The Physics of Bicycling

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Physics teacher Luther F. Davis III will bike 120 miles in his classroom Thursday to raise money for diabetesPhysics teacher Luther F. Davis III will bike 120 miles in his classroom Thursday to raise money for diabetes

Physics teacher Luther F. Davis III will try to bike 140 virtual miles in his classroom Thursday to raise money for diabetes

Luther F. Davis III, a physics teacher at Lake Mary High School in Florida, likes to give his students memorable lessons. He has smashed cinder blocks over his chest while lying on a bed of nails to illustrate pressure and had students drag him around the football field with ropes to show how forces direct motion — and won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education in the process.

On Thursday Davis will be trying a new kind of demonstration: he will spend the entire teaching day — 7 hours — pedaling his bicycle on rollers. The purpose is to give his students a visual lesson in work, power, energy, angular momentum, torque, and other topics. You can view a Powerpoint show at his website, Cycling Physics. And while Davis is pedaling, he’ll have his students streaming his bike ride/physics lesson live from the classroom and take questions via online chat.

All this is part of Davis’ training for the upcoming “Tour de Cure” 100-mile bicycle ride in Orlando to benefit the American Diabetes Association, which he plans to ride on February 28th. (He’s collecting donations via PayPal on his website).

Davis, who switched to cycling from marathon running only a few months ago, and has already ridden 128 miles across the state, likes the idea of using real-life examples in his teaching.

“I’m trying to think outside the box,” he said by phone from his home in central Florida. “I decided to include some of my ‘creative classroom antics.'”

He has an ongoing “Family Physics” series of activities, like sending his students home after a lesson in acoustics to build drinking-straw horns with their parents. (He’s also started introducing his own kids, ages 2 and 5, to the physics of cycling whenever they wander out into the garage to see Daddy riding on his indoor trainer.) During the event he’ll be involving students in helping him with hydration and nutrition — making sure his system of tubes to deliver water and energy drink are working, and feeding him banana chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as needed. Students will also be responsible for the running the webcast, recording data and answering questions from other students and the Internet.

“Sometimes the less you teach the more the students get out of it,” he said.

Davis also had some learning to do with setting up his classroom environment. He’ll be riding on rollers that let both wheels spin freely — and which he set on skateboard wheels so that the whole frame can move back and forth about 8 inches, giving him more freedom to get out of the saddle and hammer. (One of the hardest parts of riding on rollers, he noted, is having to pedal constantly in order to maintain the angular momentum that keeps the bike upright.) And along with his homebuilt hydration system, he’ll also be using several fans to provide wind resistance and keep cool.

Although he’s a little nervous about how the whole enterprise will work, he’s also very excited.

“This is something I’m not going to let fail,” he said. “I feel well-prepared. It’s going to be an exciting experience for me, my students, and anyone else who pays attention.”

Luther Davis’ Cycling Physics classroom event to benefit the American Diabetes Association can be seen from 7:25 am to 2:25 pm (EST) on Thursday Feb 4th.

Kathy Ceceri also blogs at Home Physics.

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