Student Well-Being

Take Your Physics Class Out to the Ballgame

By Kathryn Baron — October 29, 2014 3 min read
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Here’s tonight’s physics homework assignment: Watch game 7 of the World Series and be prepared to measure the coefficient of restitution, essentially the bounciness of a fastball thrown by Royals’ pitcher Jeremy Guthrie reaching home plate at a speed of 96 miles an hour after it collides with Giants’ slugger Hunter Pence’s bat at an impact of 108 miles per hour.

This virtual field trip to Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium is one way for teachers to engage students in science by using their out-of-school interests to make a connection between what they’re learning in school and how it applies to the real world.

“Savor the final innings even more by exploring the STEM connections to the game,” suggests Change The Equation, a nonprofit working to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math, which posted ideas for teachers to take advantage of their students’ excitement over the championships.

“Physics is often taken by students who don’t particularly want to learn physics; they’re taking it because its required,” explained Alan M. Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a leading researcher on the physics of baseball whose work is cited by Change The Equation.

In a college course on the subject, Nathan said he tried to point out “how the principles that we’re learning actually are manifest in everyday life. When you can relate these things to phenomena that the students are familiar with, again, from everyday life, I think it makes it less onerous a subject; more interesting a subject.”

Nathan’s own research is a testament to how personal hobbies and interests can be a catalyst for seeking more knowledge. The “driving force” behind his work is a passion for baseball and for physics and not a specific interest in exploring the best way to teach science, he said.

“I certainly see that kids can get excited about science through studying the science of baseball,” Nathan acknowledged, adding: “That’s not why I do it. I’m not doing it to educate kids. It’s a side benefit that comes about as a result of what I do.”

Baseball is just one example. There’s a whole world of winter sports to consider. Imagine the fun a biology teacher could have teaching about the skeletal system based on broken bones sustained by football players. Of course, the key to capturing students’ attention by personalizing education requires a broader world view than sports.

“The good teachers find out what the students’ interests are and then react to those,” said Gerry Wheeler, a former executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Candace Walkington, an assistant professor in teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has focused her research in recent years on examining how abstract mathematical concepts can become more understandable when students connect their outside interests and experiences to learning algebra.

Her team’s work, which Education Week‘s Sarah Sparks first reported on in 2012, goes beyond simply using out-of-school activities as examples to plug into equations. It’s testing the idea of involving students in the process of connecting algebraic concepts to their interests by having the students pose and solve mathematical problems based on their experiences.

In the first of two pilot studies, one girl, who was an avid user of Instagram, a photo- and video-sharing application, developed a model to figure out how many new followers she would get based on the number of hashtags, a # symbol identifying specific topics, in her posts.

Another student computed how many frames per second were needed to produce his stop-action animation videos using Legos.

“We want to improve students’ interests in learning mathematics and make them believe that it’s applicable to their lives and to their goals,” said Walkington, noting that research shows that as students’ interest in math increases so does their performance.

After the second pilot is completed this year, Walkington’s team will start a larger study with about 200 students attending a high-needs middle school in the Dallas school system. Their work, which is funded by the National Academy of Education, will coincide with the school’s launch of a personalized-learning initiative.

“The big message for teachers is that a lot of them already know quite a bit about their students’ interests,” said Walkington, “and paying attention to the mathematical aspects of these interests can be really powerful in your classroom.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.