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That time between AP exams and summer break is weird and special all at the same time. (If you’re looking for review ideas, here’s what I do before the exam) Depending on when your year starts it’s also possibly extensive. Watching movies and playing games is really only fun for about a week. If you are in all AP classes it gets old pretty fast when the whole day is mind-numbing for the next four weeks.
To use the time productively, and enjoyably, I assign a “physics of project”. I was actually inspired to do something like this after seeing Professor Gordon Ramsey continuously bring his undergraduate students in to Chicago Section AAPT meetings to present their original research. Most memorably I recall a project on music. The student who played saxophone in marching band, make a sax out of PVC and compared the tonal quality to a real sax using the same mouthpiece. He also did an acoustical analysis of his playing vs Professor Ramsey’s playing (which was really cool to basically see the differences between a “novice” marching band player vs an experienced improvisational player).
I believe that same meeting was the one where we hosted Rhett Allain who presented on the Science of Superheros.
The Prompt and Parameters
The prompt is simple: students are asked to research the physics behind anything they want.
The only real parameter is that whatever they choose they need to be able to collect and analyze data. If they cannot directly collect data then they need to find a way to come up with assumptions for measurements (analyzing videos, researching quantities) or find a way to model what they hope to research.
Ok, ok… I provide a little more structure than that, because we all know if given 2-4 weeks to complete a major project most students will put in 40 hours of work the 2 days before the deadline.
Here is what I provide:
Your task: In a group of 1-3 people:
- Pick a topic to study the physics of. This can literally be anything, but it needs to be something that you can find a way to either physically model and/or otherwise collect data.
- Research the topic and collect data. You may collect data inside or outside the classroom. Inside the classroom you have access to all probeware and software. If you are wondering if I have something, ask because I probably do. Outside the classroom your cell phone is your largest asset. Additionally, I have 4 iOLabs from the University of Illinois that can run nearly all of the data collection as my Vernier probes can. You may check one out for 2 consecutive days at a time. A sign up will be available next week.
- Write a formal lab report (background, theory, purpose, procedure, data, analysis, conclusion etc)
- Present your results in a 10-15 minute presentation. Come prepared with either a poster or slides because physics is visual!
- When you present, you will be asked questions about the physics of your project and considerations to make it better. Be sure you’ve considered all of the assumptions you’ve made carefully and intentionally!
The first assignment students must provide me with is a project proposal. They need to have a concrete plan for how they plan to measure and analyze their data. This is submitted to me within the first week of the project. I provide students with feedback regarding their plans and suggestions as appropriate.
Next, I ask them to do some background research. It’s like a super watered down literature review. I want them using sources and learning a bit about what they are planning to study before they dive in. I ask for just a page.
The following few weeks they have a simple check in: what have you accomplished, what challenges are you running into, what do you need to do next. These check ins hold them accountable. All of the smaller assignments are included in the final grade.
The final product is a presentation and a paper. The paper is effectively a large lab report.
Students are given the following outline (dates were when we used to end on Memorial Day)
Student projects are AMAZING
I will have many students analyze real data they’ve collected like this student who looked at the oscillations of her dog drying himself
Or I will have students analyze the physics of something they maybe cannot capture data directly, but they find ways to make estimates. Like this project on the physics of Nathen Chen
These projects have spanned everything from “is it possible?” in the movies, to students analyzing themselves in their own sport, to topics like rainbows that we don’t cover in AP Physics 1.
Students regularly report that this is their favorite activity the entire year, and the activity they are most proud of. (It also gives me a great story to tell in rec letters!)
When students give their presentations I want to run this much like if they were presenting research. I expect them to talk about what they might do or change if they did it again, or if they wanted to explore further. I ask them questions about their methodology and assumptions. During this process we also open the discussion to the whole class to brainstorm ideas as well.