Getting More Mileage Out of the Mousetrap Cars

Earlier in the year, in Physics, I had the students create mouse-trap cars.  The students found it very fun and we got to measure acceleration and use  the kinematics equations to our heart’s content.  However, it took a reeeeeally long time.  I appreciate that students probably picked up some practical mechanical skills when tinkering with how to setup a mousetrap car and practiced problem solving many times over when they encountered various hiccups in their work, however, whether it was worth the time is still up for debate.

I could have more confidence in my students’ abilities to do work at home, and assigned them the task of completing their mousetrap cars at home.  However, I also know that many of my students live a good ways from campus (some about an hour away) and that the ability to just “come over to each other’s houses” just wasn’t there.

Despite that, they had fun, and I promised them that we would use the mouse-trap cars again because I knew we would (eventually) get to energy and that spring potential energy is a big component of any decent Physics course.

So now the goal I’ve given them is to (1) improve their mousetrap car, and show me that they have measurably improved it (we talked a little bit about what that means), and (2) get them to figure out the angle a ramp needs to be so that their mousetrap car can run to the top of it and knock over, say, a domino without the mousetrap car going over itself.  I think it’s a difficult challenge, largely because messy things like friction despite having wheels comes into play (wheels are supposed to be frictionless in a steril Physics thought-experiment, right?).  We’ll see if it’s too difficult for them (and me!).

What about your Physics classroom?  What kinds of hands-on problems that require various types of mechanical and/or potential energy do you use?  I suppose I’m trying to teaching using modeling without (a) having taken the summer course and (b) not having any modeling curriculum, so I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, not always doing a good job, I admit.  I really want to take a summer course in modeling, but I’ve already got this summer full of stuff.

Pictures below are of my students taking apart the mousetrap cars they created a few months ago and are in the process of improving them, using what they now know about springs, forces, and kinematics.

Photo 2013-01-28 02.44.15 PM

Photo 2013-01-28 02.48.03 PM

Photo 2013-01-28 02.48.57 PM

Photo 2013-01-28 02.51.00 PM

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