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Football and science combine to teach kids physics

New project involving Arsenal players

When Roberto Carlos scored that free-kick for Brazil against France in 1997, most of us would have stared in open-mouthed appreciation. But one team of French physicists set out to find a mathematical description of the ball’s flightpath, publishing their results in 2010. It’s a testament to the sport’s ability to capture the imagination that the paper, 12 pages of equations and jargon, ended up being downloaded almost 50,000 times. And now that power is being harnessed to make football a tool for educational outreach.

The Institute of Physics (who, for the purposes of full disclosure, also employ me) have teamed up with Arsenal to produce a teaching resource on the physics of football. They even got some of the players to chip in, filming them in action for an accompanying video – it’s not hard to imagine that it’s easier to enthuse students about science when the teachers are Aaron Ramsey and Johan Djourou.

The idea is to introduce physics concepts by couching them in terms of common footballing situations. So, the trajectory of a projectile and friction are both covered by referring to how best to pass the ball, while how a player can best stay on his feet forms the basis of a discussion of the centre of gravity.

The activity pack, Thinking On Your Feet, won’t be launched until autumn but 53 children aged 11–14, taken from four London schools, were given a sneak preview at a trial day held at the Emirates Stadium on June 13, at which a series of four football-related physics experiments was followed by a kick around with Arsenal coaches on the astroturf pitches at Highbury Fields. The group’s moods were perhaps artificially buoyed by having escaped the classroom for a day, but there was certainly more enthusiasm for this science lesson than is typically seen in a lab.

So what will they ultimately get out of it? At the very least it’ll help them understand what’s gone wrong the next time one of their club’s midfielders sprays a wayward pass into the stands, or make them go a bit easier when an opposition forward falls over in the box yet again – it wasn’t a dive; his centre of gravity’s just too high. But the intention is that by first getting them to think about physics in a context they can relate to, they’ll later be able to apply the same thought processes to other areas. And, who knows, maybe it’ll even make them play better: the next time one of these kids steps up to take a free kick, they can forget all about about David Beckham and aim to bend it like Bernoulli.

Read "Football and science combine to teach kids physics" at When Saturday Comes

@chriswhite_twit