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Winning Videos Use Toys to Teach Physics

trophy web

Toy Box Physics video contest trophy

A rocket propelled racetrack illustrates Albert Einstein’s equivalence principle. An orange teddy bear driving a dump truck into a cinderblock demonstrates Newton’s law of inertia. A mushroom cloud rises over the desert with Johnny Cash playing in the background. These are just a few of the scenes from the finalists in the Toy Box Physics video contest.  

The APS outreach website PhysicsCentral hosted the contest which invited participants across the country to create their own short YouTube videos to explain physics incorporating their favorite toy. Other than asking for videos around three minutes in length, the rules for the contest were left open-ended, to encourage as much creativity in the submissions as possible.

The grand prize winner, chosen by a panel of outreach experts, was James Lincoln’s “Smoke Rings, Mushroom Clouds and Vortexes,” which explained the physics of a vortex air cannon. In the video, Lincoln creatively demonstrated how his toy air cannon used the same fluid dynamics principles as dolphins blowing bubble rings and a rising mushroom cloud. He received a $1,000 reward and a trophy made of toys.

“I thought it was important that I showed demonstrations that were easy to do so that the audience could try it on their own,” Lincoln said, “I thought I would be able to reach a larger audience if I kept my video equation-free and jargon-free.”

Lincoln has been teaching high school physics for six years and is currently working on his master’s degree in physics at UCLA. He said that putting together a successful video takes a lot of work and planning, and sometimes ideas don’t pan out. Despite his sparse YouTube page, Lincoln is no newcomer to making these kinds of short science films.

“I used to make a lot of videos when I was in high school. I had a lot more free time then, and was also the Science Club president,” Lincoln said, “I had an audience that was willing to watch science-related videos and I learned how to mix in a lot of comedy.”

The Viewer’s Choice winner was James Tangredi for his video “The Physics of the Ollie.” Tangredi breaks down the mechanics of one of the most common skateboard tricks into the fundamental forces involved. He received an assortment of physics-themed toys and APS merchandise.

“It feels great, I’m glad the viewers got the chance to see my video and recognize the work me and my buddy put into creating it. It’s always nice to have your efforts rewarded,” Tangredi said, “Skateboarding appeals to so many different people, even more so to the younger generations, that using a trick as a tool to teach physics makes perfect sense.”

This year’s contest followed up on last year’s successful NanoBowl, which invited participants to create videos that combined physics and football. The toy theme this year was inspired by the many physics toys and demonstrations around the outreach offices. Like last year, the contest was open to anyone who wanted to submit an entry.

“We wanted all ages to participate,” Rebecca Thompson-Flagg, head of outreach for APS, said, “and we got all ages to participate.”

The submitters were as diverse as the toys featured in the videos. Kids as young as elementary school and adults who’ve graduated from college submitted entries to the competition. Even Argonne National Labs put together an official entry about how electricity can conduct through a dozen elementary school students holding hands, powering a light-up noisemaker. The aim is to try and keep explanations at around a middle school level, so the contest can be accessible to everyone.

The two winners can be seen on the PhysicsCentral website. The entire collection of submissions received can be found on YouTube under the Toy Box Physics playlist. Because of the success of this year’s contest, plans for another one in the near future are already in the works.



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Editor: Alan Chodos