Thursday, February 2, 2012

Physics Week One

Physics Co-op Lesson Series @

I've decided to post a summary of the lessons we are doing in my co-op physics class this spring. 

A little background about co-op... this is now the eleventh year our family has been involved in these co-op classes.  It is a twelve-week course (eleven classes, and then a wrap-up party), and we meet once a week, and the classes offered are supplements to what we do at home.  Different classes are offered each year, based on which parents are willing to teach and what the interests are.  Almost every year when we fill out the evaluation forms and indicate our interests for the next year, the most-requested classes are art and hands-on science.  And we've been able to offer those kinds of classes for most age groups in most years.  My kids have also had classes in sign language, music, film-making, geography and world cultures, and introductory Spanish.  This year the classes include drama, art, and US geography for Kennady's age group; and film-making and physics for Landon's age group.  The set-up for co-op is pretty much the same every year - it is parent-led so there are no drop-offs allowed - and every parent helps somewhere.  There are three class periods of about 40 minutes each, except for the oldest group (12 years and up), which has two class periods of about an hour each. 

Now every year almost without fail, I say "I'm not teaching this year.  I'd like a break."  And I think you can probably figure out what happens. Mmmmm hmmmmm.  I wind up teaching anyway.  That's exactly what happened this year.  I did have an idea for a class for the oldest kids, so I went to that first planning meeting with that in reserve, but determined not to say anything unless I absolutely had to.  Thankfully the mom that taught a film-making class last year was interested in doing the class again this year.  Landon loved that class so that was very good news.  But the only other ideas being floated at the meeting were the possibility of another art class.  Which would have been great, except that it's a class of mostly boys, and film-making is already pretty artsy, and I knew that Landon would only tolerate a drawing class.  Barely.  And did I mention it's a class of mostly boys?  Landon had even told me on the way to the meeting, "Mom, make sure my class gets to do something fun."  What he meant was something pretty close to: "Mom, make sure my class gets to play sports and/or blow things up."  So...  I spoke up and offered the possibility of teaching a science class that would focus on physics concepts and would probably involve some rockets and siege machines and that sort of thing.  My lesson plans have gone through a few changes since then, but basically that's what we are doing.  I told the kids in class last week that we would play with toys and build things that would hopefully help us understand the science of physics.

There's the background, and here is a summary of the lesson from Week One.

We started with something that would allow us to look at two very basic concepts in physics - the law of gravity, and the force of friction.  The first thing we did was work on building a simple cardboard car.  The instructions and templates for the car were in the book Amazing Rubber Band Cars by Mike Rigsby.

Landon and Kennady had helped me prepare the pieces, tracing the template pieces on cardboard and cutting them out so that all the students had to do in class was construct the car.

While the glue dried, we discussed the concepts.  Gravity is a force that all objects exert on each other.  The greater the mass of the object, the greater its gravitational force.  The farther apart the objects are, the weaker the force.  The effect we are most familiar with is the gravitational force of the earth that keeps us on the ground.  Friction is a force that resists movement.  In order for the car to move, there must be a force that acts on it to overcome friction.  This could be gravity if the car is placed on a slope, or it could be something pushing the car.  Although friction resists movement, some friction is also necessary - there needs to be friction between the wheels and the floor for the wheels to turn.  We talked about some examples - wet or icy roads can mean less friction between our car tires and the road surface, causing us to spin or slide, or do donuts in a parking lot!  And our brakes work on the principle of friction as well - using friction to slow down and to stop.  Friction usually changes mechanical energy to heat energy, and too much heat can have damaging effects.  This is why we need to have regular oil changes in our vehicles, and why oil or grease needs to be applied to moving parts.  The oil is a lubricant because its molecular structure allows the molecules to slide over each other easily, and this reduces the friction in moving engine parts.  Another way to reduce friction between moving parts is by using bearings, because less surface contact means less friction.

I think everyone went home from class with a somewhat functional cardboard car.  Maybe some of the younger siblings will have a new toy to play with - that's what happened at our house.  Kennady personalized the demonstration vehicle that I made.

Today's class will introduce some structural physics concepts.  I will try to post the rest of these lesson summaries on a regular day - I am thinking maybe Tuesday.

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