YouTube Comments Justify Changing Problem Sets?

In their recent “Physics Teacher” article titled “Unfortunate Outcomes of a ‘Funny’ Physics Problem: Some Eye-Opening YouTube Comments,” authors Josip Slisko and Dewey Dykstra Jr. present a detailed and well-sourced condemnation of humorous physics problems and the negative attitudes toward physics these types of problems inspire.

The article uses a selection of the 1700 YouTube comments in response to a single video titled “Real Word Problems From My Physics book – PH17” as its data source to show the danger and negative feelings the public may experience as a result of a single misguided problem, while simultaneously noting that research results on these topics are inconclusive.

I find the use of YouTube comments to justify the hypothesis unconvincing. Sure, the question described in the YouTube video is ludicrous, and its re-creation is fraught with problems. This should be an indictment of a poorly designed problem, not an indictment of more creative problems altogether. Absolutely, you can find 1700+ comments about the video, ranging from snarky to mean to vulgar. But let’s look at the source – many social media comments, especially Youtube comments, tend to cater to the dregs of culture.  As opposed to looking at the large response to the video as a sign of alarm, I look at the same data and see a large number of people who can remember similar “cute” problems… the problem itself made an impression, and these responders are thinking about physics outside the classroom.

  • Consider the standard projectile motion problem: a particle is launched off of a 20m cliff onto the flat ground below at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s.  Neglecting air resistance, how far from the launch site will the object land?

Such problems are a dime a dozen.  Occasionally these problems are even spiced with a kicked soccer ball or thrown football.  Student engagement level – fair at best. Now, how about we re-write the problem?

  • Evil Knievel is shot out of a circus cannon from the roof of a platform with azzzknievel velocity of 27 m/s at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal. The daredevil flies across a gaping chasm, eventually landing on an air cushion at a height 20m below the launch cannon. How far from the platform should the air cushion be placed in order to save Knievel from a trip to the hospital?

All of a sudden, we’ve added some interest to the problem, some extra motivation for solving it correctly, and provided a more realistic context to allow students to visualize the problem.  Of course, such problems could be taken to the level of absurdity:

  • A distraught zookeeper launches a rare orange-striped wombat from a catapult located at the top of a 20m cliff. If the wombat leaves the catapult at an angle of 27 degrees above the horizontal with an initial velocity of 27 m/s, how far from the base of the cliff will the wombat land? Neglect air resistance.

Even at the level of absurdity, the problem makes an impression. Realistic? No. But as you realize you can solve absurd problems such as this with basic kinematics, you also realize the wide range of projectile problems you can solve.

Based on my personal experience, teachers don’t need warnings about using “funny” problems in the classroom. We have enough real challenges and issues to deal with each and every class period.  If “cute” or “funny” problems engage just one more student, or shift a student’s paradigm just enough that they make a new connection, or the problem is so crazy it comes up that night around the dinner table, it’s one more valuable tool in our belts that I am more than happy to pull out and use whenever it’s appropriate to do so. Using a selection of response comments from a Youtube video as a data source to denigrate creative problem synthesis is premature. Instruction needs to be tailored and differentiated both to the personality of the instructor as well as to the personality of the class, and this may or may not include “funny” problems depending on the situation at hand.