Credit: Carl Blesch
Fluid mechanics becomes easier to
understand when Dave Maiullo hauls out a
smoke-ring cannon, handmade from a
garbage can, a rubber sheet and a touch
of theatrical fog.
Position: Physics support specialist, department of physics
Length of Service: 20 years
Hometown: New Brunswick
What he does: Maiullo creates entertaining demonstrations that physics professors use to convey hard-to-grasp scientific principles. First-year physics students, for example, may witness frozen flowers shatter like glass, a person lying on a bed of nails or a professor rocketing himself around the lecture hall on roller skates with a fire extinguisher. Maiullo views his role as equal parts teacher, technician and performer. He first needs to understand what concepts the professor is trying to convey, then creates demonstrations that are catchy and easy to see from the top of the hall’s amphitheatre-style seating gallery. Before the lecture he rehearses the professor in using the demo and will occasionally assist during class. Maiullo oversees a part-time staff of 10 students who help him build the demos and manage a treasure-trove of instruments and materials housed under the seating area in back of the building.
What prepared him for the job: Maiullo’s love of science began as a child, when he performed experiments at home and in school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Rutgers in 1983, and then went to work with a team of Rutgers high-energy physicists building a particle detector in Japan. Two years later, he landed his current job, about which he says, “I get paid to play with toys all day.”
First days at Rutgers: When Maiullo arrived on the job, he found a disorganized storeroom, low-tech audiovisual equipment and professors who didn’t always have the knack of matching their demonstrations to their curricula. He took up residence in the physics lecture hall, an architecturally stunning building, he agrees, but “anytime your roof slopes inward, you’re asking for trouble.” He spent years helping the university’s maintenance staff plug leaks and adjust the heating and air conditioning. He organized the storeroom to reflect the progression of the freshman physics curriculum, went on scavenger hunts for flashy but inexpensive equipment, and updated the foyer’s display windows and boards to convey the excitement of modern-day physics. He also worked with professors to extend their use of demos and introduce the concept into upper-level classes. “I’m helping our professors hold the interest of their students and convey the excitement of physics,” he says. “If I can make their teaching job easier, they’ll do a better job.”
Community outreach: Maiullo extends his reach beyond Rutgers, holding open houses, such as this past weekend’s Faraday Christmas children’s lecture, where parents and children pack the lecture hall to enjoy the demos that Maiullo and Professor Mark Croft present in freshman courses. He also performs shows at schools, libraries and senior centers. He works with high school teachers to design experiments and will often lend them equipment. He’s been on the board of the New Jersey section of the American Association of Physics Teachers for 15 years.
A serious business: While he never misses the chance to talk about the fun of his job, he fully understands its serious side. “It’s not that I can’t, or don’t, make mistakes. In fact, those can turn into teachable moments. But if my demos don’t work, or the professors can’t perform them, then I’ve failed.” Fortunately for the hundreds of students who file into the physics lecture hall each year, the show does go on, and always to rave reviews.
Sidelights: When he leaves the lecture hall workshop, Maiullo enjoys working out, puttering around the house and garden, hiking, and watching baseball and football, especially the Baltimore Orioles and Indianapolis (formerly Baltimore) Colts. He started rooting for both teams as a kid in 1968, a contrarian position for someone from northern New Jersey, he admits, but he liked their classy players and consistently good teams.
Special thanks: Maiullo appreciates the way his supervisor, Mohan Kalelkar, professor and director of undergraduate physics education, supports his judgment and provides him with the time and money he needs to create relevant demonstrations. He also cites the respect and collegial relationship of the physics faculty and the enthusiasm of his staff.
Know someone who deserves to be in the spotlight? Contact Focus editor Carla Cantor at firstname.lastname@example.org.