by Dick MillerOctober 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.
twelve years of my early adult life teaching physics and related
subjects, mostly in the New York City high school I attended as a
student. During that time, I learned a lot about teaching, and I hope
my students learned something about physics. But mostly I hope they
learned something about learning: that it can be enjoyable,
interesting, and even fun. As I often said, “In Mr.
classes, we have fun, and we learn a little physics, too.”
subscribe to the theory that a student is more likely to understand a
concept and remember it when the learning occurs in a
non-threatening, pleasant atmosphere. This story relates some of the
fun and games that took place in my classes that I described to other
teachers as “guerilla learning:” activities in which the
students were having such a good time that they didn’t realize
that the understanding of physics principles was seeping in by
Becomes a Triumph
speaking, this is not an activity from my teaching days. It happened
when I was a student teacher, but it was instrumental in setting the
tone for my approach to “Physics is Phun” throughout my
teaching career. Indeed, that attitude carried over to the careers I
moved into as instructional designer and technical writer after I
left public school teaching.
I did my
student teaching at one of three competitive-admission high schools
in New York City: Stuyvesant High School. The others were Brooklyn
Technical High School and Bronx High School of Science. The students
at the schools were the brightest of the bright, and teachers
understandably fought to be assigned to these schools. It was a
wonderful opportunity to learn from the best.
these same excellent teachers were not always willing to turn the
reins over to an inept greenhorn, so I had little actual experience
in leading a class. Most of it was in the laboratory setting, where I
was able to work with students individually or in small groups.
classes were set up so that there was one laboratory session per
week, three lecture/discussion sessions per week, and one
demonstration session per week. The demonstration session grouped
three classes into a large auditorium-style room with tiered seating
and a demonstration table in front. In this way, all the elaborate
equipment could be brought together to illustrate the physics
principles that were to be studied in the laboratory and
lecture/discussion sessions for the rest of the week. These
demonstrations were the foundations of the week’s study, and
this room was the scene of my disaster.
for this week had to do with the basics of motion. This included
Newton's laws of motion: inertia, mass and acceleration, and action
and reaction. It also included the relationship between time and
distance for an accelerating object.
illustrate the time-distance relationship for an accelerating object,
there was a huge wooden apparatus, about three feet high and 18 feet
long, perched on the demonstration table at the front of the theater.
On a track at the top of the apparatus was a little cart to which was
attached a paper tape. That tape ran over a pulley at the other end
of the apparatus, where a weight accelerated the cart down the rails.
When a lever was released near the cart, the cart was free to move
and a paintbrush on a pendulum would swipe back and forth across the
paper tape, marking the tape at regular time intervals. The purpose
of this was to show that an accelerating object moved not in direct
proportion to the time elapsed, but in proportion to the square of
the time elapsed. Thus the spaces between the paint marks on the tape
were not equally distant, but gradually increasing as the cart moved
by far the most elaborate and impressive part of the demonstration
equipment on the table. There were other smaller items as well, but
this was the show opener; the attention grabber; the big splash. The
plan was to get the students' attention right at the beginning and
hold it throughout the demonstrations.
As a good
student teacher, I tested out my equipment earlier in the day. I ran
the demonstration for one of the early sessions, and it went without
a hitch. The class for which my supervising professor was to observe
happened later in the morning, so I had plenty of time in which to
bell rang for class change, I scurried to the room in order to
prepare for my great performance. My professor entered, I shook his
hand, and he took a seat far in the back. The students straggled in
and took seats at various places in the theater. The teachers of the
classes that were assembled also sat down. It was time for me to
into my opening spiel. I clarified the learning objective for the
lesson and wrote it on the board. I then turned to the huge wooden
apparatus, explained how it worked, and told the students what they
might expect to see. I flipped the switch, the cart began to move,
and the ink pendulum took its first swipe, severing the paper tape
and dropping its weight to the floor with a thump! The little cart,
which had barely gotten a tug from the weight before the tape broke,
rolled slowly down the rails until it bumped into the end. The
students howled with laughter!
to myself, “My teaching career is over before it has begun. I
might as well have some fun as long as I'm standing up here with half
an hour to kill.” I then made a joke about antique equipment
and government funding. I explained to the students what the tape
should have looked like if the demonstration had gone properly, and
sketched a facsimile on the board.
turned to the other demonstrations. One was similar to the old parlor
trick of pulling the tablecloth out from underneath the dishes
without the dishes falling on the floor. This showed the inertia of
the dishes while force was being applied to the tablecloth. We did it
on a much smaller scale with a beaker half full of water and a piece
of cloth. I asked for a volunteer. Several students raised their
hands. I chose one of the biggest, most muscular boys in the room,
and had him come to the front of the room. I brought the beaker and
cloth to the front of the demonstration table and told him to bend
over so that he was at eye level with the tabletop, watch very
carefully, and be ready to report to the class exactly what he saw. I
placed the cloth on the table with part hanging over the edge and the
water-filled beaker on top. I asked the student, “are you
watching carefully?” Just at the moment he was about to
respond, I snapped the cloth downward, leaving the beaker behind on
the table with the water sloshing only slightly. The student,
startled, jumped about a foot in the air, accompanied by hoots,
hollers, and laughter from the rest of the class. I thanked him and
told him to take his seat.
demonstration also had to do with the principle of inertia. I placed
an index card on top of an empty beaker and explained that, if I were
to put a coin on top of the card and apply a force to the card,
causing it to accelerate, the inertia of the coin would leave it
behind, and it would fall into the beaker. I patted my pockets and
asked, “Does anyone have a nickel I can borrow?” By this
time, the students had gotten into the spirit of fun and there was a
race to the front of the room to see who could hand me a nickel
first. I accepted the nickel and the students were seated. I placed
the nickel on top of the card, flicked the card away, and the nickel
dropped into the beaker as predicted. A smattering of applause
greeted this minor feat, and I took a small bow as I removed the
nickel from the beaker and put it in my pocket. Every eye in the room
was on my pocket for the few minutes left in the demonstration time.
When the bell rang, I took the nickel from my pocket and gave it back
to its owner.
following my lesson, I was to meet with my supervising professor for
feedback. We went to a small office and sat down around the table. He
said to me, “Well, Mr. Miller, what do you think?”
only thing I can think of is that another teacher used the equipment
after I tested it and before I taught my lesson, and didn't clean the
paint brush. That left it hard as a rock, and it sliced right through
the paper tape” I said. “No, that's not what I meant.
How do you think the lesson went?” he continued. “I guess
it started off with a disaster, but it was okay after that,” I
disagree,” he said. “To be honest with you, I've had some
doubts about whether you were going to turn out to be a good teacher.
Today's performance helped me decide.” My heart sank.
have you been hiding? The man I saw in the front of the room today
was relaxed, funny, had a great rapport with the students, overcame a
potentially disastrous situation and made a good learning experience
out of it, and generally looked like the kind of person who is ready
to start a teaching career.”
day when I learned that physics is phun, and I planned make sure that
all my students learned that it's true also.
Paper Airplane Contest
just moved from a severely overcrowded, old building (the one I
attended in the 1950s) into a spacious new campus, and we wanted to
celebrate, so we decided to follow the lead of the New York Times
and hold a paper airplane contest. We advertised it widely throughout
the school, and had discussions in the General Science classes on
principles of flight, aerodynamics, scientific method, and the like.
appointed afternoon, we arranged for the school busses to make a late
pickup, opened up the double-wide gymnasium, pulled down all the
bleachers, and had a rousing good time. We had competitions for
distance, straightness of flight, and time aloft. One of the art
department teachers volunteered to judge the Origami category. The
science department chairman dipped into some secret fund and came up
with a few bucks for trophies.
and spectators alike had a great time. I enjoyed watching the faces
of some of the other teachers who seemed a bit surprised to see that
students would give up their free time to do something that actually
had something to do with learning (although in a very surreptitious
way). Phun, indeed!
the 1970s, environmental awareness was all the rage. We decided to
take our general science curriculum, reconfigure it to address
environmental issues, use new textbooks, and call it General
Environmental Science. The students would still learn about biology,
chemistry, physics, and earth science but they would do so all in the
context of environmental questions and issues.
One of the
fundamental questions that needed to be understood was this: what is
an environment? Early in the course, then, the students were given an
assignment: design and build an environment for a raw egg such that,
when we throw it off the top of our three-story school building to
the concrete courtyard below, the egg doesn't break.
few restrictions on the environment that the students could design
and build. First, they had to do it themselves: no help from mom or
dad. Second, they had to use commonly available materials. Third, we
had to be able to carry it up to the roof of the school building and
throw it off. Each student was responsible for removing the remains
after their project was tested.
a lot of discussions and a lot of questions from the students about
what an environment was. They weren't used to such open-ended
assignments. The experiments and projects they had done in the past
were more cookbook-style, where the steps were spelled out and they
just followed them. This was a whole new world. Some hated it; some
loved it. We often answered their questions with questions, guiding
them to think through the process of design on their own.
day arrived. Students brought their projects to class, where several
teachers who did not have class assignments that period transported
them to the roof of the school building. The students were then led
to a safe area of the courtyard where they could watch the tests and
gather the remnants after the tests were completed.
a great variety of solutions: umbrellas, garbage bags stuffed with
Styrofoam curls, spring-suspended devices, you name it. Creativity
ran rampant. One by one the projects were tossed from the roof and
landed in the courtyard. A teacher checked to see if the egg was
whole, then returned the remnants to the student while the student's
teacher made a note in his or her grade book.
about half of the projects had made their self-destructive flight, a
window opened in the center part of the building, and the upper half
of the principal's body appeared. “Mr. Miller, what's going
on?” he inquired. “It's okay, Mr. Saronson,” I
replied, “Dr. Hirsch got permission from you last week for this
activity, remember?” “All right,” he answered, as
he ducked back inside and shut the window. Obviously, he did not
remember, but he was not about to debate the point in front of so
many teachers and students.
the students will always remember this activity, as will the
custodial crew who had to clean up so many raw eggs from the concrete
courtyard. Physics may be phun, but cleaning up raw eggs from
concrete definitely is not phun.
This was a
series of activities that were part of a curriculum called The
Man-Made World, part of the Engineering Concepts Curriculum Project.
Its intention was to teach the principles of systems engineering
thinking by means of hands-on activities. No textbooks were used, and
each day's activity was distinct from the previous day's. There was
no homework: students completed worksheets during their activities
and these were kept into individual folders in a file cabinet. These
portfolios of their work were graded and available for their parents
to examine on open school night.
One of the
activities for this rather unusual curriculum was to look at a group
of data points and try to discern some sort of pattern from them.
Some of the patterns were easy. For example:
1, 2, 3,
4, 5, __, __
- Determine the next two numbers
in this series:
people would have no difficulty in recognizing that the numbers six
and seven are the next in this series, and that the algorithm (fancy
term for how you figure it out) is to add one to the previous number.
patterns were not so easy to discern. Try this one.
O, T, T,
F, F, S, S, __, __.
- Determine the next two items
in this series:
have taken you a little longer to figure out because you have to
translate between letters and numbers. These letters are the initial
letters of the numbers one, two, three, and so on. The algorithm,
therefore, is to add one to the previous number and to write its
first letter in the blank. Thus the two items are E and N for eight
and nine, respectively.
that almost drove my students to mutiny, however, was the following:
2, 4, 5,
7, 9, __, __.
- Determine the next two items
in this series:
of students ventured a guess. For every guess, there had to be an
explanation of the algorithm. Most of them failed at that point. One
or two actually seemed plausible and I applauded them for their
efforts and creativity in recognizing a pattern in the noise.
the students everywhere want to know, “Mr. Miller, what's The
Answer?” They had been trained over the years to expect that
there was one and only one answer to every question that a teacher
asked. I explained to them that there were several good answers from
the class today; several algorithms that explained the items in the
series that were proposed. Still, the students would not rest until
they knew The Answer.
okay, then,” I replied, “Here's what I had in mind when I
made up this series. The two items are 11 and 13. The algorithm is:
these are the VHF TV channels in New York City.”
escaped with my white lab coat intact amidst the catcalls, hoots, and
laughter. I can't help it: I am a science teacher and corny jokes are
in the job description. Besides, physics is phun.
Goldberg Machine Assignment
the youngsters among you who may not recognize the name Rube
Goldberg, check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rube_Goldberg.
It explains that he was a cartoonist who is most famous for
cartoons depicting complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in
indirect, convoluted ways.” He was at the height of his
popularity in the early part of the 20th century.
students in the class were my “sweat hogs” (you may
recall the term from the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter”
popular in the late 1970s). They can best be described as
intellectually bright but academically challenged. In other words,
these were smart kids who did not have stellar school records.
I had to
explain to them who Rube Goldberg was. I made some transparencies of
his most famous cartoons, projected them, and walked them through the
intricacies and idiocies of his genius. Once they had the idea of
what a Rube Goldberg machine was all about, I set them to the task of
creating one of their own on paper. They had a week to come up with
their idea after which time they would present it to the class. They
could either give me a paper master, which I would copy and
distribute, draw it on the board, or build the thing and demonstrate
presentation day arrived. I was not surprised when no one arrived
with some sort of complicated contraption all pulleys, levers,
strings, ball bearings, and other devices. Considering how
complicated Rube Goldberg machines were in the cartoons, it would
have taken an eternity to set one up in the classroom. Almost
everyone took the option of having me copy a paper master and to
distribute it. Each student took his turn standing up in front of the
group and explaining what the machine did and how the machine did it.
of ideas was overwhelming. We had automatic vacuum cleaners,
toothbrushes, dog walkers, toast butterers, lawnmowers, door
shutters, and almost no duplication. The students had taken the basic
elements they had seen in the Rube Goldberg cartoons I had shown
them, added a few twists of their own, and come up with some really
students may not have known it at the time, but they were engaging in
basic mechanical engineering design activities. All they knew was
that physics was phun.
Spikes of Death
probably my most spectacular demonstration. It has been seen many
times in many different situations, in science classrooms and in
magic shows. The scenario is this: a person lies down, a board with
nails protruding is placed on his chest, a cinderblock is placed on
top of the board, and an assistant breaks the cinderblock with a
sledgehammer. I was the lucky person on the receiving end of the
physics of this is simply Newton’s Law of Inertia once again.
The sledgehammer’s energy is absorbed by the cinderblock as it
crumples, so very little, if any, of the sledgehammer’s force
is transmitted to the board with the nails, providing the
sledgehammer is swung just right.
One of my
fellow physics teachers happened to be a construction worker to help
pay his way through college, and continued as a contractor part time
while he taught. Tony was a man who knew his way around a
sledgehammer. I had complete confidence in his ability to control the
this spectacular was worth recording for posterity. Bert was the
teacher in charge of our fledgling video program, so I recruited him
to put the event on tape. Tony built the board with dozens of
nasty-looking spikes protruding through a two-foot square of plywood,
and brought in his sledgehammer and a couple of cinderblocks. I
thought it wise to borrow some safety glasses from the chemistry lab
to keep fragments out of my eyes.
to hold the demonstration in one of the laboratory rooms later in the
day. Tony and I did a dry run earlier, and it went flawlessly. At the
appointed time three classes of students were jammed into the room
along with the video crew. I took my position up front, waved the
towel I was using to protect my clothing (red, I explained, in case
of unexpected results), laid down, and had the nails and cinderblock
placed on top of my chest. There was a great deal of background
chatter in the room. Tony swung his sledgehammer and the room grew
cinderblock broke, and I laid still. Tony noticed that a chunk of the
cinderblock had hit me in the mouth on its way down. He quietly bent
over and whispered, “Are you okay?” “Yes,” I
whispered in reply. Tony stood back up and removed the cinderblock
fragments and nail board. The room remained silent while I milked the
opportunity for drama. Suddenly, I leapt up, waved my red towel like
a flag, and bowed to the thunderous applause.
left public school teaching the following year to pursue a career in
private industry. I'm told that that videotape has been shown year
after year in the physics classes when they study the principle of
inertia. As a result, many future classes have the opportunity to
know that physics is phun.
(Unless you type
line of the message
to send it.)
Dick's Story List and Biography
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