Apopka High School grad Cody Smith returns to teach physics after improving instruction in FSU’s Studio Physics Program


Cody, in the blue shirt, introduces me to students who were learning about centripetal force in his classroom at Apopka High School on November 1.  (Picture by Bonnie Toffoli)

This fall, Apopka High School grad Cody Smith returned to his home high school to teach the subject he loves after earning a bachelor’s degree in physics with honors at FSU in just three years.

Despite the speed with which Cody earned his degree, he found time to make an important mark at FSU.  Cody’s honors thesis was a careful study of how a group of three students in the Physics Department’s hands-on Studio Physics Program navigated the program’s laboratory exercise on kinetic and potential energy, which involves measuring the motion of a vertically bouncing playground ball (see photo below).  The experiment had been yielding disappointing learning gains for several years.  Cody’s detailed analysis of the conversation among the students while they worked on the experiment revealed several obstacles to learning that we had not previously recognized.  He made several recommendations about changes to the experiment – including expanding it from one to two weeks and including a new two-dimensional exercise – that were implemented this fall.

Cottle-Capstick Lab Photos-5986

Two FSU Studio Physics students performing the experiment on the motion of a vertically bouncing playground ball that was evaluated in Cody Smith’s honors thesis.

One of the recommendations that Cody made was simply to change the way that the data taken by the ultrasonic motion sensor used to measure the ball’s motion are displayed on the computer screen, which is shown below.  The top graph in the picture is the height of the ball, and the lower graph shows the velocity.  Prior to Cody’s study, the height graph was shown upside down on the computer screen – which some students found confusing.


Data from the FSU playground ball energy experiment analyzed by Cody Smith in his honors thesis.  The top graph is of the height of the ball, and reflects changes Cody recommended in his thesis.  Previously, that graph was displayed upside down.  The lower graph shows the velocity of the ball.

Cody also found that students were not making the connection between the one-dimensional motion in the playground ball experiment and the role of kinetic and potential energy in two dimensional motion.  To help students make that connection, we implemented an experiment in which students make a video recording of a tennis ball after it is thrown and then analyze the motion using free software developed by the National Institutes for Health.  The picture below shows the graduate and undergraduate instructors in my class this fall preparing the tennis ball measurement for class.


Graduate teaching assistant Danielle Simmons analyzes a video recording of graduate teaching assistant Cole Hensley throwing a tennis ball to undergraduate learning assistant Ben Gibson.  The webcam used for the recording can be seen on the right side of the top of the computer screen.

In principle, the two energy experiments described here can be performed in an algebra-based high school physics class – calculus is not required to understand the results of either measurement.  In fact, the Apopka High School physics classroom in which Cody is now teaching is equipped with new versions of the Pasco equipment we use for motion, force and energy experiments – including the playground ball experiment – in FSU’s Studio Physics Program.  The district staff at Orange County Public Schools made a farsighted decision to purchase that equipment for every district high school this past summer.

However, prior to last week Apopka High School lacked the webcams necessary to implement the two-dimensional tennis ball motion experiment that we developed in response to a recommendation by Cody.  We solved that problem during my visit to Cody’s classroom in Apopka on Thursday, when I delivered a gift-wrapped package containing eight webcams.  (To be strictly correct here:  The webcams are being loaned to Apopka High School by FSU.)

Cody is teaching three preps this year – AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and a non-honors physics class that includes several 9th graders.  All of his students can benefit from the hands-on pedagogy that Cody worked to improve at FSU.

Apopka High School did a great job preparing Cody for success in FSU’s bachelor’s degree program in physics.  Now Cody is set to return the favor.

Cody’s honors thesis is linked here:



This box with garnet (more or less) wrapping and a gold bow contained eight webcams for Apopka High School.

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