Dr. Skateboard's Guide to Physics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because innovation starts with a freshly carved path.
By Matt Foley
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve woefully lagged behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.
Dr. Skateboard is no show-off, but he’s a natural in his element. The extreme-sports lifer wheels around the University of Texas at El Paso’s Don Haskins Center, making an incredibly difficult hang-10 nose manual look easy as he pumps up the thousand-plus crowd of El Paso youth.
Bill Robertson — known by many as Dr. Skateboard — is determined to teach the youth that, yes, there really is a point to learning science and mathematics. For the veteran boarder with five degrees, including a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico, the preferred method of inspiration comes on four wheels. In 2007, Robertson launched Dr. Skateboard’s Action Science — an educational video series with interactive classroom activities — as a way to supplement science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for students. The program, which has since been adopted by hundreds of schools, asks: How can action sports, like skateboarding and bicycle motocross (BMX), help teachers engage and motivate students to learn physics, algebra and data collection?
Robertson began skateboarding at 13 in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia — the perfect outlet for a curious, sometimes rebellious, teenager. Soon, he was traversing the East Coast and California for amateur competitions where he scored sponsorships from prominent board manufacturers, like Powerflex. Teenage Robertson, the youngest of his family, hoped to go to college, but also dreamed of skating professionally. It was bad timing. The 1980s saw a few brands collapse and skate mags fold, crushing the sport’s popularity. As skateboarding lost steam, Robertson headed to Duke University.
After graduation, Robertson hooked up with an old friend, pro skater Reggie Barnes, who helped resurrect his career. Soon, Robertson — Bill with the red Chuck Taylors and mid-calf tube socks back then — signed to skate professionally with Walker Skateboards, a pro outfit that even produced custom “Bill Robertson” model boards. He became a premier freestyle skater, the oldest style emphasizing technical tricks on flat surfaces, all while continuing his education. In the ’90s, as skateboarding suffered a second dip in popularity, Robertson began teaching middle school, where he connected with seemingly unreachable students the only way he knew how. “When I broke out the board, every student became interested in these basic science principles,” Robertson tells OZY. “I realized that making skating educational could go a long way.”
The birth of the X Games, ESPN’s annual extreme sports event, reenergized the skate scene and led to a second career resurgence for Robertson. He spent five years on the Got Milk? Gravity Tour, competing professionally through the 2000s. He won three Masters Freestyle championships and, in 2010, was inducted into the Freestyle Skateboarding Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, he earned his Ph.D. in Multicultural Teacher and Childhood Development — and was reborn as Dr. Skateboard. “One of my skating buddies said, ‘Dude, I don’t know anybody with a Ph.D.,’” says Robertson. “I certainly didn’t know any skaters with a Ph.D., either.” He occupied a niche in the market. Robertson sees his mission as twofold: promote science education and give young people who might not otherwise consider college a vision of higher education that appeals and enthralls.
Today, raucous shows like the one at El Paso form Robertson’s educational demos. He is a performer, host and emcee of sorts, explaining to the crowd force, inertia and Newton’s laws of motion as the tricks play out. He does this on the side, supplementing his gig as associate provost and associate professor in the teacher education department. Robertson hosts exhibitions across the country and in Toronto, throughout Mexico and Santiago, Chile, where he spent six months as a Fulbright Scholar in 2008.
Robertson is about to have another Dr. Skateboard in the house. Neftalie Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California and current Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, studies the sociology of sport, particularly skateboarding and action sports culture. Williams sees Robertson’s methods as a sharp way of bringing kids into the learning fold. Indeed, Robertson is performing methods that are all the rage in today’s education landscape: “youth engagement.” Rachel Levy, a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, whose research focuses on active learning techniques, tells OZY that the biggest challenge in teaching young people math and science is helping them realize they can learn problem-solving skills. Levy says that a young person’s confidence is key to building math and science skills that are not necessarily innate.
But while skaters have mostly gotten on board with Robertson’s efforts, “it’s been more of a challenge to convince academics, people who don’t view me as very scholarly, that these concepts belong in higher education,” he says. Some skeptics view Action Science as cheap “edutainment” — a tool that entertains but does not sufficiently educate. According to Robertson, his program is simply a teaching aid. It can’t address the structural erosion of quality math and science youth educators. “Most math and physical science majors move on to specialized careers, like engineering, or become college professors,” Robertson tells OZY. As such, most teachers need just as much help teaching STEM concepts as the students need learning them.
Enter: skater dude. Robertson’s Dr. Skateboard ethos — the edgy educator, the outsider with grit and unorthodoxy — is the perfect hook to reel in excitable young minds. Staying true to his skating roots will keep him wheeling around the fringes of the norms.