Drivers, Start Your Glue Guns: Using Model Stock Cars to Explore Motion and Force Concepts

By Angle, Julie | Science Scope, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Drivers, Start Your Glue Guns: Using Model Stock Cars to Explore Motion and Force Concepts


Angle, Julie, Science Scope


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During an era of budget cuts, teachers find themselves designing an increasing number of low-cost inquiry lessons that parallel the dollar menu at fast food restaurants. Throughout my 25 years as a science teacher, I frequented the aisles of local discount stores in search of lab materials. Tasked with teaching a unit on motion and forces, and faced with limited school supplies, I designed several lessons (see Angle and Foster 2011) that use inexpensive materials to address the National Science Education Standards (NSES). Specifically, these lessons anddressed the unifying concepts and processes representative of "Evidence, Models, and Explanations" (NRC 1996). An inquiry activity that I have used successfully with middle-grade students is an investigation of physics concepts that explains the motion of stock cars by designing a pasta pod, a vehicle made entirely of pasta and hot glue that can travel down a ramp and across the floor. What do stock cars and pasta pods have in common? Both stock car drivers and pasta pod builders depend on the content understanding and application of motion and forces, collaboration with team members, the foresight to design and test models, and the ability to communicate findings.

STEM activities that address the content and process standards of the NSES are academically valuable, but a lesson that is also authentic and relevant to today's students will engage diverse student populations. Pasta pods, the glue that links physics with a popular sporting event, stock car racing, will meet both goals.

The recently released document A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas emphasizes the importance of engaging students in practices of science and engineering to help them understand how scientific knowledge about the natural world develops. The document identifies eight essential elements of the K-12 science and engineering curriculum: (1) asking questions and defining problems; (2) developing and using models; (3) planning and carrying out investigations; (4) analyzing and interpreting data; (5) using mathematics, information and computer technology, and computational thinking; (6) constructing explanations and designing solutions; (7) engaging in argument from evidence and; (8) obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2011). The lesson shared in this article provides science teachers with an example of how to implement these eight essential elements into classroom practice.

Lesson goals

From the atoms and molecules that make up our cells to the galaxies that make up the universe, all matter is in motion. Even when an object appears to be stationary, such as a stalled car, it is in motion because the Earth is spinning on its axis. Objects are continuously under the influence of forces, but it is an unbalanced force that causes objects to speed up, slow down, or change direction. Variables that affect the change in motion are the amount of the unbalanced force exerted on the object and the mass of the object. Middle-level students often have little knowledge or understanding of the physics concepts behind Newton's laws of motion. While they can usually recognize that an object at rest remains at rest until something makes it move, they frequently struggle with the idea that an object in motion remains in motion until a force causes it to slow or stop. Students are also unfamiliar with the concept of momentum. While they can identify that it takes a semitruck longer to stop than a small car traveling at the same speed, students often lack the content knowledge to explain why.

This lesson is designed to strengthen students' understanding and application of Newton's laws of motion by emphasizing the eight essential science and engineering elements identified in A Framework for K-12 Science Education. The opportunity to discover through inquiry empowers students to develop skills and knowledge to become independent learners. …

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