Teaching the physics of ‘Angry Birds’

Video games have become teaching tools, reports the Wall Street Journal.

At a private school in Houston, eighth-graders slingshot angry red birds across a video screen for a lesson on Newton’s law of motion. High-school students in Los Angeles create the “Zombie Apocalypse” computer game to master character development. And elementary students in Hampstead, N.C., build a virtual city to understand spatial reasoning.

Teachers are using games such as “Minecraft,” “SimCity” and “World of Warcraft” to teach “math, science, writing, teamwork and even compassion,” reports the Journal.

In Chicago and New York, entire schools have been created that use the principles of game design in curriculum development.

Video games let students try, fail, reassess and try again, says Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “This creates a positive relationship with failure, especially because the stakes are so low.”

Games “provide rapid feedback that forces students to rethink and alter strategies,” advocates say.


Geovany Villasenor, a senior at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy, uses “Minecraft” to build virtual cities. He learned the game in an after-school club but it’s now used in his architecture class. The game lets his “imagination run wild,” says Villasenor.

Not everyone is happy to see video games in the classroom. “Some parents worry that children already spend too much time in front of glowing screens, while others argue that the games are based on rewards, corrupting the idea of learning,” reports the Journal.

The newest games are “aligned” with Common Core standards — or so the makers claim.

Teaching physics — and the power of love

As a physics teacher at a Kentucky high school, Jeffrey Wright is known for exploding pumpkins and lying under a nailed board as students use a sledgehammer to break cinderblocks above him. Most of all, he’s known for his annual lecture on raising a severely disabled son who taught him “the meaning of life, love and family,” reports a New York Times blog.

A former student of Wright’s at Louisville Male Traditional High School in Kentucky (it’s been coed for nearly 60 years) made an award-winning video, Wright’s Law.

“When you start talking about physics, you start to wonder, ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ” he said in an interview. “Kids started coming to me and asking me those ultimate questions. I wanted them to look at their life in a little different way — as opposed to just through the laws of physics — and give themselves more purpose in life.”

One day, Wright realized his son could see, play and think, he tells students. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”

In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “. . . “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

Students are looking for purpose, “the purpose in your heart,” to answer the question, “who cares?” Wright believes.

He hopes to inspire students to pursue careers in science and genetic research. “We might be able to come up with something we can use to help Adam out one day.”

Boys dominate AP physics, computer science

Most STEM fields are likely to remain predominantly male. Boys take more AP physics and computer science exams, while girls now dominate AP biology (59 percent), notes Curriculum Matters, who’s been reading the AP Report to the Nation. While Calculus AB exam-takers are evenly split, 59 percent of those who tackle the more advanced Calculus BC are male.

Males make up 58 percent of AP music theory exam-takers, 74 to 77 percent in physics and 80 to 86 percent in computer science.

Gender differences were minor for Chemistry, European History, Latin, Statistics and U.S. Government and Politics.

In The Big Bang Theory, three males are physicists (theoretical, experimental and astro) and one is an engineer, while the female scientists are biologists.


Online tutorial aids blind physics students

A computer-science major at a community college in Texas, Amanda Lacy was ready to drop her physics class. Because she’s blind, she listens to a digital textbook on her computer or uses an electronic Braille display. But she couldn’t understand symbols, diagrams and graphs, until a professor came to her aid, ultimately designing an online tutorial and drawing software for blind physics students.


Brought to you by the letters S-T-E-M

Sesame Street will be brought to you by the letters S-T-E-M this season, reports USA Today. The show will focus on scientific inquiry.

Characters build bridges, launch rockets and think through problems that require trial and error, observation and data.

Young children are “natural scientists,” says Rosemarie Truglio, vice president for education and research at Sesame Workshop, which produces the show. “They’re exploring the world around them and trying to figure out how the world works.”

Slapstick will respect the laws of physics, promise the writers, who recalls the Muppet rule of thumb:  “When in doubt, throw a chicken.”

As any slapstick comedian will tell you, physics is a comedy gold mine, and the writers soon discovered — or, more likely, remembered — they could apply it to many earnest setups. In one episode, Elmo engineers an automatic spaghetti server with disastrous results. In another, Grover, pondering inclined planes, helps a cow climb a flight of stairs for a manicure.

Acknowledging Newton’s Laws of Motion, this season anyone who hits a brick wall will bounce back before sliding to the floor. “It’s more scientifically accurate slapstick,” says Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente.

. . . Invoking another Muppet rule of thumb — It’s funny anytime someone is thrown and lands painfully — Parente adds, “Nothing is funnier than gravity. Add some sound effects to gravity, and you’re golden.”

In the opening episode of the show’s 42nd season, characters help Hubert the Human Cannonball figure out how to launch himself from a cannon into a vat of blue gelatin.

Almost a magic bullet

New social psychology research “may bring us as close to a magic bullet” in education as we’re likely to get,” writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. When students are worried about fulfilling a stereotype — women can’t do physics, for example — their anxiety hurts their performance, he writes.

In a recent experiment, introductory physics students selected from a list the value that meant the most to them, and wrote for 15 minutes about why it was so important. Students in the control group were told to pick their least important value and write  about why it might be important to others.

This brief writing exercise occurred once during the first week of classes and again in the fourth week. (The physics professor and teaching assistants did not know which students were in the experimental or control groups.)

When scores on class tests (three midterms and a final examination) were examined, there was a gender gap, but it had been reduced in the values-affirmation group by about 60%.

At the end of the semester, researchers also administered a standardized test of conceptual ideas in physics. For this test the gender gap disappeared altogether.

In another study, black middle-school boys who wrote about their values raised their grades significantly over a two-year period.

Too good to be true?

10,000 math, science teachers, but how?

President Obama wants to recruit 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next two years to improve STEM achievement in line with an advisory council report.  The feds will develop “a new website and a partnership with Facebook to connect current and aspiring teachers,” reports Education Week, based on Secretary Arne Duncan’s conversation with Tom Brokaw on MSNBC.

In other words, Obama isn’t offering federal money to pay the salaries of new hires — or fund the early retirement of poorly qualified math and science teachers. He’s not talking about a federal bonus to lure chemists, physicists and mathematicians into teaching or jawboning districts to offer differential pay to teachers with hard-to-find skills. It’s a web site and a Facebook account.

Before the recent wave of layoffs, many middle and high schools, especially those in high-poverty and high-minority areas, have hired math and science teachers who didn’t major in the subject, Education Trust complains. I suspect the recession has increased the supply of well-qualified people interested in teaching math and science. Whether they’re able to get jobs is a different story.

Physics teacher wins ‘genius’ prize

Amir Abo-Shaeer, a physics and engineering teacher at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara, is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, one of 23 recipients of a $500,000 “genius” prize, reports Noozhawk.

Once a mechanical engineer, Abo-Shaeer, 38, created the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy to give students — half are female — hand-on learning opportunities in science and engineering. The academy’s robotics team is one of the best in the nation. (Click on the link and look at the team picture: I’ve never seen so many blonde girls at a robotics contest.)

With a $3 million state grant and help from parent volunteers, Abo-Shaeer created a foundation to raise matching funds for the construction of a new facility, Elings Center for Engineering Education, which will let the academy triple its enrollment. The capital campaign is about $500,000 short of its goal, but I hope Abo-Shaeer won’t use all the MacArthur money for that.

The New Cool, by Neal Bascomb, slated for March release, follows Abo-Shaeer and his robotics team as they work to prepare for the FIRST robotics competition.

Rube Goldberg lives!

Via Gearlog, here’s the Rube Goldberg Summer Camp Project for children ages 3 to 8.

Students learn the physics of Olympics

Students can learn the science of the Olympics by watching videos produced by NBC Learn and the National Science Foundation that feature athletes discussing the mechanics of their sport. From the San Jose Mercury News:

. . . in 39 accompanying science lessons, most aimed at middle-schoolers, students can investigate the physics of a hockey slap shot, the biomechanics of cross-country skiers, the aerodynamics of sleek competition suits or the soar, lift and drag of ski jumpers.

The videos are here. I’ve removed the live video because I don’t know how to prevent it from opening automatically, which is very annoying. Lessonopoly has lesson plans.