Physics & Physical Science Demos, Labs, & Projects for High School Teachers

Archive for December 2009

Here are a couple of sites and catalogs that are worth checking out:

  • Edmund Scientific’s (  They have a large selection of science toys and equipment.  I find them to be a bit pricey.  Get their catalog, their web site takes forever to browse.
  • Educational Innovations Inc. (  This is a great catalog, lots to look at in all areas of science education.  This one was new to me, I only recently got their catalog, but I really like it.  I have a list of stuff I want to order from them.
  • ThinkGeek (  To be fair, this isn’t a teacher site, but it is my favorite.  They have such great tech toys, posters and T-shirts (Star Trek & Battlestar Galactica).  Check out their clearance items, there is always a great shirt or toy at a great price.  I’m a ThinkGeek addict.
  • American Science & Surplus (  I think the name says it all.  This is a fun site to browse.  I always have a list of stuff I want, but I never seem to get to the point of placing an order.  I think that may be the nature of surplus, it’s cool junk you want, but don’t need.  At some point I will need something they have.
  • Pitsco (  This is a site for teachers buying science supplies.  They have lots of ideas and kits, I would definitely request a catalog.  I get a lot of ideas here, although I find their kits to be overpriced.
  • Arbor Scientific (  I purchased my original constant velocity cars from these guys.  They are a school supply company, expect school supply prices.
  • Carolina Biological (  Don’t let the name fool you, it is everything your school needs in science supplies.  I have mentioned them before, Carolina is our main supply source at school.  We typically spend thousands of dollars with them each year and I am quite pleased with what we receive.

Perfect image stolen from the internet

I admit I’ve been holding out on you.  Let’s just say I thought this one was a bit too low level.  I beefed it up and it’s perfect for my Conceptual Physics classes now.  I just did it this week and I like the results.

See that rocket shaped balloon on the right… good luck finding them.  I seem to only be able to find the regular party balloons.  Okay, I didn’t look that hard, but if they were at the local dollar store, I would definitely buy them.

So what’s the big deal about this lab, it seems almost grade school level?  First off, again, almost none of my students have ever built a balloon rocket.  This never ceases to amaze me.  Second, it’s deceptively challenging.  Lastly, the kids actually get the principles because of this activity.

To make this work in the classroom, I use a ringstand on one end with several book on the base for weight.  I tie a string and put it across the room, leaving the other end open so they can put straws on the string.  Each team gets their own ringstand/string setup.

The lab is broken into two missions.  The first mission is easy;  first, make it go across the room.  Then put the balloon at 45 degrees to the string and see what happens.  Then repeat for 90 degrees.  They sometimes guess that the balloon will spiral, most are surprised but figure out why it spirals.

Mission two is really difficult, I tell them they are being challenged, but they are not graded on success, they are graded on effort and documentation.  The mission is to make the balloon go down and automatically come back.  They are told they can use two balloons.  Once they get into this mission, the kids tend to put two balloons facing opposite each other and let go at the same time.  They seem to think that the balloons will know to take turns.  They learn first hand that the opposing forces cancel each other out.  That’s really the gem in this lesson.  I don’t care about them making it come back.

What most do next is blow up one balloon bigger than the other thinking it will move the way they want and then come back because it lasts longer.  Again, they usually figure out that the opposing forces cancel.  They next try to delay the release of one of the balloons.  I get a few creative ideas here using bent straws and twisted balloons, but so far no amazing designs.

I like to sit back and watch this one.  You can see the lights go on when they figure out the opposing forces cancel.  Below is the lab handout.  If you get some good solutions to the return mission, I’d love for you to post the solution here.

Balloon Lab – revised

Loyal readers, I have a question for you.  Would you care if I moved my blog from WordPress to Blogspot?  Why, you ask, would I move?

Well, I get a pretty decent amount of traffic, more than a couple of people have suggested I put ads on my blog.  WordPress doesn’t allow it, Blogspot does.  We’re talking about Google Adsense, nothing radical or insulting.  I don’t know what it will pay, it might be $100 a month.  I don’t have any way of estimating the payout, but, as so many of you know, teaching doesn’t pay all that well.  (I still don’t make half of what I used to make in sales, but let’s not go there.)

I think I’m going to try parallel posts and see what happens.  What do you think?

We are having discussions within the science department regarding an alternative energy initiative.  We want to try to become a leader in the local community by educating and involving our students.

We’ve discussed a school-wide program to convert student and teacher homes over to the new energy efficient bulbs, perhaps selling the bulbs.  We’ve discussed installing a solar hot water heater, but our school doesn’t use much hot water, probably not enough to show a return.  I’d like to look into wind energy.

Has anybody tackled this problem?  I have done only basic research on the topic.  I’ve spoken to our zoning person in the town I live in (I work in Philadelphia), and he says nobody has put one in yet.  I’m curious if there are grants or other assistance programs out there to aid schools in bringing this kind of technology to the students.

This is a rant, but I am really looking for what the rest of you do.  Let me tell a quick story.

I was out yesterday, I knew I would be out, so I gave work to my physics classes on Monday, they knew the assignment was to be done in class when I was out on Tuesday.  Honors did as instructed, although the sub was left instructions to share the solution manual with them if they were stuck.  He did not, they were frustrated because he didn’t bother to read the entire 50 word instructions I left him.

The sub decided it was okay for my other physics class to watch a video I left for my physical science students.  He told them they can watch the video and just do the work for homework.  None of them were at all prepared for today.  I was furious, not just at the kids, but at the adult that was paid to be there.  I sent an email of the event to my principal, but I know what she is going to say – we can’t find people who will come in, they all want lots of notice.

I think the next time, I’m going to leave a box of crayons.  I mean really, why bother?

What’s New in 2013/2014?

Every year brings a change, this one is no exception.

I will be picking up the sophomore honors Algebra II class to keep them separate from the juniors. This should help accelerate them and put them on a stronger track towards Calculus. Looks like there will be only one section each of Physics and Calculus, but still two of Robotics & Engineering.

Hot topics this year are going to be the Common-Core Standards, Standards-Based Grading (SBG), improving AP Calculus scores, and somehow adding Python, maybe as a club.

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December 2009
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