Day 13: A New Approach to Colliding Buggies
College-Prep Physics: Modeling Instruction’s standard lab practicum for the constant velocity unit is colliding buggies. Lab groups take data to determine the speed of their buggy, then the buggies are quarantined and groups are paired up. Each group pair is then given an initial separation distance for their buggies and are asked to predict the point were the buggies will collide. Once they calculate the answer, they are given their buggies back to test their prediction.
It’s fun, but there are some frustrations. Groups that have poor experimental design or data collection techniques won’t calculate the correct buggy speed, which means they won’t accurately predict the collision point. Also, since only the separation distance is given, there isn’t much focus on the position of the buggy and students are less likely to use a graphical method to find the collision point. They try all sorts of equations instead. In the end, one person in the group typically does the calculations while her partners just copy her work.
This year, I decided to shy away from the calculation aspects of the buggy collision lab and instead use the activity to get students more familiar with some of the digital tools we’ll be using throughout the year.
Logger Pro: Students used a motion detector and Logger Pro to find the speed of their buggies. They learned how to select portions of the graph and how apply a linear fit. This also reinforced the concept that the slope of a position graph represents velocity. They printed a copy of the graph and taped it into their lab notebooks. Then I quarantined the buggies.
Position, not distance: Pairs of groups were then assigned a starting position relative to an origin (marked on the floor) and a direction of motion. Careful advance planning let us have a variety of collision scenarios — some head on, some where a fast buggy catches up to a slow buggy moving in the same direction.
Desmos: Groups were then required to model the collision scenario in Desmos in order to determine the collision point. For me, the physics is in formulating the correct models to type into Desmos, not actually solving the set of simultaneous equations or graphing them by hand. Surprisingly, there were some interesting mistakes in this stage: Some groups didn’t use the proper sign for the slope to indicate a buggy heading north/south. Some groups just used the sign from their Logger Pro graph (positive or negative, depending on whether they made their buggy move towards or away from the motion detector). And still some groups used the y-intercept from their Logger Pro graph as their starting point instead of the starting point they were assigned. Once the mistakes were realized, it was a quick fix in Desmos — much less frustrating than reworking a set of simultaneous equations. Then they tested their predictions and included their Desmos graph in their notebooks.
It went well this way, and took about 40 minutes from start to finish. It was something that even students with weaker math/algebra skills could find accessible. Plus, there was more reasoning and discussion about what the slopes and intercepts mean and how to model the situation rather than a focus on solving equations.
NGSS Science and Engineering Practice 2: Developing and Using Models