Physics is Phun

Dick Miller   

© Copyright 2013 by  Dick Miller

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.


Blackboard illustration of Newton's 2nd law of motion.

I spent 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. Miller’s classes, we have fun, and we learn a little physics, too.”

I 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 osmosis.

A Disaster Becomes a Triumph

Strictly 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Physics 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.

The topics 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.

To 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 along.

This was 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 get nervous.

When the 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 begin.

I launched 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!

I thought 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.

I then 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.

Another 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.

Immediately 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?” “The 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 replied.

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.

Where 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.”

That's the day when I learned that physics is phun, and I planned make sure that all my students learned that it's true also.

The Great Paper Airplane Contest

We had 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.

On the 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.

Competitors 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 Raw Egg Environment

Back in 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.

There were 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.

There were 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.

Testing 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.

There were 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.

After 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.

I'm sure 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.

Patterns in Noise

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. Determine the next two numbers in this series:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, __, __

Most 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.

Other patterns were not so easy to discern. Try this one.
  1. Determine the next two items in this series:
O, T, T, F, F, S, S, __, __.

That might 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.

The one that almost drove my students to mutiny, however, was the following:
  1. Determine the next two items in this series:
2, 4, 5, 7, 9, __, __.

A number 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.

But, as 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.

Well, 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.”

I barely 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.

The Rube Goldberg Machine Assignment

For the youngsters among you who may not recognize the name Rube Goldberg, check It explains that he was a cartoonist who is most famous for “…popular 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.

The 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 it.

The 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.

The wealth 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 creative solutions.

The 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.

Newton’s Spikes of Death

This was 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 sledgehammer's blow.

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 sledgehammer's blow.

Something 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.

We planned 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 instantly silent.

The 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.

I 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.

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