Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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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:



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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12 thoughts on “The Gender-Neutral Physics Project: Tennis Ball Artistry
  • Bjork says:

    This is cool Shawn. I like that the catalyst for this project was an art installation. I’ve been incorporating more projects into my class this year that have that marriage between physics and other fields of study (art/music) that aren’t always apparent to students. I never want them to ask the question of “When would I ever need to know this?” and I think showing them that physics is art (or music – or whatever it is that they are interested in) helps to answers that question before it ever needs to be asked.

  • Kelly Holman says:

    Broken link alert: On, the link to Where Them Girls At?

  • Kelly Holman says:

    Wow! Looks great, but I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get to also do some activity with actual projectiles. Still, way better than any activity I ever got to do in a math or science class.

    Looking at the last graph, I wonder what the enjoyment level was for previous activities involving projectiles, which weren’t considered gender-neutral. If previous activites resulted in approximately the reverse of that graph, I have to wonder if making all projects “gender-neutral” will result in a lack of interest on the part of the guys.

    I’ve read a lot about gender-imbalance in schools that favors the girls. It’s really important, when we’re trying to improve a situation for one demographic, not to let that hurt another demographic.

    FWIW, I’m a girl.

    • Good point. We’re currently trying to create lessons that are patently one-sided just to see if we can figure out what affects female or male efficacy. We have the standard tropes, but we’re looking to go beyond that, obviously. I suppose this project grew out of my disdain for how we treat teenagers across the board. We don’t really respect their unique developmental stage. It also became pretty obvious that the *average* male is at a very different place than the avg female. I don’t want to be sexist, but I also don’t want to present things to students that cause them not to continue on in physics, which is what’s happening to a lot of female students.

      • Kelly Holman says:

        Would it be possible to allow a choice of projects that you expect to appeal to different personalities? Maybe students will self-segregate to an extent, but if they get to do what interests them, they’ll come back for more. And to some degree, we have to accept that women tend to be more interested in communication and service fields, while men tend to be more interested in logical and technical fields. Nature is sexist — there’s no point in arguing with it.

        Could you elaborate on “respecting their unique developmental stage”?

    • rick hayden says:

      Just a thought on actual projectiles activities. You might check with your athletic department, see if they have a Juggs (2 spinning wheels) pitching machine or football tosser? Tennis team might have a machine to launch the same balls used in the classroom project. just an idea. Luv this site!

  • Joe Boyer says:

    This is brilliant and I want to do something like this in my classroom. Can you tell me how long it took? Lessons? Weeks? How much time would each student have spent on this over how long?

    Also, I’d LOVE to get a highres copy of the photo at the top to inspire some people about what can be done. It would also make a great wallpaper. Can you host a larger version somewhere or email it to me?

    • The lesson took about three 84-minute blocks. The use of a parametric graphing tool was by far to most valuable part of the whole thing, other than that my room looks awesome now!

      • William says:

        aights mate here’s a practice we do to help with metnal toughness get a group of friends (preferably playing partners) get them to gather around the courtside when you’re playing another friend the group’s job would be to hurl abuses, cheer, jeer, and try their best to irritate you from courtside your opponents job would be to play his best and the crowd will continue to cheer you’re opponent lets just see how you can hold up under the pressure of being booed and jeered against tips -regardless of winning/losing the point, forget the last point the last point is no longer relevant you’re playing a new one now-always take a deep breath in between points to ease yourself-if ur about to lose it keep a tune in ur head just sing it to yourself to calm down cheers mate

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