Using automobiles to help students grasp physics

Using automobiles to help students grasp physics

A t the age of five, Zachary Wolff, ’20, developed a passion for automobiles. He recalls sitting in the backseat of his mother’s car, where he would peer out the window and name the makes and models of the cars driving by. As he grew older, he perused automotive manufacturers’ websites to read about specific models and what made them special. Now, he will use that knowledge and what he gained at Georgia College in a prestigious Fellowship at Clemson University.

At Georgia College, Wolff served as a lab assistant for introductory physics courses. He combined his love of automobiles with physics to help students understand the lessons. 

Zachary Wolff at Clemson University for his Fellowship.
Zachary Wolff at Clemson University for his Fellowship.

“I tried to connect many of the concepts of the labs in PHYS 1111L to the real world,” he said.

Wolff came up with the idea of referencing automobiles to physics and asked the professor if he could make this happen.

“Professor Dr. Sharon Careccia allowed me to be very independent in how I assisted with instructing the labs,” Wolff said. “She encouraged me to make real-world connections to help solidify the students’ understandings of the concepts. She also introduced the students to the concepts. Then, it was up to me to make sure the students correctly proceeded through the labs with the correct understanding of the overall concepts.”

Wolff helped students in the lab better understand ‘rotational inertia’—an object’s resistance to change motion.

“The lab centered around the difference in rotational inertia between a disk and a ring,” Wolff said. A disk’s mass is evenly spread out over its diameter, whereas a ring’s mass is concentrated over the outside edge of the ring.”

“I proposed this real-world question: ‘Say you had the choice of two sets of wheels and tires for your car—one with a similar rotational inertia to the disk and one with a similar rotational inertia to the ring,’” he said. “‘Which would you choose for your car and why?’

Most of the students, he said, made the connection that you would want a wheel and tire set with a low rotational inertia, as a low rotational inertia means it would take less energy to get and keep those wheels and tires turning—resulting in lower fuel consumption and reduced emissions.”

When Wolff wasn’t helping to teach other students, he was learning from the outstanding faculty in the physics department.

“Dr. Hastitha Mahabaduge was my research advisor,” he said. “He pushed me to research what I was passionate about—autonomous vehicles.”

Dr. Hauke Busch was his second academic advisor, who urged Wolff to graduate early and get a master’s at Clemson University.

“In our meetings, we would often discuss automotive trends toward electric vehicles and upcoming automotive technologies,” said Wolff.

Dr. Kenneth McGill’s Advanced Skills Labs were Wolff’s first experience with hands-on machining. There, he learned to gain valuable techniques necessary for him to know in the future, especially at Clemson, when fabricating parts for a concept vehicle. 

“My hope is that these students continue on with their interest in the sciences. I also hope that they can connect concepts from their classrooms to the real world and go on to help their fellow students to understand science.”
– Zachary Wolff

Wolff also enjoyed having discussions with Dr. Donovan Domingue. He would frequently ask him about his Tesla.

After assisting Careccia in the lab, Wolff felt prepared for his graduate assistantships at Clemson.

Dr. Michael Pangia’s physics classes centered on computer programming, which also helped prepare Wolff for the use of computer programs that aid in calculations and modeling—something that’s important in the world of autonomous vehicles.

Dr. Ralph France’s class was the most challenging class he ever took at Georgia College. Wolff plans to take the perseverance he gained through that class with him to Clemson. 

Zachary Wolff, pictured in the back-center, assists in the lab.
Zachary Wolff, pictured in the back-center, assists in the lab.

“Dr. Arash Bodaghee was the most passionate professor I had while at Georgia College,” he said. “His lecturers were the most memorable, due to his enthusiasm.” 

But, none of these accomplishments would’ve been possible without Dr. Chavonda Mills, who officially signed off on numerous documents, approving Wolff’s overloaded schedule and research proposals.  This allowed him to graduate early and get into Clemson’s Automotive Engineering program.

After graduating from Clemson University, Wolff plans to be an automotive engineer for a major automotive company. He plans to give back to the global community in terms of automotive safety.

“I will continue my research with autonomous vehicles I started at Georgia College, at Clemson and hope to, one day, see my idea for a device that can be added to many vehicles that would enable a warning of an imminent collision and automatic braking to prevent a collision,” he said.

The liberal arts experience at Georgia College allowed him to gain important skills outside of his major. 

“Communication and planning were a few of the major parts that allowed me to graduate early as I would have to communicate with several parties in regards to my schedule planning and research proposal,” Wolff said. “Without this communication and planning, I would not be where I am today and on the path I’m on.”

“Georgia College didn’t just help me land the Engineering Fellowship at Clemson University, they helped me land my acceptance into the Automotive Engineering Program as well,” he said.

Considering Clemson is a Research 1 university, Wolff is most looking forward to the plentiful research opportunities there.

Georgia College also helped instill a sense of community spirit in Wolff. As a member of the Physics Club, he enjoyed volunteering to set up and judge the university’s annual Science Fair. He was happy to give back and enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of young children at the fair, as well as the look of understanding on the faces of fellow students he assisted in labs.

Eventually, Wolff would like to offer scholarships for students with a particular interest in the automotive field.

In the meantime, Wolff wants the Georgia College students he assisted in the lab to have a better understanding of physics.

“My hope is they continue on with their interest in the sciences,” he said. “I also hope that they can connect concepts from their classrooms to the real world and go on to help their fellow students to understand science.”