Sanya Nijhawan

Diode laser spectroscopy, torsional oscillators, piezoelectric deformation and magnetostriction — all in a 44-foot trailer traveling to universities and conferences across the country. Welcome to the “Food Truck for the Physics Mind.”

TeachSpin — a manufacturer and distributor of physics instruments — parked its trailer in front of the recently completed Yale Science Building from 9 a.m. on Tuesday until late afternoon.

A TeachSpin team of physics experts drives the truck across the country, outfitted with 20 hands-on physics experiments designed specifically for lab work, to provide undergraduate students access to these possibly unfamiliar educational instruments.

“The food truck idea came to me on a bike ride,” TeachSpin Founder and President Jonathan Reichert said. “We put all of the equipment in one place — all working and all operational. We let the students and the faculty see this, and they’ll understand the power of what the advanced lab could be. We’re trying to give them a chance to see what’s possible.”

Reichert formed TeachSpin — now located in Buffalo, New York — in 1992. At the time, his goal was simple: to create a pulsed nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer as a standard laboratory device for students everywhere. While building the tool in a garage, Reichert reimagined his mission to broadly design, manufacture and distribute affordable instruments. Reichert wanted these tools to be easy to use, so that any physics professor could incorporate them into a lab.

In 2014, Reichert passed TeachSpin to the recently established not-for-profit Jonathan F. Reichert Foundation. Reichert sees experimental physics education as essential to scientific advancement and technological innovation. In line with this vision, all of TeachSpin’s profits from the sale of laboratory equipment are donated to the foundation, which uses those funds to promote experimental physics instruction. The foundation supports the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association and its faculty development program. In addition, it provides grant funding for undergraduates and professors interested in producing experiments.

“The truck is educational in the broadest sense. We like to show people the realm of the possible in hands-on physics experiments,” said David Van Baak, senior staff physicist with TeachSpin and professor emeritus of physics at Calvin University. “The goal is to make sure students really learn the craft of experimental physics as we train them to become independent researchers in their own right.”

When the truck took its first tour in early 2017, Van Baak noted that TeachSpin imagined it as a marketing tool and an alternative to booths at professional conferences. But its road trips now function primarily as educational outreach, displaying the possibilities of high-level experimental physics courses. Of its many journeys, the truck has traveled as far west as California and as far south as Florida, most recently completing a tour of Ohio and western Pennsylvania before visiting Yale.

The truck will next head to PhysCon 2019 — a gathering of over a thousand undergraduate physics students — in Providence, Rhode Island. According to Undergraduate Laboratory Consultant Barbara Wolff-Reichert GRD ’63, TeachSpin decided to make the most out of their trip from Buffalo to Providence, so they contacted the Yale Physics Department asking to set up a visit. The department then passed that responsibility on to Stephen Irons, director of instructional labs for the department.

“It’s pretty amazing to have a truck with over a dozen sophisticated, advanced lab experiments that a student could come and look at and play around with and get explanations for,” said Irons, who attended the event.

Irons added that Yale owns several of TeachSpin’s apparatus and regularly uses them in physics labs.

Wolff-Reichert and Van Baak drove the truck to Yale. While at the University, they greeted attendees, demonstrated each apparatus and oversaw individual experimentation. Although only a dozen students and faculty visited during the day, the TeachSpin staff still said the visit was worthwhile.

“It’s like a bounce house for physicists. Like a little kid, they can’t stop jumping. They go from one instrument to another, and there’s this kind of exhilaration,” Wolff-Reichert said. “As a former high school teacher, my students would have gone wild with this, even not understanding all of it.”

The Yale Science Building is located at 260 Whitney Ave.

Ako Ndefo-Haven | ako.ndefo-haven@yale.edu