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Special Science Teleclass: Physics of Motion

This is a recording of a recent live teleclass I did with thousands of kids from all over the world. I’ve included it here so you can participate and learn, too!

We’re going to cover energy and motion by building roller coasters and catapults! Kids build a working catapult while they learn about the physics of projectile motion and storing elastic potential energy. Let’s discover the mysterious forces at work behind the thrill ride of the world’s most monstrous roller coasters, as we twist, turn, loop and corkscrew our way through g-forces, velocity, acceleration, and believe it or not, move through orbital mechanics, like satellites. We’ll also learn how to throw objects across the room in the name of science… called projectile motion. Are you ready for a fast and furious physics class?

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Driveway Races

soccerball1This experiment is one of my favorites in this acceleration series, because it clearly shows you what acceleration looks like.

The materials you need is are:

  • a hard, smooth ball (a golf ball, racket ball, pool ball, soccer ball, etc.)
  • tape or chalk
  • a slightly sloping driveway (you can also use a board for a ramp that’s propped up on one end)

For advanced students, you will also need: a timer or stopwatch, pencil, paper, measuring tape or yard stick, and this printout.

Grab a friend to help you out with this experiment – it’s a lot easier with two people.

Are you ready to get started really discovering what acceleration is all about?

Here’s what you do:

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Gyro Wheel

gyro1Gyroscopes defy human intuition, common sense, and even appear to defy gravity. You’ll find them in aircraft navigation instruments, games of Ultimate Frisbee, fast bicycles, street motorcycles, toy yo-yos, and the Hubble Space Telescope. And of course, the toy gyroscope (as shown here). Gyroscopes are used at the university level to demonstrate the principles of angular momentum, which is what we’re going to learn about here.

If you happen to have one of these toy gyroscopes, pull it out and play with it (although it’s not essential to this experiment). Notice that you can do all sorts of things with it when you spin it up, such as balance it on one finger (or even on a tight string). Wrap one end with string and hold the string vertically and you’ll find the gyro slowly rotates about the vertical string instead of flopping downward (as most objects do in Earth’s gravitational field). But why? Here’s the answer in plain English:

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Downhill Race

downhill1Newton’s Second Law is one of the toughest of the laws to understand but it is very powerful. In its mathematical form, it is so simple, it’s elegant. Mathematically it is F=ma or Force = Mass x Acceleration. An easy way to remember that is to think of your mother trying to get you out of bed in the morning. Force equals MA’s coming to get you! (I did mention how bad physics jokes are, right?)

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Rocket Car

busLet’s take a good look at Newton’s Laws in motion while making something that flies off in both directions. This experiment will pop a cork out of a bottle and make the cork fly go 20 to 30 feet, while the vehicle moves in the other direction!

This is an outdoor experiment. Be careful with this, as the cork comes out with a good amount of force. (Don’t point it at anyone or anything, even yourself!)

Here’s what you need to find:

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Newton’s Wagon

wagon1This is a quick and easy demonstration of how to teach Newton’s laws with minimal fuss and materials. All you need is a wagon, a rock, and some friends. We’re going to do a few totally different experiments using the same materials, though, so keep up with the changes as you read through the experiment.

Remember that Newton covers a few different ideas. First, there’s the idea that objects in motion will stay going they way they’re headed, unless something gets in the way. Then there’s the resistance to motion (objects at rest tend to stay put), as well as force being proportional to how fast you can get something to move (acceleration). And lastly, there’s the idea that forces happen in pairs – if you shoot something one direction, you’re going to feel a kick in the opposite direction. Ready to see these ideas in action? Let’s go…

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A common misconception in science is that centrifugal and centripetal force (or acceleration) are the same thing. These two terms constantly throw students into frenzy, mostly because there is no clear definition in most textbooks. Here’s the scoop: centripetal and centrifugal force are NOT the same thing!

This experiment is mostly for Advanced Students, but here’s a quick lesson you can do with your younger students…

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Balloon Racers

balloons1We’re going to experiment with Newton’s Third law by blowing up balloons and letting them rocket, race, and zoom all over the place. When you first blow up a balloon, you’re pressurizing the inside of the balloon by adding more air (from your lungs) into the balloon. Because the balloon is made of stretchy rubber (like a rubber band), the balloon wants to snap back into the smallest shape possible as soon as it gets the chance (which usually happens when the air escapes through the nozzle area). And you know what happens next – the air inside the balloon flows in one direction while the balloon zips off in the other.

Question: why does the balloon race all over the room? The answer is because of something called ‘thrust vectoring’, which means you can change the course of the balloon by angling the nozzle around. Think of the kick you’d feel if you tried to angle around a fire hose operating at full blast. That kick is what propels balloons and fighter aircraft into their aerobatic tricks.

We’re going to perform several experiments here, each time watching what’s happening so you get the feel for the Third Law. You will need to find:

  • balloons
  • string
  • wood skewer
  • two straws
  • four caps (like the tops of milk jugs, film canisters, or anything else round and plastic about the size of a quarter)
  • wooden clothespin
  • a piece of stiff cardboard (or four popsicle sticks)
  • hot glue gun

First, let’s experiment with the balloon. Here’s what you can do:

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Rocket Ball Launcher

twoballsThis is a satisfyingly simple activity with surprising results. Take a tennis ball and place it on top of a basketball… then release both at the same time.

Instant ball launcher!

You’ll find the top ball rockets off skyward while the lower ball hit the floor flat (without bouncing much, if at all). Now why is that? It’s easier to explain than you think…

Remember momentum? Momentum can be defined as inertia in motion. Something must be moving to have momentum. Momentum is how hard it is to get something to stop or to change directions. A moving train has a whole lot of momentum. A moving ping pong ball does not. You can easily stop a ping pong ball, even at high speeds. It is difficult, however, to stop a train even at low speeds.

Mathematically, momentum is mass times velocity, or Momentum=mv.

One of the basic laws of the universe is the conservation of momentum.  When objects smack into each other, the momentum that both objects have after the collision, is equal to the amount of momentum the objects had before the crash. Once the two balls hit the ground, all the larger ball’s momentum transferred to the smaller ball (plus the smaller ball had its own momentum, too!) and thus the smaller ball goes zooming to the sky.


  • two balls, one significantly larger than the other

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Impulse & Momentum

momentum1It’s time for the last lesson of mechanics. After all this time, you now have a good working knowledge of the rules that govern almost all movement on this planet and beyond!! This lesson we get to learn about things crashing into one another!! Isn’t physics fun?! We are going to learn about impulse and momentum. This article is intended for advanced students.

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