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Household Physics for Fun and Entertainment

(Hands-on Physics in a Virtual World)

Elwood Schapansky, PhD
I attended Colorado State University, from 1968 to 1972, on a National
Science Foundation Science Faculty Fellowship. I was a Physics instructor
at Santa Barbara City College, with a Masters Degree, and NSF was
providing funds to improve the level of teacher knowledge in the
Community College System. Although not a requirement of the grant, I
attained my PhD in 1972 and returned to teaching in Santa Barbara.
I have often been asked to make science presentations in the local
elementary schools and soon found that working with fourth, fifth and sixth
graders suited me best. These students were invariably inquisitive,
intelligent and willing to participate easily. I went to classrooms several
times a year and one year held a five session class where nearby students
walked to my laboratory to participate in a more extensive experience. It
was wonderful for me, the teachers and the students. Years later I had
some to these students in my college classes, and the early class had been
a deciding influence to study science. As a teacher, I found this teaching
rewarding and meaningful. Nobody failed and everyone learned
In 1975 I began to pursue another passion. I started commercial flying,
during the summer school break, in the bush near Galena, Alaska. This
was fulfilling to me and allowed me to have a unique, refreshing cultural
experience away from the classroom. Meeting and working with Alaskan
natives was exciting, educational and meaningful. I still have lifelong
friends from this period.
On several occasions I presented physics to elementary schools in the
bush. Native children have a completely different cultural outlook, but
science is universal and they happily participated in the science lessons.
Since I had no demonstration apparatus, I used what was at hand.
Torches, cans, hoses, hammers and wheels became lab demonstration
items. It was great fun.
The experience in the Bush has influenced my thinking about presenting
science to youngsters. I find I do not need a physics laboratory to present
exciting and wonderful ideas. I just need the world around me, to provide

the apparatus to explain concepts and principles. Since I am no longer at

the college, I use only my workshop as the source of demonstrations. It
works wonderfully since almost everything I use is already familiar to the
I now live half the year in Talkeetna, Alaska, which is on the road system,
and do presentations at the local elementary school. Here again, even
though I could borrow more sophisticated apparatus, I choose to use my
workshop as the demonstration source. One of the highest compliments I
have received as a teacher was from a class that begged me to continue
teaching through their recess period. The class was captivated.

Teaching Physics at the elementary school in Talkeetna, AK

Talkeetna is a small community with an eclectic citizenry. Many parents

choose to home school their children, and most do an excellent job of it. It
is hugely time consuming to do this, but many do it with pleasure and
success. Since my goal in the elementary schools was to teach both the
students and their teachers, I began thinking about what the homeschooled students were missing. I personally see great value in the public
school system and promote it and assist it when I can. However, I could
see a large group of children and parents who were missing science
instruction from a trained teacher and scientist. I decided I would attempt
to present to all the community, not just those in the public school. This
seemed appropriate since years ago physics demonstrations were used as

parlor entertainment and numerous new ideas were presented to lay

people in their homes.
Talkeetna has a very active non-profit Community Arts Program and a
wonderful, intimate theater. It seemed the perfect place to try my idea of a
community physics show. It was readily accepted by the leadership and
promoted widely in the local area. An announcement made by the staff was
particularly colorful and helpful.

Announcing the Physics Show

The local newspaper was extremely supportive of my efforts and gave me

and embarrassingly large amount of publicity. The editor interviewed me
and also attended the show with a plan of reporting on it. The news article
is presented below. It was titled:
Household Physics for fun and entertainment
Dr. Elwood Schapansky, retired professor of physics from Santa
Barbara City College, and eight year Talkeetna resident, will present a
show of basic physics in the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar, on
Sept 4, 2009, at 7:00 PM. Dr. Schapansky has spent much time,
during his retirement from teaching, promoting hands on experience
in the sciences. He presents primarily to the teachers and students of
the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
The presentation at the Sheldon Theater is something new, and is a
throwback to years ago when science was a parlor activity for fun,

education and entertainment. This show is an experiment to see if

others share his desire to balance the move toward virtual
experiences that are now the craze. His teaching experiences in
college level physics labs have shown that students no longer have
the confidence, dexterity and skill to do hands on experiments
easily. It is his hope that parents will make more of an effort to
provide manual activities and basic science education to their
The Friday show will be based entirely on demonstration items that he
finds in his personal workshop. Torches, hammers, crowbars, bicycle
wheels, batteries, wires, cameras, pulleys, cans, boards, homemade
tops, and gyroscopes will be used. There may be a few surprises.
This is a hands-on show, in a virtual world!

Bicycle wheels are just one of the many items that retired physics professor
Dr. Elwood Schapansky will use for a hands on show in a virtual world.

The show took place as planned. It was attended by only a few children
from the public elementary school, but had a large number of home
schooled children, along with their parents. In addition the local high
school physics teacher attended, along with his entire class of eight
students. It made me feel so good to have them there.

Home workshop items used as demonstration apparatus

The audience at the Physics Show

Because of the unusual nature of this show, and the apparatus used for
demonstrations, I present here a brief outline of the presentation, along
with partial explanations of the concepts explored. The presentation took
about an hour and twenty minutes, with questions afterward. I hope this
proves helpful to the reader. Below is my outline for the show.

Handout presented to attendees:










Brief explanations of some of my demonstrations and examples:

My first physics lesson, short-circuiting a 6V battery. As a child I
watched my father test car batteries by sliding a wire across the terminals
and listening for the snap of a good battery. I tried it and did not slide the
wire. The short circuit caused the wire to glow red and burned my hands
badly. My first physics lesson. It made me want to know why.

Painful short-circuit, when I was eight

A tablespoon of water is boiled in a soda can to eliminate the air
inside. It is then turned upside down into a pan of water, creating a good
vacuum, so it implodes violently. This is exciting and great fun.

Imploding a soda can

A common vacuum packer, with a vacuum attachment, can be connected

to a plastic bottle to collapse it. A tight hole must be drilled in the cap.
A 3 x 5 card can be placed on top of a completely full glass of water and
inverted without spilling the water. Atmospheric pressure holds the card
against the glass.
A common plastic hose can be used to demonstrate the use of atmospheric
pressure to siphon water from one tank to a lower one.
III. The concept of inertia is introduced by reproducing Galileos inclined
plane argument. If a small component of gravity is equal and opposite to
the force of friction, the sliding mass will continue moving indefinitely.
By using a bicycle wheel, mounted on a vertical axis, the inertia concept is
easy to explain. A wheel with good bearings will rotate a very long time.
You dont have to imagine the very long inclined plane.
Striking a card, on a glass with a coin resting on it, shows inertia since the
card will move away and the coin will drop into the glass.
A small stick, suspended by two paper loops, will break before the loops
when struck smartly by another stick. Pushing slowly will tear the loops.

The mass for the string demonstration is in my left hand.

The horizontal bicycle wheel is on the rear table

A large mass, suspended by a fragile string and having an identical string

attached to the bottom can be used to demonstrate inertia. Pulling sharply
breaks the lower string. Pulling slowly breaks the upper string.
A hammer handle can be driven into the hammer mass while the mass is
free standing. The inertia of the hammer is sufficient to allow the wood to
be driven into it. I used a pipe as a simulated hammer, and drew lines on
the handle to show its motion.
IV. What pushes us when we walk? Demonstrate pushing on the earth,
and having the earth push on you. Imagine what happens with no friction,
like on ice, or skates.
Weight - what is it and what is the reaction force? Imagine being on a
scale in a falling elevator. What does the scale read? We feel weightless,
but our weight is accelerating us downward at the same rate as the
As a glacier pilot, I never stop the engine of my airplane until it has stopped
sliding. Then I am assured it will remain stationary, since static friction is
greater than sliding friction.

Here I use an inclined plane to show static friction to be greater than sliding
friction. One can also talk of the angle of repose of piles of sand or rock

VI. A student is asked to pull a nail from a board, by hand. When it

cannot be done, the question is asked, what is needed? A machine is the

answer. A hammer, or crowbar is provided and the nail is easily pulled.

Levers and machines can be explained.

A crowbar is a useful machine for pulling nails

A tug-o-war is set up between two people, with one person pulling on the
pulley, and the other on the free end of the rope, which is tied to a post at
the other end. The mechanical advantage of two easily allows the person
on the rope to win.

Here a pulley is used to create a machine with mechanical advantage two.

The post does half the pulling for the student on the right.

VII. A spinning bicycle wheel is used to show angular momentum and

gyroscopic procession. This is related to the precession of airplane

propellers and tops, and is also why so many good pilots have trouble
flying a tail-dragger airplane the type of airplane commonly used in bushAlaska.

Gyroscopic precession of a spinning bicycle wheel

I make tops on my home lathe, and make one model that is suspended by
a string, on a bearing, on the top of the top. When released horizontally, the
spinning top precesses, just like the bicycle wheel. I picked this idea up
while in Russia, where it was used as a toy.

A standard spinning top, above, and the top with the bearing which
allows it to spin horizontally, and precess


The top spinning on a horizontal axis and precessing

VIII. Static electricity - demonstrated with bits of paper, comb and fur.
DC circuits - demonstrated by shorting a battery with a small copper wire,
vaporizing it, and showing the need for a resistor in the circuit. Then a bulb
was placed in the circuit, which lit normally. An open circuit was shown by
removing the wire from one terminal of the battery.
It was explained that transformers require a changing current to operate,
and thus we in the United States chose AC for our power-distribution. A
step-down transformer was used to heat a homemade wood burning tool.

A step-down transformer, on the left, and an autotransformer were used to provide a controllable
low voltage to the home-made wood burning pencil, shown top left.


A pair of copper wires was connected to a 120V wall plug. The extreme
danger of this was explained and then a hotdog was used to short-circuit
the wires. The hotdog was cooked and then later eaten by a participant.

A hotdog was cooked by using it as a short circuit in a 120V circuit

Finally, the danger of disposable 35 mm cameras was explained. One was

dismantled to show the circuit board, containing a capacitor, transformer,
oscillator and rectifier. It was shown how a 1.5 V dry cell could be used to
charge the capacitor to over 300 V. The capacitor was then short-circuited
to show the dramatic spark and sound. This final demonstration is indeed
impressive, but a lot of the physics could not be explained at this show.

A disposable camera provides wonderful science topics