Newtonian Physics and 21st Century Skills

A maximum of three propellers, as much balsa wood and rubber bands as needed, and a weight of fifty grams to carry—that’s all it takes to create a frenzy of learning in the eighth grade. The flying cable car project has become a time-honored, yearly tradition at GCDS, as students apply what they’ve learned about Newtonian physics. By the month of February when the finals occur in the Dining Hall, the entire school has rooted for their favorite flyers. The fastest times have dropped, and now students try to get their flyers across the 84 feet of cable in less than four seconds.

I love this project for so many reasons, and perhaps the clearest reason is that it is a perfect example of students having to internalize the powerhouse skills we have been talking so much about recently. There is no one “right” design. Working in teams (teamwork) under a strict schedule (time management), the students have to design their own cable car (creativity) and constantly test, change, and retest their models (resilience) as they try to increase their speed and efficiency. Everyone who watches these cars whiz across our dining room and the students themselves consistently ask what design might work best (curiosity). And finally, the friendly competition engages the students in some moral questions (ethics) like, “Would it be cheating if I…?”

When you click on the cable car video (60 seconds), look at the smiles on the faces of the students involved, and ask yourself, “Could true learning look any better than this?”


Adam C. Rohdie 
Headmaster, The Greenwich Country Day School