Note: Some readers may need to click through to view the embedded video.

My conceptual physics class was chugging along just fine the other day. Then a kid asked for some paper towel. When I took out a giant roll from under the sink, the day’s lesson took a detour which would make Dan Meyer proud.

Kid: “Whoa! How long would it be if you unrolled the whole thing?”

Me: “I don’t know…you want to find out?”

Kid: “Yeah!”

Me: “OK. But you’ll need to make a prediction first.”

How long is the giant roll?

Takin' data with a smaller roll

Class data. Groups measured different amounts of paper towel. Who will be closest to the actual roll length?

Time to unroll!

Final analysis with an attempted shot at evidence-based reasoning.

In case you missed it, fellow physics teacher John Burk blogged a post-mortem of our collaborative lesson in which our students brought Eratosthenes’s famous experiment into the 21st Century: Measuring the Earth with Skype and a Stick. The feedback from his students were overwhelmingly positive! Check it out! (And be sure to subscribe to his blog while you’re there!)

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.

(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?

(This is a WebAssign numerical version of a problem from Physics for Scientists and Engineers, 6th edition, by Serway and Jewett, where it appeared as an order-of-magnitude estimate-your-own-data problem.)

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

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!