Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Revamping Intro Physics Laboratory - Part 6

{{Note: If you wish to follow what has transpired so far in this series, here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 3-Follow-up, Part 4, and Part 5}

This may be a bit misleading because it is not strictly a "laboratory exercise". In fact, I think it might be more suitable to be presented during class. Still, it involves the students doing something, so that fits in with the spirit of a laboratory.

This exercise has 2 parts to it. The first is in class where the students are asked to think about a situation, and write down what they think should occur. Then, they get to go out and test it themselves and observe the situation. They then come back and write down what they observe, and compare it to what they wrote earlier of what they THINK should occur. Finally, they get to explain their observations, especially if what they wrote earlier is different than what actually occurred.

So what is the exercise? Here goes...

You are in a stationary vehicle (a train, bus, or a large vehicle). You have a helium balloon attached at the end of a length of string, so the balloon floats freely (without being confined or rubbing against other objects), while you hold the other end of the string. The vehicle then accelerates forward. What happens to the balloon?

The whole point here is to see the effect of the acceleration in a vehicle (on earth) on an object that is less dense than air. You first give this in a class (or a lab) towards the end of the session, and then ask the students to write down what they think they will observe. They don't have to give you any reason, just what they expect to happen.

Then, give them some way to get a helium balloon. This shouldn't be too expensive, should it? Maybe they can get on a train to go downtown, let's say, with a group of their friends. That would be a great way to observe the balloon. Advice them that maybe it would be a good idea to write down there and then some notes on what they observe, and any relevant circumstances surrounding the observation (i.e. was the train packed? Did the balloon float freely? Were the windows open? Was the air conditioning blasting right at them? etc.) Then when they come back, they need to write down exactly what they observed, and compare that to what they wrote earlier before they did the "experiment".

I would then suggest that everyone discussion what they have done. Who predicted an observation that is consistent with what they actually observed? Who didn't see what they thought would happen? Why?

Now, it would be OK to tell the students before they did this that they need to make sure that there are no significant moving air, because that would ruin any effects of the acceleration. But I'm even tempted not to say that. This is because if there are students who did not consider this effect, then there could easily be a discussion on the nature of the 'experiment', and why the result that these students get doesn't quite tell you the effects of the acceleration. The "observation" isn't valid as far as finding the effect of the acceleration in a vehicle on the balloon, because other external factors have intruded into the observation. If these students acknowledged this extra factor, then they have been observant, and understands the non-validity of their observation. If the students did not realize this, then hopefully, other students will point it out during the discussion.

I'm hoping that during the discussion session is where the students start "argue" about the validity of each other's observation, such as the possibility that the wind or other factors might affect some other's observations. I'm also hoping that they might try to come up with some physics on what exactly is the most valid observation for a balloon in an accelerating vehicle that isn't affected by any other external factors. As the instructors, I would suggest you simply stay out of the way, and see how the students are thinking and reasoning their way through this. You can certainly offer some guidance, but the "thinking process" may take awhile, especially if there are many students who observe things differently from each other. They need to weed out which observation is "faulty" as far as answering the question at hand. Once they figured out the valid observation, then they need to figure out why it happened that way. It is the students that need to make their own self-discovery.

BTW, the valid observation in this case is that the balloon will tilt FORWARD, in the direction of the motion of the vehicle. This is, at first, counter-intuitive, because when a vehicle accelerates, objects tend to get pushed back in the opposite direction of motion. So the first inclination is to expect the balloon to tilt backwards. However, a floating balloon is less dense than the air surrounding it. So when the vehicle accelerates, the air surrounding the balloon gets pushed to the back of the vehicle more than the balloon, and thus displacing the balloon forward.

Strangely enough, it observation shouldn't be THAT unusual, because there's an identical situation to this that we are quite familiar with. If we apply Einstein's equivalence of gravity to acceleration, then technically, we are accelerating "upwards" at 9.8 m/s^2. Now try letting go of a helium balloon. It floats UP, in the direction of our "motion". It's the same effect we see in the accelerating vehicle. Yet, I'm sure, for many people, the observation of the balloon tilting forward is non-intuitive. If you are lucky enough to have students who actually argue using this point, then you have one heck of a student! I consider the ability to see the similarities of something "new" with something that they are familiar with as a major accomplishment. It is how we can describe many things that appear to be "different", yet share almost the same type of description or phenomena. I would suggest that if no students realize this, that you bring it up at the end of the discussion.



Anonymous said...

This experiment fails massively. Most places (in the US) don't have a train or tram, and most students won't be able to piece together how to modify this without enough handholding to violate the dictum that the instructor acts only as a facilitator. You could think about doing this on a bus, but the US is so absurdly car-centric that it's still a challenge. I know I couldn't use this where I am.

More importantly, you asked them to buy something beyond their books and maybe a lab manual. Not a realistic option given how astronomical the prices for these things are getting to be, and how the price of helium is skyrocketing.

ZapperZ said...

I don't get it.

1. Most US universities have CAMPUS BUSSES. So the issue of US being "car-centric" is moot.

2. Furthermore, the "car-centril" US tends to have larger vehicles than most (SUV's, minivans, etc). I've seen this effect in those vehicles as well.

So I don't see how this experiment" fails massively" when it can and HAD been done easily.


Kent Leung said...

A much CHEAPER experiment/demonstration that I saw when I was an undergrad was to have a fish full of water sitting on a rotating table. Inside the fish tank there was a ping pong ball anchored to the bottom of the tank (but still full submerged) by string. When the table starts spinning, the ping ping ball moves inwards, towards the centre of the rotation point.

Also what was really cool was on the same rotating table, a small (fixed) pot plant of grass. After spinning for a considerable time, the grass ends up pointing inwards also.