What are the best physics labs and demos I should buy for my high schoolers?
January 8, 2011 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Dear physics teachers, where do you get your best labs and demos? What do you love?

I am teaching physics at the high school level to juniors and seniors. When I took this job last year the lab equipment was in a state of disarray, I thought that running good labs would just be a matter of figuring out what I had and putting it to use. Turns out I don't have much that works, roughly nothing in full lab sets. So I get to restock. Yay. Daunting.

I have a range of students from low math ability and interest to very bright very motivated AP students. Some of the equipment I bought last year seemed low quality to me, likely to break and probably not the best use of money. I'm looking for tips on where and what to buy from veteran teachers.

What would you buy? Where would you buy it?
posted by Shutter to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's relatively expensive, but the equipment and lab books from Vernier are excellent. Their lab manuals are a great resource even if you don't have the sensors/interfaces to do them as written. I often come up with low-budget ways to replicate their labs (even if I do have the appropriate sensors). The best part is that, when you have a question and call/email them, a real (former) science teacher answers the phone.

I also like the Teaching Physics blog. He's got some great ideas.
posted by jz at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Vernier. Their equipment can be pricey, but it holds up really well.
posted by Hactar at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2011

I teach the life sciences at my school but the physical sciences teacher seems to get most of his materials just from the hardware store - alas, I don't know where the labs actually come from. Our more expensive stuff we get from Vernier (like the others.. we pick out things we think we both can use.)

For *all* teachers, I always recommend browsing through American Science & Surplus. For science teachers, go to the NSTA science store and find books focusing on inquiry in your subject area. Once you start getting used to doing inquiry projects, you'll learn ways to adjust the labs that likely came with your textbook to be more about discovery.
posted by adorap0621 at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2011

I helped run the demo facility for a large university's physics department for a while. Our best demos were all homemade (sorry!), but we got a lot of the rest of it from PASCO.

There's a surprising amount you can do with off-the-shelf things or grocery-store supplies, too. If you memail me I can point you at the demo facility websites for a bunch of university physics education departments, which could give you some ideas for low-budget demo options.
posted by dorque at 12:53 PM on January 8, 2011

As a high-school physics teacher, the demos that I loved and which reinforced my love of science were:

*Demonstrating that horizontal motion and vertical motion are independent by firing a dart from a blowgun, which then passes through a laser beam, which then turns off an electromagnet, which then makes a block of wood fall (which is at the same height as the blowgun). The dart shoots across the room and sticks into the block of wood just before it hits the ground. NO FUCKING WAY! THAT'S AWESOME! DO IT AGAIN!

*Taking some raygun thing and pointing it at the fluorescent lights in the classroom, and making them glow.

*Brass ring on a handle. Brass ball on a handle. Notice how the brass ball can't fit through the brass ring. Heat the brass ring over a flame (FIRE! FIRE!), causing it to expand. Now the brass ball will fit through the ring. AWESOME! METAL REALLY DOES EXPAND AND CONTRACT WITH CHANGES IN TEMPERATURE! YAY SCIENCE!

*Geiger counter. Near the center of the class room, (click............click.................click) near the windows, where sunlight comes through (click........click.......click) near the speck of uranium contained in this little plastic disc (clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick) OOOOOH NEAT IT REALLY WORKS COOL!

*Telling us that a perfect A is 440Hz and then bringing out an oscilloscope and a microphone, and then FUCKING SINGING A PERFECT A AND HITTING 440HZ (HOLY FUCKING SHIT, YOU'RE THE MAN! YOU'RE JUST MAKING A PERFECT SINE WAVE WITH YOUR VOICE! BADASS!)

*Demonstrating vector calculations by this circular table with pulleys, weights, and three strings, and a ring in the center. You weight two of the strings at angles A and B, and then on string (at angle C) you have to determine what weight will put the system in equilibrium. You weight the third string, pull out the center pin, and see if everything stays in balance. You can do this with 4, 5, 6, 7 strings. Vector table. DOOD! MY TI-83 TOTALLY PREDICTED THIS SHIT! WHOOOOA!

Hey Mr. Kennedy, hope you're alive and well. You were a major geek role model, my man.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:41 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a high-school physics teacher, student
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:42 PM on January 8, 2011

you know what i mean
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 1:43 PM on January 8, 2011

This isn't a specific answer to your question, unfortunately, but I checked with my partner, who is also a physics teacher, and he recommended some listservs and websites that would be good resources for this kind of information. He had recently written them all up for someone else, so he just forwarded it to me:
(1) TAP-L is the listserv, and the general community is PIRA (Physics Instructional Resource Association.
The online archive is complete but not flexibly searchable. However, no one minds if questions are reasked.

(2) ap-physics is the listserv (they call it an electronic discussion group) and the general community is mostly teachers of the various AP physics courses, but many high school physics teachers are on the list. You'll need to scroll down to check ap-physics
Again the archive is complete but not flexibly searchable, and again, no one minds very much if questions are reasked (especially here, many new people join all the time)

(3) This isn't a listserv, but was started and is maintained by teachers on the ap-physics list. Pretty Good Physics is really an extremely useful site, full of lesson plans, labs, etc.

(4) http://www.compadre.org/
Hope there's somthing useful there for you.
posted by periscope at 2:21 PM on January 8, 2011

The most amazing physics lab I did was one on ballistics. There was a plumb bob hung from the ceiling with a pin that would get pulled out releasing it, right at vertical. The plumb gets raised up and tied off with a string. By measuring the height difference, you can get the potential energy, calculate the velocity at release and figure out where it will hit on the floor. Put a smooth sand box on that point, burn through the tying off string to release without error and see where it hits.

It took a small amount of time to set up and 20 minutes to do the ballistics, but fuck, it was so satisfying to nail the predicted spot with accuracy of less than one cm.

Also, another good lab was one where an iron bob connected to house current by a wire was suspended by an electromagnet next to a piece of thin paper covering a pipe connected to ground. When power is cut to the electromagnet, the bob drops and electricity arcs between the bob and the pipe at 60hz, burning holes through the paper. You can use the measurements to approximate G.

You can measure the speed of light with a tray of marshmallows and a microwave (no turntable), but melting them. there will be hot spots (more melting) at the nodes. The distance between nodes is the wavelength. The microwave specs give you the frequency of the magnetron. Multiplying them gives you c.
posted by plinth at 6:26 PM on January 8, 2011

I just came here to recommend the TAP-L list which was linked to above.

This very question just came up on that list. There was a bit of a debate as to whether air tracks are better than the tracks for the low-friction carts. Either way, getting a motion detector to use with a PASCO or Vernier system with carts or gliders seemed to be a popular recommendation.
posted by achmorrison at 8:10 AM on January 9, 2011

Thanks for the input folks, I appreciate the links. Any specific examples would also be awesome. For instance I bought this set last year and it has worked like a charm. Whereas this other product I'd just as soon not link to, looked great, but was cheaply made.
posted by Shutter at 5:44 PM on January 9, 2011

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