Physics Professor Ray Turner hauled his toy box all the way from South Carolina to play with colleagues in Spokane this week.
Laser guns fascinate him, and mechanically powered cars really spin his top. He just wanted to share the fun.
Turner isn’t some addled academician. He’s promoting toys in the classroom to show off basic scientific principles like inertia, kinetic energy and magnetism.
“They are a great way to teach,” he told a seminar this week. “Students pay attention, and we can illustrate good science with something students think is fun.”
Call it Physics R Us.
Turner is among 1,100 educators at Gonzaga University this week for the annual convention of the American Association of Physics Teachers.
He and Professor Beverley Taylor of Miami (Ohio) University teamed up for a three-hour session. For them, the topic of toys is as important as other college research.
Taylor is author of a new book, “Teaching Physics with Toys.”
She donned kid glasses with tri-colored lenses to discuss the properties of light waves. A yellow shirt appears green through the blue segment of the lens, she said, but Taylor looked more like a kid herself wearing the glasses.
Turner said he once conducted research into the heat stability of polyester fibers. That may be important to the textile industry, but awfully boring to everyone else.
For years, educators have complained that too few students go into science. Toys get students revved up about the forces around them, Taylor and Turner said.
Toys make science understandable, he said, and children remember lessons better.
For example, a toy gun called an Infrared Blaster demonstrates how invisible waves of energy move through the air, he said. The gun’s beam can be bounced off a wall or ceiling to show the concept of reflection.
Wind-up toys make fun experiments.
Students can graph what happens when different numbers of twists are put into the springs of toy cars.
Ken Appel, a high school teacher from Peekskill, N.Y., said he’s been using toys in his physics classes for some time.
His students may be nearing adulthood, he said, but they still harbor childlike feelings.
“Here’s a chance where they can come into a room and be kids again and no one’s going to laugh at them,” Appel said.
As soon as the seminar was over, Appel worked his way to the toy table and began playing with a magnetic puzzle.
The toys don’t have to be expensive. A plastic helicopter powered by a balloon costs just 60 cents, and can be used to show the principles of thrust and lift, Turner said.
As a bonus for attending the seminar, each educator went away with a sack of toys.
One of them was a plastic strip attached to a paper cup. The strip has tiny ridges of varying sizes running crosswise. By scraping a thumbnail down the strip, the toy sounds a “Merry Christmas” greeting, a demonstration of sound waves and vibration.
In another example, a pair of educators measured how far a dart gun would shoot when the gun is pointed straight overhead. From that they predicted how far the gun would shoot when held level to the floor. They correctly predicted 4 meters.
“That’s pretty good,” said Turner, “but that’s because it’s my toy.”
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