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Professor Mike Ramsdell

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Mike Ramsdell knows the difference between speed and velocity. All physicists do. Not all of them can explain it, though. And very few can make the core concepts of physics interesting and fun to learn.

Ramsdell can. His physics lessons for first-year students include Matchbox® cars, race tracks and a series of challenges. His students have to figure out how to make their cars go faster, fly through the air and hit a target.

This means determining friction coefficients, drag constants and other elements of Newtonian mechanics that affect speed and velocity.

The challenges come at the end of the semester, when his students compete to see whose car goes faster, farther and more accurately.

“You see lots of students re-doing their lab work. Not to get a better grade, but to figure out how to make their matchbox car fly — and fly right.”

“I see lots of students change. The way they think, the way they look at the world — there’s this big shift. That’s rewarding,” he says. But there’s another aspect of teaching physics that might be even better:

“The laws of physics explain things: why objects move, how and how that can change—from the molecular to galactic. And when someone understands the physics affecting one thing, that person starts to wonder about the physics behind everything else.”

It happens quickly, Ramsdell says, though its speed and velocity can’t be measured.

Maybe curiosity is the one thing throughout the known universe that’s faster than the speed of light. We’ll have to ask him about that.

Mike Ramsdell behind glass

Physics Professor Mike Ramsdell