Physics of Superheroes

Dr. James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes has inspired me to frame an entire high school physics course around Superman, Spider-Man, The Flash and their other buddies. Here’s a little taste of the kind of science we’ll be learning:

I’m outlining the course now to align with state physics standards. The biggest challenge I’m having is lining up character studies in all the areas of physics we need to hit. This might come as a surprise to those who’ve seen me wearing superhero t-shirts for the last year, but I really haven’t read a ton of comics. I just know that the superhero physics went over really well 2 years ago.

The state standards and my initial superhero pairings go something like this:

  • Conservation of Energy for 6-7 weeks. Spider-Man and the death of Gwen Stacy makes an excellent study in the energy of falling objects.
  • Linear Motion for 6-7 weeks. I’ll call on Superman and several friends to explain velocity and acceleration.
  • Forces for 6-7 weeks. Superman and The Flash give me so much material on classic Newtonian physics.
  • Electricity and Magnetism for 7-9 weeks. Magneto from the X-Men can be brought in on electrostatics.
  • Waves for 6-7 weeks. The Flash can be used again on the speed of light discussions.

After years of bland physics examples and after going to work at an experiential school, I knew I needed “a thing” to really engage the class. Two years ago, I ended my first physics class with a superhero physics final project. The students were really into it!

I based the project on Kakalios’ book, inspired by the following chuckle and lesson in learning for “real life”:

Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in “real life.” Apparently they all have plans, post-graduation, that involve Spandex and protecting the City from all threats.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Kakalios is referencing the fact that his students are learning from something within the frame of their experience. When I say the students’ experience, I mean only to say that all my teens have seen the amazing feats of the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man. Not that a human spider really swings around the city stopping criminals, *grin*.

Forget blocks sliding down inclined planes! I have Superman leaping a tall building.

6 thoughts on “Physics of Superheroes

  1. I love Kakalios’ book. To my mind it’s one of the best Physics books for the general public out there. I even make my students read some of it.

  2. Pingback: Here Comes Fall Semester! « Megan Golding

  3. So will homeschool students in Israel be accepted into your physics class? 😉 How ’bout their moms? My physics teacher talked all the time about Charlotte…a spider in a can that she pretended to swing around her head in a lesson about centrifugal/centripetal force…in the end we figured out it was the poor, dizzy, half-dead spider E.B. White made famous…keep up the good work!

  4. As a parent of a middle school student forced to do this, I HATED this assignment and so did my child. It seemed completely stupid. She had to draw Wonder Woman, read comics and read her science book on top of it. It was the dumbest waste of time ever. BTW, I have a Ph.D. in statistics and my husband’s undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Physics.

    The message it sends kids is that physics doesn’t have any fun real life uses so we made this irrelevant assignment up.

  5. As a physics teacher, I think this is a GREAT idea to use super heroes to teach some of the physics concepts. I disagree with annmariastat that it is “completely stupid” and I’m not sure what her daughter’s assignment was, since this man wants to target students in high school, but every assignment will not please every student. Non-education professionals really have no clue how difficult it is to keep teenagers engaged and interested all the time and it’s really annoying to hear someone who has not taught children to condemn a teacher or to make demeaning remarks about someone who is investing a lot of time and effort in trying to help kids learn. This is just one way to cover a concept and to enhance students to understand difficult topics. As for myself, I wouldn’t spend the entire semester to focus only on comics because there are many real-life uses of physics that can be very appealing to a younger audience, but each teacher has to do what is best for the students in his/her class. .

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