram account, where he shares ink drawings. Earlier this year, he applied for a grant from the Madison Arts Commission to create hidden portraits of women in the physical sciences that could only be revealed by using polarized lenses. He also planned to visit local schools to explain the concept behind his art and help students make their own images based on his technique.

By the time Gardill learned he had been awarded the grant, the pandemic was in full force, and his plans had to change. While he could still present his portraits at the Wisconsin Science Festival, school visits were no longer in the cards.

“With the realization this summer that school was going to most likely be online in the fall, I had to rethink how I was going to use the funding from the grant,” Gardill explains. “And that has morphed into providing at-home, hands-on learning experiences that we’ll lead virtually.”

Hear more from Aedan and a Henderson Elementary School teacher and student he worked with, by reading the full story

Funding for Gardill’s work is provided by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Optical Society of America, the International Society for Optics and Photonics, and the UW­–Madison Department of Physics, with special thanks to Arts + Literature Laboratory. UW–Madison physics graduate student volunteers include Abby Bishop, Praful Gagrani, Jimena Gonzalez, Ben Harpt, Preston Huft, Brent Mode, Bryan Rubio Perez, Susan Sorensen, and Jessie Thwaites.