science_physicsFrom the series: Life on Dog Hill

In a U.S. high school of more than one thousand students, why would only twelve juniors and seniors take physics? That was the startling question I pondered after attending last year’s open house and listening to the physics teacher explain to the few parents present that his class for the year consisted of only twelve brave souls.

That was the moment I decided to enhance my own understanding of physics so I could ensure my youngest son Ryan would come to appreciate the subject matter. Not only that, my hope was that Ryan would engage his friends in conversations about physics so that when they get to high school, there will be more than twelve brave souls signing up for high school physics. There will be classrooms full of curious minds eager to ask the most important question ever… why?

Here’s the bottom line about physics… it encompasses everything around us. So how could we not want to understand more? Why is the speed of light constant? Why are carbon atoms in every living thing? Why did Einstein believe that space and time were not independent of each other? Why is falling through a black hole a one-way trip? Why is the Higgs-Boson considered the God particle?

Why would I think my rising sixth grader would care about such questions? Because I knew I could make physics fun during our summer tradition of Camp Momma. Eureka!
Catapult
Camp Momma began the summer after Ryan’s first grade year when he still struggled to read. That was the first summer I reduced my work schedule so I could spend a couple of hours several times a week reading with him. That summer we studied caves and ended Camp Momma with an amazing tour of Cathedral Caverns in northeast Alabama. Every summer following, we’ve enjoyed learning together through the Camp Momma series. A couple of summers ago, we learned about simple machines and made several versions of catapults. Ryan’s favorite masterpiece can shoot a penny thirty feet across the room and half as high. Last summer’s focus on writing lead to the story line for my latest young adult trilogy — ah, but I digress.

Back to Camp Momma Summer 2013: Physics!

Enter: Big Bang Theory (the television show) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (famed astrophysicist).

For those of you who may not know about the television series Big Bang Theory, it centers on four physicists who, in spite of their brilliance, have few social skills making for easy slap stick comedy. From a teaching perspective, Big Bang Theory offers a great set up for teaching physics to young minds. It’s easy to find funny clips under two minutes that highlight some aspect of physics theory or famous physicists easily leading into a “real” lesson. There’s the clip of Sheldon who breaks into a children’s fun house so he can use the ball pit to construct bigger carbon atoms to better visualize the size ratio…  Then there’s Sheldon in a phone conversation with Dr. Stephen Hawking about black holes… Even Neil deGrasse Tyson makes an appearance defending his part in Pluto’s planetary demotion.

Speaking of Dr. Tyson, the meat of this summer’s physics teachings came from him through a series he did for The Great Courses titled, The InExplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries. Consisting of six lectures ranging from thirty to thirty-five minutes, Dr. Tyson addresses everything from atoms to the big bang. What makes these lectures outstanding is that they are more like conversations about science — questions with explanations that range from amazing to humorous. Dr. Tyson’s style is engaging and easy to follow. He is a teacher who has perfected his ability to talk about the fundamental elements of physics with an ease that even a rising sixth grader can understand. More importantly, his teaching leaves listeners wanting more.

Video clips are all over YouTube so all you have to do is search if you don’t want to purchase his learning series. For example, here’s a clip of Dr. Tyson explaining spaghettification, the term physicists created to explain how you would die if you were to fall into a black hole. Kids love this stuff.

Like hands on experiments? Try this physics brain teaser and let it be the launching pad for discussions on gravity, inertia and even space-time. Here’s the premise: If you hang a slinky over the balcony until it stretches out and comes to a state of rest and then let it go, will the top and the bottom of the slinky fall at the same time? This video may surprise you!

Any of us who have studied physics probably remember the double slit experiment where particles sometimes act as waves. If so, you will remember that this subject remains a great physics mystery. Why would particles act like particles and not waves only when being observed? Who doesn’t love a good mystery, right? Here’s a great kid-version of this experiment that will make you wanna go, “Huh?!”

The trick to making physics fun was incorporating elements I knew my eleven year old son would find interesting. Sheldon. Death by black hole. Slinkys. Unsolved mysteries. And in between those topics were thirty minute lectures on physics theory which always ended with my asking the following: Do you have any questions? What did you find the most interesting? What topics would you like to learn more about?

Answers to those questions became the stimulus for the following day’s class. Since I was giving him exactly what he asked for, how could I go wrong? Physics has been so much fun that we haven’t wanted to leave the topic to study chemistry.

Now, if I can only make the study of the periodic table of elements as interesting…

Header image found here.

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