Days 138-141: Popper Hoppers & Unbalanced Torque

We had Friday off this week. I think staff and students alike were very happy to have a long weekend.

Physics: Popper Hoppers

This week we wrapped up energy. After finishing the bouncy ball evidence-based reasoning from last week, we got out the popper hoppers to use energy to find the spring constant of the toy. We haven’t done as much having students decide what measurements to take as I’d like, so students struggled a little at first with what measurements to take. I showed them a strategy from one of my past AP students wo would write out the equation she was going to use to solve for the target variable, then put check marks next to each of the other variables once she had a step in her procedure that would get her a value for that variable. That was exactly what students needed to get a solid plan for the practical.

AP Physics 1: Unbalanced Torque

This week, we worked on unbalanced torque. We used another Pivot Interactives activity (Disclaimer: I work for Pivot Interactives as a content writer. This activity should be published soon!) since I haven’t had a chance to play with the hands-on equipment we purchased for rotation in fall 2019. I’m trying to be pretty conscious of making explicit connections to unbalanced linear forces, both to make sure students aren’t starting from scratch in their understanding and to embed review of earlier topics. Students are seeing those connections pretty clearly, which is great to see.

I also started a countdown to the AP Physics exam on my whiteboard, and noticed students are more focused when working problems. I think the countdown is adding some sense of urgency to what we are working on.

Days 133-137: Bouncy Balls & Torque

This week was a little odd since we didn’t have any classes on Tuesday to accommodate state testing. The juniors took the ACT, but the seniors had an asynchronous day. A lot of the seniors really appreciated having a day to follow their own schedule and relax a bit.

Physics: Bouncy Balls

We started an evidence-based reasoning activity to determine what interaction dissipates a bouncy ball’s energy (you can find more details in my article from The Science Teacher). This week we focused on preparing for doing the video analysis by sketching energy bar charts, force diagrams, and motion graphs for if air resistance is responsible for most of the dissipated energy and for if the impact with the table is responsible for most of the dissipated energy. We then used those diagrams to get to some testable predictions about things we can measure with video analysis that will distinguish between those two explanations. Students found this process challenging, but I was really pleased by how they connected other ideas from this course to energy.

AP Physics: Torque

To introduce torque, students set up some meter sticks as levers and looked for a relationship between the force exerted by a hanging mass on the meter stick and the force required to balance the meter stick. After we discussed that lab and took some notes on torque, I showed students a second class lever and asked them to determine if that type of lever showed the same relationship as the first class lever we started with. While I don’t discuss the classes of levers with students, I like that this activity helps emphasize it is the direction of the torque, rather than the direction of the force that is important. This activity was tougher for my students than I expected, I think because I rushed the post-lab discussion after the first class lever, so they weren’t as clear as they needed to be about the relationship we’d found the first day.

Days 128-132: Energy Conservation & Rotational Kinematics

Physics: Energy Conservation

This week we worked on making the transition to setting up problems for conservation of energy. Before doing problems, we did a card sort where students matched scenarios to energy bar charts, conservation of energy equations using only energy forms, and conservation of energy equations where the formulas were substituted for the energy forms. This seemed to really help students connect the two different versions of the conservation of energy equations and were something I was able to refer back to when students were working on calculations on paper. Whenever students refer back to an activity as we tackle the next challenge, that is a sign to me that the activity was worthwhile.

AP Physics 1: Rotational Kinematics

This week we worked through rotational kinematics. We started with an activity on Pivot Interactives where students analyzed the motion of some dots on a spinning wheel (disclaimer: I write activities for Pivot Interactives. This one should be published soon!). Students very quickly made connections to linear kinematics, which was exactly what I was hoping for. From there, we did a card sort with motion graphs for rotational kinematics where students again saw the connections to linear kinematics really clearly. I’d printed and cut this card sort back in February 2020 with the intention of using it that spring, so it was exciting to finally pull it out of the cabinet! One of the advantages of students making those connections is these activities served as a really natural review, which I try to incorporate into these last topics as the countdown to the AP exam begins.

Days 123-127: Kinetic Energy & Centripetal Force

Physics: Kinetic Energy

The biggest task this week was a lab to determine the equation for kinetic energy. On some recent labs, students have struggled to get good data. I think part of the issue is many don’t buy into the idea that knowledge should come from the labs they do, so they don’t invest the effort or attention into getting good data, which makes it hard to see how it leads to physics concepts or equations and becomes a self-reinforcing cycle I wanted to interrupt with this lab. We talked a little about what I observed and my hypothesis, then I re-did the gravitational potential energy lab as a demo and made a point of discussing the things I was doing to get good measurements and check the quality of my data as I went. When we were getting ready to whiteboard, I also checked in with groups to make sure they had quantities on the correct axis and were seeing that they needed to linearize. The result was data that really nicely showed the quadratic relationship between kinetic energy and velocity and most graphs even had slopes very close to half the mass of the carts students used! A lot of students were really proud of their results, which was great to see and I’m hoping will encourage them to continue those good data collection practices.

AP Physics 1: Centripetal Force

I like to ignore the College Board’s recommendation to do centripetal force as unit 3 because it is such a nice opportunity for built-in review of a lot of ideas about forces. We started by spinning some rubber stoppers on strings to talk qualitatively about how we could change the force in the string before moving over to Pivot Interactives to collect quantitative data (disclaimer: I am a content writer for Pivot Interactives). Next, we used an activity I originally got from Lucas Walker using exoplanet data to find the law of universal gravitation. Students are making the connections I want them to, but I can tell they are starting to feel some fatigue. I typically rely a lot on Pivot Interactives for this topic since we don’t have much equipment, but students got pretty into the brief hands-on activities we did this week, so I think I should make sure to keep working those in to help my students stay engaged these next few weeks.

Days 118-122: Energy Bar Charts & Springs

This week, we came back from spring break and started trimester 3.

Physics: Energy Bar Charts

This week we focused on drawing energy bar charts. Students have struggled to connect representations, so I tried starting by having students draw the more familiar energy pie charts. Then, we got out the Mathlink cubes to use as a manipulative representing the types of energy (an idea I think I first saw in Scott Hertting’s article in The Physics Teacher). Once students had rearranged the cubes to represent at least two different snapshots, I had them sketch how they arranged the cubes on a bar chart. One thing I was really excited about is as the week progressed, I had some students ask if they could keep using the cubes, which tells me they were a useful tool. I also saw a lot of students sketching energy pie charts to help figure out what the bar charts should look like, which tells me they are connecting the two representations when seeing relationships between representations has been really challenging this year.

Cubes in three stacks on a whiteboard. Each stack is labeled with a type of energy.

AP Physics: Oscillating Springs

Students did a lab to find the equation for the period of a spring, then we dove into some problems. Students did really well with the problems focused on representations and showed a lot of growth from earlier this year on the problems from the College Board’s AP Physics 1 workbook. The workbook problems included a lot of predictions about how various factors would affect the period of a spring, so we used a spring to connect a motion encoder cart to a force sensor on a track so we could change the angle the spring was at, as well as factors students had already tested like mass and amplitude. I also made sure to use this as an opportunity to review some basics on motion graphs since exam day is starting to loom.

Days 110-112: Energy Pie Charts & Pendulum Practical

With President’s Day on Monday and a PD day on Friday, we had a 3-day week.

Physics: Energy Pie Charts

This week we did mistakes whiteboarding with energy pie charts. There was some great discussion, both as students prepared and as they presented the whiteboards, that came from students working through what differences represented someone making a mistake vs. what differences represented different, but equally valid choices.

We also briefly revisited momentum transfer this week. On the last quiz, I saw a lot of evidence that students were struggling to connect the equations and math for conservation of momentum to their momentum bar charts, which fits with a larger pattern I’ve seen this year of students struggling to connect different representations. As we get into conservation of energy at the start of next tri, I need to give a lot of thought into how I’m going to support students in making connections between mathematical and graphical representations. I do a lot of card sorts to try and help with these connections, but I think I might need to plan some discussion that specifically focuses on how the mathematical representations relate to the diagrams.

AP Physics: Pendulum Practical

This week, we wrapped up pendulums. My students could use more practice and feedback on designing experiments and writing procedures, so I decided a pendulum practical would be a good opportunity to practice this. I tasked students with finding the length of a string without using a meterstick or ruler. Before they could get their string, they had to write out their procedure on a whiteboard and get it approved by me. I think this would have been tough to manage in a large class, but I currently only have 11 students in AP, so was able to pretty easily take time to give groups meaningful feedback and check their revisions before cutting them a piece of string to use.

Days 105-109: Energy & Pendulums

Physics: Energy

Students did a lab to introduce energy where they pulled carts up ramps at different angles, always raising the cart to the same height above the table, then measured the average force they needed and the distance they had to pull the cart for each angle. Then, they sketch force vs. distance graphs and see they always have the same area. The data was rough enough this year that students could see that a steeper angle required a larger force and a smaller distance, but the areas varied a lot. We’ve had a few labs lately where the data came out pretty rocky. I think part of what’s going on is it’s been tough this year in general for students to see connections between what happens in the lab and the physics concepts we are learning. If the labs are something disconnected from the rest of your learning, why would you invest time and attention into collecting high-quality data? We’re also at the end of a trimester when more students than usual are scrambling to raise their grades after an unusually challenging term and the February doldrums have been hitting everyone harder than usual, so students have less attention and mental energy to go around than usual. Aside from the final, we won’t have any more labs until tri 3, which is a good time for a fresh start. In the meantime, the other physics teacher and I need to do some thinking about how we will continue to draw connections between labs and physics concepts and make sure students have what they need to get good-quality data.

AP Physics 1: Pendulums

This week, we started working on simple harmonic motion. For the first activity, students used a video from Pivot Interactives that shows a pendulum, a cart attached to springs, and a spinning disk all in synchronized simple harmonic motion. Students made position vs. time graphs for each object, which always works well for some discussion not only of how the motion of all three is similar, but to establish some important ideas like the non-constant force and the repeating patterns in the motion of each object. After that, we dove into a deeper focus on pendulums by doing a lab to find the factors that affect the period of a pendulum. This model is going to be split over spring break, which got me thinking about how I currently have the unit structured. Right now, I have one standard for pendulums and one standard for springs. But, especially since I start by emphasizing how similar those two kinds of motion are, I wonder if it would make sense to instead have a standard about using multiple representations like motion graphs and energy bar charts to describe simple harmonic motion that includes both springs and pendulums, then a separate standard on the mathematical relationships and factors that affect the period which also applies to both pendulums and springs. That seems like it would better represent the different kinds of thinking I ask students to do over the course of the unit.

Days 90-94: Impulse Problems & Energy Practical

This week we were back in-person after two weeks online.

Physics: Impulse Problems

A big theme I saw across my classes is that students had a pretty decent grasp of impulse, but didn’t think they had learned much the last two weeks. I kept thinking about my PhD research so far where, in some data I collected pre-pandemic, I found that even when students were mastering the material, they struggled to build confidence and self-efficacy from activities that were purely computer-based. In addition, right before we went online, my students also made clear that they really value discussion and collaboration as a way to learn physics, but I struggled to get students talking to each other online. With those things in mind, this week was all about giving students space and time for discussion and collaboration to build their confidence. We spent a lot of time whiteboarding various problems, including some that were assigned while we were online, so that students could talk to each other. I also gave much more feedback than usual while students were working on whiteboards to point out what they had correct or what they were doing well, which seemed to really help students see just how much they had learned the past two weeks.

AP Physics: Energy Practical

My students have been feeling pretty good about doing problems with conservation of energy, I think in part because we were able to start them in-person, then do a lot of practice while we were online. I wanted to give students something hands-on before we wrap up energy, so I got out the popper hopper toys and tasked students with finding the spring constant. To help my students with writing procedures, I had each group write a procedure on a whiteboard, then give it to another group to follow. They were allowed to go ask the group who’d written the procedure questions to clarify steps or discuss changes as both as a way to give feedback to the group who wrote the procedure and to ensure that every group was able to complete the task, even if there were issues with the procedure they were given. I think that helped give students a concrete target for what needs to be in a procedure.

Days 85-89: Impulse & Energy Problems

This was our second week of virtual instruction. We are slated to be back in person on Monday.

Physics: Impulse Problems

Students worked on problems using the impulse-momentum theorem. I noticed that a lot of students were struggling to retain new information much more than usual, which made the problems relatively challenging. I’m sure some of it is a lot of students are less focused right now than in the classroom (at least some of them for very good reasons, like helping take care of younger siblings that are also at home), but I it’s also a factor that I didn’t make much effort to encourage student-to-student discussion and I did more providing new information than usual, rather than simply stepping in to put language or standard formulas to things students had already said. I’m not beating myself up for it since those things are difficult online in the best of circumstances, and I was doing it with minimal time to prepare and no prior experience teaching high school online. But it is a good reminder that the time I spend on those things in the classroom is important. While we have done versions of everything we normally do before the impulse quiz, I’ll be taking a few days next week to have some in-person discussions before we assess for the first time.

AP Physics: Conservation of Energy Problems

Right before my school switched to remote instruction, my students started working some problems using conservation of energy. We didn’t get a chance to whiteboard or discuss the problems, so we revisited them this week. My students had some good conversation using Jamboards and a discussion forum and seem to be doing pretty well with conservation of energy problems. I still want to do some in-person whiteboarding before we assess to get a better sense of where students are at since there are a few who’ve shared they are having some of the same trouble focusing I saw in Physics. I’ve got some problems from the AP Physics 1 workbook that I think will be good for this purpose.

Days 80-84: Impulse & Bouncy Balls

Around mid-day last Friday, we found out enough staff were out (almost all with COVID) that we would be remote this week. Monday was an asynchronous day so that teachers could post an assignment, then spend the rest of the day planning for the rest of the week. The rest of the week was synchronous following our usual bell schedule. We were required to have some synchronous instruction at the start of each hour, but were encouraged to make the rest of the hour something that students could do away from Zoom. In both my courses, I stuck to activities that should be doable in class time, but made them due at midnight rather than the end of class. I got really positive feedback from students since that gave them the option to take a break from their screen and do their physics later, especially for my classes in the middle of the day. That also meant I had time to look over their work before school and make some adjustments to the instruction I’d planned for the day. I think being transparent about how student work was informing my instruction also helped with work completion, since it gave students a clear reason to at least attempt the work on the day it was assigned.

Near the end of the school day on Thursday, we found out that next week will be remote, as well. Next week, I want to keep the same general structure since that seemed to work well for both me and for my students, but I want to try and get a little more student-to-student discussion.

Physics: Impulse

Our plan this week had been to introduce momentum and impulse. We normally start with a cart catching activity, where students find as many ways as possible to make it harder to catch a cart. That translated fairly well to an asynchronous lesson for Monday where we asked students to brainstorm ways they could change how difficult it was to catch a ball during a game of catch. I put all of the responses onto a Jamboard and did some sorting, which lead very nicely into a definition of momentum as well as the idea that force can chance momentum.

The rest of the week we relied heavily on Pivot Interactives (disclaimer: I work for Pivot Interactives writing activities). We started by introducing Newton’s 3rd Law, which we’d decided to save for momentum this year since that’s when students seem to do the most interesting and useful thinking with it, then did an activity where students evaluate two competing claims about what is transferred in a collision between two gliders on an air track. We haven’t done many of those kinds of questions this year, so students needed some support in figuring out what kind of evidence they needed, but it was mostly a matter of keeping them focused on the claim and not overcomplicating what to collect. The bit that got a little rocky is I tried to go from there to the impulse equation, which just didn’t flow naturally. I’ve thought about changing my momentum storyline to start with conservation, then narrow our focus to the individual objects that make up the system to look at impulse. In retrospect, a part of me wishes we’d made the leap when we switched to remote instruction since I think that storyline would have flowed better with the resources available to us, but sticking with the storyline we’d already planned took less thinking and will likely make for a smoother transition when we get back to in-person instruction.

AP Physics 1: Bouncy Ball Energy

As part of my energy unit, I’d planned to do an activity (shameless plug for my article on this activity in The Science Teacher) where students use video analysis to decide whether a bouncy ball dissipates energy primarily due to air resistance or due to the impact when it bounces. The hard part of this activity is prior to the video analysis, I have students do some whiteboarding where they sketch representations including LOL diagrams, free-body diagrams, and velocity vs. time graphs for the bouncy ball-Earth system first assuming only air resistance dissipates energy, then assuming only the impact dissipates energy. I ended up using a version of this activity I wrote for Pivot Interactives that replaces that whiteboarding with multiple choice questions. I have struggled this year with helping my students effectively use diagrams as thinking tools, so I think having them choose from a set of diagrams was a useful scaffold. I had the questions set to autograde, which made it easy for students to progress asynchronously, but I think some good discussion could have happened if I’d turned off autograding and instead had students use our synchronous time to discuss their answers and come to a consensus.