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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning the Physics of Skateboarding Engages Kids in Science

Skate veteran and educator Bill Robertson, also known as "Dr. Skateboard," teaches students who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks about speed, velocity, and momentum at the local skate park.
Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard
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Learning the Physics of Skateboarding Engages Kids in Science (Transcript)

Dr Skateboard: A skateboarder in a skate park is actively analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating their environment. You're working with simple machines and a compound machine, like a skateboard. You're looking at angles and the geometry of a skate park, making small adjustments built on trial and error. I think that's something that scientists and skateboarders have in common. They look at the word a little differently, and through a lens of their discipline.

Dr Skateboard: Okay, so the idea here is, you know, you're going to be riding in the bowl, and you're going to be kind of working between sort of unbalanced forces and balanced forces.

Dr Skateboard: My name is Bill Robertson, I'm an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. I have a background in History, Biology, Spanish and in the Specialization and Science Education.

Dr Skateboard: Yeah! All right!

Dr Skateboard: I've been a skateboarder since I was 13-years-old. It's part of who I am. It's how I see the world. It's my passion.

Dr Skateboard: You were cruising around pretty fast, and then you went up the, in the invert. So like how do you think you moved from like balanced forces to unbalanced forces? How did you stall it like that?

Student: It's all about motion. You go with the flow, like...

Dr Skateboard: One of my skateboarding buddies, when I told him I was getting my PhD and I was going to become a doctor, he said, "Dude, I don't know anybody with a PhD." And that's when I started thinking about Dr. Skateboard, you know, putting what I learned and skateboarding together with my goals in education. So what kinds of kids do you encounter at a skate park? Well, they're typically people who really enjoy the sport. They're inherently creative. They're daring. And for the most part, they are dissatisfied with their learning in school. Where does learning really occur? Learning takes place when people go to areas of high risk and high ambiguity. And so if you think about your own learning, you know, if you go do something that you've memorized, or something that's not really that challenging, you're not really learning a whole lot. But when you learn something, there's usually something you're laying on the line. For young people, the risk sometimes is, "Am I going to be embarrassed in front of my classmates?" You're really going to do tricks that are risky, and in some ways, they take you to places you've never been. The ambiguity part is something that it's unknown. "What's going to happen here?" And that's where learning occurs.

Dr Skateboard: Sweet, man! So, the one trick that caught my eye in there, there was a bunch of them, you know, but one was doing the blunt, like where you go up and you kind of balance on the tail, and then you pop it back in.

Student: Yeah.

Dr Skateboard: But how do you make that trick?

Student: You got to compress your knees to drive that force back to slow yourself down so you have enough speed just to get-- just enough just to get up and stall.

Dr Skateboard: Skateboarders really do see the world differently. They're always looking at their world as something to skate. And so it's a matter of seeing not only the physics behind it, but analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating and creativity. The upper part of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Dr Skateboard: Big front-side air. So Diego? Let me ask you, so what do you need to do to make that front-side air, you think?

Diego: I made a false start.

Dr Skateboard: They are looking at their environment in ways that they're dealing with speed, momentum, velocity, acceleration. They're talking about motion.

Student: It's motion inertia, then just inertia where you're just sitting.

Dr Skateboard: Yeah.

Student: And with motion inertia, it's like cranking a little toy. You do it the faster you can, the more speed you get. The slower you do it, that's like you're not going to get that much speed.

Dr Skateboard: So you kind of create speed and force just out of gravity, really.

Student: Yeah, that's all it is, man. That and good times. That and good times, man.

Dr Skateboard: That's for sure.

Student: All right, cool!

Dr Skateboard: They're, in many ways, embodying these principles of flight. You know, lift, gravity, thrust and drag being used. But they're not thinking about it in those terms.

Dr Skateboard: The park is sort of like your laboratory. You're using all this science. 'Cause you make some subtle adjustments to make sure tricks happen, you know?

Student: Yeah, like it's just one little thing that will make the trick different. You put your foot a little bit to the left, you're not going to land it. One inch to the right, you'll land it perfectly.

Dr Skateboard: Yeah.

Student: It's more like how precise it is. You have to be really kind of precise with skateboarding.

Dr Skateboard: So one of the things we talk about with that is like it's very kinetic, but at the mid-point, it kind of pauses, and so it has that...

Student: It's like potential, and then as I make the movement, kinetic, and then potential at that one split second that I stop the board in mid-air, and then becomes kinetic again, whenever I flick it back.

Dr Skateboard: I think by knowing the term, and by know what they're trying to do, they can actually help themselves learn more, because they can find a practical application in their own lives. You really are in some ways living out sort of a scientific method. You're thinking of a hypothesis. Some trick you want to learn. You're looking at your environment, seeing, "Where can I best do this?" So you're analyzing what you're going to do. You're going to go through some trials. You're going to collect some data. And then you're going to kind of have an outcome. Did I figure it out? Did I not do it? What do I need to do to change? Skate parks become their classroom, and it become their field-based environment, where they can achieve success in learning. My mission has always been that people will see something in skateboarding, and understand that there's a certain amount of mastery that goes on in here. And mastery, to me, is one of the most important characteristics in having success in anything. You know, if you can master something, you can probably master something else. I'm trying to reach out to the kid who's maybe not that interested in school. Who's maybe a bit marginalized. And we're trying to find pathways for those people to learning. Skateboarding is something that I think we always look at sort of a youth fad that you pass through. But one thing I found out is, you know, skateboarding is here to stay. And I think if we can tap into what kids like to do, and help them to make connections to their learning. And that we can carefully guide them, and caringly guide them through this process, they can really achieve success.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography / Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Original Music: William Ryan Fritch
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy

This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts, and was made possible through generous support from the Noyce Foundation.

I've been an educator for over 20 years, a journey that's taken me from being a middle and high school teacher to an Associate Professor of Science Education. I've also been a skateboarder for over 37 years. I started riding my board when I was a seventh grader in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia and stayed with it because it was fun and something I could do with my friends. Skateboarding quickly became my passion. It's still part of my everyday life and continues to influence the way in which I see the world.

"Dr. Skateboard" was a nickname I earned as a skateboarding educator. I've made it my mission to inspire students toward pursuing goals in education along with their own personal interests. My inspiration for choosing skateboarding to teach physics came from my work with middle school students who were not interested in the topics of science class until I showed how much of physics, such as forces and motion, were found in things they did regularly -- like skateboarding.

Skateboarder catches air
A skateboarder catches some air in a skate park.

Catching Air on a Compound Machine

Often, students will ask their teacher, "What is the point of this?" or "Why are we doing this anyway?" They want to know exactly how the material they're learning in class will apply to their everyday lives because, at times, it seems disconnected from what they do. Physical science concepts are often taught quite traditionally in school, and in an almost clinical manner, isolated to a specific circumstance within a classroom. This is what disconnects the tools and the content from the students' experiences. There is a real need for educators to explore and connect content in settings that are both authentic and relatable for students.

This is what I set out to do through "action science," which makes science real to students and makes learning relatable. For me, skateboarding is a great way to do that. For example, in skateboarding, one trick you need to master is the Ollie. The Ollie, a skater's technique for flying through the air, showcases the principles of flight by demonstrating that you have to overcome gravity with lift, and friction (or drag) with thrust. And in this way, the physics principles of flight are the same for a skateboarder as they are for an airplane. When students understand these ideas, they're not just skateboarders. They become scientists riding around in a field laboratory, engaging in concepts in motion, forces, and simple machines.

The skateboard itself has a number of simple machines that make it functional and fun. Modern decks have an upturned nose and tail. Each works as a lever for the rider, and helps a skateboarder to lessen the force exerted while performing tricks on ramps, in the street, or on the flat ground. Additionally, the trucks on a skateboard deck are fulcrums, and they allow the rider to control the movement of a trick by applying or releasing pressure on the levers. Another simple machine on the skateboard is the wheel and axle, consisting of the urethane wheels with sealed bearings and the axle that extends through the truck. On a skateboard, the wheels and axles help the rider to roll, spin, grind, and carve. By definition, the skateboard is a compound machine, as it's a device that includes more than one simple machine.

Tweaking Physical Science

As a teacher, I've seen that by first providing students with educational experiences and then introducing content, it maps better to how the modern student learns. So, under the banner of action science, and through the use of skateboarding, motivation and engagement become central ideas for both students and educators alike.

So how can this be of practical use for the educator? Inherently, the teacher has to know the students in his or her classroom, recognize their interests, and understand how to integrate those interests into daily lessons. In my experience, skateboarders share the same traits as scientists in that both are trying to use a method based on experimentation to produce a result that is predictable and replicable. That is the purpose of action science -- to put concepts in physical science into the realm of youth culture, and in effect, to make science approachable, relatable, and (possibly) even cool to learn.

Mastery in Action

Learning happens when you go to areas of high risk and high ambiguity. Yet it's not just enough to learn -- the goal should really center on mastery. To master something takes a long time, which skateboarders at a local park know fundamentally. My years in the field of education continually reinforce my belief that it's less about what you know and more about what you can master. When you master something, you know what it takes to be successful, and then you can apply that ability to other aspects of your life. Whether a student is mastering skateboarding, painting, the guitar, a new language, science, or mathematics, developing one kind of mastery can help him or her master something else. For teachers, we need to inspire others to use their gifts in their education, and thereby connect them to their dreams and aspirations.

If this appeals directly to you as an educator, or if you use an approach like this in your teaching, I invite you to share your ideas and successes in the comments below.

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Comments (23) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Thanks for all the great comments, everyone! Jillian, I'm totally with you that I wish we could have shown more awesome skater girls in our video -- you are absolutely right that girls are underrepresented in both science and in "action sports" -- and I agree we need to work harder to do better at representing girls in our coverage on both topics.

I recently curated a video playlist in my ongoing Five-Minute Film Fest blog series about encouraging girls in STEM: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/film-festival-encouraging-girls-in-stem

I also wanted to share another great sports/science integration series of videos -- The Science of the Olympic Winter Games by NBC in partnership with the NSF:


Check it out, excellent videos and coordinating lesson plans included!

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Awesome video! Any time a teacher can relate subject matter to real-life situations or students' interests, the information is more likely to resonate with those students.

I agree with what others have said as well; the skills learned here can exceed solely academic measurements. Experimentation, trial-and-error, support, and perseverance are all extremely important life skills.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


As a male elementary teacher, I've always learned from females. The books, the videos, workshops were always written or run by females. I really didn't think much of it early in my career. I knew I was the minority and that's just my career. It wasn't going to sway me from it. However, as I stacked on the years and met so many people in the education field, I started to meet male elementary teachers and mentors. I discovered books and programs created by male teachers. And guess what? After all of the PD i've had in my 14 years of teaching, the male mentors are who I remember the most and have made the biggest impact on my teaching and life. So, Jillian.... you are right. Young women need to see female scientists and shredders!!! For sure.

Thanks for writing.


Maria Colussa's picture

Hello! My son has been a skateboarder since he was 8 years old. He is now 16 and attending a technical school. Many times I asked myself why doesn't the physics teacher try to engage him by talking about his passion? Maybe because he wasn't interested. Today my son is doing quite well at school and he is also doing quite well at skateboarding. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXp7uPCkxd0 .His passion for skateboarding has made him explore and teach himself how to edit videos and has given him dreams and friends. I also agree with you that it has also given him good practice in higher order thinking skills. Thank you for sharing this. From a mother who understands you! Maria

Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard's picture
Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard
Professor, Educator, Skateboarder, Action Scientist

Hi Maria,

Thank you for your great note, and also for the video of your son. Backside kickflip to tail on the ledge to revert, that is a complex and extremely difficult move! You have to give him props from me! I have a number of other videos on my Dr. Skateboard YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/drsk8board) if you all want to check them out I also appreciate your insights, and for letting me know that our approach makes a difference! Please stay in touch!

All my best,


Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard's picture
Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard
Professor, Educator, Skateboarder, Action Scientist

Thanks Lina,

I appreciate the positive feedback and Steve Brown and his team made the video work! I am so pleased that it made it onto Edutopia, a real highlight of my skateboarding and educational career!

All my best,


Stephen Brown's picture

A quick to to Jillian on the issue of gender. It wasn't intentional to NOT include any girls. In fact, I very much wanted to find some girls to mix it up with the boys. But in truth, at this skate park on the two days we were there, I saw only one girl and she wasn't keen to be filmed. Unfortunately, I don't have the kinds of budgets to go to more than one location. But to assure you that we DO feature female subjects across a wide range of topics, check out http://www.edutopia.org/is-school-enough-hands-on-learning-video and the other videos that are part of the Edutopia series "Is School Enough?" Cars, robotics, design, construction, slam poetry - all lead by young women.

Cameron Taylor's picture

This really inspires me. My upper level Spanish class has been begging me to take them sea kayaking. After reading your article and watching the video I now have several new ideas of how to connect their learning of Spanish to other subjects and interests. !Gracias!

Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard's picture
Bill Robertson, Ph. D. - Dr. Skateboard
Professor, Educator, Skateboarder, Action Scientist

Hi Cameron,

I am glad that this is helpful for you and you can see some ways to increase connections for the students you serve. I have also pursued my work in Spanish, having done a version entitled ciencia de accion that I did in both Mexico and parts of South America. It has also been beneficial in El Paso, where I work and live. Thanks for the positive feedback!

All my best,


judyd123's picture

This is a good video. What a way to teach and reach kids. Using something they love like skateboarding is great.

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