Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Increasing the Drive of Your Physics Class: Students Learn to Integrate Force Principles through the Design and Construction of Paper Cars

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Increasing the Drive of Your Physics Class: Students Learn to Integrate Force Principles through the Design and Construction of Paper Cars

Article excerpt


First-year physics students often have a difficult time grasping Newton's laws of motion and recognizing the forces that these laws depend on. The "Paper Car" project is an experiential activity that is rich in application of force principles. It is also simple enough that students are able to integrate straightforward but non-trivial physics concepts they have learned in class. With some teacher guidance, students gain a much deeper understanding of forces and begin to see how physics principles can be used to aid in the design of real objects.

I have been using the Paper Car project in my 11th- and 12th-grade honors and regular physics classes for almost 20 years. The project is adapted from the Lou-Vee-Air vehicle, described in an article that appeared in the February 1988 issue of The Science Teacher (Louviere). Since some of the force considerations are not obvious, I introduce the project after the unit on forces has been completed. Students are better able to incorporate the physics principles in the project if they already have some grounding in the concepts.

The Paper Car project

The goal of the Paper Car project is to design and build a vehicle made of simple materials that will travel at least 6 m along a tile floor. The vehicle must be constructed using only the following materials: file folders, note cards, paper, plastic straws, paper clips, rubber bands, tape, and glue.

Students are given four to five weeks to complete the project. One class period is used to introduce the project; two or three class periods are allowed for design, construction, and consultation with the instructor; and another class period is used to test the vehicles. During consultation, I generally guide students in refining their observation skills and then explore with them the appropriate physics principles needed to help them improve their vehicles. Most of the design and construction is done outside of school.

The Paper Car project is open-ended. Students, in groups of two or three, are told only the goal of the project (to build a vehicle that will travel 6 m) and the restrictions (the materials they may use); students are not given any suggestions regarding design. While students do come up with different designs, two in particular are most common: the fan car and the direct-drive car. The fan car (Figures 1a and 1b) is similar to the Lou-Vee-Air car. I call this version a "fan car" because, like the Lou-Vee-Air car, it uses a propeller to move the vehicle.

The direct-drive car (Figure 2, p. 64) is the more popular design. I call this version a "direct-drive car" because the tensed rubber band is wound directly around the axle of the drive wheels; as the rubber band "un-tenses," it causes the drive axle and wheels to turn, propelling the car. The direct-drive design is simpler to construct--but not necessarily more effective--than the fan-car design because no propeller has to be fashioned.

By the time students have been troubleshooting for a week or two, most groups' vehicles successfully travel at least 6 m. Typical longest distances in any given year are 12-24 m. In the many years I have been doing this project, the longest distance ever traveled by one of these vehicles was over 121 m--we almost ran out of hallway!

Although students typically do manage to build a paper car by the end of the process, the vast majority of students are not successful the first time (e.g., students commonly have problems with propeller construction). Very few first-draft vehicles travel 6 m. Most first-draft vehicles move less than a meter; many do not move at all. As a result, the troubleshooting stage is where most of the learning occurs and where basic force principles can be very helpful.

By the time students complete their vehicles, they have studied Newton's laws of motion and have a basic understanding of the forces of weight and tension, normal force, static and kinetic friction, and their interactions. …

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