Post-challenge, these students found balance on the Whale Watch.

We visited our school’s on-campus challenge course for our current project, Physics of the Challenge Course. On the walk out there, I divided my students into groups of approximately three and assigned them to one of these challenge elements for the duration of the project:

When we arrived on site, the students got an introduction to the course and ate a picnic lunch kindly provided by our dining hall.

Each group got to experience their element, had time to think about how accessible the course is to those in wheelchairs, and to learn about the difference between perceived risk and actual risk. We encouraged the taking of pictures and video of their teams working the element for use in the project.

These kids are puzzling out how they’ll solve the challenge.

Mixing experiential education and a traditional course has been quite the challenge. Most folks associate experiential ed with outdoors ed programs such as Outward Bound but the learning cycle totally works for a classroom setting. The key is allowing time for student reflection. In fact, I’d argue that the reflection is more important than the experience itself.

If Batman goes rock climbing with a top rope setup, should he use a pulley or a loop at the top? Why?

I set up this demo in my classroom with a 220-g Batman toy. With the pulley at the top, Batman needed a belayer of at least 220 grams to keep things balanced. That’s pretty much what I expected — the pulley is near-frictionless so the weight of Batman and his belayer need to be approximately equal to achieve equilibrium.

But stuff got weird when I switched out the top attachment for a loop. The belayer could be as light as 100 grams. The friction going through that loop, am I right?!

This is in preparation for a Physics of the Challenge Course project we’re starting next week.

“Hey kids, I’m going to teach you to predict the future! You can use video analysis to learn about an object’s motion, and assuming it keeps going like that, you can predict details of its motion beyond the short length of track pictured here.”

“So, go get a cart, a track, and your phone. Tell me the acceleration of your cart.”

Where in the past, I relied on more printed labs with detailed procedures, this year, I’m taking a page from the physics teachers of the internet and focusing on representing motion multiple ways. We’ve done three video analysis labs, and every time I ask the kids to divide their papers into four quadrants: describing the motion in words, on a data table, in a graph, and with an equation.

It’s paying off. Pretty much everyone could set up the video analysis in their videos. I even showed them intermediate tricks like setting the coordinate system in a convenient way (like, having the x-axis run along the length of the track).

Then I gave them a quiz on inferring motion from reading graphs. We had near-perfect results with these questions:

Describe the motion on each graph as “object moving forward/backward” AND as “object maintaining/increasing/decreasing speed”.

Then, I asked them to match up these velocity vs. time graphs with the position vs. time graphs above.

You gotta do stuff a bunch of times for it to be a skill everyone in the room has. That’s why we video analyze all the things this month.

I wanted to teach them video analysis so they dropped golf balls and learned a little about freefall as well. Later, we went outside and I chucked a bocce ball as high in the air as I could. They filmed it:

I try to get the students to understand plotting position and scaling on the first go around. These days, I try to do most kinematics labs using video analysis only (as opposed to breaking out the motion detectors or photogates). I do that because the kids get pretty darned good at video analysis after we’ve done it a bunch.

Pro tip: though your computer has a built in camera, resist using it for video analysis. The frame rate and resolution aren’t that great.

By the way, my video analysis software of choice is Logger Pro because it comes preloaded on the student computers. A good free alternative is Tracker.

We started kinematics yesterday. I gave students a tumble buggy, a meter stick, and told them to take their phones with them. I asked them to describe the buggy’s motion in words, in a data table, on a graph, and with an equation.

Today, I asked if they were confident in yesterday’s work. “Yes!” they said. So I asked them to go head to head, predicting the collision point. Here’s one group’s collison:

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Most solved by figuring out the position of each buggy at 1s, then 2s, then 3s, then realized buggies would crash between 3 and 4 seconds, so they guessed the rest of the way.

One group decided to solve in the more elegant way — by solving a system of equations. Finally, we all discussed why our predictions weren’t perfect.

We had a great two days back and I’m eager to introduce them to accelerated motion.