Logo: University of Southern California

Following in Galileo's Footsteps

Middle and high school teachers get hands-on lessons in fundamentals of physics

July 11, 2008 — Faster than a speeding bullet.  More powerful than a locomotive.  Able to drench a nicely dressed person from great distances.  Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a … water balloon?
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Water balloon launch - Teachers, left to right: Claudia Salas, Gabrielino High School; Miriam Cardoza, Lincoln High School; John Aston, Nightingale Middle School; Daniel Reveles. Lincoln High School; Brent Rummell, Paramount High School; and Ali Amouzegar, South Gate High School.

Well, they weren’t just any old water balloons. These balloons were hand-picked, carefully filled, then weighed before middle school and high school teachers jettisoned them through the air with a large rubber tubing-like slingshot.

The fun didn’t stop there, either.  After each launch, the teachers measured the height and arc of the balloon’s trajectory, just like Galileo probably did every time he tossed an apple or melon from the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 16th-century Italy. 
Carlie Siegel, left, an AP physics teacher at Morse High School in San Diego, measures height of a ball held by Brent Rummell of Paramount High School during a ball bounce experiment.

It was all part of USC’s summer Mathematics-Physics-Technology Institutes (MPTI) workshop, which is sponsored by the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program, in partnership with the Viterbi School of Engineering.

MESA is a national program that works with thousands of educationally disadvantaged students statewide to improve math and science skills. The organization also sponsors workshops to help math and science teachers who are responsible for educating these young students. 

MESA is administered by the University of California and partners with other UC campuses, the California State University system,  independent colleges and universities, the California Department of Education,  community-based  education centers, school districts and individual schools.

The Viterbi School of Engineering was first in Southern California to establish a MESA program, said Larry Lim, director of pre-college programs in the Viterbi School and coordinator of the summer MPTI program. 

The MTPI institutes for math and science teachers typically accommodate between 25 to 50 teachers each year and are supported collaboratively by the California Math Project, the California Science Project, the Mathematics Professional Development Institutes and Texas Instruments.

Each summer, Viterbi School staff and MESA representatives team up to present hands-on learning focused on the connections between the basic math and science concepts that are taught in middle schools and high schools across the state.  

“This is a great opportunity for science and math teachers to brush up on their general knowledge, math and technical skills,” said Lim.  “But the hands-on lessons change each year, based on what scientific principles are being taught and what the teachers want to learn about.  And, of course, we want to keep it interesting by adding new and improved demos.”
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Where did it go? -- Teachers, left to right: T.C. Chiang, Rashmi Rao,  SCT Kearny High School, San Diego; Charlie Flint, Saul Franco, Yvette Saenz, Williams Olmedo, Brent Rummell and Larry Lim.

MESA activities usually draw a crowd on campus because they seem so comical. Why would anyone want to build a mousetrap car?  Or slingshot a water balloon halfway across the Viterbi E-Quad? Or drop half a dozen raw eggs from a fourth story window? 

In reality, the teachers are learning the relationship between distance, time and speed; or in the case of water balloon launches, they’re studying the laws governing velocity, launch angle, Hooke’s Law, kinetic energy and other fundamental concepts. 

Specially trained Viterbi School engineers prepare a variety of science experiments well in advance of each summer's workshop and make sure teachers are given the learning tools they will need to complete the coursework.  

"For instance, each teacher is given a sophisticated graphing calculator from Texas Instruments to use during the two-week workshop to deepen their understanding of these scientific principles," Lim explained.  "At the end of the program, they get to keep the calculators."

According to Lim, it's important to reach these teachers, because they are critical to MESA’s mission of improving students’ aptitude in math, science and engineering by the time they reach college. 

“We are always pretty pleased with the results of these summer institutues, based on the feedback we get from the teachers," Lim said.  "But we know that despite the successes, we'll always have a new batch of teachers and a new batch of lessons to present each year as California secondary education requirements change to meet the demands of an increasingly complex world."