Monday, February 25, 2008

NASCAR Cocktail Party Physics

Check out the two articles (part 1 and part 2) by Jennifer Ouellette featuring an interview with Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, the author of "The Physics of NASCAR".

Great discussion of some of the physics of motorsports as well as the interesting dynamics of gender in racing ... and physics. Also some excellent points on using racing to better engage students in the enterprise of learning, although I have noticed in my experience that it tends to engage mostly the guys if the emphasis is on the dramatic side of the sport.

However, I find the entire class gets engaged with the specific role of momentum and impulse in whether you survive a collision. (I never cease to be amazed at the number of my gen ed students who have been in a serious crash or are close to someone who has, and my sample is not a large one.) One is also likely to engage the entire class when the real world of engines is tied to more widely held concerns such as energy efficiency of internal combustion engines and the tradeoff between efficiency and high performance.

I was quite amused by the mention of using fuel limits in auto racing as a way to drive innovation. That was actually done back during the 70s fuel crunch. It had little effect on racing. Corporate interest in fuel economy seems driven by larger factors, such as the real cost of gasoline (by that I mean the price in real dollars) driving a change in consumer demand.

Before I stop, I want to single out parts of a specific quotation from part 2 of the interview with Prof. Leslie-Pelecky of Nebraska:

I've been working with teachers from elementary to high school for more than 10 years and frankly, I'm frightened by much of what I see there. Even the best teachers are paralyzed by the implementation of the idea that we can prove that students are competent at science by giving them multiple choice vocabulary tests. We are teaching kids that learning is nothing more than rote memorization of unrelated facts they will never use again. They get to college or the workforce and are shocked to find that your results and not your intentions are what matters. They can't write persuasively. They can't read a chapter from a book and pull out the main ideas. The best of our students will be the best in the world, but I fear that the distribution is getting broader and broader. We are not doing well by the majority of the students we educate and, in the end, it is going to come back and hurt us as a country.

As I have written elsewhere, this emphasis on a particular kind of testing in K-12 is (IMHO) leading to a decline in the analytical and critical thinking skills of the students entering college, and this requires some significant changes in the way we approach teaching physics (and probably other subjects as well). They come to us as 10-minute crammers, not life-long learners.

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