Dozens of times each year, Foothill College physics instructor Frank Cascarano lays down on a bed of nails as hundreds of school children watch. Fellow physics teacher David Marasco then puts another plank of nails on top of Cascarano, followed by a cement block.
As Cascarano waits calmly, Marasco picks up a sledgehammer and smashes the cement block. The students shriek in a combination of fear and awe as they watch Cascarano stand up unscathed.
The demonstration isn’t mere spectacle, it is an exercise intended to vividly illustrate the concept of pressure. Cascarano braves the bed of nails as part of “The Physics Show” at Foothill College, which teaches children about topics such as inertia, pendulums and pressure through a variety of demonstrations.
Cascarano and Marasco cofounded the physics show in 2007. Now in its 14th year, the show draws more than 20,000 people annually. A dozen shows are scheduled to take place this month.
“We do it every year, because literally we think it’s the best thing that we do,” Marasco said. “We get little kids excited about doing science.”
Cascarano came up with the idea for the show when he was searching online for ideas of demonstrations to do in class and learned of a show put on by the University of Wisconsin.
“It dawned on me that we could do a show like this,” Cascarano said. “I came in and told David about it and before I could suggest that we do it, he said ‘We should do that.’”
At the time, the community recently passed Measure C, a $490 million bond measure supporting the community college district, and Cascarano said the show was in part a way to say “thank you.”
Both men had young children at the time and Marasco said they were in the phase of fatherhood where they were thinking about how to explain science concepts to their own kids.
“We have the goofy dad humor,” Marasco said. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
The first year the show was held in a 200-person lecture hall. The second year, four shows were held in that room. The third year, the show moved to the 941-seat Smithwick Theatre on Foothill’s campus. Now, two dozen shows are hosted annually.
Field Trip Shows
As the event grew, Cascarano said they realized that they wanted to reach a broader audience than just those children whose parents would bring them to the show.
“We realized that if parents are taking their kids to a science show on the weekend, they don’t really need us,” Cascarano said. “Those kids have parents that are pushing science and helping them along the way.”
The show helps to get these kids more excited about science, Cascarano said, and gives parents ideas on how to make science approachable, including potential experiments to try at home.
To expand the reach of the show, in 2012 Cascarano and Marasco began hosting special field trip shows for students from underserved schools. The proceeds from the weekend shows, as well as some private donations, cover the cost for the schools.
“Since we’ve been able to implement this model, where we charge for the public and invest that money back into underserved schools, we’re getting a lot of kids who wouldn’t normally be exposed to physics, exposed to physics,” Marasco said.
In addition to watching the show, the students get lunch, a tour of the campus and a Foothill College T-shirt. The idea is to make the college more approachable and accessible to the students.
“It’s just that little reminder that college is there for them,” Cascarano said.
Ken Ludwig, a fifth-grade math and science teacher at Taft Community School in Redwood City, brought his students to the show last month. According to data from the California Department of Education, 92.5% of Taft students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Ludwig hopes the show helps to encourage his students to attend college and potentially pursue a career in science.
“I want them to be excited about what our community colleges in California offer,” he said.
Foothill students also perform in the show, which both Cascarano and Marasco said is crucial to helping the kids in the audience see that science is something they too can study.
“We’re super proud of our students who are on stage and that’s a really important part of the show,” Marasco said.
One of the students performing this year, Laurel Willey, actually saw the show herself when she was younger.
“I thought it was great – I thought it was really exciting,” Willey said. “I really liked the hammer smashing.”
Willey is now a homeschooled high school senior who takes some classes at Foothill. Her plan is to attend Foothill as a freshman next year and then transfer to a UC.
As she performs in the shows, Willey said her favorite part is hearing the kids react to what’s happening on stage, especially their loud, excited screams as Cascarano is sandwiched between the boards of nails.
“I hope they are excited to take physics as a class in the future and think a little more about it,” Willey said.
Shows are slated 10 a.m. and 1 and 3:30 p.m. Jan. 4, 5, 11 and 12. Tickets are $5.
For tickets and more information, visit thephysicsshow.com.