When Professor David Wright joined Tidewater Community College in 1974, he never imagined he'd still be teaching at the Virginia school 45 years later.
"It was my very first job out of graduate school," the 69-year-old professor told BuzzFeed News. "I never thought I’d be at the same place my entire life, but it’s been a wonderful place. I’ve really enjoyed it."
Part of that ongoing enjoyment has been finding new and creative ways to keep his students engaged. Many of those who take his conceptual physics class are education or health science majors who are completing a prerequisite or an elective. "They’re not really engineers or science people, and they’ve all successfully avoided physics all their life for the most part," he said.
Rather than solve math problems and discuss scientific principles, Wright is a firm advocate for demonstrating the wonders of science through action. He makes ice cream for his class using liquid nitrogen, lets deflating balloons fly around the room, and makes flames appear.
"It keeps them focused," he said. "We’ll talk about what might happen. We’ll do the demonstration. We’ll talk about why it happened the way it did. I’m trying to show them how physics applies in the real world. They really appreciate being able to do that and see the applications of that."
One such appreciative student this semester was 18-year-old Erica Church, a sophomore who took Wright's class as a prerequisite for her sonography major. "I was a little worried going in," she told BuzzFeed News. "On the first day of class, he actually walked on a bed of broken glass. I was like, this is a little crazy. I've never seen a professor doing this before."
Church filmed her professor's stunts all semester long, and on Wednesday afternoon she uploaded a video compilation to Twitter, expecting a few hundred likes and a couple of thousand views. She was wrong — her video went massively viral and was seen more than 10 million times in 24 hours.
"My phone is just blowing up constantly," she said.
Wright had many, many fans on social media.
As she dealt with the influx of likes and retweets, Church emailed her professor to let him know of his newfound viral fame — and he responded with an incredibly heartfelt response.
"I was just amazed. It’s incredible," he told BuzzFeed News about his viral fame. "I’m blown away."
"I’ve often hoped I could reach people," he said. "I see my mission in life as to get people excited about science, so it really remains relevant, exciting, and fun. I’ve always tried to do that in my class, but I never expected to do that on this scale.
"Maybe someone will see the video and think, oh, I should really take physics and learn more about this remarkable stuff that’s going on out there."
Speaking of the remarkable stuff in the video, BuzzFeed News asked Wright to explain the scientific principles behind a few of his stunts.
Take, for instance, when he lies on a bed of nails.
"That’s the principle of pressure," he explained. "There’s 400 nails in contact with my back — and because there’s so many nails, and each nail supports a tiny fraction of my weight, the pressure on the nails is not sufficient to break my skin! If I only had five nails, I’d be having a bad time."
What's the deal with the pogo stick? The professor explains:
I’m talking about free fall, which means the only force acting on you is gravity. When you’re in a state of free fall coming down on a drop tower at a theme park or on a roller coaster or orbiting the Earth, where only gravity is acting, you’re in a weightless state. Einstein said free fall was the same thing as weightlessness as far as its effects are concerned because you’re all falling the same. So it’s hard to be in free fall in the laboratory but jumping on a pogo stick off the ground. You’re in free fall. And free fall — it looks like you’re in a weightless state. I’m wearing that goofy jester’s hat on my head, and when I’m in a state of free fall those tassels will hang up in the air. So the kids will remember that a lot longer than if it’s just mentioned in class.
And last but not least, the skateboard slingshot:
That’s Newton’s second law! That idea there is that force is proportional to the acceleration. So my students are holding on to bungee cord and I say, ‘Hold on tight,’ and get three or four on each side. We pull the skateboard back just a little bit, and the acceleration is a little wimpy. So I go back further and we’re going again — and then I finally go as far back as you can move that bungee cord and really move off with a great acceleration. So I put somebody on the cart with me, and now we’ve got the same force but a lot more mass. So it doesn’t accelerate as quickly. So it really illustrates the principle that if you have more force you get more acceleration, and if you have more mass you get less acceleration.
Wright said he was glad the video of his exploits reminded people of the special teachers in their lives who've made an effort to inspire them.
"Back when I was in sixth grade, my teacher was that person," he said. "I had a chance 50 years later to go back and tell him he was my inspiration for being a teacher. He made learning so much fun and so relevant. I just thought, I want to be a teacher."
One person who left his class feeling inspired this semester was Church, the student who filmed and posted the viral video. Although she went into his class with trepidation, having never taken a physics class, she finished the class with an A — something she credits to her professor.
"I would just thank him for showing us that learning does not have to be boring and some teachers really do care about you," she said. "It feels good to have a professor so passionate about what he does."