Two items changed the course of Ed Haponik’s life: a dead shark and a yo-yo. Now a science teacher at Davidson Day School, he is using the latter as a teaching tool, changing the way students think about learning.
Haponik has known he wanted to be a teacher since he was in second grade. Growing up in New Orleans, he one day found a dead shark and decided not only to keep it, but to take it to school. Rather than shy away from the sight – or the smell – of the carcass, his teacher, Mrs. Dufour, seized the opportunity to examine the shark with the class.
“She taught me that it’s good to be curious and aware of your surroundings,” Haponik said. And he knew he wanted to inspire the same curiosity in his own students someday.
Not long after the shark show-and-tell, Haponik’s father gave him a yo-yo for his ninth birthday. Haponik, now 33, hasn’t been without one since. He continues to practice and study yo-yo, has designed several yo-yo prototypes, and has won multiple local and national yo-yo championships.
“I never really had a good reason to put it down,” Haponik said. He took a yo-yo to summer camp with him and then on to college. Even today, he walks the halls with at least one yo-yo in tow.
“Yo-yoing is something I can do that kids can relate to,” he said. And he directs his students’ affinity for yo-yo beyond simple play and into the classroom.
In fact, Haponik’s lessons show that students as young as sixth grade can begin to understand advanced concepts like force, momentum, inertia and velocity – concepts usually introduced in high school physics classes – through yo-yo play.
Learning through doing
Students arrive to class to find yo-yos in the middle of their clustered desks. They immediately begin to examine them, studying their physical differences.
“This one is bigger than the other one,” one student says. “This one is metal and the other is wood,” another student notes. “This one is heavier even though it’s smaller,” another student adds.”
After taking scientific notes about the physical differences among the yo-yos, students grab them and begin casting. Through experimentation, they see that different yo-yos fly differently. Some move faster, some spin in place longer, some bounce back and some linger at the end of the string.
“It’s more fun for me than regular learning,” sixth-grader Nikhil Gavini said. He observed, through his own yo-yo experimentation, that throwing the yo-yo harder makes it spin longer, he said.
When the bell rings signaling the end of class, students stick around, hoping for just a few more seconds to test their theories with the yo-yos, or to show Haponik the tricks they’ve been practicing.
Applying physics can be fun
“The kids get that learning is fun,” Davidson Day Middle School Division Head Mike Cerkovnik said. He interviewed Haponik last year for the job and was instantly impressed with his ideas and his passion for teaching. “It was clear that he was bright and worldly in a good way,” he said. “His ability to make learning fun and connect disparate bodies of knowledge is exemplary.”
In conjunction with the yo-yo experiments, Haponik continues the fun with his superhero unit. He directs students to take what they have learned about physics concepts, including Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, and create their own superheroes.
“Sometimes the students who are the most difficult to reach through traditional means are the most apt to pick up this sort of thing,” he said.
One student suggests that muscles with increased density would be a good trait for a superhero, in that he would have more muscle mass and be stronger. Another student quickly points out that increased mass would mean increased weight, and a heavier superhero would not be able to move as fast.
Haponik then joins the discussion, reminding the students that, according to Newton’s second law, force equals mass times acceleration, and that law supports the idea that a person with greater mass would require more force to move. “But what if the superhero could change density?” another student asks.
And the discussion continues, with terms like “inertia,” “gravity” and “momentum” thrown around as if they were common in sixth-grade vernacular.
“Students this age don’t have to know the higher math, but they can understand the ideas behind why things move the way they do,” Haponik said.