Physics Science Projects for Middle School Students

Inquiring into Motion

Middle school students love to complete hands-on activities, like building fan cars, allowing them to develop a personal connection to the activity. That is why this project is excellent for studying “motion.” This is a hands-on inquiry-based project using toys to investigate a science concept. Science is hard for many students as they lose interest after leaving elementary school for middle school. The hard is derived primarily by many teaching techniques designed to “prepare them for high school.” Students take notes, memorize facts, complete canned labs, and develop little understanding of physics or any other middle school science subject. This project will rekindle their interest in science and move science away from hard.

The National Science Education Standards stress the need for conducting experiments that require students to think. When students think, they increase their level of understanding and develop critical thinking skills. That is the focus of this class project, students actively and mentally engaged investigating “motion” using “fan cars.” The project requires students to design their own experiment, sometimes called experimental design, using the scientific inquiry process:

ask questions;
design an investigation;
formulate an explanation;
present findings;
reflect on results by drawing conclusions based on collected evidence.

One important thing that students discover using the scientific inquiry process is there is more than one correct answer. Because students discover their findings may differ with others, due to the design of their investigation. This difficulty is eventually overcome after completing several investigations that involve the scientific inquiry process. An additional attribute, a student now thinks critically and completes investigations like a scientist. This investigative process helps students resolve misconceptions tightly held because of prior knowledge and experience. This project helps eliminate some of these misconceptions, further opportunities and experiences are needed to eliminate all of them. Some misconceptions students view about “motion” and related concept “force” include:

The only “natural” motion is for an object to be at rest.
An object’s motion is proportional to the force applied.
If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
Only animate objects can exert a force. Thus, if an object is at rest on a table, no
forces are acting upon it.
Force is a property of an object. An object has force and when it runs out of force
it stops moving.
The motion of an object is always in the direction of the net force applied to the
Large objects exert a greater force than small objects.
A force is needed to keep an object moving with a constant speed.
Friction always hinders motion. Thus, you always want to eliminate friction.

Project Materials

The best materials for this project, so that all students are on a relatively equal playing field, are K’NEX. These K’NEX materials are easy for middle school students to manipulate and are inexpensive. Additionally, K’NEX materials make it easy for students to design their own cars and redesign as necessary. The use of these K’NEX materials allows all car designing and building to take place in the classroom and is easily reused in more than one class. To facilitate distribution of materials store them in small cardboard boxes or plastic containers. Purchase fans at Wal-Mart or similar store in the camping section for less than $2.00 each and the fans use AA batteries. Fans are easily attached to cars using a heavy duty rubber band. Sometimes parents and parent organizations will donate K’NEX materials and fans.

Project Details

This project is designed for individuals or pairs. This is primarily based on resources and class size. The project can be spread over several class periods, if the project includes any recommended extension activities. Each part of the project details has teacher hints.

1. To grab student attention, so they can begin to decide how to design their own fan car and investigation, place a pre-built fan car on the floor and let them observe it running.

Hints: Tell students that they may not use the design, to avoid students copying the teachers design. Some students will think that the teacher’s fan car is the only correct or workable design. The teacher may need to stimulate discussion with guiding questions, but do not put words in the student’s mouths. This is a fine line and can become teacher directed quickly, if the teacher is not careful.

2. Ask students what they observed and record their answers on the chalk board or newsprint. Save to compare student findings at the end of project with their initial observations.

Hint: This is a time that many student misconceptions, along with additional science concepts appear (force, friction, etc). Record them and do not discuss.

3. Give students time to formulate and record questions they want to answer about motion.

Hint: The best questions are open-ended and do not accept yes/no or true/false questions.

4. Now give students time to design an experiment to investigate motion and draw a preliminary design of their car.

Hint: Additional materials that should be available include stopwatches, meter sticks, tape for floor marking, and graph paper.

5. It is now time to let students construct their fan car design and redesign as necessary.

Hint: A time limit is recommended.

6. Next students conduct their experiment using their experimental design.

Hint: Suggest repeated trials, for students that only complete one trial.

7. When completed with Step 6: students spend time developing explanations of their findings supported by the evidence of their experimental data.

Hint: It is critical that students use their own words to explain their findings to determine level of understanding and detect lingering misconceptions.

8. Students now present their findings to the class.

Hint: This is when students will discover that there may be more than one answer to the investigation and may lead questions. Write these questions on the chalk board or newsprint for discussion when reviewing student initial observations.

9. At this point have students look at their initial recorded observations (chalk board or newsprint). Facilitate a discussion by asking students to look at their initial observations for comparison with their experiment findings. This is the time that misconceptions already detected may still linger and new misconceptions may appear. Additionally this the time to lay a foundation for investigating other science concepts students identify in the discussion.

Hint: It is critical misconceptions be addressed as soon as they appear. Discuss each misconception by comparing student personal findings, class findings, understanding, and experiences. This is the best way to begin to eliminate misconceptions.

10. The final step is to have each student write a personal reflection paper about what they learned from the project.

Hint: Personal reflections provide details as to level and extent of understanding of “motion” and lingering misconceptions.

Recommended Project Extensions:

Extension activities help students develop a higher level of understanding and challenge students that need that extra level of critical thinking and motivation.

1. Allow students to redesign their cars to determine a design that is fastest over a given distance, which builds a little competitive spirit in the project.

Hint: Parameters for redesign are necessary. Recommend combining students or pairs to
help students that had difficulties in the project.

2. Make a video with a camcorder of fan cars in motion to analyze results. Videoing more than one fan car in motion at the same time lets students make observations and inferences the difference between fan car’s. Rarely do fan cars travel at the same speed.

Hint: Let students do the video recording. Also computer screen projection equipment allows engagement of entire class in discussion.

3. Add weights to the cars to investigate if how extra weight impacts the motion of the fan cars.

Hint: Metal washers work well, because they easily slip onto K’NEX straight pieces.

4. Calculator-Based Probeware collects real-time data in graph form using the motion sensor. This eliminates the need to manually graph data, because students can print the graphs. Additionally, student data collection can be projected on an overhead screen for entire class to view and discuss.

5. Using books and current literature to investigate cars and motion.

Example: Time Magazine dated March 3, 2008 has an excellent article, “The Physics of NASCAR” by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, and may capture the attention of many students.

6. Simulation websites provide another level that is difficult to reproduce in most middle school classrooms.

Example: The website Explore E-Learning as an excellent “Fan Cart Physics” simulation for middle school. The URL is index.cfm? method=cResource.dspResourcesForCourse&CourseID=310

This project meets goals of the National Science Education Standards as students:

identify scientific concepts and relationships;
provide cause and effect explanations;
critically review data, and communicate understanding;
unify concepts and processes in science, science as inquiry, physical science,
technology, science in personal experiences, and nature of science.

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