Physics students to mix lessons with traffic safety

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- It's not your typical high school physics story problem.

A Porsche makes a sudden left turn in front of a man on a motorcycle, who tries to stop using only his rear brake so he can maintain steering. The motorcycle lays down an 86-foot skid but T-bones the oncoming car on the passenger side.

The motorcycle stops. The driver flies 84 feet through the air.

How fast was the motorcycle traveling?

Students in Fairbanks high schools next year will have the chance to figure it out.

Alaska State Troopers have donated six traffic science kits based on actual cases that can be used in physics, biology, and math classes. The kits contain interactive learning activities that show how police use physics to unravel traffic collision mysteries.

Troopers hope that teens studying vectors, friction and projectile motion will apply the lessons to a matter they're more concerned about: highway safety.

''We're banking on teens' fascination with speed and driving,'' said Lt. Lee Farmer of Fairbanks.

More than 6,000 Americans age 16-20 die every year in traffic accidents, said Mary Moran of the state Highway Safety Office.

''This age group also consistently engages in risk-taking behavior,'' Moran said.

In 1999, drivers age 16-20 crashed 3,833 times in Alaska, nearly 1,000 more times than the next closest age group, drivers 21-25. Among the younger drivers, nearly 75 percent were male. The crashes included eight fatalities, also higher than any age group.

''They tend to be over-represented in crashes because they simply don't have the experience,'' Moran said.

Fairbanks science students next fall will explore the aftermath of wrecks through curriculum titled ''Crash: The Science of Collisions,'' showcased last week at the 10th International Conference on Safe Communities in Anchorage.

The kits were developed by John Kwasnoski, a professor emeritus at Western New England College and a court-certified accident reconstructionist. Among other cases, he worked with police in recreating the events of the Susan Smith double murder case in Union, S.C., in which she confessed to drowning her two young sons by rolling her car down a boat ramp.

In the lessons, students are presented with traffic scenes -- just as professional investigators are -- and asked to tell what happened.

''The kids love it because it's a mystery,'' Kwasnoski said. ''Teachers like it because they're covering the topic anyway. They buy in because it's not intrusive. It's assimilated right in the curriculum.''

Kwasnoski got the idea for the kits as he was training district attorneys how to use expert witnesses when prosecuting traffic cases.

''Part of the course was the physics of car crashes,'' Kwasnoski said. Prosecutors who took physics in high school told him the concepts were making sense for the first time when applied to accidents.

With a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Kwasnoski put together kits that contain measuring devices, police photos and files and manuals to show teachers how to apply traffic science in classes down to sixth grade.

Farmer and other troopers saw a presentation on the curriculum. They concluded that the physics lessons were another way of looking at driving that may reach teens who suffer from ''I Am Immortal Syndrome,'' Farmer said.

Troopers around the state asked school administrators if they were interested in the kits.

''The only one that responded with any interest was the Fairbanks North Star Borough,'' Farmer said.

The kits cost $800 apiece. Troopers paid for 10 percent and a federal grant administered through the state Highway Safety Office paid the rest.

''Anything we can do to help young people to learn more about they behaviors of driving, we're all for it,'' Moran said.

If Fairbanks teachers find the kits useful, troopers will push to place them in other communities.

The most popular exercise in the kit is the autopsy report. Students read the report, map the injuries on a drawing, and decide whether the deceased was a passenger or the driver.

Kwasknoski said teaching Newton's Laws in the context of what happens to a driver who doesn't wear a seat belt, or diagramming a severed aorta, makes a far greater impression than telling a teen he could be hurt if he doesn't buckle up.

''The safety message is a lot longer lived than preaching,'' Kwasnoski said. ''That's a whole different level of understanding of what 'killed' means. It has just a tremendous realism that words don't have.''

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