February 01, 2003 1 min read

Crash Course

Ken O’Konis hopes studying car accidents will steer his students toward science.
—Photograph by Sevans

A cracked windshield lying in a junkyard doesn’t interest most people. But to the freshmen in Ken O’Konis’ “Crash Curriculum” course at South Windsor High School in central Connecticut, it’s a mystery waiting to be unraveled. Using Newton’s laws of motion and other scientific principles, they’ll try to figure out what hit the windshield, where, and how hard.

O’Konis developed the eight-week physics course three years ago, in response to a school push to make lessons more hands-on. A traditional approach wouldn’t have worked for his integrated 9th grade classes, which include special ed and gifted students, the 36-year-old teacher says. So he designed a curriculum requiring them to ask questions, measure speeds, and simulate crashes with toy cars to explain vehicular accidents.

O’Konis likes to assign projects based on current events and what interests his students most. One day in November, he starts by talking about how he narrowly missed hitting a deer that weekend. His Ford pickup stopped just in time, but what if it had been a heavier truck? Soon, the kids are grouped around computers, finding out the masses of different vehicles and graphing how long it would take each to stop. In other classes, they watch videos of dummies crumpling in automobile manufacturers’ crash tests, then determine the effects of speed, mass, and angle on the collisions. For the final project, O’Konis brings in court records from an accident, and the class reconstructs what happened. “They like figuring out the mystery,” he says. “It’s amazing, every kid has a different outlook.”

Vy Vu, now a junior, recalls “Crash Curriculum” as “a class you looked forward to.” Though he used to find science boring and still describes himself as “not interested in becoming a scientist,” he loves chemistry and is already looking forward to senior physics. “It’s just fun,” Vy explains.

The students who took the course in its first year are seniors now and are just getting their driver’s licenses. O’Konis hopes they’ll remember what they learned as freshmen: “They could really get hurt from a simple, low-speed car crash.” After all, the teacher notes, physics is “not just formulas or numbers, but [is] applied to everyday life.”

—Jaime Alberts