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David Willey: "Mad" Scientist, Stunt Man, and Physics Instructor


Labeled the "Mad Scientist" on the NBC television program "The Tonight Show," David Willey is part scientist, part stunt man, and all physics instructor. Few educators go to such extremes to prove the fundamental principles of their disciplines, but Willey says it's worth it! Included: Links to other "Mad Scientists" on the Web

"It helps me when I am a teacher to do things that are a little dramatic," says David Willey.

Quite an understatement!

One might expect the job description of a physics instructor to include experimentation, but David Willey takes that to the extreme! Risking life, limb, and sanity, Willey has put himself on the line for his love of physics. Whether he is walking on fire or climbing on a bed of nails, Willey isn't afraid to test the laws of physics -- literally! He believes that this experimentation is key to explaining difficult concepts to his college classes, and he has taken his message to students and teachers all over the nation.

Willey, who refers to himself as a "debunker," explains that the idea for his program called "How Does a Thing Like That Work?" developed as a result of demonstrations he prepared for the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown's Natural Science Department's "open house" days. A member of the faculty at the Johnstown campus, Willey describes the program as "an entertaining, partially interactive physics demonstration lecture consisting of the more visual and dramatic demonstrations from an introductory physics course." The experiments are all designed to demystify tricks and identify and show principles of physics at work.

"Demonstrations from the areas of classical mechanics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, and the physics of the atmosphere are used," says Willey. "The show usually lasts close to a microcentury and about 25 demonstrations are performed. It is fast-paced and is meant to promote interest in science and further discussion, with only a simple explanation of the physics involved being given as each demonstration is presented."

When Willey found that the presentations met with favorable response from visiting students, he decided to "take the show on the road."


Grade eight physical science teacher R.T. (Ray) Socol of W.A. McCreery Middle School in Marion Center, Pennsylvania, learned about Willey's program when he observed his demonstrations at a middle school conference at Shippensburg University. He says, "I knew if he [Willey] could captivate 100 teachers, he would amaze 150 8th graders!"

Socol was looking for a way to convince his students that "Science is fun!" He hoped Willey would capture the interest of the students and relate his demonstrations to those already used in the physical science classes.

One way Willey sparks students' attention is by incorporating them into his experiments. With those student volunteers, the stage is set for an endeavor into scientific discovery! "The breaking of the cement block on his chest with a sledgehammer on a bed of nails and the liquid nitrogen held the greatest interest with the students," reports Socol. "They also loved the cannon and the human air puck."

"I learned so much from this program," said 8th grade student Jen Wolfe. "I thought it was funny when he wrecked the airslide into the bubble demonstration area."

Humor is definitely a tool in Willey's repertoire!

Socol has been hearing about Willey's performance since it occurred. "On the way back to my room after the show, many students in my class said things like, 'Thanks Mr. Socol for bringing Professor Willey to school,' and, 'That was awesome!'" They also complained that the show was too short and wished more students had been able to get involved! Socol was surprised that many of these comments came from students who were not especially motivated in his classroom and who had openly stated, "I hate science!" He says, "This told me that, 'Yes! We can still reach many students with science, school, and academics!' The entiremiddle school was filled with such a positive and exciting level of energy and enthusiasm."

"During the show, the students were standing up and down in order to see all the demonstrations," Socol says of Willey's performance. "We had no discipline problems, even with the disruptive students. He [Willey] held their attention in his hands. Many of the challenged and special needs students were on pins and needles during the program. Here they were learning science without the fear and concern of grades and tests. It is difficult to put into words the look on the students' faces during and after the show. They were captivated, learning, excited, and amazed. If this isn't the goal of teaching, I don't know what is!"


Frank J. Karfelt, a grade six science teacher at Norvelt Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, echoes Socol's accolades for Willey and "How Does a Thing Like That Work?" Karfelt first met Willey at a science workshop at the university. This is the second year that his school has brought Willey's science experiments to their student body.

"I suppose my main goal was to create an interest in science," explains Karfelt. "I would say that the goals were achieved, for the students were highly interested. Their eyes were constantly on Mr. Willey. The biggest problem, and I don't think it was a problem, was getting them to stop talking after each demonstration. They were talking to each other, trying to determine how he did that!"

Promotion of scientific discussion and inquiry is a welcome outcome of the sense of wonder that students experience during Willey's program.

Karfelt recalls that his students seemed to enjoy the "bed of nails" demonstration most of all. Perhaps because Karfelt was a participant! "The students were highly interested to see what would happen to me," he says. In addition, Karfelt explains that the explosive garbage-can-with-liquid-nitrogen experiment "got their attention real fast!" This performance was an in-school field trip for the sixth-grade students in Karfelt's school. He knew that this "trip" would be the last for these students before they moved on to another building, so he wanted it to be something special.

Willey fit the bill!


Physics and math teacher Dwayne Lahr recently invited Willey's presentation into his school in the Halifax (Pennsylvania) Area School District. From the reaction of the students, one would have assumed that Willey was a famous sports figure, says Lahr. One student approached Willey after the program and announced, "You're my hero! I want to be just like you!"

Lahr describes Willey as a "showman" and an instructor who has found that perfect balance of fun and education, who "knows how to entertain students with how and why things work, but doesn't give too much detail."

Lahr had hoped before the program that the students who attended it would "learn to appreciate physics and the scope of it, in real-life situations." More importantly, he anticipated that it would help the students "want to learn" about science. He says that Willey accomplished all of this and more. Upon attending the performance and learning the cost of the presentation, one teacher from an unrelated field observed that the program was "worth that money and more." Lahr considers it a rare find for the often under-funded world of science education!


Willey's road trips have included adventures in Hollywood!

Last summer, Willey and others made an attempt to achieve the World's Longest Firewalk, which was documented by the BBC for the Discovery Channel and has been submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records. Then, in September, the NBC television program "The Tonight Show" invited Willey to perform with its host, Jay Leno.

"They found out about me because of the firewalk in July," explains Willey. "The whole [Hollywood] experience was very enjoyable, and they treated us very well."

Willey's first performance on "The Tonight Show" -- which involved lying on a bed of nails, walking on glass, and touching molten lead -- received such great reviews that he was invited to return for an encore performance in mid-November. Then, he demonstrated pulling a tablecloth from under a table of dishes, swinging a bowling ball pendulum, and setting off a liquid nitrogen cannon.

Needless to say, these dangerous feats have been well received by the studio and national audiences. Students, it seems, aren't the only ones who seem to enjoy these hazardous "scientific" stunts!


What harrowing experiences has Willey had as a result of his treacherous work? "A gym teacher once hit the concrete block a lot harder than he needed to!" says Willey. He's also been hit in the mouth by a bowling ball! And treading on the bed of nails on 'Leno' was pretty risky too.

It's easy to see why students respond so favorably to Willey -- he really throws himself into his work!

What do students love the most about "How Does a Thing Like That Work?" Willey believes that the greatest positive response from students has been to the "Van de Graaff Generator, Bowling Ball Pendulum, Bed of Nails, and Nitrogen Explosion experiments." However, all of the demonstrations serve to entertain and instruct students.

With all of the praise and attention he has received, when Willey is asked about teachers' opinions of the program, he modestly states, "Most think it is excellent." He and his assistant/wife, Raven, want people to know, "We are available!"

For scheduling information, call Raven Willey at (814) 536-8804.

Related Resources



  • Mad Science This link comes from Willey's home page and is provided by an organization that offers science programs for schools. Find out how to contact a science whiz in your area, or share simple experiments with your students and encourage them to become "mad scientists"!

  • Nye Labs Online Few sites appeal equally to students and teachers, but Bill Nye the Science Guy's Nye Labs Online does just that. Here you will discover great science links, simple demonstrations, and all kinds of fun ideas.

  • You Can with Beakman and Jax Many of your students will be familiar with the cartoon characters Beakman and Jax from their popular comic strip or television show. This is their home on the Web. Solve burning scientific questions with interactive "demos" and travel to great resources on the Web!

  • Weather Dude Listen to an audio clip of Nick Walker's scientific hit "Meteorology A to Z" and locate some of the best weather-related Web sites on the Internet.

  • The Bubblesphere If you like to experiment with bubbles in your classroom, this fabulous resource is for you! Learn about the history of bubbles, how to make the best solution, and read answers to questions you have had about bubbles since you were a kid.

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