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NMSU professor bringing fun to physics

With the popularity of television crime shows such as "CSI," a professor at New Mexico State University is giving students the opportunity to engage in forensics while learning about physics.

Students in Michael DeAntonio's forensic physics class at New Mexico State University studied photos of his car accident to explain the forces behind it. (Courtesy Photo)

"The goal of the class is more to encourage critical thinking than to teach physics," said Michael DeAntonio, NMSU professor of physics. "Students leave the class thinking of the physical world in a very different way."

Physics is not a discipline that is known for providing a good time. DeAntonio said that on one occasion another professor saw him and his class in the hallway working on an assignment. The professor asked what they were doing and when DeAntonio replied that they were completing physics class work, the surprised professor said, "Physics isn't this much fun." "It is now," DeAntonio replied. "Forensic Physics 304, look it up."

The class's first assignment required students to use trajectory, projectile motion and evidence collection to learn the identity of a water balloon "sniper." An assailant, who turned out to be DeAntonio, threw a water balloon at one of his students outside the building minutes before class was to start. Once informed it had been part of an assignment, the students went outside and began collecting evidence when a second balloon was thrown.

Students were asked to determine, through physics and investigation, who had thrown the balloon and from where. Despite taking many measurements, interviewing witnesses and using a fictitious warrant to search DeAntonio's office, the students were unable to reveal the identity of the sniper.

Another assignment asked students to determine whether particular photographs had been doctored and if so, how they were doctored. In this assignment the students learned how to program a computer to look for alterations to photographs.

DeAntonio is bringing real life into the classroom as well, using his own recent automobile collision as material for an assignment. With help from Wendell Hull and Associates, Inc. Forensic Engineering and Accident Reconstruction, students are reviewing photographs, police reports and witness statements in an attempt to reconstruct the accident and learn about conservation of energy and momentum.

Student teams create their own Web sites to present their results and are graded on logic, physics, use of class materials and research.

DeAntonio said that given the class's unorthodox approach, engineering and physics students are having a more difficult time in the class but that with such diverse and multi-faceted assignments, all students have something to learn.

"I like the details of the 'crimes'," said Fernando Zamarron, a senior majoring in physics, music and French. "They all seem to be relevant to the outcome of the case, but only a few details actually give insight into what occurred. Years after an event occurs there is still a little evidence and with a little physics, you can trace the time back to the event because time is a physical dimension."

DeAntonio said he believes the class will improve as it continues and in the future hopes to include information from car and industrial accidents, explosions, murders and robberies. He also intends to include one real case each semester.

"I want to make it as interesting as possible for students," DeAntonio said.