Friday, February 22, 2013

Making It Real!

Newton's first law states that "Objects at rest will remain at rest and objects in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force." I, as you can imagine many physics teachers, write this on my board in bright blue expo for the students to copy verbatim into their notes, or iPad or whatever.

I then tell them about a car accident I had in 10th grade while I was "Cruising the Loop" in my hometown of Monticello. I take them back to that night after a football game, the rain, the joy of cruising, and the physics of how my seat belt saved me from injury. I was an object in motion, I explain, and even when I rear-ended that cherry red Chevy Lumina, I remained in motion until acted upon by an outside force. For me, that force was the seat belt, but if it wasn't it would have been the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the tree outside. That is an object in motion.

I then take them to the next year in high school when I was rear-ended myself on a date with my high school girlfriend. I explain how I am an object at rest, and when the car under me suddenly moves my body, my head stays at rest until my neck can pull it forward. Objects at rest.

Have you ever rode a roller coaster and had that feeling at the bottom of a hill that the hotdog you just ate is falling into your pelvis? Guess what... it is! Your internal organs are in motion and will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force. The reason that hotdog feels like it is rising and falling in your stomach is because it is!

Did you realize that this same effect is how Princess Diana died. Yes, students will tell me it was a car accident, but what really killed her was Newton's 1st Law. She was in the backseat of the car and when they hit that pillar she shot forward and smashed into the seat in front of her. When she came to a stop, her heart stayed in motion until her rib cage could stop it. As her heart flew forward, it ripped her aorta. She went into cardiac arrest and passed.

The point I am trying to make is that when you are teaching, it is essential to link it to life. Science makes this easier, but it is getting harder and harder as time goes on. I used to talk a lot about curve balls when we went over Bernoulli's Principle. The changes in pressure on the sides of the ball force it one way or the other and make it hard to hit. A couple of years ago I realized that maybe two kids in my physics class had ever tried to hit a real curve ball. Many of them had done it on their Playstation, but very few ever experienced it. Kids are not able to play baseball like we did decades ago. It was normal for a Saturday afternoon pick-up game to happen across the street from my Grandma's house on the old Little League field. We often hear that today's kids want to be lazy and just play video games, but I think it is more than that. There are no more abandoned Little League fields. Any field in the summer is booked with AAU teams or is owned by a travelling team that doesn't want random kids playing on their dirt. If your kid is not (many times) chosen to be in one of these organized sports, they are not going to have the opportunity that you had to develop.

My students do a project where they are asked to measure motion, any motion and report it back to the class. In the past few years, many of them are moving towards digital motion instead of the real world. I published an article on this in The Physics Teacher.  My students are wholeheartedly engaged when they realize that they can figure out the speed of the bullets in Call of Duty, or figure out how realistic gravity is in Super Mario Bros. I am not linking this to real life, as I see it, but the connection to their lives is definite.

Find a way to make your curriculum relevant. Physics seems like it should be the easiest subject in the world to do this. We are measuring the real world every day in class. That is not enough though. Link the subject matter to THEIR lives. Connect the material to what they have experienced. If they haven't had a certain experience, give it to them. If you have to tell them that your curriculum is relevant, it probably isn't.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged.