A computational approach to modeling projectile motion, part 3.

I’ve been really excited about how this progression is going with my physics class – today the information really started to click, and I think they are seeing the power of letting the computer do the work.

Here’s what we did last time:

In a fit of rage, Mr. Weinberg throws a Physics textbook while standing in the sand box outside the classroom. By coincidence, the book enters the classroom window exactly when it reaches its maximum height and starts to fall back down.

  • Is it appropriate to neglect air resistance in analyzing this situation? Justify your answer.
  • We want to use this problem to estimate the height of the classroom window above the ground. Identify any measurements you would take in order to solve this problem. (No, you may not measure the height of the classroom window above the ground.)
  • Use your spreadsheet to find the height of the window as accurately as you can.

Note: This activity got the students using the spreadsheet they put together last time to figure out the maximum height of the object. They immediately recognized that they needed some combination of dimensions, an angle, and a launch speed of the book.

These tables of values are easy to read, but we want to come up with a more efficient way to get the information we need to solve a problem.

The table below represents a particular projectile. Identify as much about its movement as you can. How high does it go? How far does it go? When does it get there? That’s the kind of thing we’re interested in here.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 5.02.17 PM

Note that at this point the students are spending time staring at tables of equations. This is clearly not an efficient way to solve a problem, but it’s one that they understand, even the weakest students. They can estimate the maximum height by looking at the table of y-values, but the tedium of doing so is annoying, and this is what I want. I try to model this table of values with the spreadsheet they put together with them telling me what to do. Every time I change a value for initial speed or initial height, the location of the maximum changes. It’s never in the same place.

Eventually, someone notices the key to finding the maximum isn’t with the y-position function. It’s with the vertical velocity. When does the y-component equal zero?

This is where the true power of doing this on the spreadsheet comes alive. We look at the table of values, but quickly see that we don’t need a whole table. We go from this:
Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 5.18.48 PM

…to this:
Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 5.20.52 PM

Clearly this t-value is wrong. Students can adjust the value of the time in that cell until the velocity in the cell below is zero. A weak student will get how to do this – they are involved in the process. The tedium of doing this will prompt the question – is there a better way? Is this when we finally switch to an algebraic approach? No, not yet. This is where we introduce the Goal Seek tool.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 5.23.12 PM

The spreadsheet will do the adjustment process for us and find the answer we are looking for. With this answer in hand, we can then move on to posing other questions, and using goal seek to find the values we are looking for.

The process of answering a projectile motion question (how far does it go? how high does it go?) through a spreadsheet then becomes a process of posing the right questions:
Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 5.26.42 PM

This is the type of reasoning we want the students to understand within the projectile motion model. Whether your tool of choice for answering these questions is the graph, equations, or a table of values, posing these questions is the meat and potatoes of this entire unit in my opinion.

The next step is to then introduce algebraic manipulation as an even more general way to answer these questions, including in cases where we don’t have numbers, but are seeking general expressions.

Today I had a student answer the following questions using the goal seek method with the numerical models I’ve described above:

A ball is thrown horizontally from a window at 5 m/s. It lands on the ground 2.5 seconds later. How far does the ball travel before hitting the ground? How high is the window?

He solved it before anyone else. This is a student that has struggled to do any sort of algebraic manipulation all year. There’s something to this, folks. This is the opening to the fourth class of this unit, and we are now solving the same level questions as the non-AP students did a year ago with an algebraic approach and roughly the same amount of instruction time. Some things to keep in mind:

  • My students are consistently using units in all of their answers. It is always like pulling teeth trying to get them to include units – not so much at the moment.
  • They are spending their time figuring out the right questions to ask, not which equation to ‘plug’ into to get an answer.
  • They immediately see what information is missing in their model at the beginning of a problem. They read the questions carefully to see what they need.
  • The table of values gives them an estimate they can use for the problem. They have an idea of what the number should be from the table, and then goal seek improves the accuracy of the number.
  • At the end of the problem, students have all of the initial information filled out to describe all of the parts of the problem. They can check that the horizontal range, maximum height, and other waypoints of the path match the given constraints of the problem. This step of checking the answer is a built-in feature to the process of matching a model – not an extra step that I have to demand at the end. If it doesn’t match all of the given constraints, it is obvious.

I am looking for push back – is there anything I am missing in this approach? I get that deriving formulas is not going to come easily this way, but I think with a computer algebra system, it’s not far away.

A computational approach to modeling projectile motion, continued.

Here is the activity I am looking at for tomorrow in Physics. The focus is on applying the ideas of projectile motion (constant velocity model in x, constant acceleration model in y) to a numerical model, and using that model to answer a question. In my last post, I detailed how I showed my students how to use a Geogebra model to solve projectile motion.

Let me know what I’m missing, or if something offends you.

A student is at one end of a basketball court. He wants to throw a basketball into the hoop at the opposite end.

  • What information do you need to model this situation using the Geogebra model? Write down [______] = on your paper for any values you need to know to solve it using the model, and Mr. Weinberg will give you any information he has.
  • Find a possible model in Geogebra that works for solving this problem.
  • At what minimum speed he could throw the ball in order to get the ball into the hoop?

We are going to start the process today of constructing our model for projectile motion in the absence of air resistance. We discussed the following in the last class:

  • Velocity is constant in the horizontal direction. (Constant velocity model)
  • $latex x(t) = x_{0} + v t$

  • Acceleration is constant in the vertical direction (Constant acceleration model)
  • $latex v(t) = v_{0} + a t$
    $latex x(t)=x_{0}+v t +frac{1}{2}a t^2 $

  • The magnitude of the acceleration is the acceleration due to gravity. The direction is downwards.

Consider the following situation of a ball rolling off of a 10.0 meter high platform. We are neglecting air resistance in order for our models to work.
Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 6.15.15 PM

Some questions:

  • At what point will the ball’s movement follow the models we described above?
  • Let’s set x=0 and y = 0 at the point at the bottom of the platform. What will be the y coordinate of the ball when the ball hits the ground? What are the components of velocity at the moment the ball becomes a projectile?
  • How long do you think it will take for the ball to hit the ground? Make a guess that is too high, and a guess that is too low. Use units in your answer.
  • How far do you think the ball will travel horizontally before it hits the ground? Again, make high and low guesses.

Let’s model this information in a spreadsheet. The table of values is nothing more than repeated calculations of the algebraic models from the previous page. You will construct this yourself in a bit. NBD.
Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 6.39.23 PM

  • Estimate the time when the ball hits the ground. What information from the table did you use?
  • Find the maximum horizontal distance the ball travels before hitting the ground.

Here are the four sets of position/velocity graphs for the above situation. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Confirm your answer from above using the graphs. Let me know if any of your numbers change after looking at the graphs.

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 6.42.35 PM

Now I want you to recreate my template. Work to follow the guidelines for description and labels as I have in mine. All the tables should use the information in the top rows of the table to make all calculations.

Once your table is generating the values above, use your table to find the maximum height, the total time in the air, and the distance in the x-direction for a soccer ball kicked from the ground at 30° above the horizontal.

I’ll be circulating to help you get there, but I’m not giving you my spreadsheet. You can piece this together using what you know.

Next steps (not for this lesson):

  • The table of values really isn’t necessary – it’s more for us to get our bearings. A single cell can hold the algebraic model and calculate position/velocity from a single value for time. Goal seek is our friend for getting better solutions here.
  • With goal seek, we are really solving an equation. We can see how the equation comes from the model itself when we ask for one value under different conditions. The usefulness of the equation is that we CAN get a more exact solution and perhaps have a more general solution, but this last part is a hazy one. So far, our computer solution works for many cases.

My point is motivating the algebra as a more efficient way to solve certain kinds of problems, but not all of them. I think there needs to be more on the ‘demand’ side of choosing an algebraic approach. Tradition is not a satisfying reason to choose one, though there are many – providing a need for algebra, and then feeding that need seems more natural than starting from algebra for a more arbitrary reason.

Struggling (and succeeding) with models in physics

Today we moved into exploring projectile motion in my non-AP physics class. Exhibit A:
Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 4.29.27 PM

I launched a single marble and asked them to tell me what angle for a given setting of the launched would lead to a maximum distance. They came up with a few possibilities, and we tried them all. The maximum ended up around 35 degrees. (Those that know the actual answer from theory with no air resistance might find this curious. I certainly did.)

I had the students load the latest version of Tracker on their computers. While this was going on, I showed them how to use the program to step frame-by-frame through one of the included videos of a ball being thrown in front of a black background:
Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 4.34.45 PM
Students called out that the x-position vs. t graph was a straight line with constant slope – perfect for the constant velocity model. When we looked at the y-position vs t, they again recognized this as a possible constant acceleration situation. Not much of a stretch here at all. I demonstrated (quickly) how the dynamic particle model in Tracker lets you simulate a particle on top of the video based on the mass and forces acting on it. I asked them to tell me how to match the particle – they shouted out different values for position and velocity components until eventually they matched. We then stepped through the frames of the video to watch the actual ball and the simulated ball move in sync with each other.

I did one more demo and added an air resistance force to the dynamic model and asked how it would change the simulated ball. They were right on describing it, even giving me an ‘ooh!’ when the model changed on screen as they expected.
Screen Shot 2013-02-22 at 5.04.31 PM

I then gave them my Projectile Motion Simulator in Geogebra. I told them that it had the characteristics they described from the graphs – constant velocity in x, constant acceleration of gravity in y. Their task was to answer the following question by adjusting the model:

A soccer ball is kicked from the ground at 25 degrees from the horizontal. How far and how high does the ball travel? How long is it in the air?

They quickly figured out how it works and identified that information was missing. Once I gave them the speed of the ball, they answered the three questions and checked with each other on the answers.

I then asked them to use the Geogebra model to simulate the launcher and the marble from the beginning of the class. I asked them to match the computer model to what the launcher actually did. My favorite part of the lesson was that they started asking for measuring devices themselves. One asked for a stopwatch, but ended up not needing it. They worked together to figure out unknown information, and then got the model to do a pretty good job of predicting the landing location. I then changed the angle of the launcher and asked them to predict where the marble would land. Here is the result:
[wpvideo ZPhs5x2s]

Nothing in this lesson is particularly noteworthy. I probably talked a bit too much, and could have had them go through the steps of creating the model in Tracker. That’s something I will do in future classes. When I do things on the computer with students, the issues of getting programs installed always takes longer than I want it to, and it gets away from the fundamental process that I wanted them to see and have a part of – experiencing the creation of a computer model, and then actually matching that model to something in the real world.

My assertions:

  • Matching a model (mathematical, physical, numerical, graphical, algebraic) to observations is a challenge that is understood with minimal explanation. Make a look like b using tool c.
  • The hand waving involved in getting students to experiment with a computer model is minimized when that model is being made to match actual observations or data. While I can make a computer model do all sorts of unrealistic things, a model that is unrealistic wont match anything that students actually see or measure.
  • Students in this activity realized what values and measurements they need, and then went and made them. This is the real power of having these computer tools available.
  • While the focus in the final modeling activity was not an algebraic analysis of how projectile motion works mathematically, it did require them to recognize which factors are at play. It required them to look at their computed answer and see how it compared with observations. These two steps (identifying given information, checking answer) are the ones I have always had the most difficulty getting students to be explicit about. Using the computer model focuses the problem on these two tasks in a way that hand calculations have never really pushed students to do. That’s certainly my failure, but it’s hard to deny how engaged and naturally this evolved during today’s lesson.

The homework assignment after the class was to solve a number of projectile motion problems using the Geogebra model to focus them on the last bullet point. If they know the answers based on a model they have applied in a few different situations, it will hopefully make more intuitive sense later on when we do apply more abstract algebraic models.

Algebra is very much not dead. It just doesn’t make sense anymore to treat algebraic methods as the most rigorous way to solve a problem, or as a simple way to introduce a topic. It has to start somewhere real and concrete. Computers have a lot of potential for developing the intuition for how a concept works without the high bar for entry (and uphill battle for engagement) that algebra often carries as baggage.

When things just work – starting with computers

Today’s lesson on objects in orbit went fantastically well, and I want to note down exactly what I did.

Scare the students:

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 3.23.59 PMhttp://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news177.html

Push to (my) question – how close is that?

Connect to previous work:

The homework for today was to use a spreadsheet to calculate some things about an orbit. Based on what they did, I started with a blank sheet toward the beginning of class and filled in what they told me should be there.
orbit calculationsScreen Shot 2013-02-05 at 3.30.08 PM
Some students needed some gentle nudging at this stage, but nothing that felt forced. I hate when I make it feel forced.

Play with the results

Pose the question about the altitude needed to have a satellite orbit once every twenty four hours. Teach about the Goal Seek function in the spreadsheet to automatically find this. Ask what use such a satellite would serve, and grin when students look out the window, see a satellite dish, and make the connection.

Introduce the term ‘geosynchronous’. Show asteroid picture again. Wait for reaction.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 3.23.59 PM

See what happens when the mass of the satellite changes. Notice that the calculations for orbital speed don’t change. Wonder why.

See what happens with the algebra.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 3.36.51 PM

See that this confirms what we found. Feel good about ourselves.

Wonder if student looked at the lesson plan in advance because the question asked immediately after is curiously perfect.

Student asks how the size of that orbit looks next to the Earth. I point out that I’ve created a Python simulation to help simulate the path of an object moving only under the influence of gravity. We can then put the position data generated from the simulation into a Geogebra visualization to see what it looks like.

Simulate & Visualize

Introduce how to use the simulation
Use the output of the spreadsheet to provide input data for the program. Have them figure out how to relate the speed and altitude information to what the simulation expects so that the output is a visualization of the orbit of the geosynchronous satellite.

Screen Shot 2013-02-05 at 3.55.37 PM

Not everybody got all the way to this point, but most were at least at this final step at the end.

I’ve previously done this entire sequence starting first with the algebra. I always would show something related to the International Space Station and ask them ‘how fast do you think it is going?’ but they had no connection or investment in it, often because their thinking was still likely fixed on the fact that there is a space station orbiting the earth right now . Then we’d get to the stage of saying ‘well, I guess we should probably draw a free body diagram, and then apply Newton’s 2nd law, and derive a formula.’

I’ve had students tell me that I overuse the computer. That sometimes what we do seems too free form, and that it would be better to just get all of the notes on the board for the theory, do example problems, and then have practice for homework.

What is challenging me right now, professionally, is the idea that we must do algebra first. The general notion that the ‘see what the algebra tells us’ step should come first after a hook activity to get them interested since algebraic manipulation is the ultimate goal in solving problems.

There is something to be said for the power of the computer here to keep the calculations organized and drive the need for the algebra though. I look at the calculations in the spreadsheet, and it’s obvious to me why mass of the satellite shouldn’t matter. There’s also something powerful to be said for a situation like this where students put together a calculator from scratch, use it to play around and get a sense for the numbers, and then see that this model they created themselves for speed of an object in orbit does not depend on satellite mass. This was a social activity – students were talking to each other, comparing the results of their calculations, and figuring out what was wrong, if anything. The computer made it possible for them to successfully figure out an answer to my original question in a way that felt great as a teacher. Exploring the answer algebraically (read: having students follow me in a lecture) would not have felt nearly as good, during or afterwards.

I don’t believe algebra is dead. Students needed a bit of algebra in order to generate some of the calculations of cells in the table. Understanding the concept of a variable and having intuitive understanding of what it can be used to do is very important.

I’m just spending a lot of time these days wondering what happens to the math or science classroom if students building models on the computer is the common starting point to instruction, rather than what they should do just at the end of a problem to check their algebra. I know that for centuries mathematicians have stared at a blank paper when they begin their work. We, as math teachers, might start with a cool problem, but ultimately start the ‘real’ work with students on paper, a chalkboard, or some other vertical writing surface.

Our students don’t spend their time staring at sheets of paper anywhere but at school, and when they are doing work for school. The rest of the time, they look at screens. This is where they play, it’s where they communicate. Maybe we should be starting our work there. I am not recommending in any way that this means instruction should be on the computer – I’ve already commented plenty on previous posts on why I do not believe that. I am just curious what happens when the computer as a tool to organize, calculate, and iterate becomes as regular in the classroom as graphing calculators are right now.

Who’s gone overboard modeling w/ Python? Part II – Gravitation

I was working on orbits and gravitation with my AP Physics B students, and as has always been the case (including with me in high school), they were having trouble visualizing exactly what it meant for something to be in orbit. They did well calculating orbital speeds and periods as I asked them to do for solving problems, but they weren’t able to understand exactly what it meant for something to be in orbit. What happens when it speeds up from the speed they calculated? Slowed down? How would it actually get into orbit in the first place?

Last year I made a Geogebra simulation that used Euler’s method  to generate the trajectory of a projectile using Newton’s Law of Gravitation. While they were working on these problems, I was having trouble opening the simulation, and I realized it would be a simple task to write the simulation again using the Python knowledge I had developed since. I also used this to-scale diagram of the Earth-Moon system in Geogebra to help visualize the trajectory.

I quickly showed them what the trajectory looked like close to the surface of the Earth and then increased the launch velocity to show what would happen. I also showed them the line in the program that represented Newton’s 2nd law – no big deal from their reaction, though my use of the directional cosines did take a bit of explanation as to why they needed to be there.

I offered to let students show their proficiency on my orbital characteristics standard by using the program to generate an orbit with a period or altitude of my choice. I insist that they derive the formulae for orbital velocity or period from Newton’s 2nd law every time, but I really like how adding the simulation as an option turns this into an exercise requiring a much higher level of understanding. That said, no students gave it a shot until this afternoon. A student had correctly calculated the orbital speed for a circular orbit, but was having trouble configuring the initial components of velocity and position to make this happen. The student realized that the speed he calculated through Newton’s 2nd had to be vertical if the initial position was to the right of Earth, or horizontal if it was above it. Otherwise, the projectile would go in a straight line, reach a maximum position, and then crash right back into Earth.

The other part of why this numerical model served an interesting purpose in my class was as inspired by Shawn Cornally’s post about misconceptions surrounding gravitational potential and our friend mgh. I had also just watched an NBC Time Capsule episode about the moon landing and was wondering about the specifics of launching a rocket to the moon. I asked students how they thought it was done, and they really had no idea. They were working on another assignment during class, but while floating around looking at their work, I was also adjusting the initial conditions of my program to try to get an object that starts close to Earth to arrive in a lunar orbit.

Thinking about Shawn’s post, I knew that getting an object out of Earth’s orbit would require the object reaching escape velocity, and that this would certainly be too fast to work for a circular orbit around the moon. Getting the students to see this theoretically was not going to happen, particularly since we hadn’t discussed gravitational potential energy among the regular physics students, not to mention they had no intuition about things moving in orbit anyway.

I showed them the closest I could get without crashing:

One student immediately noticed that this did seem to be a case of moving too quickly. So we reduced the initial velocity in the x-direction by a bit. This resulted in this:

We talked about what this showed – the object was now moving too slowly and was falling back to Earth. After getting the object to dance just between the point of making it all the way to the moon (and then falling right past it) and slowing down before it ever got there, a student asked a key question:

Could you get it really close to the moon and then slow it down?

Bingo. I didn’t get to adjust the model during the class period to do this, but by the next class, I had implemented a simple orbital insertion burn opposite to the object’s velocity. You can see and try the code here at Github. The result? My first Earth – lunar orbit design. My mom was so proud.

The real power here is how quickly students developed intuition for some orbital mechanics concepts by seeing me play with this. Even better, they could play with the simulation themselves. They also saw that I was experimenting myself with this model and enjoying what I was figuring out along the way.

I think the idea that a program I design myself could result in surprising or unexpected output is a bit of a foreign concept to those that do not program. I think this helps establish for students that computation is a tool for modeling. It is a means to reaching a better understanding of our observations or ideas. It still requires a great amount of thought to interpret the results and to construct the model, and does not eliminate the need for theoretical work. I could guess and check my way to a circular orbit around Earth. With some insight on how gravity and circular motion function though, I can get the orbit right on the first try. Computation does not take away the opportunity for deep thinking. It is not about doing all the work for you. It instead broadens the possibilities for what we can do and explore in the comfort of our homes and classrooms.

Who’s gone overboard modeling in Physics? This guy, part I.

I’ve been sticking to my plan this year to follow the Modeling Instruction curriculum for my regular physics class. In addition to making use of the fantastic resources made available through the AMTA, I’ve found lots of ways to use Python to help drive the plow through what is new territory for me. I’ve always taught things in a fairly equation driven manner in Physics, but I have really seen the power so far of investing time instead into getting down and dirty with data in tables, graphs, and equations when doing so is necessary. Leaving equations out completely isn’t really what I’m going for, but I am trying to provide opportunities for students to choose the tools that work best for them.

So far, some have embraced graphs. Some like working with a table of data alone or equations. The general observation though is that most are comfortable using one to inform the other, which is the best possible outcome.

Here’s how I started. I gave them the Python code here and asked them to look at the lines that configure the program. I demonstrated how to run the program and how to paste the results of the output file into Geogebra, which created a nice visualization through this applet. Their goal through the activity was to figure out how to adjust the simulation to generate a set of graphs of position and velocity vs. time like this one:

Some used the graph directly and what they remembered from the constant velocity model (yeah, retention!) to figure out velocity and initial position. Others used the table for a start and did a bit of trial and error to make it fit. While I have always thought that trial and error is not an effective way to solve these types of problems, the intuition the students developed through doing came quite naturally, and was nice to see develop.

After working on this, I had them work on using the Python model to match the position data generated by my Geogebra Particle Dynamics Simulator. I had previously asked them to create sets of data where the object was clearly accelerating, so they had some to use for this task. This gave them the chance to not only see how to determine the initial velocity using just the position data, as well as use a spreadsheet intelligently to create a set of velocity vs. time data. I put together this video to show how to do this:

[wpvideo bQyM2woe].

It was really gratifying to see the students quickly become comfortable managing a table of data and knowing how to use computational tools  to do repeated calculations – this was one of my goals.

The final step was setting them free to solve some standard  Constant-Acceleration kinematics problems using the Python model. These are problems that I’ve used for a few years now as practice after introducing the full set of constant acceleration equations, and I’ve admittedly grown a bit bored of them.Seeing how the students were attacking them using the model as a guide was a way for me to see them in a whole new light – amazingly focused questions and questions about the relationship between the linear equation for velocity (the only equation we directly discussed after Day 1), the table of velocity data, and what was happening in position vs. time.

One student kept saying she had an answer for problem c based on equations, but that she couldn’t match the Python model to the problem. In previous classes where I had given that problem, getting the answer was the end of the story, but to see her struggling to match her answer to what was happening in her model was beautiful. I initially couldn’t do it myself either until I really thought about what was happening, and she almost scooped me on figuring it out. This was awesome.

They worked on these problems for homework and during the beginning of the next class. Again, some really great comments and questions came from students that were previously quiet during class discussions. Today we had a learning standard quiz on constant acceleration model questions, and then decided last night during planning was to go on to just extending the constant acceleration model to objects in free fall.

Then I realized I was falling back into old patterns just telling them that all objects in free fall near Earth’s surface accelerate downward at roughly 9.81 m/s^2. Why not give them another model to play with and figure this out? Here’s what I put together in Python.

The big plus to doing it this way was that students could decide whether air resistance was a factor or not. The first graph I showed them was the one at right – I asked whether they thought it could represent the position versus time graph for an object with constant acceleration. There was some inconsistency in their thinking, but they quickly decided as a group after discussing the graph that it wasn’t. I gave them marble launchers, one with a ping-pong ball, and another with a marble, and asked them to model the launch of their projectiles with the simulation. They decided what they wanted to measure and got right to it. I’m also having them solve some free fall problems using the gravity simulation first without directly telling them that acceleration is constant and equal to g. They already decided that they would probably turn off air resistance for these problems – this instead of telling them that we always do, even though air resistance is such a real phenomenon to manage in the real world.

A bit of justification here – why am I being so reliant on the computer and simulation rather than hands on lab work? Why not have them get out with stopwatches, rulers, Tracker, ultrasonic detectors, air tracks, etc?

The main reason is that I have yet to figure out how to get data that is reliable enough that the students can see what they have learned to look for in position and velocity data. I spent an hour working to get a cart on an inclined air track to generate reasonable data for students to use in the incline lab in the modeling materials from AMTA on constant acceleration, and gave up after realizing that the students would lose track of the overall goal while struggling to get the mere 1 – 2 seconds of data that my 1.5 meter long air track can provide. The lab in which one student runs and other students stand in a line stopping their stopwatches when the runner passes doesn’t work when you have a small class as I do. The discussions that ensue in these situations can be good, but I have always wished that we had more data to have a richer investigation into what the numbers really represent. The best part of lab work is not taking data. It’s not making repetitive calculations. Instead, it’s focusing on learning what the data tells you about the situation being measured or modeled. This is the point of spending so much time staring and playing with sets of data in physics.

I also find that continuing to show students that I can create a virtual laboratory using several simple lines of code demonstrates the power of models. I could very easily (and plan to) also introduce some random error so the data isn’t quite so smooth, but that’s something to do when we’ve already understood some of the fundamental issues. We dealt with this during the constant velocity model unit, but when things are a bit messier (and with straight lines not telling the whole picture) when acceleration comes into play, I’m perfectly comfortable with smooth data to start. Until I can generate data as masterfully as Kelly does here using my own equipment, I’m comfortable with the computer creating it, especially since they can do so at home when they think nobody is looking.

Most of all, I find I am excited myself to put together these models and play with the data to model what I see. Having answered the same kinematics questions many times myself, being able to look at them in a new way is awesome. Finding opportunities for students to figure out instead of parrot responses after learning lists of correct answers is the best part of teaching, and if simulations are the way to do this, I’m all for it. In the future, my hope is to have them do the programming, but for now I’m happy with how this experiment has unfolded thus far.

Using Geogebra to develop Newton’s 2nd Law

I have been following as closely as possible the Modeling Physics approach with my regular physics students this year. My schedule during the summer has kept me from attending a workshop, so much of what I am doing is just an approximation of the real thing, as close to what I understand from the notes on the Modeling instruction website as I can get. We just finished the constant velocity unit last week, and were ready to look at some dynamics of objects. I am starting by looking just at the balanced force particle model before going to the constant acceleration model.

I started the particle force model unit by giving students a chance to play with a cart on an air track with some fans either turned on, or turned off. I had them make observations of what they saw. When they made assertions of constant velocity, I asked them to measure and verify their assertions. They asked to use the ultrasonic detector – I was more than willing to oblige their request. They collected some data, made some graphs, and talked about constant velocity, but they had trouble getting the detector to detect the cart without getting noise in their data. They were pretty sure that they could look past the noise in the ultrasonic detector data and create a constant velocity model. We also thought about taking a video and using Tracker, but given the odd interactions I’ve seen with Tracker and Mac OSX Lion, I opted not to endorse that without looking more into the problems that arose (Xuggle just not installing in one case, two computers becoming unbootable in another, and my own laptop suddenly getting its setting wiped and wireless obliterated until a rest of the system configuration. I digress – a discussion for another day.)

We then talked about drawing system schema and the ideas of forces as interactions between objects before heading off for the day. I knew we needed something to play with to help develop the connection between net force and constant velocity for the next class. My old standby, Geogebra, was there to help.

I created the Geogebra applet above at http://geogebratube.org/material/show/id/17438 and had my students go through the steps of making the object appear to travel at constant velocity by adjusting the magnitudes of the forces.

The steps:
• Adjust the sizes of the forces so that the object appears to move at constant velocity.
• Turn on the position versus time graph using the check box to confirm that it is actually traveling at
constant velocity. What should you be looking for?
• Create three different situations of constant velocity by changing the magnitudes of forces AND the initial velocity. Write down the settings you used for F1, F2, m, and v0 so we can compile them in one place when you are done.

Turning on the position vs. time graph, the students could then check and see if it was constant velocity using their knowledge from the last unit. I was really pleased that getting students to see the graph and figure out how to make adjustments took no prompting. The time we spent on constant velocity paid off, as they did a great job of then matching the graph to their observations and adjusting the forces as needed.

Before long, they had started talking themselves about how the object travels at constant velocity when the forces are equal. They asked if they could just take screenshots of the situations of constant velocity rather than just writing down their values for force, mass, and initial velocity. This made it easy to go one by one through their configurations and see what they had in common. We developed together the definition of net force, and then they adapted it to what they had figured out to come up with the static version of Newton’s 2nd.

I was especially impressed when I had them work individually to answer the following questions – their explanations came more naturally than ever before as non-chalant statements of fact, and without the “yeah, but…” moments that have shown up every other time I introduce the idea of net force.

The questions:

I am a big believer in having real objects in front of the students to manipulate and observe. I also like when the equipment works well enough to make it easy to make the measurements and observations students want/need to take. I thought this was a nice compromise between having an ideal, noise free (virtual) environment and giving enough flexibility for the students to play around themselves with the different parameters for the problem.

On not getting in the way.

Today continued a run of some great class time working on electric circuits. Our whole class period (85 minutes) consisted of looking at the following six circuits:

Circuit 1

Describe what you would expect to happen when this circuit is connected.

A student blurted out this would be a short circuit, so things would get hot. Everyone immediately agreed (WHY DID YOU BLURT THAT OUT!). Still time to save it; I ask why it is a short circuit?

Answer: Because the path through the wire is shorter than traveling through the resistors.

I smirk.

Circuit 2

Groans from students…then a more refined answer about differences of resistance between the two branches of the wires.

Circuit 3

Tell me anything you can tell me about this circuit. If you see something to calculate, calculate it. Build the circuit on the PHET circuit constructor and show that your calculations confirm what happens in the simulator.

Insert student-centered-learning opportunities and fantastic conversations between students here. Students seeing a difference between their answers and what the simulation is telling them causes conflict that they help each other to resolve. Some students bring up the term ‘parallel’, which I’ve never said in class. Others don’t understand what that is, so there is some fighting. One student describes qualitatively what should happen and then shows he is correct in the simulation, no calculations. Furthermore, this student usually is one that gets anxious when there are limited formulas to cling to, which is the norm in my class.

Circuit 4

Repeat the same procedure. Calculate what you can calculate. Build the circuit in the simulator and verify. Explain away differences, or see if there is something you are missing.

Continued progress in recognizing this is a combination of series and parallel resistors, but I don’t make a big deal out of this. A couple students look up formulas and discover the idea of finding equivalent resistance (which I have never mentioned to them). This helps, but the simulator telling them what the correct answers are is key. They are compelled to get the simulator’s answers through calculation – it’s almost as if they feel the simulator is cheating by giving them the answers, so they must understand how to get it on their own. Eventually, they are convincing each other why they are right.

Circuit 5

Same as before, tell me anything you can tell me about this circuit. If you see something to calculate, calculate it. Build the circuit on the PHET circuit constructor as a last resort and to show that your reasoning has led to a correct analysis of the entire circuit.

This time the students hit a wall. Some continued finding equivalent resistance and the battery current, but weren’t sure how to find the current through the 10 ohm and 30 ohm resistors. One reasoned it would split proportionally, and confirmed the answer using the simulator. Another measured the voltage across one of the 10 ohm resistors using the simulated voltmeter, measured the current, and then calculated the voltage difference across it. Repeating for the other resistor, they figured out the voltage difference across the parallel resistors, which then led to a current calculation. Again, I only had to tap students in the right direction – the rest was them helping each other.

Circuit 6

Try to analyze this circuit completely using what you have learned today. Once you are convinced you have accounted for all voltage differences and all current, build it in the simulator to confirm your answers. Find a way to calculate the power used by the 20 ohm and the 10 ohm resistors separately – look it up if you want.

They did a fantastic job of figuring this out – some very quickly and quantitatively. One student that oftenstruggles with concepts figured out how the current between the different branches would compare, and reasoned which ones would have the greatest voltage difference across them.

Then I started lecturing about the equivalence of electrical power and mechanical power, and the magic disappeared. They stopped talking and returned to compliance mode. I saw that happening, so I stopped. Anything I could do at this point would only ruin what was quite possibly a perfect learning experience for them.

When I taught AP Physics, we spent a day on series circuits and deriving resistance formulas, a day on parallel circuits and deriving equations for parallel resistors, and then another day on analyzing circuits that have both. Before today, I had never used the term ‘parallel’ with my students. This time they brought it up. They now have the ability to analyze the same level of circuits as my former AP students, but this group was able to figure much of it out on their own, with no mention of memorization of formulas and no extended periods spent listening to me blabber on about how ‘going through the theory helps you understand’.

There is lots I could say about this, but I think the points made are pretty clear. Let’s just say that I’m really proud of my students work today.

Processing, Pong, and Kinetic Theory

I’ve been playing around with using Processing as a way to quickly get my Calculus students doing some programming. One of my experiments was in using what I’ve learned over the past couple months about object oriented programming to make the game have multiple balls in play at once.

Once I saw how well this worked, it turned rapidly into an attempt to max out my processor. The balls have random initial locations, and ‘speeds’ distributed uniformly between -2 and 2 pixels/frame.

The pong program keeps track of the bounces off of the left and right walls, and uses this as a basic way to calculate a score. When I saw this, it looked just like a kinetic theory simulation for ideal gases, though the particles are only bouncing off of the walls, not each other. That bounce variable keeps track of the collisions with the walls – can anything cool that can be calculated just from the picture alone and the number of collisions?

Processing sketch can be found here.

Electric Circuits – starting at the end.

We only have a couple weeks of class left, and there’s not enough time to do the traditional Physics B sequence that I’ve used for electricity with my seniors that asked for a non-AP physics course at the beginning of the year. Normally I do electrostatics for a couple of weeks, talk about electric fields and potential, and then use these concepts to motivate a treatment of electric circuits. I could have stretched that out, but given my freedom in pace and curriculum, I decided to switch everything around.

This year, I started at the end of my sequence to address a pretty big issue I’ve always seen with my students. As much as they talk about charging (mobile devices, laptops) and basic energy conservation such as turning lights off, they have a pretty fuzzy understanding of electricity and the origins of the energy they use everyday. Some of the last topics in my traditional sequence involve real voltage sources, batteries and internal resistance – the “real” electronics that you need to know if you want to actually build a circuit. You know, the actually interesting part.

There’s nothing interesting in looking at a circuit and calculating what current is going through an arbitrary resistor in a given circuit.  It took me a while to come to this realization because I still have some brain cells clinging to the “theory first, application second” philosophy, the same brain cells I’ve been working to silence this year. These are the sorts of things I want my students to learn to do:

  • Build a charger for an iPod using a solar panel and some circuit components. What is involved in charging a battery in a way that the battery will actually charge up without blowing Nickel and Cadmium all over the classroom?
  • Create a circuit that lights up an LED with the right current so it can outlast an incandescent bulb.
  • Look at an AC adapter that isn’t made for a given device, and modify it so that it does work. The fact that it only costs $5 to buy a new one is irrelevant when you compare it to the feeling you get when you realize this is not hard to do. (Thanks Dad!)
  • Generate electricity. Figure out how hard you have to physically work to run your laptop.

This is what we did on day one:

I gave them a solar panel, some small DC motors and LEGO motors, a stripped down version of our FIRST Tech Challenge robot, some lemons, clip leads, and different kinds of wire, and said I wanted them to use these tools to generate the highest voltage they could. There was also a bag of green LEDs on the table there for them to play with. There was a flurry of activity among my five students as they remembered something vaguely from chemistry about sticking different metals into a lemon, and needing to connect one to another in a certain way. They did so and saw that there was a bit of a voltage from the lemons they had connected together, but that there wasn’t much there.

I then showed them one of the LEGO motors and had them see what happened on a connected voltmeter when the axle was rotated. They were amazed that this also generated an electrical potential. This turned immediately into a contest of rotating the motor as quickly as possible and seeing the result on the voltmeter. One grabbed an LED and hooked it up and saw that it lit up.

They then turned to the robot and its big beefy motors. They found I had a set of LED lights in my parts box and asked to use it. Positive results:

The solar panel was also a big hit as it resulted in us going outside. They were impressed with how “much” electricity was generated after seeing the voltmeter display over 15 volts – they were surprised then to see that it worked to turn on the LED display, but not any of the motors they tried.

At this point it was the end of the class block, so we put everything away and went on with our day.

Some of the reasons I finished the day with a smile:

  • There was never a moment when I had to tell any of the students to pay attention and get involved in the activity.  The variety of objects on the table and the challenge were enough to get them playing and interacting with each other.
  • While I did show them how to play with one of the tools (i.e. DC motor acting as generator) , they quickly figured out how they might transfer this idea to the other items I made available.
  • They made bits of progress toward the understanding that voltage alone was not what made things work. This is a big one.

The next day’s class used the PHet circuit construction kit to explore these ideas further in the context of building and exploring circuits. We had some fantastic conversations about voltage of batteries, conventional vs. electron current, and eventually connected the idea of Ohm’s law (which was floating around in their heads from middle school science) to the observations they made.

I was struggling for a while about how to approach electricity because I have always followed the traditional sequence. In the end, I realized that I really didn’t want to go through electrostatics – I wasn’t excited to teach it this time around.  I also realized that I didn’t need to do so, either in order to teach my students what I really wanted them to learn about electricity.

I think this approach will help them realize that electricity is not magic. They can learn to control it. I admit that doing so can be dangerous and expensive if one doesn’t know what he or she is doing. That said, a little basic knowledge goes a long way, even in today’s world of nanometer sized transistors.

Tomorrow we attempt the LED lighting assignment – feel free to share your comments or suggestions!