Win? Fail? PHYSICS!: An introduction

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A simple question

Real or fake?

Physics win or physics fail?

Inspired by Rhett Allain’s physics explanations at Dot Physics, Dan Meyer’s blog series “What Can You Do With This?”, and Dan’s TEDx plea for a math curriculum makeover, I have been collecting video clips that are prime for my physics students to analyze. The website is Win? Fail? Physics!

Videos are categorized by topic to help teachers locate videos for the concepts at hand. Several videos are listed under multiple topics. For example, the World Jump Day video above can be analyzed using Newton’s laws or conservation of momentum. The videos are presented without any further questions other than “Physics win or physics fail?” Kids watch the video and have an immediate visceral reaction. Now they just need evidence to support or refute their conviction.

What are they good for?

A WFP video can be the hook for the whole unit. The analysis will take several days as the students explore and experiment to develop an appropriate model. At the end of the unit, they return to the video to answer the question “Physics win or physics fail?” For example, my projectile motion unit starts and ends with the Kobe Bryant video (above), which I’ll outline in a future post.

A WFP video can also replace a textbook problem and the analysis can be done in a class period. Here’s a parallel end-of-chapter “problem” for the World Jump Day video:

How fast can you set the Earth recoiling? In particular, when you jump straight up as high as you can, what is the maximum recoil speed that you give to the Earth? Let your mass be 76.0 kg and your maximum jump height be 0.250 m. Model the Earth as a perfectly solid object whose mass is 5.98×1024 kg.

(a) Based on your maximum jump height, what must be your push-off speed?

(b) What is the recoil speed of Earth due to your jump?

(adapted from Physics for Scientists and Engineers, 6th edition by Serway and Jewitt)

The textbook gives students assumed values and guides students to the solution. Students lose out on important problem solving techniques as the textbook reduces a rich learning experience into an exercise in plug-and-chug.

Cognitive Weightlifting

The WFP video version strips the problem to its core: Win or Fail? Students do the cognitive weightlifting.  Working in groups, they must generate their own follow-up questions to solve and determine the knowns and unknowns. You can consider a good WFP to be a video version of a Context-Rich Problem.

Group A asks, “If every person on Earth jumped at the same time, how fast would the Earth move in the other direction?” while Group B asks, “How many people would have to jump in order to change the Earth’s orbital speed?” And in order to do solve their own questions, students will often have to make assumptions about certain values or conduct simple experiments to get those values.

Group A will need to know the mass of the Earth, the mass of a typical person, the number of people on the Earth, and a person’s typical push-off speed when jumping. A quick Google search yields the Earth’s mass and population. Group A assumes a typical person weighs 150 pounds and converts to mass in kilograms. However, they have no clue what a typical jump-off speed would be, so they decide to do an experiment to calculate it. One person jumps as high as they can, while group members measure the jump height, which they can then use to calculate the jump-off speed. Now Group A has what they need. They compute the recoil speed of Earth and compare it to Earth’s orbital speed via Google. Win or Fail?

Group B, on the other hand, looks up Earth’s orbital speed first and assumes that a 1% increase may be just enough to move the Earth slightly. They then do a similar analysis as Group A, but they compute the number of people needed to create that 1% increase and compare it to the Earth’s actual population. Win or Fail?

And, of course, there is Group C. They say gravity pulls the Earth and the people back together again anyway. Win or Fail?

Of course, the whole time I’m circulating around the room, helping groups and tossing questions back at the kids. Then we have a mini-conference where groups share their solutions on whiteboards and field questions from classmates. Finally, we reach consensus as a class. Win or Fail?

What it’s not

  • WFP is not  a demonstration.
  • WFP is not a talking-head documentary.
  • WFP is not a lecture or tutorial.

Want more?

Check out these sites for more possible WFP videos:

If you have suggestions for a WFP video to add to my online library, contact me with the URL. However, I do not have the time to take movie scenes from DVDs to upload to YouTube. Thanks!

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10 responses to “Win? Fail? PHYSICS!: An introduction

  1. This website is awesome! Thanks for sharing. This is something that would really interest my kids and like you said could be the hook for the entire unit.

  2. Thanks, Tracie! Here’s a great Win/Fail for chemistry: Making Fresh Diamonds in the Microwave

    (It’s a bit long, though.)

  3. What an inspiration to find someone who understands the importance of engaging students.
    Those of us in the silent majority appreciate your commitment to physics education and your leadership addressing the real problems inherent in the system.
    Thank you for sharing so generously.

  4. Susan: Thank you for the kind words, but I wasn’t always like this (see my very first post). I am indebted to the many teachers (in person and online) who helped me improve. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: TEACHING|chemistry» Blog Archive » links for 7.28.2010

  6. This is an awesome idea! I’m going to start trying to put together some videos for Biology too. Immediately I’m thinking of the problems with movie monsters…Keep up the good work!

  7. Pingback: student skeptics « Science(us)

  8. Pingback: Hello, readers of The Physics Teacher! | Action-Reaction

  9. I wonder how I can take something like Sports science where they look at hang time and tell us that a player spends .84 seconds in the air and turn into something more than a rote calculation.

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