The Gender-Neutral Physics Project: Tennis Ball Artistry

Cornally and I are on the pursuit of turning his physics classroom into a gender-neutral environment.

Our first gender-neutral project design, inspired by a straightforward combination of art and physics, has been completed and executed by the students to a caliber beyond our expectations.

The inspiration: A gallery installation of tennis balls hung from the ceiling by fishing line

Even more important, both the girls and guys genuinely enjoyed the process of making their sculptures. In other words:

Cornally introduced the project as simply: “Hey! Let’s fill the room with tennis balls. I want you to need a machete to get to your seat.” The students then looked over the Colossal post and there was no stopping them. It’s pretty obvious when you’ve hit a home run: the teacher doesn’t have to teach anymore.

Cornally set out two rules:

  1. Keep the delta-time constant.
  2. Don’t be boring.

The students set out to calculate all sorts of things. Would they fix the initial velocity of their sculpture? Would they work backwards knowing where they wanted it to land? What angle? Any angle!? How much energy to lose on a bounce? This was so much richer than we originally imagined.

It finally came out that kinematics is really just parametric equations. The use of Grapher swept through the class like a wildfire, and the students learned a lot about this kind of simulation:

So THAT’S what matrices are for…Click to embiggen
Click to embiggen

Students generally have a rough go trying to keep track of what a negative initial velocity does when combined with a positive acceleration, or any permutation of the previous statement.

Being able to toy with the equations gave the students a license to explore. What we’ve seen in the days following this activity is a higher intuition for what the variables in the constant-acceleration equation mean:

[latex size=3]d=d_0+v_ot+\frac{1}{2}at^2[/latex]


After grasping the concepts associated with the use of Grapher,  it was time to focus on creating and carrying out the designs. Walking around the classroom (trying to avoid tripping over tennis balls and running into fishing line), you could hear inspired students saying things like:

“We want our tennis balls to shoot from the cupboards, bounce off the desk, and into the garbage can.”

“We’re thinking, like, inverted gravity.”

“Can we spray paint our tennis balls pink?”


And as the sculptures and understanding progressed, the excitement even began to translate to Facebook posts:

Physics-related facebook chatter from female students.
More physics-related facebook chatter

Finally, here are some of the results:

[Facebook album with more images]

The day after the project’s completion the students were given a survey on efficacy levels and overall enjoyment.

Confidence in eventual mastery of the projectile standard was decent. When asked how they thought they would eventually feel about understanding projectiles, the majority of students answered “almost there”.

Surveyed Efficacy Levels of Students

And when simply asked if they enjoyed this project, not a single student answered “no”; the majority answered “yes”.

Surveyed Student Enjoyment of Project

Given our small N, we can’t really say that we’ve hit a chord with these results, however, this first lesson is promising. We’ll be designing future lessons that center on gender-neutral principles. We’ll also be very excited to report enrollment in Physics II next semester.

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