Inquiry Stylee: First Investigations

Inquiry can be rough. It can be rough on equipment, it can be rough on students, and it can be very rough on the teacher. As I try to glue together experience with content, I often have wondered if things would ever get easier. Yes, they finally have. Some sort of chord has struck, and it sounds like this:

Turn your system all the way up. If you’re short on time, go to 7:27 and close your eyes: Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev, composed by Mussorgsky, directed by Dudamel.

I want to be the Dudamel of teachers.

I want to lead a fantastically talented group through a gauntlet of stops, starts, and stunning revelations. I want to coalesce a whole semester into a series of chord changes that leave the students primed for later resolution yet fundamentally enamored with the richness at hand. I want my physics class to feel like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

My quest for this kind of classroom has created some fantastic investigations, as well as some that were rather pedestrian. Here’s a run-down of the current open investigations running in my room today. These were all primed by the simple tennis ball guided investigation. (Don’t know what I mean be “guided” and “open?” Read this primer)

Mass vs. Air Time From Trampoline

Students varied the masses stuffed inside of an eviscerated tennis ball. They dropped the ball about 40 feet onto a workout trampoline. They then measured the time from the bounce off of the trampoline to when the ball hit the ground again.

Speed Holes: An Air Flow Configuration Investigation

Students drilled different configurations of nine holes of the same size in blocks of 2×4’s. They then dropped their blocks to see if the average distance between holes or the distance from edges would affect the drag on the block.

Large Scale Rifling on Rotation

Students sliced a 5-inch PVC tube in half and scored the inside with a razor blade. They then launched a baseball down the tube with a slingshot apparatus made of physical-therapy bands. They observed the spin of the ball upon exiting with a high speed camera. (video forthcoming)

Surface Area vs Drop Time

Simple. Beautiful. Hugely varying radii of sports balls were dropped and timed. Brass masses (also what they called me in college) were duct taped to the balls to ensure controlled mass.

Matching Parachute Area to Mass of Parachutist

Students varied the mass of the toy parachutist and measured the final speed of the dropping parachute system. Extrapolations were made to the maximum amount of velocity sky diving schools advise as safe.

Mass of Projectile on Water Displacement

Students dropped varying massed objects into a perfectly filled bucket of water. The shed water was then measured.

Accelerometer Parachute: Wiimote

Students varied the size of the parachute attached a Wiimote. The Wiimote’s accelerometers were then synced with the Bluetooth of a MacBook and data was saved as .csv files. The collisions at the end were vary telling.

Chemical to Kinetic: Baking-soda-and-vinegar Cannon

The concentrations of both vinegar and baking soda were varied, and the times of flight of a cork projectile were measured. Super fun.

Propeller Ball!

The students drilled a 1/16″ hole and filled it a ping-pong ball with various fluids (water, oil, mercury, etc…). They then dropped their homemade propeller ball to see how rotation would affect the mass-doesn’t-matter-in-falling axiom.

Tail Dragger

Students attached long plastic bag streamers to masses and measured the effect of the tail length on drop time. Also simple, also quite interesting data.

The Ever-Beaten Drum: Mentos-and-Diet-Coke Rocket

Students fired a Mentos-pop bottle system — as a rocket — and measured how the thrust affected time to fall. Awesome.

The Final Movement:

If you needed evidence for students’ ingenuity and general curiosity, I hope this helps my case. These students were minimally directed. I used my experience in science to direct them towards more measurable techniques and away from some more obvious pitfalls. Otherwise these are all theirs.

I like to use the metaphor of aiming a cannon: Choose a good trajectory, measure your powder twice, then let ‘er rip and see what you hit. The target you miss isn’t as nearly as important as the target you hit.