ERIE, Pa. — Scientific discoveries often happen by accident: An experiment goes not quite as expected, and the scientist says something like, “Huh, that’s weird.”
For many, that moment comes after years, or even a full lifetime, of work. For Ethan Fontana, a rising senior at Penn State Behrend, it came in his first year of college, in a class outside of his major.
Fontana, a mechanical engineering major from Lower Burrell, had passed college-level physics in high school, thanks to a dual-enrollment AP course, but he needed a lab credit for the course to be accepted as a replacement for PHYS 211: Mechanics at Penn State.
Chuck Yeung, a professor of physics at Behrend, helped him craft an individual study course that would meet the college’s requirements. While working in the lab independently on an assignment involving a ticker tape timer, an instrument that measures short intervals of time, Fontana noticed something odd.
“I was obtaining inaccurate and inconsistent values of gravity,” he said. “I approached Dr. Yeung about it. He was unable to find anything about the issue online, so he suggested we do a research study on it.”
After hours in the lab, performing trial after trial, they concluded that external friction was causing the effect. They were able to calculate it with minimal uncertainty.
Having determined the cause, Fontana worked with Yeung to produce a poster for the Sigma Xi Undergraduate Research Conference. His entry tied for first place in the physics/chemistry division.
“We were both sort of amazed, because I was only a first-year student at that time,” Fontana said.
A ticker tape timer makes a dot on a thin strip of paper every 50th of a second. The instrument has been used in introductory physics classes in high schools and college for decades, said Jonathan Hall, an associate teaching professor of physics.
“It is a useful pedagogical tool to introduce important concepts of motion, such as velocity and acceleration,” Hall said. “I was astounded to find no articles in physics education journals about the results to expect, or suggested best practices when using a ticker tape timer to measure motion.”
Hall, Yeung and Fontana collaborated on a research paper, with Fontana as the lead author. It was published in the May issue of The Physics Teacher.
“I think the paper fills a gap in physics education literature and will be a helpful resource, especially to new physics teachers,” Hall said.
“Ethan is a remarkable student,” he said. “It’s quite unusual for a student to take their first college physics lab and end up as the lead author of a peer-reviewed scientific paper.”