The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality."
---Emily Dickinson, Because I Could Not Stop For Death.
Commentary of the Day - April 3, 2000: Getting Students to Use Seatbelts - Guest Commentary by Peter Vajk:
One of the leading causes of death for teenagers is automobile accidents,  especially accidents involving alcohol.   As we all know,  mere preaching about the dangers of alcohol and about the risks of not wearing seat belts does little good.   Most physics teachers use automobile accidents and seat belt use as illustrative examples of inertia and the impulse-momentum theorem1.   Sadly,  that information does little or nothing to change behavior.

I began a few years ago to tell my students at the beginning of the school year that,  if I ever saw any of them,  anywhere,  anytime,  riding in a car without a seat belt,  I would give them an "F" for the quarter since they had failed to learn inertia.   After that idea registers,  I tell them that I cannot actually assign a grade based on behavior,  but I CAN do something even more painful -- I can assign a ten page research paper on the possible consequences of not wearing seatbelts and make that assignment count for a huge portion of their quarter grade.   Half the grade is based on content,  while the other half is based on conformity to the English Department's standards for research papers -- and the second half of the grading will be done by the English teacher who has a well-deserved reputation for the most severe grading!

The text of the research paper assignment is included below;  you are free to modify or use it with your students.   The first of the two interactions which triggered this note to all of you happened about a month ago during February's heavy rains here in Northern California.   A student came up to me at the end of class one day and said,  "Dr. Vajk, I have to thank you."  I said,  "That's very nice,  but what are you thanking  me for?"   He explained that the previous afternoon,  he,  his brother,  and a friend were leaving school in his car.  They did not have their seat belts on,  but the driver saw me walking along the sidewalk by the school and remembered my threat.   All three promptly put on their seatbelts.   Ten minutes later,  on the freeway past the Oakland Coliseum,  a car cut in in front of them,  and five seconds later its driver jammed on the brakes.   My student hit the brakes,  too,  but rear-ended the car in front at about 50 mph.   My student's car was totaled (about $11,000 in damages),  and the car which caused the accident sped away (hit and run).   The CHP officer at the scene told them that,  judging from the damage to the car,  they would have been dead had they not worn their seatbelts.   Two of the three student in the car suffered minor cuts on their hands.

The second interaction happened this past week,  when I was crossing the street outside school and a car rounded the corner right in front of me,  with another of my students (T.D.) in the front passenger seat right under my nose,  with no seatbelt.   I yelled at him,  "T., where's your seatbelt?"   The next morning I handed him the assignment below. T. is one of our better basketball players,  with a sizable scholarship next year for an NCAA school and aspirations (I don't know how
realistic) of making it to the NBA.   Such students,  one would think, would have a serious interest in protecting their bodies from harm --- but they seem to think they are invulnerable,  even more than most teenagers.   In my school's case,  at least,  the basketball coach TOTALLY supports me in giving this assignment.

Best wishes to all -- for our students' sake!



TO: ____(student's name)_____

        You have earned a special assignment tailored to fit your individualized learning needs.   You have demonstrated by your failure to use a seat belt on ____(date)____ that you do not understand and appreciate the biomedical consequences to your own body of the Law of Inertia and of the Impulse-Momentum Theorem.

        Your individualized assignment is a ten page research paper which is due
on ____(date -- about three weeks later)____ as follows:

Section 1:  Research the following frequent consequences of central
nervous system (CNS) injuries:

        _Spinal cord transection_:  paraplegia,  quadriplegia.
        _Brain damage_:  ataxia,  aphasia,  blindness,  persistent vegetative state.

Include in your discussion the effects of these injuries on bowel control,  urinary continence,  and sexual function.   (This section should be a minimum of seven pages in length.)

Section 2:  Consider the following condition for yourself.  Following an automobile accident in which you were not wearing your seatbelt,  you become quadriplegic and completely aphasic.  (Translation in plain English:  you have NO ABILITY to move your arms or legs.   Your mind is fully awake and alert,  and you understand everything spoken to you, but your brain CANNOT cause your mouth to form words -- most of the time,  you cannot even find the right word to say.)   Detail in not less than one page how this would alter the course of your life from your present plans and dreams.

Section 3:  Given the conditions of Section 2,  describe in vivid detail one day in your new life,  from waking in the morning to falling asleep at night.  Minimum length of this section shall be two pages.

Format:  Page margins shall be no more than one inch on each side, top, and bottom.   If typed,  1-1/2 line spacing shall be used,  in a type size no larger than 12 point.   If handwritten,  college ruled paper shall be used,  and the text shall be single spaced.

Grading:  This report will count for 75% of your homework grade for this quarter.  Half of the grade will be based on the content of the paper; the other half of the grade will be based on the guidelines used in the English Depart-ment for research papers,  including thesis statements, paragraph structures,  punctuation,  grammar,  spelling,  and formatting of references,  footnotes,  and bibliography.   (This portion of the grading will be done by Ms. M. C.)   Internet resources may be used; Section 1 must have a minimum of 5 different sources.   Christopher Reeves's autobiography would provide useful information for Section 3.  (He is quadriplegic but CAN speak.)
P.S.   Isn't educationese jargon great?  "Individualized instruction" and "writing across the curriculum" serve my purpose very well in this instance!

Peter Vajk teaches physics, AP physics, astronomy, foundations of science, and mathematics   at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School in Alameda, California.  The Irascible Professor thanks Peter for contributing this commentary.
1For those of you who are not physics teachers, the impulse-momentum theorem says - in simple terms - that the more quickly the momentum of an object changes, the bigger the force on the object.  Thus, in an automobile crash, where the momentum changes from a large value to essentially zero in a matter of milliseconds the forces can be very large.

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