N3L Activity Stations

While the Newton’s 1st Law activities serve as a fun and short introduction, the Newton’s 3rd Law activities provide a shared experience that spans several classes. The activities that the students explore are selected to highlight the most common preconceptions that students have about Newton’s 3rd Law. I stress how important free-body diagrams are as a tool in their physics toolbox and that, once they are adept at drawing free-body diagrams and once they actually trust their free-body diagrams, they will be able to explain a number of counter-intuitive situations. I introduce these activities by stating that Newton’s 3rd Law is one of the most easily recited laws of physics and yet is least understood. Here are the activities:

GDE Error: Error retrieving file - if necessary turn off error checking (503:Service Unavailable)

Sequential Spring Scales

Sequential Spring Scales

The spring scales are initially hidden under the coffee filters. Only after students make their prediction are the coffee filters removed. Most students do not predict that the spring scales will read 10 N. Some predict 5 N (the spring scales split the weight). Some predict 20 N (10 N each way adds up to 20 N). In addition to drawing the free-body diagrams, this scenario can be explored further by asking students to predict the reading on the scales if one of the weights is removed and the string is tied to a clamp instead.

Bathroom Scale

This station provides an important shared experience that we will refer back to when discussing the elevator problems later in the unit. This station also generates a number of excellent questions such as “would the scale work on the moon?” and “how could you measure mass on unknown planet?”

Twist on Tug-of-War


Students were very interested in this station this year since they were in the midst of Homecoming Week and inter-class tug-of-war competitions were being held. It may have been the first time free-body diagrams were used in the planning of the tug-of-war team’s strategy. The dynamics platform in the photo is a cart build from plywood and 2x4s with rollerblade wheels and has little friction. Most students claim that whoever wins the tug-of-war pulls harder on the rope than the person who loses. Only after drawing the free-body-digram and trusting it, do they realize this is not the case.

Medicine Ball Propulsion

Medicine Ball Propulsion

This is a fairly straight-forward station. I often wander by and ask the students exploring it why they don’t move backwards when playing catch under normal situations. I also check at this point and see if they are convinced that the force on the ball by them is equal to the force on them by the ball.

Computerized Force Comparison

This is the most important station in that it helps students truly appreciate Newton’s Third Law. I setup several of these stations to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to watch the graph in real-time as they pull on the force sensors. This is the standard Modeling activity for Newton’s 3rd Law. For students still struggling to accept Newton’s 3rd Law while working through this activity, I challenge them to find a way to pull on the two sensors such that the forces are not equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. This activity also counters the misconception promoted by some textbooks (perhaps unintentionally) that the “reaction” force follows the “action” force. Students can clearly see that both forces occur at the same time. (We refer to paired forces according to Newton’s 3rd Law, not action-reaction forces.)

WALL-E and the Fire Extinguisher

Who doesn’t love WALL-E? I repeatedly loop through a clip from the WALL-E trailer. In addition to the questions on the handout, I ask students what is incorrect about the physics in the scene. This year, I also showed students this clip that Physics Club filmed several weeks ago:

Leave a Reply