Category Archives: Physics

Physics Extra Credit: Rube Goldberg Machines 2011

Just like last year, I decided to offer a year-end extra credit assignment for my students, an option for which was to make a Rube Goldberg machine. I’m sure you know what it is even if you haven’t heard the name – they are those machines where dominoes fall over which hits a boot which knocks over a bucket, which pours water on a cat, which then wakes up and screeches, hitting into a ball perched on a ramp, which goes down the ramp…. etc etc until it performs a simple task in the end like lighting a match or pressing the button to make toast. My two favorite ones that you may have seen are the Honda Cog and OKGO’s video for the song This Too Shall Pass (same band who did the badass treadmill video too). The ones my students made last year were also pretty amazing (check out this one, this one, or this one).

Well, quite unsurprisingly, this was a big hit this year too and I got even more student made machines than last year. Check out my compilation of the five projects I got (below). Each one plays once normal speed and then once half speed.

A few notes:

  • One of the machines is designed to spray some perfume in our Physics classroom because, due to some unfortunate engineering flaw that runs some piping underneath only one small part of the building, the room often smelled like raw sewage. On some days it was just a faint reminder that something wasn’t right, and on others it was wander-the-halls-to-find-a-new-classroom worthy, and then other days it would flare up right in the middle of a test or quiz and we would be stuck to live with the smell until the period was over.
  • The first video ends with a light shining on a sign that says “What Baby?!” The student that made it is quite a space cadet sometimes. One time in class, someone was joking (and I can’t recall why they would be joking about this) that I was pregnant and we were witty bantering back and forth. After like 2 minutes of this, the student looks up from what he was doing (which should have been nothing, class hadn’t started yet) and said “What Baby!?” Kind of hard to explain, but it was absolutely hilarious. That became his tagline for the rest of the year. I would say it whenever he would do anything ridiculous, so I was pretty pumped to see him include it in his video.
  • We have finals starting today, so while the students should have been poring through their Physic book, they were spending hours setting up dominoes so that they could knock their Physics book over.
This project is one of the things that I will miss when I transfer fully over to the math department next year. Maybe I could find a way to relate it to Calculus…

End of the Year Projects

I have found that my best lessons and assignments arise from the shortest questions. To end the year in both Calculus and Physics I had the students do an open ended, investigative project, which is really how I would ideally like to teach my whole class. It’s fun because the students have a lot of choice, it’s much less stressful during class and, in my humble opinion, much more learning happens because they are forced to think and pick out what they think is important rather than have me do it for them. The only problem is that it’s a lot slower and really hard to ensure that all the kids are on task and actually doing something useful with their time.

I thought I’d share some of the various topics that my students did in both classes along with a video montage of the Physics projects…

Assignment: Do an investigation using Calculus of any topic that you find interesting. Your project must include real data, real video, or real images; you must use some sort of math that you learned this year; and last you must use some sort of technology.

Sample Projects (the ideas for which the students came up after a bit of brainstorming together):

  • Start a rumor that Justin Bieber is coming to Amman and track via a Facebook group how quickly the rumor spreads. Apparently it was pandemonium in the Freshman Girls’ dorm the night this project started.
  • Write Mr. Bowman a letter from his ex-girlfriend who now works at NASA and needs help calculating how long a meteor is going to take to hit the Earth using Related Rates. My favorite lines: “It’s Armageddon all over again… I still remember that was our favorite movie.” And then “Your country needs you, I need you, make us all proud. Lot’s of love, Catherine, Head of NASA Space Operations. P.S. I love you so much….” Oh yeah, and he had a girl from class record her voice reading the letter. I think I was bright red the whole time it was playing in front of the class.
  • Write a film a courtroom drama, Newton vs. Leibniz, who invented Calculus.
  • Use a math program we have called Geogebra to revolve functions around the x-axis in order to find the volume of a Coke Bottle (calculated volume: 547 mL, Actual volume: 500 mL).
  • Investigate land percentage usage for housing as a function of the size of the land area using Google Earth. This one was great – so random, but actually pretty interesting. Not surprisingly, the smaller your plot of land, the greater percentage you use for your house.
Assignment: Analyze the motion of something that moves unusually using LoggerPro (a computer program where you can mark where an object is in each frame of a movie and it will graph position and velocity for time for you, so cool) and tell me something interesting about the object’s motion in terms of position, velocity, acceleration, energy, or ______________ (insert any Physics term from the entire year).

Sample Projects:

  • Investigate the acceleration of a frisbee when thrown with three different methods. Compare these methods to each other and to simple projectile motion with no air resistance.
  • Try to determine if it is true that when a driver begins accelerating, a woman will accelerate very fast and then slow down and a man will accelerate slowly at first, then speed up. My response to that was “I didn’t know that was a thing.” They went for it and stood out at an intersection filming cars. In the end, thankfully for anyone who has a problem with gender stereotypes, it didn’t work, so they changed their project to something else.
  • While someone is Karate kicking, analyze the motion of their center of mass, their hands, their feet, and their head separately.
  • Blow a balloon up, then let it go and let it fly around the room. See what you can tell is going on from the data
Overall, I had a wonderful two weeks (one in each class) and felt like I got to know a lot of my students so much better. Below is a video montage of all of the Physics projects, showing the program that tracks the object’s motions. It’s actually pretty cool…

Cheers to free thinking and creativity!

My Next Job: Mall Photographer

If this teaching gig ever stops working out, there is one job that I think I would be pretty good at: Mall Kid’s Photographer. Their job is to distract children into smiling while they take pictures of them, because children don’t yet understand that okay, sometimes you just smile even if you don’t feel it  for the purpose of the picture. Sometimes I feel the same way about teaching, like I’m up in front of the class doing back flips and cartwheels to try to trick them into actually learning things, getting them genuinely engaged even if it isn’t directly with the material at hand.

Sixteen and seventeen year olds are very transparent in some ways – it is 100% obvious when they find something uninteresting, and don’t feel like smiling for the sole reason that there is a camera in from of them. I find that a lot of them aren’t okay with learning just for the sake of learning if they aren’t genuinely interested, which proves a problem when everyone is required to take math and science. Though frustrating at times, I see it more positively – it’s a nice litmus test for me to see if what I planned is engaging for its own sake and not just because I ask them to be engaged, if the curriculum is actually worth teaching or if we should rethink say, how much time 2×2 matrices deserve in our Algebra classes…

I had one of my favorite Physics classes in a while yesterday. For Thursday afternoon, I brought in cookies as a reward for having finally made 30 mistakes on the board for the year in Physics (part of my Donut Points paying attention promotion). I announced this about 10 minutes before the end of the period, followed quickly by the catch: I will only give you the cookies if you can tell me how many times I would have to run up the clock tower on campus to burn one cookie off, and how powerful I am compared to a horse. I then started a PowerPoint that gave them pieces of information every minute or so that would help them and also announced I’d be willing to give them any information that they explicitly asked for (height of the clock tower, my mass, calories in one cookie, how fast I can run etc). It was perfect because there was literally a carrot dangling in front of them (except sweeter and less healthy), they had to figure out what information was pertinent (instead of a dumb textbook problem that hides all the information in the question) and they had to use everything we had been talking about in 4 or 5 step process to answer a very simple, real life question – a question that didn’t have any Physics lingo in it, whose answer didn’t have any Physics lingo in it. Though it worked better in one section than the other, and some kids hung back and let the strong students take over, the level of engagement and excitement was phenomenal, especially for the last 10 minutes of the last class on a Thursday afternoon (our last day of the week).

The surprising answer: 43.7 times. I would have to run up our clock tower, which is about 15.4 meters = 50 ft high, almost 44 times to burn off a single 120 calorie cookie. And I’m as powerful as 0.5 horses. Granted there were a lot of simplifications that caused the final answer to be an overestimate, but still, pretty interesting! The funny part: even after calculating that ridiculously high number, no one had any issues shoving a few cookies into their mouths. I offered to open up the clock tower for the afternoon to burn off the cookies I had just given them, but no takers…

I count that activity as successful learning trickery.

P.S. I drew that picture on paint!

Looking the Part

I often find myself playing the game “If you had told me five years ago that I would __________ I would have _________.” You fill in the first blank with details about your life and then the second blank with some sort of surprised action (I would have literally lit you on fire, I would have slapped you in the face and called you Susan, I would have puked all over myself then stopped dropped and rolled etc). I have had tons of statements to fill in the first blank since I moved here last August….

  • be a Calculus and Physics teacher
  • live in Jordan
  • speak decent Arabic
  • have a receding hair line
  • spend $50 on a grade book program because I know enough to prefer one grade book to another
  • have a bank account in a foreign currency
  • go camping with…

Well, I have a new one to add. If you had told me five years ago that I would own a lab coat with my name embroidered on it I would have said, well butter my butt and call me biscuit. My department head in the science department is a phenomenal guy, and loves doing things to bring us together as a department. The latest has been to order lab coats for the entire department embroidered with our names – two for each person. So I own two of these.

Even though I typed this before you read it, I can practically taste your jealousy as you read this, even from 9,000 miles away.

Physics Memories

We do many things during a 45 minute class, but I am always surprised at how little things seem to stick unless you go through a calculated process. When I’m teaching skills and we’re not doing inquiry, I often go by a mantra that one of my friends working at Teach For America shared me when I was beginning teaching and had absolutely no clue how to start: I do, we do, you do. I say/share/discuss/talk about something, then we do guided practice/an activity/a lab together as a class, and then I release them to do the same thing individually. They see it three times gradually getting a more active role in the process and still it doesn’t always stick.

[I swear I’m done rambling about teaching pedagogy]… But sometimes things that they see once magically stick. You know that you are having one of those moments when the students whip out their Blackberries and take a picture of what’s going on. The times this year and last when I have had that happen:

  • My entire class was rubbing my sweater at the same time with balloons to make static electricity
  • We had a physics dance party to talk about the transfer of heat (while I hosted visitors to the school who didn’t speak English…)
  • When I used my college ID to do a demonstration, someone picked it up and took a picture of it because I guess I look really young in it
  • Dressed up as a pumpkin for Halloween, I made my Calculus class of 17 year old almost legal to marry each other seniors sing a version of Old MacDonald with words written to help them learn the rule for taking the derivative of a quotient, and little did I know, while I was directing them in this, someone was taking a video
  • I defined mass as “how much junk is in your trunk” and as a girl was leaving the room at the end she took out her phone and took a picture of the board. Later in that class, without thinking, I defined weight as “how attractive your junk is” (and wrote it on the board) before realizing what I had said (and had written).

While all of those aren’t necessarily gems of rigorous academic thought, they are certainly some of my most memorable moments teaching. The last one I think did help them learn the material actually.  A few weeks later, after a week long break, I was correcting the question on our test “What is the difference between mass and weight” and – I’m not sure why I was surprised by this – at least a third of the students wrote “Mass is how much junk is in your trunk.” I couldn’t possibly take points off for that; they remembered exactly what we talked about…

[PS Apologies for the long gap in writing! We just had a week long break. Also, you might be wondering where the post before this one went… I had to get rid of it for reasons that might seem obvious given that contact, but I would still love to share individually if you missed it because it was an experience of a lifetime]

Physics Extra Credit: Lightning? Wow is that magic?

And the extra credit hilarity didn’t stop with only the Rube Goldberg machines. One student submitted a report on how lightning works with the following cover page:

Points to note:

  • This is from a guy
  • The title includes random exciting punctuation in places where it shouldn’t (and could use some more punctuation in other places)
  • He Google Image searched to find a picture of me to place on the front cover (serious extra credit for that)
  • The student got his little sister to decorate the cover with balloons and draw a nice arrow pointing at the lightning just in case I didn’t notice it was there
  • An lastly… this has been kind of a running joke all year, so don’t think this is 100% serious (though I don’t think it’s 100% a joke too). The student put weird covers on all his lab reports and I would jokingly give him bonus points and then take them away for other things. I don’t want you to think my 11th graders are like 3rd graders (the actual project was pretty good).

The guys here are so funny – I do these surveys to assess my teaching and some of them draw little hearts all over or write out “<3” instead of drawing a heart. Complete goofballs, and I fit in so well!

Physics Extra Credit: Rube Goldberg Machine #3

This is my favorite one, really hilarious. This is from two of my absolute favorite students, both of whom have very good (and somewhat devious) senses of humor. I couldn’t post the whole video because the first part is a bit PG-13 (shows a student on the toilet) and didn’t think it would be 100% appropriate to put that on the internet. It’s too bad because they yell at each other in Arabic for about a minute, and I would have loved for you guys to see that. I guess I’ll explain in words.

THE SETUP: One student is stuck in the bathroom and the toilet paper has run out. He calls to his friend who is studying so hard for his Physics test the next day that he doesn’t want to get up to help his friend on the toilet. After a long fight in Arabic, instead of getting up, his friend simply sets the machine in motion to deliver toilet paper to the bathroom. Sweet.

Physics Extra Credit: Rube Goldberg Machine #2

A machine to blow out the candles on your birthday cake. The person blowing you hear in the background is because it didn’t exactly work.

Physics Extra Credit: Rube Goldberg Machine #1

EXPERIMENT: I decided to offer a year end extra credit assignment for my students, an option for which was to make a Rube Goldberg machine. I’m sure you know what it is even if you haven’t heard the name – they are those machines where dominoes fall over which hits a boot which knocks over a bucket, which pours water on a cat, which then wakes up and screeches, hitting into a ball perched on a ramp, which goes down the ramp…. etc etc until it performs a simple task in the end like lighting a match or pressing the button to make toast. My two favorite ones that you may have seen are the Honda Cog and OKGO’s video for the song This Too Shall Pass (same band who did the badass treadmill video too).

RESULTS: Absolutely. Hilarious. This is the first of a few I will post. Notice in this one that the original plan was to have their guinea pig start the machine, but it wasn’t being very cooperative.

Physics as a Second Language

One of my dorm buddies gifted me his old Physics book so I could see how they teach Physics here in Jordan… in Arabic. I now have even more respect for what my students are doing, learning all this really tough and abstract stuff in their second language. I got the book and looked at the cover, which just says Physics in Arabic (Al-Feeziya’, الفيزياء) and I thought to myself “Huh, so that’s how you spell that.” Nevermind when I started to look through it to see words like electromagnetic induction (الحث الكهر مغناطيسي if you were wondering) and concave and convex mirrors (المرآيا الكروية – المقعرة والمحدبة).

People ask me sometime what the students are like, and how they are different from American teens – if they are (which really in some ways they are) it’s something that I totally don’t even notice on a day to day basis. To me, there doesn’t seem to be this crazy huge cultural divide that I think everyone pictures in their head. It’s easy to forget that my students are named Mohammad and Yousef and Ahmed instead of Charlie and Mike and Spongebob, and that most are studying Islamic Theology at school instead of… well, no religion, and that many hail from “random” countries that strike fear in the uneducated of the US (I have 3 Saudis, 5 Syrians, 1 Kuwaiti and 1 Palestinian from Gaza) instead of from random states around the union that strike fear in those of us from normal states (Oklahoma, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Utah etc.).

The only times I really remember that it’s a different game we’re playing is when I give a quiz and 5 kids through up their hand “What’s a wrench?” or “What’s a dam?” or “What does quadruple mean?” It amazes me because they honestly have 100% perfect English in my mind, but it sucks because this difficult material is just that much harder when your language is 99% instead of 100%, and it sucks because they will be taking the same SAT, the same AP, the same everything as American kids, where will always be little things like that there to trip them up.

And it also sucks because it makes me realize how long it will be before I have the same level of fluency in Arabic (but if the Arabic Physics exams had any Arabic swears on them, I would be GOLDEN).