Professor spices up class experience
Professor Mark Croft walked into a recent class with a fire extinguisher, a helmet and a pair of roller skates.
They may not be items typically used to teach, but Croft’s physics students have seen his demonstrations many times by now.
In the stunt, Croft, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, jettisoned air from the fire extinguisher while wearing the roller stakes to thrust him forward, demonstrating Newton’s third law of motion. As the extinguisher’s force traveled away from its holder, Croft was propelled out of the room.
It was one of many demonstrations Croft used to enliven his class, and Chioma Moneme appreciates both their humor and utility.
“They actually help me to understand the concepts that he teaches in class,” said Moneme, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. “There are times where he does things that should not be attempted by anyone.”
Croft said the department uses its extensive repertoire of demonstrations to illustrate specific lecture topics. For example, students ascertain the momentum of the gas leaving the extinguisher, and use that information to calculate Croft’s momentum.
“There aren’t a lot of people who have done that before,” he said. “Because of the acceleration, it could be a little dangerous if you don’t have substantial experience.”
Indeed, Croft suffered the most embarrassing moment of his life when he tried this very demonstration without the requisite training. The first trial yielded no results, so he attempted it again with a 50-pound fire extinguisher and a new pair of racing roller skates.
“If you just look back over your lifetime, you could usually find a low point,” he said. “I got on a table that was about four feet off the floor. I flew myself … rotating off of the table.”
As he was in midair, he said, he saw the error of his ways.
A video of Croft correctly propelling himself with the extinguisher was recently uploaded to YouTube. The clip shows amused students using their phones to preserve the action.
Croft’s commitment to scientific demonstrations is rooted in his childhood. His father, an engineer and chemist, would conduct experiments with him in the basement of his home. Science became his passion.
“I [was] asked by [my] father, ‘What would be the hardest thing to do?’ And he said physics,” Croft said. “So I tried physics.”
He works with David Maiullo, a physics laboratory support specialist in lecture demonstrations, to build and maintain his arsenal of classroom tricks.
Maiullo, who has worked to create interesting demonstrations at Rutgers since 1987, said he displays his work at schools, bars, science festivals, museums and other small venues across the United States and Canada. He received the President’s Award from Rutgers for his outreach efforts.
“He’s essentially the best guy in his business in this hemisphere,” Croft said. “He was actually in one of my classes when he was an undergraduate, and now he has matured into the top guy in his field.”
Maiullo said their physics demonstration captivates and encourages the people who view it by providing physics concepts in a fun and unique way.
“Our audience has been both thoroughly entertained and much more cognizant of the way physics is all around them,” he said.
Maiullo and Croft co-host the annual Rutgers Faraday Christmas Children’s Lecture, after the famous English scientist Michael Faraday, who founded the Children’s Christmas Lectures in 1826.
The Faraday Christmas Children’s Lecture features the very best demonstrations the department offers, Croft said.
Despite its name, people of all ages attend Maiullo and Croft’s lecture. According to the physics department’s website, the lecture is for “children” between the ages of 5 and 110.
Every year, Croft said, the two perform three shows in the beginning of December. Approximately 500 people attend each opportunity.
The 17-year-old lecture is held in the Physics Lecture Hall on Busch campus, but Croft said he has recently had to display a live video in a nearby room to accommodate demand.
The show would not be possible without an extensive repertoire of demonstrations, which Maiullo said has steadily grown to one of the best collections in the world.
In one popular demonstration, he lies on a bed of nails while a student stands on another bed on his chest. Croft said he normally performs this right after he releases midterm exam grades. In another version, someone breaks a cinderblock over his abdomen.
Though the pressure of the nails is dispersed so Croft feels no pain, the interactive nature of this demonstration has made it a favorite amongst his students.
“The classes can be a little dry of course, and humorless,” he said. “We like to try to make it so that it adds a little bit of fun to it — and surprise, if they work out the way they do.”
Maiullo said his toughest task is presenting the course material in just the right way.
“Getting them to enjoy the process of learning this information by making the demonstration fun, intriguing and memorable is the real challenge,” he said. “I think we succeed fairly often.”