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

Archive for February 2010

Cards on the table… I outright stole this project.  My daughter was competing in the Physics Olympiad this weekend and one of the activities was to build a tower of marshmallows and toothpicks that can support a ping pong ball.  I know it’s not new, but I had never watched it happen before, I’m sold.

This was a great exercise in teamwork and engineering.  I was rather impressed at how the whole project came together in just 25 minutes.  I wasn’t sure when I would do this in my classes, we don’t ever really study mechanical engineering principles.  The same with the basswood bridges they built.  The concepts are great, I love the hands-on, I just wasn’t sure where this would fit in my curriculum.  I decided that I am going to use the Tower of Marsh when we do a short chapter on Center of Gravity.  We can do a small side study of bridge design and then do a team activity building the towers.  I was going to give the kids 40 minutes, the 25 minutes they had seemed to fly by and I have a 55 minute class to fill.  Maybe as an added prize, the winning team would get to have hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows.

The attached instruction sheet has been modified for classroom use and includes how it will be scored.  This is in Word 2007 format, you may need a the free converter if you don’t have it yet.

Tower of Marsh


I’m shopping for a new theme, the old one was feeling stale.  It may change a few times over the next week or so.  I’m shooting for clean lines, easy to read, nothing to frilly.  The pink and blue banner is a bit frilly, but is the rest of the blog easy on the eyes?

I wanted to build this robot, but we just didn’t get that far.  I’ll save it for my summer program at the community college.  After midterm exams, we came back to the robots for a final two weeks of programming.

First up was the touch sensor.  I liked this lesson, it added switch blocks (if-then) into the programming.  We used it with the “follow the line” activity, but the training software told the kids what to do.  This time they had to do it on their own.  By now, the CMU software has become only a guideline and a reference for the kids.  Their assignment was to teach the robot to move forward until it bumped into something.  When that happened, the robot was supposed to stop, say “sorry,” back up a little, turn, and start over.  This is actually an easy program, so while they were figuring this out, I build a maze out of textbooks.

Part two of this got tricky.  I stopped class and explained how you can find your way out of any maze by simply hugging either the right or left wall.  They had to try to get through the maze using the single touch sensor in the front.  Only one of my students got this to work, and I actually gave him the method.  I won’t give it away.  Most of the kids got frustrated because the robot would enter the maze and just bump around aimlessly.  I asked them to brainstorm a method of using two or more sensors to get through the maze.

The general solution was to add the ultrasonic sensor.  Rather than add the sensor to the front, we added it to either the right or left side.  The idea was to have the robot stay a certain distance from the right wall.  But if it hit something while following the right wall, it would need to make a left turn and continue.  This took a lot of trial-and-error for them.  It required two switch blocks, one first for the ultrasonic sensor, then one for the touch sensor, both of them together in a loop.

I made this more interesting by changing and growing the maze each day and requiring that the robot must enter the maze from point A and exit at point B, then do it in reverse.  This eliminated the possibility of somebody getting clever and just teaching the path to their robot.  I made it a point challenge, 50 out of 50 for the fastest combined time, 45/50 for completing the maze in both directions, 40/50 for completing it in one direction, and 35/50 for trying until they ran out of time.  Slackers got less, mostly 25/50.

The other final 50 point project was an ad campaign for a robot they had to design and market.  The kids had to come up with a feature set and figure out who they would sell it to.  They had 3 to 5 minutes to present their idea and tell us why their robot would solve our problems.  After the presentation, we discussed what in their design existed today, how some of the technology was 20 years old, how some of it is so hard to do.  I ended this with Michio Kaku’s new show How to Build a Robot.  Final Project

So what did I learn?

  • The CMU lesson software is a good starting point for a lesson, but I needed to add a timed point challenge at the end of each training sesson.  I will use the CMU lessons in the future, but not rely on them alone.
  • It’s really hard to put this stuff on a midterm exam.  Best to not try and give them graded programming challenges every day or two.
  • Keeping the kids out of the parts bins is a good idea as long as several classes are sharing the robots.  Next year when I have a dedicated class, it won’t be an issue.  But not letting them modify the robot  beyond the guidelines of the lesson was the way to go.
  • Number all the big parts to match the brick and bin.
  • I started to have the kids delete their programs from the computer and the robot so others wouldn’t cheat.  I don’t have a better way around that right now.  I’d like to use USB drives, but we’ve had virus issues, so that’s not allowed.  Ideally, LEGO will add password protection.
  • Invest in some NXT books.  I found a bunch on eBay and and went crazy.  If you are only purchasing one of them, buy the book “The Lego Mindstorms NXT Idea Book” by Boogaarts, Daudelin, Davis, Kelly, Levy, Morris, … .  This is the book I wish I had before I started the course.  It tells you how to do all those things you figure out a little too late, like making your own subroutines (it’s so easy) and how each of the sensors work (if you use more than one ultrasonic sensor at a time, they interfere with each other).  Also, books by James Kelly have some good challenges based around a storyline.  I think this would be a great way to introduce these robots to a middle school class.  I have the Mayan Adventure, his newer one is called The King’s Treasure; I’ll be picking that one up as well.
  • I will add the “My Blocks” early on.  Next time, after the kids complete the first task of programming the robot to travel in rectangle, I’ll show them how they can make a single “My Block” for a 90 degree right turn and just use it rather than cutting and pasting 5 blocks for each turn.  Hopefully, they’ll build their own library of additional blocks as the class progresses.
  • Download videos of LEGO projects from YouTube.  There are a whole bunch of different walking robots, Rubik’s Cube solvers, and an amazing Sudoku solver that you absolutely must see.  I plan to show the walking robots to the summer kids and let them go on their own to design and build their own walking creation.  The videos showed the kids the power of the “toys” they were playing with.  I will show these and other short robot videos, perhaps one at the start of each class, in an effort to motivate them into doing more.

I was worried I wouldn’t have enough material for the kids to do this for 6 hours a day for a week.  I’m pretty sure the projects and videos will make the summer session fly by.  It should be fun to let them experiment and build on their own.

I got a Promethean Board in my classroom this year.  It’s a love-hate kind of thing.  I thought maybe I would use it for everything, kind of like nailing in a screw.  I used it, some days more than others, some weeks only a few minutes a day.  My experience is only with this one brand.  I’m not familiar with any other brand of smart board.  I you have other experiences, please add your experiences and ideas as a comment.

Here are some of the great ways to use a smart Promethean Board:

  • Class warm up – sometimes I put up a word problem or a Next-Time question from Hewitt’s book, sometimes this is a science news web page or the astronomy picture of the day.  Sometimes it’s a short video that gets their attention.  Between these ideas, I can always have something to engage the students when they are entering the room.
  • Test review game for Conceptual Physics – I have ExamView software, it’s provided with my textbooks.  I typically use the software to create a sample test of all multiple choice and true/false questions.  I give out mini white-boards ** and divide them into groups.  The groups are competing for extra credit points.  The group with the most right answers might get 15 points, second gets 10, third gets 5, fourth gets none.  I used to make copies for everyone and hand them out.  Now read the questions off the board.  We can usually get through about 50 review questions in a class.
  • Simulations – There are lots of great web sites out there for this.  You can also use Physlets.  I run into a lot of problems with the sites being blocked by our security system.  Try them well in advance and maybe you can get them unblocked.
  • Crayon Physics – it’s a game that costs only $20, but it’s really a problem solving exercise.  Go get the demo and you’ll want to purchase the full thing.  I let the kids play it if there is free time.  They love to take turns and try to out-solve each other.  The full version has many more features than the demo version.  Worth the price.
  • Overhead slides – I now scan them and put them into a folder organized by chapter on the computer.  It’s a pain scanning them, but I no longer need to move the overhead into place and clean a spot on my board and expect a bulb to blow.  Plus I can mark them up without worrying about cleaning them up later.
  • Movies and science shows – A much earlier post discussed some of my favorites.  I like showing good movies because the kids start seeing science when they go to the movies – I haunt them.  Nothing like a big screen to watch Apollo 13, Time Warp, and Mythbusters.
  • Previewing a lab or other instruction set – I convert the file and put it on the board.  Then we read over it together, I highlight the important points and they can see where it is on their page.  I know, it’s remedial, but that’s my teaching life.
  • Programming Robots – We just finished playing with LEGO robots.  It was a pretty good experience, I’ll be updating the blog soon.  I would often run the NXT-G programming environment on the smart board to demonstrate how a function could be programmed into the robot.  It was much easier than going to 12 computers and endlessly repeating myself.

Here’s what just doesn’t work on my smart Promethean Board:

  • Doing physics problems.  I know, you’d expect to do all the work on the board.  There are some problems; the writing doesn’t keep up, it tends to skip and it writes too fat.  I am constantly changing pen color or size or something else to get the point across.  The result is not as easy as writing on a white board, but it’s worse now because I was waiting  for everyone to finish writing so I can clear the board and go on to the next problem.  Instead, I just do problems on the white board and keep moving.  They can look at previous problems and take their time copying.
  • PowerPoint.  Promethean has their own editor called Active Inspire.  You can’t just play Power Points in there.  You can run Power Point, but then you don’t have the tools that are part of the Promethean application.  You can import the Power Point as a flat file.  Active Inspire doesn’t have all the movement and other motions, so the files don’t really work right and you can’t recreate them in Active Inspire because it doesn’t have the functions.  I don’t typically give notes in Power Point format and I certainly won’t be creating them in Active Inspire.
  • Basically, anything you want to show interactively on the white board has to be brought into the Active Inspire software first.  Only it can’t import very much.  I found a work around with a small but outstanding bit of freeware called CutePDF.  When installed, you can choose CutePDF as your printer and write anything as a PDF file.  Then within Active Inspire, you can import a PDF.  You can’t edit the document, but you can display it.  That’s how I get the ExamView output into Active Inspire.  You have to do the same with a Word file and pretty much anything else.  I’m not impressed.

Let me be clear here – this was a good investment, but I don’t think it lives up to the all hype.  In my classroom, the Promethean Board was placed dead in the center of the white board area, my two boards were split and moved to either side of the interactive board.  It makes teaching a bit awkward and doesn’t let work flow from one board to another.  The far ends of both boards are hard to see for some of the students.  We were told about all the existing lessons that are available on Promethean Planet, created and shared by other teachers.  The site says 16,000.  I found 21 for physics, and those were basically short power point-like presentations.  A great majority of the lessons are for grade school.  Most of my frustration is from a lack of software features, the company needs to do a lot better.  I want to be able to create animations of a ball moving, adding text, etc.  It just doesn’t do this stuff well.

** Here’s a real money saving tip: You can make your own mini white boards.  Go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and pick up a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of “tile board” for $10.  Then cut it into any size white boards you want; mine are roughly 9″ by 12.”

My college buddy Andy sent me this.  From the title alone, you know you are in for something a little different.

The book itself is written as a conversation with the author and his dog.  The author’s dog, Emmy, plays a very important role, offering great questions and commentary and constantly bringing us back to the practicality of the science.

Chad Orzel’s relaxed writing style brings the book down to a more common level, but is quantum physics for everyone?  I haven’t studied quantum mechanics since my junior year of college, so I am more than a bit rusty.  I picked up the book and got through thirty pages in no time.  Then there were times when it made my head hurt and I could only get through a page at a time.  Quantum physics is strange and challenging material.  Chad does a great job making it interesting and readable.

I often pick up books and don’t bother finishing them.  This book kept pulling me back to discover what oddity was next.  I knew about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and I’ve never felt like it made sense.  In the book I learned about the “many worlds” interpretation.  While they have the same outcomes, they take different paths at understanding superposition.  I’m not sure any of it really makes sense, but the book does a real nice job bringing quantum mechanics down to the science minded lay person.

I love that Chad ends the book with an straight forward scientific discussion of all the crap out there claiming quantum healing and magic.  As a high school physics teacher, if I get any questions on quantum mechanics, it’s usually about the cures and “free energy” and not about Feynman drawings (which are touched on) and quantum teleportation.

This is not a simple read, but worthy of your time.  I expect I will pick this book up again in about six months to see if a second read improves my understanding.  Again, not something I would usually do, but I can see jumping back in for another taste.  Thanks Andy.

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.

Polls in the sidebar

Just a quick poll to help me understand who is stopping by my blog.

Yeah sure, lots from America, but look who else is here…

If you are badly in need of more email or for some reason jonesing for a physics fix, enter your email address so I can bother you with my newest rant on science.

Join 314 other followers

Blog Stats

  • 1,299,568 hits by nerds like me since June 1, 2008
February 2010
« Jan   Mar »