Macquarie Physics Outreach

At Macquarie, we believe that outreach programs are as fundamental to science as the research we conduct every day. Much of our research is publicly funded, so we feel we should give back to the community by providing education outreach programs. Part of achieving our outreach goals is interaction with school groups; this usually takes the form of visits to our North Ryde campus or we may be able to negotiate a suitable time to come and visit your classroom[1].

Our outreach program is undertaken by dedicated Physics Masters and PhD students. Our presentations aim to expose students to the variety of ways we use physics in our everyday lives through the demonstration of interactive experiments with accompanying presentations and explanations. Best of all, our outreach program has no fees whatsoever for these demonstrations. We also have an observatory and planetarium on campus that is available for bookings, however there are fees associated with the use of these facilities.

Sessions at Macquarie

For school groups that come to visit Macquarie University we have a range of options. As well as some smaller, self-contained experiments (see below) we have: spectroscopy experiments, where students learn about different wavelengths of light and different light sources; Wilson cloud chamber, a visual demonstration of radioactivity; and gyroscopic demonstrations.

We also have a number of annual events – please see the Macquarie Physics Department’s Community and Schools page for more information. Also on this page is information regarding our hologram (which is metres in size!) and ‘adopt a scientist’ program.

For available Astronomy activities on campus such as visits to the observatory and/or planetarium, please see this page. Please note that there is a fee for the use of these facilities.

Sessions at Schools

Sessions can be structured to align with the period of one class; i.e. we plan, flexibly, for 60 minute sessions. We can accommodate groups of up to 50 students, approximately, and would prefer them to be grouped by year. In the past, we have found that larger groups have difficulty in seeing & participating in the experiments but these numbers can be negotiated.

We commence with an interactive talk which begins at basic optics before branching into topics of current research. These talks are slightly informal, with students encouraged to participate through asking/answering of questions. The exact content of the talk is moderately flexible depending on the teacher’s preference and the level of the audience, but topics that are often covered include; a general introduction to optics[2], total internal reflection and its use in optical fibres, optical communications (the national broadband network), and of course, lasers!

Throughout the sessions we encourage the students to ask any questions they may have for us about both science and careers in science. We also ensure there is time to experiment with a variety of interactive demonstrations (please see a list of available experiments with brief explanations below). Our presentation includes information about what life is like as a university student, what we actually do as physicists and what exciting opportunities await those who choose to pursue a career in physics. We then conclude the session by showing an acclaimed careers video “Your Future, Own It”, showing graduates from one our Australian Research Centre’s of Excellence (CUDOS).

If you are interested in having your school participate in Macquarie University’s Physics outreach programme, please contact us with the following details:

  1. Name
  2. Contact details (email address/phone number)
  3. School/Organisation name and address
  4. School Phone/Email
  5. Preferred visit date(s) and time
  6. Alternative (backup) visit dates and time
  7. Number of students and year groups
  8. Brief description of year group eg. gender, level of physics knowledge
  9. Which activities you would like included
  10. Venue/location the visit will take place
  11. Facilities available (projector with sound, table, power points, parking)
  12. How did you find out about our outreach visits?

This may seem like a lot of information to request however the more information we have, the more tailored we can make our presentations! This extra information also makes it easier for us to organise our entire outreach programme.

Available Experiments

Macquarie University Physics outreach has a number of smaller hands on experiments, including (but not limited to):

  • Heat sensitive paper
  • Birefringent crystal
  • Diffraction gratings and wearable diffraction glasses
  • Pocket Fresnel lenses
  • Polarised sheets
  • Mirascope (small optical illusion with mirrors)
  • Static electricity demonstrations
  • ‘Magic’ revolution top (spins for ~30 minutes continuously)
  • Stirling engine

Macquarie Physics outreach also has a number of larger experiments (with more still being constructed) which may be incorporated into sessions upon request.

Laser Telephone

This tabletop device converts speech (sound waves) into an electrical signal which is then encoded onto a laser beam via amplitude modulation – the same process that AM radio uses. The students can then see that their talking changes the intensity (amplitude) of the laser beam and light really can transmit information! The system has two lasers which allows for two-way communication. Mirrors within the display also show how the laser light still behaves just like everyday light, even with a signal encoded onto it.

Photonic Simulator

Much of modern communication requires a signal that travels down an optical fibre. The photonic simulator gives students information about how photonic components use light to convey signals (information) and shows how these components may be combined to make photonic circuits, such as in a computer, or optical communications networks on a larger scale. Information regarding syllabus outcomes addressed can be found on Macquarie Physics Department’s Community and Schools page.

Music on a light beam

A musical keyboard connected to a modulated laser encodes music onto a light beam. A detector then picks up this music and plays it through a speaker. This display allows students to see the effect of fully and partially blocking the light beam. The output from the detector can also be connected to an oscilloscope to show what the decoded sound waves look like.

Laser Maze

Students get to test their spy skills by navigating through a laser maze! The maze is setup by reflecting three red lasers off a number of mirrors. Blocking a laser beam triggers the alarm!

Please note that this display requires a smoke machine which may trigger fire alarm systems, and the maze will also require extra setup time in a darkened room for operation, thus may not be available in all cases.

Velocity Juggling Balls

These clever contraptions know what speed they are thrown at and will change colour depending on this speed! We have some prototypes and are making more using 3D printing and Arduino Nanos.

Laser Harp (coming soon…)

Ever played a string instrument and thought it needed more lasers? So did we! This design was inspired by our fellow University of Sydney OSA Chapter. Moving your fingers through the laser strings of the harp plays the notes.

Laser Minigolf (coming soon…)

Based on the game by the same name. Students have line up mirrors at the correct angles in order to get the laser beam around obstacles and onto the final target. Each time the laser is turned on to check the mirrors’ alignment, it counts as a putt! Will your students make par for the course?

This teaches students about the laws of reflection, especially angles of incidence and reflection. We also encourage students to try to use as few mirrors as possible to achieve their goal and make them think about the most efficient path.

Laser Targeting (coming soon…)

Students use glass prisms of various shapes to try to hit as many targets as possible for the highest score. The bench is laid down on a tabletop and students encouraged to experiment with various configurations of the optics. This activity encourages the discovery of total internal reflection as well as laws of reflection.

OSA Laser target

Image credit:


[1] Please note that visits to schools are usually only possible within the Sydney area surrounding Macquarie University’s North Ryde campus. However, you are always welcome to organise a time to travel to Macquarie’s North Ryde campus.

This year (2016) we will however be conducting a week long outreach trip to rural NSW schools. If you are interested, please send an email to

[2] A general introduction to optics covers reflection, refraction (lenses), diffraction, and dispersion, as well as the fundamentals of visible light and more general electromagnetic waves.