Monthly Archives: September 2011

Next-Time Questions

One of my favorite resources for developing conceptual understanding of physics are Paul Hewitt’s Next-Time Questions. Older ones are [hosted by Arbor Scientific]( and every month a new one is published in [The Physics Teacher](

These questions often appear deceptively simple. However, a student’s first impression is often incorrect. I find that these are a great way to discuss and refine preconceptions. These questions are intended to be presented during one class and not discussed until the next. I always have students who are so excited to share their answer they are practically bouncing in their seats. I have to remind them that these are “next-time” questions and, therefore, we will discuss them the next-time we meet. I encourage them to discuss them with their friends over lunch or after school.

Hewitt implores us to use them as he intends:

Although these are copyrighted, teachers are free to download any or all of them for sharing with their students. But please, DO NOT show the answers to these in the same class period where the question is posed!!! Do not use these as quickie quizzes with short wait times in your lecture. Taking this easy and careless route misses your opportunity for increased student learning to occur. In my experience students have benefited by the discussions, and sometimes arguments, about answers to many of these questions. When they’d ask for early “official” answers, I’d tell them to confer with friends. When friends weren’t helpful, I’d suggest they seek new friends! It is in such discussions that learning takes place.

Here is one that I recently used during the Balanced Force Particle Model unit.

Next-Time Question

The next time my class met, the discussion of this question consumed almost the entire class time. The discussion started with a review that the forces must be balanced since the book is at rest (the special kind of constant velocity where the velocity is zero). We practiced drawing the free-body diagram for the book which was a good review of the force of friction and the normal force. We were just beginning to explore vector components, and this was a great introduction since the force from the woman’s hand is directly both upward and to the right. We then debated if the force of friction should be directed upward or downward. Students had valid arguments for each. Another student asked if there was a force of friction at all. Eventually, we drew three different free-body diagrams for the cases where there is no friction, where there is friction directed upward, and where there is friction directed downward. A fantastic discussion all centered around a single drawing and simple question.

Some time ago, I reviewed every next-time question, downloaded those that aligned with concepts we cover, and copied them into unit folders so I would remember to use them when the time was appropriate. Now, I just review each month’s next-time question in The Physics Teacher and file it appropriately.

Give one a try in class. I think you and your students will love it.

CV Buggy Lab

Last week, I participated in a great discussion on Twitter about the various ways Modelers perform the Constant-Velocity Buggy Lab in their classrooms. The CV Buggy Lab is the paradigm lab for constant-velocity and, as a result, Modeling classrooms are filled with toy cars in the fall. I’m not sure why, but it seems that the red cars are always configured to go “fast” and the blue cars configured to go “slow”.1

CV buggies

We’ve always done a CV buggy lab, even before I started modeling, but this year we did something different. To provide some context, before we do the CV buggy lab, students have already completed a mini-modeling cycle involving the bouncing ball and explored non-linear relationships with the sliding box of mass and rubber bands. We have also briefly discussed the concept of position in terms of specifying the location of something relative to a commonly defined point. For example, “my chair is 5 floor tiles from the south wall and 10 floor tiles from the west wall.” Another teacher and I were discussing that since students were rocking these labs, our typical buggy lab that involves only one car might not be as engaging or beneficial. She decided to have students start with both cars from the start. I thought this was a great idea and decided that I also wanted each group to analyze a different scenario which would make the post-lab whiteboards discussion more interesting.

As a class, we go through the usual process of making observations, determining what we can measure, and, eventually, coming up with the purpose for the lab:

To graphically and mathematically model the relationship between position and time for two buggies traveling at different speeds.

At this point, I had to constrain the lab more than I usually would by specifying the starting position and direction for each car. I assigned each lab group a scenario (this allowed some degree of differentiation in terms of difficulty):

1. red positive direction, blue negative direction; red at 0 m, blue at 2 m
2. red positive direction, blue negative direction; red at -1 m, blue at 1 m
3. red negative direction, blue positive direction; red at 2 m, blue at 0 m
4. red positive direction, blue positive direction; red at 0 m, blue at 0.5 m
5. red positive direction, blue positive direction; red at -1 m, blue at -0.5 m
6. red negative direction, blue negative direction; red at 2 m, blue at 1.5 m

Their homework was to draw a picture of their scenario and brainstorm on how they would design the experiment.

The next day, groups designed their experiment. I didn’t provide any additional restrictions. I only verified that their pictures matched the scenarios that I had specified. Some groups decided that their independent variable would be time; others, position; others, distance. One group decided to gather data from both cars at the same time! Another group taped a marker to the back of the cars which traced their paths on butcher paper and allowed them to make more accurate measurements of the actual distance traveled.

When groups started graphing their data, I requested that they plot time on the horizontal axis. Some objected and remarked that if time was their dependent variable it should be plotted on the vertical axis. I explained that I wanted all the groups to be able to share their results which would be easier if we used a common set of axes. I reassured them that the graph police would not come and get them for plotting their dependent variable on the horizontal axis. (Anyone know why this is the convention?)

Some expected and unexpected issues emerged as students began to graph their data. As expected, those groups who chose to measure distance instead of position soon realized that their graph wasn’t going to convey everything they wanted. They went back, and using their picture, calculated positions corresponding to each distance. We use LoggerPro for graphing, and those groups who made time their independent variable, simply added a new column for the position of the second buggy. LoggerPro makes it super simple to graph multiple sets of values on the vertical axis (click on the vertical axis label and choose More…). However, those groups that made position their independent variable had more trouble since LoggerPro only allows one column to be plotted on the horizontal axis. These groups required more assistance and, in the end, I discovered that it was best to create two data sets and name the time columns identically for each. LoggerPro would then plot this “common” time column on the horizontal axis and the two position columns on the vertical axis. Not super simple, but doable.

2 data sets in LoggerPro

Each group drew their picture, graph, and equations on a whiteboard. We did a “circle whiteboard” discussion rather than having each group formally present their results. At first, the discussion focused on how the graph described the motion of the buggies. As students became more comfortable with those ideas, the discussion shifted to comparing and contrasting the different whiteboards. This was the best whiteboard discussion for the CV Buggy Lab that I have ever had. At the end of class, I confidently shared that their whiteboards captured everything that we would learn about constant velocity. We just needed more time to digest, appreciate, and refine what they had already created.

I’ll definitely do this again next year, but I hope to find a way to not assign each group a scenario and yet still end up with a variety of initial positions, directions, and relative motion. Perhaps, if I ask each group to design their own scenario, I can subtly encourage small changes to ensure the variety still exists. Plus, students usually create scenarios that I never would consider!

1 There are many ways to make the blue buggy slow. I have used wooden dowels wrapped in aluminum foil and wooden dowels with thumbtacks and wire. Others have shared that they use dead batteries, electrical tape, and aluminum foil. This year, I tried something completely different. I found these wires with magnetic ends while cleaning last spring (I have no idea who sells them). While in previous years, it seems that in every class someone’s blue buggy has an intermittent connection, I had no problems at all this year.

making a slow car

Physics Club and the Row-Bot Challenge

Three years ago my instructional coordinator encouraged myself and another physics teacher to start an after school club for students to “do cool physics stuff.” That first year, we focused on building small projects related to physics. We built candle-powered steam engines, homopolar motors, LED throwies, vibrobots, and styrofoam plate speakers. Two years ago, we started with the small projects, but then the students were inspired to launch a near-space balloon. Once the students set their minds to lauching their own near-space balloon, the club transitioned from a primarily teacher-led organization to a student-led one.

Last year, we started with a ping pong ball launcher challenge. After this kickoff, students decided to build a large hovercraft in the fall and then take it on tour to share with the community and excite people, especially younger students, about STEM. In the spring, we [launched our second near-space balloon](

While Physics Club has increased in popularity and size in the past three years, we were amazed when over fifty students stayed after school on Friday to join Physics Club. We’re still figuring out how to keep this many students engaged and what our big project will be for the fall. To keep everyone active while we figure this out, we introduced the 2011 Physics Club Row-Bot Challenge:

The club will document this project on [its web site]( I’ll let you know how it goes.

Why the Row-bot Challenge? Well, we are considering building some sort of remote-controlled craft that can film video hundreds of feet underwater. This challenge may be a good precursor for that.

In addition to kicking off the challenge, the students had a great time filming with the high-speed camera. They are still trimming the footage and preparing the website, but here’s one of my favorites:

We also borrowed a thermal imaging camera that is normally used to diagnose computer hardware issues. While we don’t let the students use this camera, we still found some interesting things to image. One of my favorite was this comparison of an incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulb:

thermal images of light bulbs

While not planned, we also debunked those ghost TV shows. One student noticed that the camera was picking up what appeared to be a thermal ghost inside the adjacent room. This was puzzling until another student realized that the “ghost” was simply my infrared reflection off the glass door in the adjacent room. Science for the win!

The Preconception Eliciting Tennis Ball

After investigating the motion of a falling object, I ask my students to draw position vs. time, velocity vs. time, and acceleration vs. time graphs of a ball that is thrown upward and then caught at the same height. As I walk around the room, most students have the position vs. time graph correct but struggle with the velocity vs. time and the acceleration vs. time graphs. For those students that struggle, the most common sketch of the velocity vs. time graph is a ‘V’ rather than a straight line with a negative slope. They then struggle to reconcile an acceleration vs. time graph with this V-shaped velocity vs. time graph.

I then model how I reason through these types of conceptual problems. I hold the tennis ball in my hand and ask, “Immediately after I release the ball, in which direction is it moving?” (They confidently say “up.”) I ask, “Immediately after I release the ball, is it moving fast or slow?” (They confidently say “fast.”) I then encourage them to plot that point on their velocity vs. time graph. I then ask while climbing on top of a lab stool, “As the ball travels upwards, how does its velocity change?” (They confidently say “it slows.”) While holding the ball near the ceiling, I ask, “When the ball is at its peak, what is its velocity?” (They confidently say “zero!”)

I now expose their preconception by immediately asking, “What is its acceleration?” (The answers are split between “9.8 m/s/s” and “zero!” depending on the class) I keep the ball near the ceiling and ask one of the students who enthusiastically answered “zero!”, “If its acceleration is zero and its velocity is zero, what would happen to the ball?” After some thought, the student realizes that the ball wouldn’t fall. I then release the ball and it sticks to the ceiling.

This demonstration appears to be sufficiently memorable due to its humor or unexpected outcome, that students can replace their preconception about the acceleration of an object at its peak. After some laughs, a reference to all the balls that are not suspended in midair over the tennis courts, and an [xkcd comic](, I continue demonstrating how I reason through the creation of velocity vs. time graphs. I ask the final part, “When the ball is about to be caught, in which direction is it moving?” and “Is it moving fast or slow?” I encourage them to plot this final point and then they have replaced the V-shaped graph with the proper velocity vs. time graph. The slope of their corrected velocity vs. time graph confirms that the acceleration of the ball must remain constant. The tennis ball spends the rest of the class period stuck to the blackboard.

We have a group of Physics teachers that meet at an area school monthly and share ideas. I learned this demo from a great Physics teacher at one of these meetings. He has practiced enough where he can throw the tennis ball and have it stick. He showed us how to modify a tennis ball:

tennis ball demo materials
*Materials: Neodymium magnets, tennis ball, utility knife, hot glue gun.*

magnet glued inside tennis ball
*Slice the tennis ball, squirt in a bunch of hot glue, and stick in the magnet.*

tennis ball sealed
*Seal the slit in the tennis ball and let harden.*

tennis ball experiencing no acceleration
*Stick the tennis ball on the ceiling!*