December 22, 2010

Physics class discovers whether urban legends stand up to rigorous scientific testing

If you were buried up to the neck in sand, could you escape using just your hands? Is it really possible to slip on a banana peel? Can a high-pitched sound actually shatter glass? Those are just some of the questions Hamline students explored in this fall semester’s Hamline Mythbusters class.

Taught by physics professor Andy Rundquist, the inspiration was taken from the popular Discovery Channel television show Mythbusters, which uses science to establish the validity of various myths. Students started by brainstorming urban legends they were curious about and narrowed selections to those they were most interested in.
“Students were given ownership of their projects from the first day and were expected to conduct a thorough investigation of their myths,” Rundquist said. “They had access to whatever equipment they needed to carry out tests in the physics lab, workshop, and outside of class.”

The experiments used concrete scientific calculations to determine the legitimacy of the myth. For example, in the banana peel experiment, the friction co-efficiencies between the fruit and the floor were used to formulate the likelihood a person would slip on the peel.

Students researching the likelihood of a person escaping if buried in sand constructed a wooden sand pit using calculations that would ensure the safety of the students and the strength of the test-scale model.

The entire process, from planning through execution, was captured on film and later edited together for a final video project demonstrating whether the myth was proven or busted. You can watch excerpts of the Banana Slip Myth and the Sand Pit Escape on Hamline’s YouTube channel.

Hamline Mythbusters is a First-Year Seminar class, one of a selection of introductory courses first-year students choose to take during their fall semester. This year’s First-Year Seminar topics varied from this science-focused course to classes that focus on business, math, English, sociology, religion, and the environment. First-Year Seminar classes provide a sense of community while developing the skills of careful reading, critical thinking, group discussion, and writing that are basic to college level study.

Not all students in Hamline Mythbusters will go on to pursue a physics major or minor, but they have left the class better prepared to take on their future course loads—and they have answers to some truly unique questions.