On science education

in and

Isaac Newton: Public domain image.
Isaac Newton: Public domain image.
Do you consider yourself well-versed in scientific thought? Can you recite all three of Newton’s Laws of Motion? In Latin? Are you one of those people who can prove a direct link between Albert Einstein’s hairdo and the Chaos theory? Oh, yeah? Well, how about you try to figure out these problems smart guy:

1) You fall into a swiftly moving river and are in need of a floatation device. You see a life preserver bobbing three yards downstream of you and another one three yards behind you. Which preserver should you swim toward?

2) A bullet is fired into one end of a spiral tube. When it comes out of the other end (forgetting here about the effects of gravity) will the bullet follow a trajectory that

(a) is a straight line.

(b) begins as a slight curve in the same direction as the spiral tube before gradually straightening out.

(c) begins as a slight curve in the opposite direction of the tube before straightening out?

3) A plane flying into a headwind will have a lower speed, relative to the ground, than it would if it were flying through still air, while a plane traveling with the benefit of a brisk tailwind will have a comparatively greater ground speed. But what about a plane flying through a 90-degree crosswind, a breeze that is buffeting its body side-on? Will its ground speed be higher, lower, or no different than it would be in calm skies?

Okay, how do you think you did? Do you think you did better than a ninth-grader? Probably not if he or she attends the Academy of Science in Loudoun County, Virginia. These are exactly the kinds of questions that Faye Cascio’s physics class has to tackle there.

And not only can her ninth-grade students solve these kinds of problems in Newtonian mechanics with flying colors, but they can explain the reasoning behind their solutions. If you’re like me, you guessed on one or two of them, but in Ms. Cascio’s class no one gets away with such nonsense. She insists that her students understand what they’re explaining.

“It’s called dipsticking,” Cascio said. “It’s really important to make sure the kids are picking this information up, and so I ask, Is this clear to you? Do you really understand it? and I won’t go on until I get a positive, satisfying answer.”

Cascio’s students are expected to learn to think like scientists and start doing experiments from the get-go. And they are required to design the experiments themselves, and even wear cool, white lab coats while doing so.

This could be good news for the perceived state of science education in our country, which for various reasons has been rather dismal. American students have not fared well in international science and math competitions as of late.

But the trend seems to be swinging in the opposite direction, according to the American Institute of Physics. Special programs in math and science for “gifted and talented” students are increasing. This year the percentage of high school students enrolled in physics classes is at an all-time high, and bachelor’s degrees in the subject have increased more than 30 percent in the last seven years.

This is really good news for science education, and it will be interesting to see how things pan out in future competitions.

But in the meantime, how about those three physics problem? How well do you think you did? Post your answers as a comment, and we'll see how everyone does before I post the correct answers. By the way, I missed them all. I’m so ashamed.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Ian Kemmish's picture
Ian Kemmish says:

1. Go for the one upstream of you. The velocity profile of a river means that deeper water flows more slowly. The lifebelts (if they are any good) are wholly on the surface, and carried downstream at the velocity of the surface flow. You, on the other hand, project deeper into the river into the slightly slower moving water, and might as well take advantage of that little bit of extra drag.

The other two are obvious. 2. a). Newton's first law. 3. Higher. Pythagoras. I don't know what ninth grade corresponds to over here, but these two ought not trouble anyone whose voice has broken.

But if you think the US does badly, look at our results in the International Maths Olympiad. When I failed to make the team back in the 70's, we mixed it with you and the USSR. These days, we get beaten by such heavyweights as Iran (must be all those children who want to grow up to be nuclear physicists) and Moldova.

posted on Wed, 11/07/2007 - 4:19pm
lock0164's picture
lock0164 says:

1. 3 yard downstream. If the flotation device is bobbing that would mean
that it is in a portion of the downstream current that is moving slower
than you are. On the other hand, perhaps you would stand no chance
of being able to reach that. Whereas I am thinking that it would be tough
to swim faster than the current. Tough one.

2. I would guess A because I think that an object leaving any device
would move in a straight trajectory away from that device.

3. I am guessing that a crosswind would result in a slower speed on plane
because the plane or pilot would have to compensate for the crosswind
and this would slow the plane down.


posted on Fri, 11/09/2007 - 5:26pm
mdr's picture
mdr says:

Here are the answers (according to the original article found here):

1. It’s the same either way, just as it wouldn’t matter if you and the floating rings were in a pool on a cruise ship: the speed of the ship won’t affect how quickly you reach one ring or the other.

2. . With the elimination of the curving walls of the tube, nothing remains to deflect the bullet off an otherwise linear path: from the point of departure, it’s all a straight shot.

3. The plane’s ground speed in a crosswind will be greater than it would be in a crosswind.

posted on Wed, 11/21/2007 - 11:44am

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