Days 41-45: Conservation of Momentum & Newton’s 3rd Law

This week we developed conservation of momentum. Previously, I started with impulse and momentum of single objects, then built up to conservation in systems. I’ve never been thrilled with my storyline, so this year I am trying putting conservation of momentum first, then we will work toward impulse. Once we’d done a lab with some collisions and talked about momentum bar charts, we did Kelly O’Shea’s multiple representations of momentum card sort to incorporate mathematical representations. The card sort really helped my students feel confident with the bar charts and to make sense of the mathematical representations.

We ended the week with Newton’s 3rd Law. I feel like this law fits better with my momentum storyline than my forces one, so this was their first introduction to the 3rd Law. I had students predict how the forces would compare on two carts for a variety of collisions, then we actually tested the collisions out using some force sensors with hoop springs. This is a very rare time that I ask students to make a prediction that I think they are likely to have wrong, so was very intentional in talking to students about my goal of pulling out their existing ideas so we could contrast with the accepted physics. I also made sure we talked about what useful thinking lead them to the incorrect predictions and what physics their predictions showed they know. There was a fantastic moment partway through where a student articulated that both the forces we were measuring came from the same interaction, so it made sense for the size of the force to be the same. She also realized the cart she expected to experience a bigger force did have a bigger change in motion, which was a great opportunity to validate the thinking that lead to that prediction. It was a great note to end the week on.

Days 37-40: Unbalanced Forces

This week was a little funny because we had Tuesday off for elections.

On Monday, I gave a quiz over unbalanced forces that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. The big thing students seemed to struggle with was sketching and using free-body diagrams and vector addition diagrams. I decided to put off starting momentum to spend a little extra time working on force diagrams. We started with a card sort with unbalanced force diagrams. Including the motion maps gave me a chance to emphasize the net force is in the same direction as the acceleration, which I hadn’t done a great job of before. This card sort also includes two sets of similar scenarios, which lead to some good conversation comparing and contrasting the similar scenarios. After the card sort, one student told me that she has found card sorts in general to be a really useful tool in helping to visualize what diagrams should look like. I realized one of the benefits of card sorts is they students the visual they are after when they ask me to do example problems on the board, but kept the bulk of the sensemaking on students. We have a lot of card sorts made for our physics courses, but I don’t use them consistently in AP in an effort to keep to a fast-moving pace. This week was a good reminder that it is worth it to make time for card sorts.

After the card sort, we moved into doing some problems, both calculations and conceptual, and students were much more confident and doing much better than earlier in the week.

Days 32-36: Using Newton’s 2nd Law

This week, our big focus was on using Newton’s 2nd Law. Students were very successful at using vector-addition diagrams with unbalanced forces and did a nice job playing around with different systems on problems involving Atwood’s machines. We wrapped up the week with an extremely open-ended lab practical. I tasked students with finding the mass of a dynamics cart with a force sensor attached and left it at that. I did ask students to get my okay before they started data collection so I could make sure every group was on a good track. I was really pleased that groups ended up using several different approaches. Some did something similar to our model-building lab with a half-Atwood’s machine, some set their track at an angle to apply a force to their cart, and some manually pulled the cart. On Monday, I want to take a few minutes to make sure we talk about the different approaches, including the different ways uncertainty showed up in each.

Days 27-31: Balanced Force Practical & Newton’s 2nd Law Model-Building

This week we wrapped up balanced forces with a practical. I used some magnetic hooks to attach spring scales to the whiteboard and let students measure the forces and any angles they wanted. Even though I only had two setups and five groups, different groups ended up taking different approaches, which was great for students to see in some discussion after the practical. We also had some good discussion about uncertainty when we measured the actual mass and students were initially disappointed with how far their calculations were off before, which lead to the realization they’d actually been pretty on target!

After the practical, we started Newton’s 2nd Law with a paradigm lab using the standard modified Atwood’s machine. There was some messiness in the value of the slope that students got, which is pretty typical from when I’ve done this lab. One of these days I’ll figure out how to coach students to really high-quality results! Students did really well at translating the equations for their line of best fit into something that had units and variables that matched the experiment and did a nice job in the board meeting making sense of their slope and intercept.

Days 24-26: Force Diagrams

This week was only 3 days due to the state union conference held this week.

This week we started working some balanced force problems using vector addition diagrams. I noticed my students were struggling with getting the interaction diagrams and free-body diagrams correct, which then made the rest of the problem trickier. In the middle of the week, we stepped back from the problems to really dig into setting up the interaction diagrams, free-body diagrams, and vector addition diagrams on whiteboards for a range of situations with the hover puck. We got to revisit some important ideas, like the idea that forces must be an interaction, and dig into some things that didn’t come up on previous problems, like how whether you include something like the air cushion under the puck as part of your system can change your diagrams. This day seemed to really help students see the value of some of the thinking I’ve been asking for and to feel more confident in drawing and using these diagrams, which is just what they needed!

Days 20-23: Mathematical Force Models

This was a short week due to a PD day on Friday.

This week, we focused on building mathematical models for the force of gravity and spring force. My students have taken very nicely to writing equations for lines of best fit in “physics” where they add units to their slope and intercepts as well as use variables that match their experiment. My students are also taking nicely to using “for every” statements like “the force goes up 10 N for every 1 kg of mass” to think conceptually about the meaning of their slopes. Students have also done really well with turning their intercept into statements like “the intercept is the size of the force when the mass is 0 kg” to think about what kind of intercept makes sense.

With the spring force experiment, I had students stretch their springs both vertically and horizontally to see the graph had the same slope in both directions. This usually seems to help address conceptions about the role of gravity in the behavior springs that come up when we get to energy and simple harmonic motion.

Days 15-19: Building a Force Model

This week was all about starting to build a model of forces. We started by tapping bowling balls with mallets, using a version of the activity based on Frank Noschese’s. Students were quicker than usual to recognize that they had to juts leave the bowling ball alone once it was moving to keep it moving at a constant speed, but I still pulled up an old image I made with motion shot to get some additional evidence. After that, we moved into a version of interaction stations from Kelly O’Shea where students identified forces based on stretch, compression, and shear. Finally, we wrapped up the week with some mistakes whiteboarding with force diagrams. When I introduced system schema and free-body diagrams, I didn’t emphasize enough that the free-body diagram only needs to show forces that cross the system boundary, but that lead to some great conversations during the whiteboarding as students figured out what they needed to include. One student commented that almost all of their mistakes related to including more than they needed to, which lead to some nice discussion about the fact that the hardest part of physics is often figuring out what is relevant.

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 75-79: Values and Beliefs & Elastic Potential Energy

This week has felt a little weird. Coming back from break, we’d gotten some messages to be ready to shift to virtual learning and all week the number of students and staff out went up, so everyone felt like we were in limbo. Near the end of my teaching day today, we got word that next week will be remote.

Physics: Values & Beliefs About Physics Learning

We started this week with a version of the values and beliefs lesson from Kelly O’Shea. There wasn’t as much discussion within groups as I was hoping (and it probably didn’t help that I was giving groups more space than usual to try and reduce my COVID exposure), but students had some great insights and really interesting things to say on the individual reflections I had them complete. One thing I felt like was missing in how I implemented this was some conversations about the costs and benefits of different views of physics and physics learning. One of the last things I had students do in their groups was pick some values or beliefs they think we should aspire to, and a lot of groups said we should aspire to do a better job of valuing memorizing facts and equations. I wonder if giving more space to why certain values and beliefs are or are not given a space in a particular classroom would have helped with some conversation about why they see memorizing as important and whether that is compatible with our classroom.

After two days of that, we spent the rest of the week on some problems about pushing cardboard boxes based on problems in Matt Greenwolfe’s More Models in Modeling materials. My goal was to refresh students on velocity vs. time graphs and free-body diagrams before we dive into momentum. There was a lot of great discussion, with lots of animated arguments. I was also really pleased at how often I could have students simply add a diagram, such as a system schema, to identify and fix their mistakes. I still need to work on how to facilitate a good whole class discussion with these problems, but I think part of the issue is I approach these problems with what I call consensus-building discussions, where I have every group whiteboard the same problem, then we try to resolve differences, but I don’t do this type of discussion very often so students don’t have much practice with it.

AP Physics 1: Energy

This week, we focused on going from LOL diagrams to doing calculations with conservation of energy. We started by doing a lab to find the equation for spring potential energy, which gives us all of the major energy types, then did a card sort that included equations based on just the types of energy and equations based on measurable quantities like velocity, mass, and height. The card sort made for a very nice bridge between the two types of mathematical representations.

Days 72-74: Unbalanced Forces & Kinetic Energy

We had a short 3-day week to lead us into break.

Physics: Unbalanced Forces

We wrapped up unbalanced forces this week with a lab practical. I put a cart on a ramp, held in place by a string attached to a force sensor. Students had to first predict the tension in the string and next predict the time it would take the cart to travel between two photogates on the track once I cut the string. It was trickier than I expected for students to recognize that the tension in the string would be the same as the net force on the cart once the string was cut. Since that was an important idea in the paradigm lab we did this year, I left students to figure out that point on their own, but I think it would have been worthwhile to give students some questions or other structure to think through that aspect of the practical. We haven’t revisited velocity vs. time graphs lately, so I was very excited to see how well they did annotating their graphs and setting up equations to find the time.

A cart on a track with two photogates. The cart is tied with a piece of string to a force sensor and is held in place just before the first photogate.

AP Physics 1: Kinetic Energy

Students used Pivot Interactives for a lab to find the mathematical model for kinetic energy. Their data came out beautiful, but the introductory section of the activity didn’t do as much as I’d hoped to prepare students to collect data. This fits with a larger pattern I’ve noticed this year where students in both my courses don’t seem to make a clear connection between the pre-lab discussion (which the introductory section was similar to) and the actual lab. I think I haven’t helped students make a clear connection between the experimental design thinking we do in those discussions and what they will actually need to do in the lab. I’m giving some thought to how I can do a better job of showing how those discussions lead naturally to what students will be doing in the lab.

A silicone puck is levitating over a curved magnetic track. The puck is held in place near the top of the track by a small block of wood.