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

Archive for March 2010

At NSTA I met an earth science/astronomy teacher named Jay.  In one of the lectures Jay attended on the Chandra, there were playing cards showing the steps of stellar evolution.  He told me the cards are free and I found the site and ordered a set of them for my classroom today.  One way the cards were used was to ask as question, like “What are the steps to a star becoming a white dwarf?”  You can then choose a subset of the cards and have the students create the proper order of the star’s evolution.

To order the material, the bottom of the page has a link saying “request.”  You must be an educator to order this material, so if you are just a space nut, sorry, find a teacher friend or give up your high paying job to become a poorly paid teacher so that you can get free stuff for your classroom.  There are additional links and request forms for posters, you will find it on the first order page.

Whoever is responsible for the Chandra site has a real clue about education.  There are actual lessons and activities that a teacher can use with little or no modification.  I’m finding this to be a rarity; usually the sites have quick activities or thoughts they post as lessons.  The link to the Chandra Educational site is here:

There is an awful lot here, I plan on spending more time digging when I have some reading time.


There seems to be a pent up demand for my unqualified opinion on this matter, so I guess I’ll speak up.  There are certainly teaching opportunities here.  Students can learn about new developments in battery technology, how systems have changed from mechanical designs to drive by wire technology,  electric motors, torque, gasoline electric generators, the impact of electric cars on our environment, including how power is generated at power plants today.  Students can investigate how an electric car changes the cost of ownership over a period of years.  A car like the Volt opens up the science dialog, I like that.

I spent about 20 minutes talking to their engineer Mel.  Mel is not a 50 year-old guy with a beer belly, she is a very well informed and impressive engineer.  I love that GM puts female engineers in the limelight.  There is still a serious lack of role models for women in science.  I need to get her into my classroom to open some eyes.  Anyway, Mel and I had a great discussion, and in an effort not to put words into her mouth, all of the following statements here are mine.

The Chevy Volt is a great step forward.  Toyota beat GM to the punch with the Prius, but the Volt is not a hybrid; it’s an electric car with a motor that is used to provide electricity when the batteries run down.  The Lithium Ion technology is a big step forward.  Previous electric cars use banks of lead-acid storage cells that weighed more than your mother-in-law and took a long time to charge.  I know the power tool industry was a little reluctant to use Li-Ion cells a while ago, but they seemed to have tamed the beast.

The real problem is that the current Li-Ion batteries aren’t really the answer, they are just a stepping stone.  Somebody, in some university or company somewhere, is going to invent a better battery that can deliver the energy storage needed for an electric car.  When that happens, he or she will be an overnight billionaire.  Right now, the car can go up to 40 miles on a charge.  That would work for me, I commute 16 miles each way.  The cost to plug in is only pennies compared to a tank of gas.  Sure the energy is coming from somewhere, and the power station may be using fossil fuels, but I’d like to believe they operate much more efficiently than my current car.  The range of the car is comparable to any gasoline powered car.  You will still get 300+ miles to a tank of gas and full battery.  But imagine only needing to fill up once a month or three because you mostly power up off the grid.

The Volt isn’t really a new design from the bottom up.  Instead, it’s a quick fix to get GM into the market.  The car needs to lose weight.  I think the use of an axle could be replaced with independent motors for each wheel.  An axle seems inefficient to me, adding both friction and weight.  Maybe motor technology isn’t where it needs to be, but that will improve quickly also.  Electric motors provide lots of torque, the issue is going to be keeping the weight down and making reliable control software.

Will it succeed?  Our high school seniors are going to be buying a new car in a few years, I’d ask them if they would buy it.  Of course the price and early reliability are going to be critical.  I’m pretty sure most of the 12,000 attendees at the conference would seriously consider purchasing an electric car.  It’s not going to be profitable for a couple of years, but if GM plays its cards right and doesn’t do something stupid, they could own the market before the competition gets the Amp or Ohm on the show floor.

This isn’t a friend of a friend story, this happened in our school just this week.

Some of our students have excessive absences and were told they need a doctor’s notes or they will not be able to graduate without going to summer school.  One of our boys brought in a note that was clearly, well … doctored.  Where the patient’s name was written, the name was whited out and his name was written; the dates were changed using the same very advanced technique.  The problem was that the note he changed was from his mother’s gynecologist appointment.

This is, by far, the funniest thing I’ve seen in seven years of teaching.  I’m guessing some of you have some great stories too, I want to hear them.

I mentioned this in my previous blog post.  No strings attached, NASA has a number of robotic telescopes out there for real work that is available to the public.  How cool is this?

Essentially there is a network of these things out there for researchers and educators and the public to use.  You just need to know they exist, and now you do.  For non-researchers, these robotic telescopes have their interface simplified to make taking pictures relatively painless and error free.  These robots sit in a field, all alone, with nobody to talk to, just taking orders for pictures.

There is only a small catalog of 36 objects, not all of which will be visible that evening.  Pick one, then the interface asks you for a field of view.  For those of you who have never used a telescope, it is essentially a zoom level.  For the common folk, you only have one choice, but you do have to select it.  Next is the time of exposure.  It gives you several options, but it will tell you if it is too long or too short.  Last is the filter.  Some objects have no filter, others have red, green, and blue.  Click on continue, give them an email address, and you will have your pictures delivered some time the next day.  I’ve tried it twice now, each time the pictures have arrived after lunch the following day.

Harvard Smithsonian Micro-observatory Link

If you aren’t aware of how astronomical photos are made, here is a quick lesson.  Pictures are taken through different color filters.  Through a telescope or the naked eye, everything is just shades of gray.  But if you take it through RGB filters, you end up with three different images.  Now you color each of those images separately and use special software to merge them into a single image.  Ta-da!  A full color image you created.

Okay, there is more.  Astronomy photos are typically in a format called fits.  These images carry tons of information about where, when, settings, etc.  You really need a special package to merge these photos, but you are in luck.  On the same page is free software and a tutorial to do all this.

Imagine how excited your students will be.  You teach them about how light is gathered by a telescope.  You talk about how the filters are needed to show the color.  The color is real, we just can’t see it, there aren’t enough photons for our eyes.  Next up, the students go to the site and select an object to photograph.  Their request goes into the queue.  Multiple requests of the same object will each have individual pictures.  Now you can have them walk through the tutorial and use their own image to combine and create their own astronomical photo.  Once done, I would send the lot off to Walmart or CVS or some other inexpensive photo developer and they get to put their own astronomical photo on the fridge.  Seriously, I get goosebumps thinking about this lesson.

Like I said, this little secret was worth the cost of NSTA.  And I almost stayed home on Saturday.

I got an email from Tarun just before NSTA, he works for a PR firm employed by GM.  He asked if I would link to their site, since it is set up as a place for educators.  Rather than just provide a link, I asked him to write up something and I would post it here.  Below is what he wrote, reformatted, and minus the teacher testimonials; they didn’t play well on a blog.

General Motors’ Education Website, contact: is an online resource housing K-12 educational materials aimed at educating youth on topics related to the environment, alternative energy and technology.  General Motors, along with educational experts such as Weekly Reader, created this site as a resource to encourage discussion and interaction amongst students, teachers and parents.

Their goal is to foster enthusiasm about math and science by following these core principles:

Enlightenment – Assist in developing a student’s awareness of science, math, and technology issues.

Knowledge – Reinforce these issues with solid concepts and real-world applications.

Attitudes – Help personalize the student’s relationship with the global environment.

Action – Encourage students to make a difference.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s engineers, scientists and problem-solvers.  They will work to develop solutions to build a more sustainable future.  GM’s purpose for this site is to provide additional tools and inspiration.

Visit for:

Free Lesson Plans: GM, Weekly Reader and other educational experts have teamed up to create free teacher lesson plans that explore real-world environmental and technological topics. Visit the site and browse the plans by grade level,  topic and national standard. Lesson plans are also available in Spanish.

Educational Games: These online games for students explore science and technological concepts in fun and interactive ways.  Suitable for all grade levels.

Interactive Graphics: These features demonstrate how technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and internal combustion engines function.

Educational Articles: Students and teachers can find articles about a variety of current topics related to the environment, energy and technology.

Coloring Pages: These printable pages allow young students to color and decorate pictures of various GM vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvette.

“Teach Green” Blog for Teachers: This section of the website was created as a gateway for “green” educators to share their experiences and inspirations for teaching lessons about the environment, energy and technology. We’re also always looking for new blog writers so if you know teachers who are teaching “green” in fun and innovative ways and they want to share their classroom stories, e-mail us at

Educator Newsletter: This newsletter provides educators with the latest updates and news from the Web site.

It was in fact my first science teacher conference.  NSTA was overwhelming (1600 sessions to chose from) and outstanding all at the same time.  I met great people, learned so much from them, and came away with tons of ideas and demonstrations.  It was like visiting my home planet.

I was there for a lot of reasons; I need a senior level astronomy textbook, an advanced physics textbook, lab equipment to move into the AP world, a planetarium maybe (how awesome is that?), robotics course ideas, teaching demonstrations, and of course, a mental recharge. I got all of that and more.

Deb Carder was terrific, although she has way too much energy (her web site is on my Blogroll).  She did a wonderful session on demonstrations and activities.  I saw a similar talk by a NASA engineer, and PASCO’s outstanding Friday night demonstration spectacular.  So many teachers assume that if you are older and losing (or lost) most of your hair, you’ve been teaching forever.  I’ve only been teaching for 7 years, and I heard “you all know this one” about 8 times, only to be followed by something I’ve never seen before.

I’m going to be posting some gems, the best of which is how students can use robotic telescopes for free.  You’re just going to have to wait for me to write it up, that one alone was worth the price of admission.

The GM people had the Volt chassis there and an engineer that was just fascinating to talk to.  I’m going to be posting a GM entry along with some links, again, you’ll have to wait a couple of days.  I have some picture of that one.

Robotics is a large part of STEM, I had very useful conversation with the Office of Naval Research and LEGO.  There is so much going on that I didn’t know about.

From the show floor, all the government outreach means lots of free posters.  You can never have enough posters.  I just love NASA, they are the best, but a close second is USGS with their earthquake map.

And sadly, no takers on a reader meet up.  Did anyone else attend?

I quite literally pulled this together one morning after realizing I didn’t have a lab in this chapter.  The kids have been struggling with the concept of Conservation of Energy.  Putting up the Physlet for the skate park really helped.  I like that you can display a bar graph of the energy in the system and watch it move back and forth between KE and PE.  It’s really cool, I put it on the smart board and kept modifying the track until the skater did a double loop.  It definitely helped the kids understand that the skater can’t go higher than he starts and the transfer between KE and PE.  There are lots of controls, you can add track, modify friction and gravity, change the viewing speed, etc.  We spent around 15 minutes in each class just playing and laughing at the simulation.

The lab I created used the electronic timers to see how fast a steel marble is going at the bottom of an aluminum track.  This is the same basic set-up as the landing zone lab, however a few problems lead to a few of improvements.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with the electronic timers, but at a certain speed, the balls won’t properly trigger the light sensor.  We had been using them on Timing II which returns the time elapsed between triggering two sensors.  When the ball was released from 25cm or higher, the timer kept failing.  We changed over to using a single sensor and Timing I, which returns the amount of time the sensor is dark.  This allowed us to get consistent data up to about 40cm high.  I have an old Pachinko machine, so I borrowed a few balls for my labs.  These are 11mm in diameter, which makes it easy to calculate the velocity of the ball at the bottom of the ramp.

I was trying to decide if I wanted them to graph energy or velocity.  In the end, I decided they would graph the theoretical KE and the observed KE.  The gap in the two is the energy lost to friction.  I thought that if they graphed velocity, they wouldn’t see the loss as an energy loss, only a speed loss.

The paper went through one major revision since I wrote it three days ago.  If you have comments or ideas for improving the lab, I want to hear from you.

Conservation of Energy

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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