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These Are No (Crash-test) Dummies

The JASON Project uses crash tests as a fundamental block in a new curriculum.

Who doesn’t like watching a crash test? Seeing expensive new cars smashed to smithereens is great TV and, as we can attest, is even cooler to watch in person. Now crash tests will also offer a real-world lesson in physics. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tests are the jumping-off point that will enable fourth- to 10th-grade students to learn concepts such as velocity, acceleration and momentum. To help create the new curriculum, a team of internationally selected students and teachers from The JASON Project traveled to the IIHS test facility in Ruckersville, Va., to witness crash tests and work with research engineers who are applying the laws of physics to better understand -- and mitigate -- what happens in collisions. IIHS Senior Research Engineer Matt Brumbelow was instrumental in developing the science unit.

The curriculum, dubbed Terminal Velocity, was released worldwide in August. The JASON Project, named for the mythological Greek explorer, is the only program we know of that links students directly to leading scientists engaged in research. Its rigorous, standards-based classroom curricula are developed in collaboration with IIHS as well as National Geographic Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories, and the Smithsonian Institution. But while the others may be interesting, there is something about the visceral thrill of a crash test that really hits home.

“The most exciting part for me was the roof crush test, where a huge pressure source pushed on the corner of a gleaming new sedan until the car crumpled,” says Aubrey Gonzalez, a high school junior from Harvest, Ala. “You could hear a crackling sound like little explosions, and then the back window blew out and the side windows ruptured, spraying glass everywhere. It was awe-inspiring and frightening to see something so strong crumple like that.”

“JASON’s success is achieved through partnerships, and we are grateful to IIHS for helping us make physics engaging, meaningful and accessible for millions of students,” says Stephen M. Coan, CEO of The JASON Project. “The focus on driver safety only heightens the importance of this curriculum, and we look forward to continuing our work with IIHS in the months and years ahead.”