The performing professor. Physics students pay attention when he walks over hot coals
IT'S early in the afternoon and Jearl Walker has already walked barefoot over hot coals, dipped his hand into molten lead, and successfully snatched a tablecloth out from under a half dozen liquid-filled glass beakers. His audience seems to have enjoyed the show. But Dr. Walker is not a performer in a traveling circus. He's the head of his university's physics department and a widely respected teacher and author. He also must be one of the most unusual professors in the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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Jearl Walker is part teacher, part showman, and something of a folk hero to physics students at Cleveland State University (CSU) here.
Professor Walker has taught at CSU for 13 years and boasts that his physics courses are the most demanding at the school. ``I give more homework than anyone,'' he says. While his students support that claim they add that the course is also one of their favorites. ``His class makes you want to learn,'' says sophomore Greg Lacrosse. ``He keeps me constantly interested in the material.''
For many non-science majors, the prospect of studying physics is about as enjoyable as an IRS audit. Walker acknowledges this and works hard to pepper his lectures with gags and stunts. ``I'll try a great many things to wake students up,'' Walker says. ``While they're awake I try to teach them as fast as I can. I usually have to wake them up about every 10 minutes.''
Walker seems to enjoy those wake-up calls, using corny gags and off-beat stunts to drive home that day's lesson plan. In one, he strips off his shirt and lies between two boards covered with hundreds of nails (points up), while a student puts a large concrete block on his chest. Another student slams a 12-pound sledge hammer into the block. Walker says, ``It really doesn't hurt much,'' because much of the energy is absorbed by the concrete block, which shatters from the blow. The bed of nails proves safe because Walker's weight is properly distributed. It's an effective lesson in the principles of physics.
But this stunt-teaching is not without risks. In a stunt calling for Walker to dip his wet hand into bubbling molten lead, the vaporizing moisture serves as insulation against burns - unless the lead accidentally gets caught under a fingernail, a lesson Walker learned during one demonstration.
While it's hard to find a colleague critical of Walker's teaching methods, few copy his techniques. Walker thinks ``that's fine.'' ``I would never insist that teachers be like me. I'm just trying to break the monotony of a professor talking `golden' words to the class, chalking `golden' words on the board.''
``If every physics teacher could somehow get 50 percent of Jearl Walker's love and enthusiasm for the subject,'' says Jack Wilson, executive director of the American Association of Physics Teachers, ``a lot more people would study physics.'' He adds: ``[Walker] has demonstrated the importance of graphic demonstrations which highlight [how much] fun physics can be.'' But Mr. Wilson concedes that some of Walker's stunts raise eyebrows and concern that students will be injured in trying to duplicate them. Walker says he cautions students not to try any of the dangerous stunts themselves.