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Toys for ToPPS!

July 5, 2011

Toys for ToPPS!

(ToPPS Participants, that is)

I’ve been having fun with this institute even before it began. Visiting with the leaders about what kinds of activities we are going to be involved in each day, talking about products from vendors and even checkout conversations have been inspirational:

Cashier: “So why all the Nerf guns?”

Me: “It’s for a week-long teacher institute for high school teachers, they each get a Nerf gun to help teach physics.”

Cashier: “That sounds like fun. But there’s not really physics in a Nerf gun, is there?”

Of all the nerve…Of course there’s physics in a Nerf gun! (There’s physics in everything!!) This unsuspecting cashier obviously was not thinking like a physicist and was not prepared for a summer lesson while on the clock. Unfortunately, my informal research over the Nerf gun revealed he is not alone in his assumption this toy has little educational value. Of all the reviews on for this toy, most rated the educational value low. In fact, of the 222 reviews posted as of July 5 (2011), 192 reviewers rated the educational value. 62 of these individuals rated the educational value at only one star:


A combined total of only 39 rated the educational value at either 4 or 5 stars. The overall average number of stars for the educational value was 2.5. It’s all true. My wife watched as I tallied the ratings and typed this post. She didn’t understand why I was so interested in such matters, but she is my witness. Regardless, it’s obvious. We physics teachers have got to do a better job!:

  1. When you “lock and load,” you are increasing the potential energy of the system (by decreasing the chemical potential energy of your body).
  2. When the trigger is pulled after loading, the elastic potential energy of the spring immediately begins transferring into mechanical energy of the dart via a contact interaction where equal and opposite forces are acting on the dart and the plunger (ok, it’s an “air” plunger).
  3. As this constant force is applied to the dart, it accelerates through the length of the barrel untill the contact interaction ceases.
  4. Once the contact interaction ceases, the dart is in free fall toward the earth. The x-component of its velocity remains constant, while it accelerates downward in free fall in the y-direction.
  5. Knowing the angle of the launch and the initial velocity, the dart’s landing position is all but predetermined using kinematics.


Getting back to the point, it turns out that many run-of-the-mill toys are great tools for investigating basic topics in physics. Two other toys participants will receive include Tumble Buggies and Pull Back Cars. These are great for studying constant velocity and acceleration, respectively.

The purpose of these fun takeaways for participants is not just to be used as demonstrations. They are intended to demonstrate the kinds of simple toys students can use to generate data. As is the case in science, from analyses of data comes a deeper understanding of the concepts. The means of collecting data does not have to be sophisticated. Just about any ordinary object can turn into fodder for physics data collection . . . So if you happen to hear of a science institute where a bunch of teachers were playing with toys, don’t worry–it really is for the betterment of physics education!


From → ToPPS

  1. Brian Lamore permalink

    I have used NERF guns in physics class to model the Rutherford experiment. Goes something like this:

    Hang a small pie plate (the nucleus) from the ceiling a few meters away
    5 students line up and, with eyes closed, raise gun and fire all 6 bullets
    We keep track of the % hits.

    Students love it and realize that most bullets (alpha particles) miss. It’s not a large leap from there to conclude most of the volume of an atom is empty space.

    I have also used NERF guns in Algebra class. Students solve problems on whiteboards in teams (all have to do their own but get to check with teammates). If everyone is correct then the team gets to shoot at a target with “points.” Students make up the target on another whiteboard. Big value points are often surrounded by negative point values. Most (or least or closest to 0) points wins an incredibly lame prize, but they all want it desperately!

    Finally, other teachers in other subject ask to borrow a gun to perform their own review game (or something or other non-physics related, so it’s not important).

    Bottom line: NERF guns rock the classroom! That poor fellow who couldn’t see this was just a product of the same education system you and I came from. Completely understandable.

  2. The headmaster at my oldest son’s school this past year used a Nerf gun with suction cup projectiles to randomize his choices for geography ‘quizzes’ in his 1st and 2nd grade class. He’d stand some distance from the world map on the wall and shoot it, asking the student’s to name the continent encountered. Then on the US map, he’d do the same thing with the student’s having to name the state that was ‘shot’. Then it would become the students’ turn to shoot the maps. I have never seen kids so excited before in yelling out what continent/state that is.
    I still want to get a “BumbleBall” to demonstrate the radiative diffusion of energy through the Sun’s interior. This is done by chalking/taping a huge circle on the ground and dropping the photon/BumbleBall in the center and observing the ‘random walk’ as it slowly moves it’s way outward.

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