Raised in Ohio, Brian Jones knew he wanted to be a scientist from the age of 4. He loved to tinker and discover how things work, but never thought he’d end up a professor. Since the age of 8, he spent his summers in his mother’s classroom teaching developmentally disabled kids.
“I had been doing that every summer until I went to college, pretty much,” Jones said. “So I wanted to do something different. I thought I would just work in a laboratory and work with things.”
At some point during graduate school at Cornell University, he had an opportunity to teach and found that he really liked it. After teaching in Cleveland and spending two years teaching in Swaziland in Africa at an international school, Jones and his wife were looking for a life in Colorado.
“Ultimately the reason why I moved to Colorado was because of my time in Africa,” he said. “It was the first time I had experienced wide-open spaces with lots of sunshine. I realized I really liked that. When we came back to the United States my wife and I decided we needed to go somewhere where we could have expansive landscapes and sunny weather.”
When a position opened up at Colorado State University, their plan was to just stay a year to try it out. That was a quarter-century ago.
Little Shop of Physics
Jones is best known for his work as the director of the Little Shop of Physics.
“With Little Shop of Physics I really get the best of both worlds,” he said. “I get to tinker and figure out how things work. At every station someone is working on a project trying to figure things out, and how to demonstrate science concepts to kids. I’m having a blast.”
At the beginning of his career, CSU had a competition on campus called “The Physics Bowl,” a single-elimination tournament for high school students. Jones was given responsibility for the event.
“Students would come from a couple hours away, and then get cut the first round of the tournament,” he recalled. “We wanted to set up some cool things for the kids to play with, so that when they were done they could go see some interesting science.”
Right around the same time, Jones gave a guest lecture to an eighth-grade class. He recalls it was a horrible and humiliating experience.
“I basically gave a college lecture to a bunch of eighth-graders. After passing notes and them actively not paying attention, I gave up and let them play with all the stuff I had brought. And they loved that.”
That’s when Jones realized that the kids wanted to discover science for themselves, and that they didn’t want someone to tell them how things work.
“They need to know that they can do this stuff themselves. So I talked with a couple students from CSU, and we just started from scratch,” Jones said. “We made some kid-friendly things, and stuck them in the back on my VW van, and went to a school in Loveland, set it all up in the gymnasium and let the kids loose. And it kind of grew from there.”
Jones has high praise for the CSU students who help him bring science to the schools.
“I work with a really energetic, can-do group of people. I always tell my students that it’s easy to convince someone that you’re smart; it’s harder to convince them that they’re smart. So that’s their job.”
In the classroom
Jones has been teaching General Physics and General Physics II for 16 years. Some might remember a number of demonstrations, music to start and end class, his signature tie-dye shirts, or candy. Although Jones is the instructor, he wants to facilitate trust.
“I’m your instructor, but I’m willing to learn some things from you because you have a different way of seeing the world,” he tells classes. “So, you’re going to show me something, I’m going to learn something, and we’re going to do this together as a group.”
In 2011 Jones won the Robert A. Millikan award and did a presentation at the American Association of Physics teachers meeting.
“Chris Nichols made tie-dye t-shirts for everyone in the audience. I was starting my talk, and they said, ‘Brian, hold on a second,’ and everyone put on a t-shirt,” Jones recalled. “It was unbelievable, I didn’t know what to say. It was such an outpouring of support and affection and it was really neat to see. It was an amazing thing.”
Jones can’t imagine a better experience than his career at CSU.
“I came here for a year, and this is my 26th. So there’s something special about Colorado State University that made me realize that this was a place I could call home,” he said. “I think it’s a really good community and it’s a community where people are really encouraged to stretch themselves and try different things.
“LSP is fairly unique nationwide, but I’ve had tremendous freedom to do it,” he continued. “There haven’t been a lot of institutional hurdles, people have been really willing to let me go out and explore and see what I come up with. It’s a community that values its people, gives its people some freedom. I didn’t think I would stay, but now I can’t imagine going somewhere else.”