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November 27, 2013

The Coolest Thing

After twenty-three years of teaching, I can no longer count how many times I have heard "That's the coolest thing I ever saw!" I'm not a magician, and I'm not the kind of teacher to lie on a bed of nails, so I'm always surprised when I hear it.

I just finished teaching circular motion to my honors juniors and two demonstrations elicited this response from multiple students. First, I pulled out the Hokie Pokie Sound Machine to discuss forces acting centripetally. I started it going in circles on an old Moody Blues record, looked up, and their eyes were wide open and more than one jaw was dropped, mouth agape. "That's the coolest thing I ever saw!" Really? A green plastic truck with a record player needle and a speaker? That's the coolest thing?

Then we moved on to the "Flying in Circles" lab and I pulled out the airplane that flies in a circle, and the flying pigs.  I flipped the switch on the plane and gave it a quick tangential push and off it went in a circle like a conical pendulum. Once again, eyes opened wide, jaws dropped and out came the inevitable "That's the coolest thing I ever saw!" Really? A battery-operated toy plane? Other "coolest things" include my penguin race energy/circuit model, the chattering ring, the single bottle wine rack/center of mass demo, and the inverted image formed by a convex lens ("OH MY GOD!  It's in COLOR!  The cars are moving!  They're upside-down!"). Recently, students came back from college to visit, and in the middle of the conversation, out came "OH! THE PENGUINS! Can we play with the penguins?" Of course you can.

I guess I'm surprised by it because these students won't leave the house without (or be found more than 2 feet from) something that was science fiction when I was their age: a smart phone. I watched Captain Kirk talk on his communicator to the Starship Enterprise while I talked on the dial telephone connected to the wall in my parents' living room. We carry the internet in our pockets these days, with instant access to just about any information we want, and to teenagers these days, that's completely normal.   To me, that's one of the coolest things I ever saw (and I've been to the Great Wall in China - also very cool). Smart phones are a technological miracle to me. Call me a heretic, but I love that I can sit by the side of a mountain lake and have a conversation with a good friend, who happens to be hundreds of miles away. Or that I can take a picture of that same lake and immediately send it wirelessly to my mom, also hundreds of miles away.

I love to tease my students. I pull out a meter stick, use it like a cane, and hobble across the room, saying "When I was your age, we had to actually go to the library to look up information." So when they ask me what something means, I just say, "Look it up! You have the internet in your pocket…look it up!"

But it isn't lost on me that the green plastic music-making truck is novel to them, and that "cool" little toy enhances their experience of physics. So I do the same demo every year. To me it's the same truck I pull out every year on the first day of the circular motion unit, but to them, it's another one of the "coolest things" they ever saw. I need to never forget that, and never get jaded about "the same old demo" I do each year. Because it's novel to them, and they love it.

Today's high school students take for granted wireless technology and access to unlimited information anytime anywhere (even those who can't afford it).  But that plastic toy they've never seen will continue to be "the coolest thing" they ever saw…at least until the NEXT physics demonstration.