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01 May 2015

Taft's simulation labs: using Wally the Astronaut for AP Physics 1 prep

Last week California physics teacher Eric Plett sent me a link to Taft School's simulation labs.   I was immediately impressed.

Phet applets have been my venue of choice to send students to find good physics simulations.  I like Taft's even more, because they are set up such that multiple parameters can be varied in different ways.  A single application allows for multiple experiments, multiple investigations, and lots of interesting physics. Even though I am emphatically NOT a simulation person -- I believe in hands-on laboratory work with real, live equipment -- I nevertheless see the value in computer simulations.

The link above is to the site labeled "Ideas to review for the AP Physics 1 test."  There are other experiments, available at the "lab simulations" tab at the top of the page.  Since I've already done more live, hands-on experimentation than I can even recall right now, I was happy to try using one of these simulations for AP exam review.

Today in class I gave this six-minute quiz.  I described the "Wally the Astronaut" simulation, shown in screenshot above: Wally's rocket applies a steady force for some distance, then he goes through the red photogates at constant speed.  The quiz asks for a derivation of the relationship between the distance d through which the force is applied and the time t spent in the photogates.  This is a nice two-step derivation, requiring both the work-energy theorem AND basic kinematics.  The qualitative-quantitative translation question on the AP exam will similarly demand that students use mathematics to combine multiple concepts.

Next, I asked students to sketch a graph of d vs. t; and to propose a new graph that would be linear.  I don't know whether AP Physics 1 will have the same emphasis on graph linearization that AP Physics B did.  But my students are prepared, regardless.

Finally, I discussed the quiz, and sent the class off to do the "experiment" on their computers.  This final attachment is the lab assignment which is due on Monday.  As with most experiments, I have students make the linear graph, find a slope, explain (with both calculations and words) the physical meaning of the slope, and use the slope to determine an interesting physical quantity.

Note how many different approaches you could take to this simulation!  Because the force and mass are both variable, as well as the distance through with the force is applied, you have many, many possible experiments available.  I chose to do the d vs. t version, but I'd love to hear other ideas.

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