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Physics Experiments To Inspire Undergraduates? 249

Posted by kdawson
from the describe-the-universe-and-give-two-examples dept.
PShardlow writes "I have recently been asked to propose two projects for a 1st year undergraduate teaching laboratory in the summer term this year. These are projects that a pair of students will spend 36 hours working on, and as such can be quite in-depth. A good project would include something they can build, something they can measure, and something they can calculate. Previous projects have included cloud chambers, a Jacobs ladder, a laser Doppler speed camera, laser sound detection, smoke rings, and physical random number generators. This is an opportunity to really inspire students into the joy that can be experimental physics — but it only works if we demonstrators propose interesting projects. So I ask the Slashdot community for suggestions of fascinating projects to do, things that are relevant to today's physics problems but could feasibly be completed by a pair of first-year undergraduates in 72 man hours."
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Physics Experiments To Inspire Undergraduates?

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  • Coil Guns (Score:5, Interesting)

    by paultag (1284116) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:10AM (#26882459) Homepage
    Coil Guns rock. Inspired me to get into electronics. One that shoots Fist sized slugs would be enough for any of us :)
    • Re:Coil Guns (Score:5, Interesting)

      by phantomfive (622387) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:45AM (#26882737) Journal
      Indeed, anything that blows things up or is destructive is always a good idea.

      I had one idea last fourth of July to separate di-hydrogen-monoxide with some electrodes into a floating pillar of its component parts hydrogen and oxygen, then reassembling it very quickly.

      I saw another guy install a switch in a baseball bat, and connect it to a camera. Then use it to take pictures at very interesting moments. On the watermelon, on the egg, , on the soda can.

      Another idea might be some kind of musical instrument. Put a microphone next to almost anything that vibrates or beats and it can make interesting musical noise. You can investigate variations in length, density, etc, and how that varies the tone and pitch.

      Maybe build a trebuchet?

      I still say let 'em blow something up.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sakusha (441986)

        Anything that blows up is probably a Chemistry experiment, not a Physics experiment. Electrolytic decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen is a chemistry experiment.

        The only thing like that I can truly put in the category of Physics is the "Ice Bomb" experiment, which is extremely hazardous. Somewhere on the internet, through some professional Physics & Chemistry website, I saw the best video of that experiment ever. They got a cast iron sphere about 2 inches thick and about 4 inches in diameter,

        • by h4rm0ny (722443) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @09:46AM (#26885511) Journal

          Anything that blows up is probably a Chemistry experiment, not a Physics experiment

          Yeah? Well you haven't seen my high school physics project yet. Man, getting hold of the Plutonium was hard, but the teacher's going to give me an 'A' for sure!

        • Nowadays, people do this experiment with pop bottles, it's lame.

          Says the person who's never put ~3 inches worth of crushed-up dry ice in a 20-oz pop bottle, tied it to a brick, filled it ~1/4 of the way up with tepid-to-warm water, put the cap on, and dropped it at an ~6ft deep part of a body of water near the shore.

          The ground SHAKES, very noticably. If it's at just the right depth it makes the surface of the water look the way the ground does in those videos you see of underground nuke tests [youtube.com] (followed by

        • Well, chemistry is really a subset of physics. Almost everything's a subset of physics to some degree. Ah yes, here's the xkcd reference [xkcd.com].

      • by VShael (62735)

        Plastic sheeting, cornstarch and water, and a bass speaker. You can make a non-newtonian fluid, which can be quite interesting.

      • I had one idea last fourth of July to separate di-hydrogen-monoxide with some electrodes into a floating pillar of its component parts hydrogen and oxygen, then reassembling it very quickly.

        No offence, but I was doing that age 12 or so. It's not hard. The difficult bit is getting hold of sulphuric acid.

        (If you use salt, chlorine is given off and chlorine/hydrogen mixtures are allegedly, pretty damn unstable.)

        • by russotto (537200)

          No offence, but I was doing that age 12 or so. It's not hard. The difficult bit is getting hold of sulphuric acid.

          Lead-acid batteries. Or better yet, just the electrolyte, which is typically shipped separate from the batteries (except for sealed batteries).

          Some drain cleaners have it too.

          (If you use salt, chlorine is given off and chlorine/hydrogen mixtures are allegedly, pretty damn unstable.)

          That's a feature, not a bug :-).

          • Lead-acid batteries. Or better yet, just the electrolyte, which is typically shipped separate from the batteries (except for sealed batteries).

            Yeah, I was a 12-year old with a 12-year old's budget :(

            'Course, I could have nicked the car battery, but that would have had Repercussions.

  • LHC (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:14AM (#26882493)

    Accelerate small particles to high speeds, create mini black holes, destroy the planet. Quite fascinating IMO.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:15AM (#26882507)

    Perhaps a collection of "The Amateur Scientist" columns from Scientific American would be a good source of ideas? A CD [amazon.com] of the columns has been published.

  • Gas turbine engine. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JustShootMe (122551) * <rmiller@duskglow.com> on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:16AM (#26882515) Homepage Journal

    Build a gas turbine engine out of an old turbocharger.

    Or if you want to go all out, have them fire up a GE90-115B. ;-)

    • Build a gas turbine engine out of an old turbocharger.

      I just had a Junkyard Wars [wikipedia.org] flashback.

      Perhaps you could get them to build some sort of remote sampling device, like a simulated Mars probe/rover or something.
    • Thats takes quite a bit more time than 36 hours. And cost of materials for this sort of thing also needs to be considered. A normal experimental can be repeated with minimal part replacement.
  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:16AM (#26882525)

    Securing time on the ISS might prove expensive so I have prepared this simulator out of a trampoline and high-speed camera. I'm not sure exactly what we're trying to prove here but rest assured, the undergrads will be inspired.

  • Theremin (Score:2, Interesting)

    by blargfellow (948805)
    A Theremin [wikipedia.org] makes a good project for undergrads. We probably put ours together in about a day once we got the parts.
  • by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@n ... t ['etz' in gap]> on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:29AM (#26882613) Homepage Journal

    In terms of physics experiments, I can't imagine something that would both capture the interest of the students, be cheap enough to have a school with a limited budget be able to afford, and allows for multiple variable parameters to be adjusted. It is also a great summer time project.

    Yes, this is sending up a 2 liter plastic bottle (or whatever is handy) by filling it up with water and pressurizing it with compressed air to see how high it can go.

    There are all kinds of things that you can measure and document, including thrust (including ISP if you want to get that technical), altitude, learning about trigonometry (to measure altitude), payload mass, and even learning about the basics of the laws of motion through a hands-on experiment. Knowing the altitude and how long it takes to fall from the apogee, you can also calculate the local acceleration factor due to gravity (which can vary from one place to another).

    There are also a number of variables that can be adjusted in a controlled manner, such as water volume, air pressure, atmospheric conditions (do rockets fly higher in cooler weather vs. hot weather?), rocket shape, nozzle shape, and rocket size (2 liter vs. 1 liter bottles). You can observe conditions, develop formulas from experimental data, and make predictive theories for what happens when you adjust the variables.

    For the really ambitious, there are some 2-stage rocket plans available if you dig up using search engines, but a simple rocket is comparatively easy to build. Be careful with the multi-stage rockets, as you can get enough altitude that you may need to file a flight plan with your local airport under experimental rocketry procedures.

    • In fact model rocketry is a good one too. However 1st years shouldn't be too basic. A good one is calculating the expected performance. Water rockets have some nice dynamics. You are pushing a fluid through a small orifice and you have a compressed gas providing the energy.

      If this is done on a test stand with a strain gauge you can get into some nice data gathering and analysis. Water can make a mess but you could leave that out and use compressed air.

      For even more fun, if you have some budget to get so
  • Muon Lifetime (Score:4, Interesting)

    by physicsmichael (1294958) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:29AM (#26882617)
    Once upon a time I did a lab were we used a very simple scintillator and an old photomultiplier tube to detect muons and estimate their lifetime. If you have the parts (including the electronics), it is fun. Exciting? Well depends on the student.
  • Ripple tanks (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:33AM (#26882643)

    When I was in High School (in 1964!) we had a physics curriculum called PSSC. If you can find an original textbook it is full of ideas. It was largely an experimental approach, which was perfect for me at the time. The most fun I had was building a ripple tank. You could add high-tech challenges like digital control of the wave generators (I suggest 2 for point source and 1 for line waves)to look at effects of phase variation and interactions of different wavelengths.

  • by artor3 (1344997) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:37AM (#26882673)

    One of the projects I got to work in my first year of undergrad was a flaming standing wave generator. While Jacob's ladders and Theremins are cool, you can't actually *see* what's going on... not so with the flaming standing wave!

    The actual name is the Ruben Tube (not be confused with a Rubix Cube), and it's a fairly simple design, too. Just a hollow tube with holes along the top. One side has a hard cap with a place to attach a gas tube, as with a Bunsen burner. The other side has flexible cap, with a speaker pointing at it.

    Turn on the gas, light the tube, and play a constant frequency over the speaker. It sets up a standing, longitudinal wave in the tube, which means compressed and sparse areas of the gas. This lets the students see the wave in the flames, and makes it look like the much-easier-to-visualize transverse wave.

    It's easy, it's cool, it's visual, and it helps students wrap their minds around an important aspect of physics. All in all, a great experiment.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by forkazoo (138186)

      One of the projects I got to work in my first year of undergrad was a flaming standing wave generator. While Jacob's ladders and Theremins are cool, you can't actually *see* what's going on... not so with the flaming standing wave!

      The actual name is the Ruben Tube (not be confused with a Rubix Cube), and it's a fairly simple design, too. Just a hollow tube with holes along the top. One side has a hard cap with a place to attach a gas tube, as with a Bunsen burner. The other side has flexible cap, with a spe

  • by xPsi (851544) * on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:39AM (#26882685)

    Here are a doublet of papers for an undergraduate laboratory demonstrating Bell's Inequality and and entangled photons. The whole apparatus (detailed in the second paper) is estimated to cost USD 15k circa 2002, so the optical elements have probably come down in price since then.

    1. Entangled photons, nonlocality, and Bell inequalities in the undergraduate laboratory. [American Journal of Physics 70, 903 (2002)], Dietrich Dehlinger, MW Mitchell. http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0205171/ [arxiv.org]

    2. Entangled photon apparatus for the undergraduate laboratory. [American Journal of Physics 70, 898 (2002)], Dietrich Dehlinger, MW Mitchell. http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0205172/ [arxiv.org]

  • Some ideas... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dr. Zowie (109983) <slashdot@defor e s t . o rg> on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:42AM (#26882707)

    Ultrasonic tape measure / speed of sound experiment. Ultrasonic transducers are easy to come by; students should send some pulses out one, and then sense the return pulse, giving either a numeric indicator or a voltage level that corresponds to the delay time. A little electronics heavy, but if they have had a background in electronics it should be pretty fun. Proof of concept: ultrasonic tape measures at Home Depot for $15. (Trick: you have to build some kind of ultrasonic horn to channel the pulse and collect the return pulse -- otherwise it diffuses too much)

    Lunar range finder. Get a green laser pointer and modulate it with a digital stream. Mount a beamsplitter on a little telescope and point it at one of the Apollo landing sites. Send the laser pointer beam out the telescope, pick up the return signal with a photodiode at the eyepiece. With digital correlation, you can measure the distance to the Moon in only a few minutes of integration. This may be a little ambitious for a 36 hour project, but it makes a dandy six-week independent project. As a side bonus, have them calculate the strength of the return signal. It turns out that the experiment wouldn't work without the retroreflectors planted there by the astronauts.

    Million-volt van de graaf generator. Given a length of acrylic tubing, a long rubber band, a couple of brushes, a motor, and a big metal ball you too can make sparks that leap halfway across the room. If you really do get a megavolt, you can put a Geiger counter nearby and look for gamma rays(!)

    Barometer. Make a barometer that can measure the height of your building. Pretty simple to do - just requires mercury, a glass tube, and care, or (for a more sensitive one, but harder to calibrate) an columnn of vacuum oil with a sealed partial vacuum at the top - but very moving: you can demonstrate the mass of air with remarkably simple equipment.

    Pipe organ. Have them cut the tubes to length to create a scale.

    Spectroscope. Stanford used to give out posters that could be folded up to make a little spectroscope, with a $0.10 transmission grating slide as a dispersive element. I handed them out to my CU students and asked them to do "something interesting" with them. One of them taped over the slit. Another one used razor blades and sketched the Fraunhofer spectrum of the Sun. Yet another used it to debug a sputtering apparatus for his work/study job. You probably don't want to be that open-ended, but you can certainly ask them to make one and calibrate it using fluorescent lights. Everyone but tape-boy really felt inspired by actually *seeing* spectral absorption and emission lines.

    Doppler radar. Not as hard as it once was, this may still be on the ambitious side. Edmund Scientific has microwave transmitters that will serve. Heterodyne the signal with the return pulses, the output frequency gives you the speed.

    Measure the curvature of the Earth using a car's odometer and a sextant. Cheap but effective can be had for $25-$30 at sailing supply stores. Have the students travel about 60-100 miles north or south and measure the altitude of a celestial object at both places at the same time of day. Students can "shoot the Sun" at true noon on successive days (compensating for the analemma) or "shoot Polaris" on successive nights at the same time. (Even Polaris is about a degree off the pole, so you can't shoot Polaris at different times on the same night without compensating for that...)

    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      Lunar range finder. Get a green laser pointer and modulate it with a digital stream. Mount a beamsplitter on a little telescope and point it at one of the Apollo landing sites. Send the laser pointer beam out the telescope, pick up the return signal with a photodiode at the eyepiece. With digital correlation, you can measure the distance to the Moon in only a few minutes of integration. This may be a little ambitious for a 36 hour project, but it makes a dandy six-week independent project. As a side bonus,

      • by sakusha (441986)

        The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment is a great demonstration, but laser power isn't really the problem. I've watched someone demonstrate this experiment on a modest 40 inch reflecting telescope (modest by university observatory standards). The problem is not sending enough power, or getting enough photons back. The problem is hitting the damn LRRR. It is not as easy as it sounds. The guy that demonstrated it was well practiced at hitting the target, he used to demonstrate it every semester and knew from long

        • There was an article about this on /. a while ago. They are *counting* [wikipedia.org] photons. From the wiki:

          ..under good conditions, one photon will be received every few seconds.

          This makes a difficult experiment for 1st years. Also you may find getting the telescope time hard unless you have one on campus (can anyone say light pollution).

          • by sakusha (441986)

            That wikipedia page is a very poor summary of the experiment, I assure you the receiver does not measure just single photons. Remember I've seen the experiment apparatus in action. It uses a powerful laser (don't recall exactly the power, but it must be kilowatts) slaved to the big telescope, and sure, due to the distance and travel through the atmosphere there must be some spread and diffusion of the beam. The biggest problem is the atmosphere, you can hit the LRRR and sometimes the beam gets diffracted th

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by crumley (12964) *

      Ultrasonic tape measure / speed of sound experiment. Ultrasonic transducers are easy to come by; students should send some pulses out one, and then sense the return pulse, giving either a numeric indicator or a voltage level that corresponds to the delay time. A little electronics heavy, but if they have had a background in electronics it should be pretty fun. Proof of concept: ultrasonic tape measures at Home Depot for $15. (Trick: you have to build some kind of ultrasonic horn to channel the pulse and collect the return pulse -- otherwise it diffuses too much)

      You don't need ultrasonic or transducer. Two cheap microphones and the correct connector to get them on separate channels and a computer is plenty. Make a loud sound and record it with each microphone. Find the distance from microphones to the sound source. The find the time shift of your signal between the right and left channel. Divide the two and you have the speed of sound. There are a lot of variations you can make, but the basics are easy to do.

  • It's from James Gleick's Chaos. [around.com]

    It's an example of order in chaos. What you do is to take a bathtub faucet and hook it up to a water source. Then turn it down to a trickle. Eventually you'll get to the nonlinear bit, where the oscillations from the last drop affect when the current drop falls.

    Hook up a light beam to time when each drop falls and plot the result.

    Then do a sort of second-order plot. With the delta time between drops 1 and 2 on the X axis, and the time between drops 2 and 3 on the Y a

  • by billstewart (78916) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:48AM (#26882767) Journal

    I've always found it frustrating that so many projects described as "experiments" aren't experiments - they're (optionally cool) projects replicating somebody else's work, but you're not learning anything new, you're just validating what somebody else already learned. That can still be fun - hands-on experience is different than book learning for most people, and blowing things up is always a good time - but it's not an experiment.

    I've seen lots of freshman engineering / design projects that are at least not just replication - building bridges with toothpicks, making eggs survive dropping from high windows, etc., but even those are often not done with actual science in the process, just empirical engineering.

    Some of the typical blowing-things-up projects can also be experimental - make your potato cannon, figure out something about the amount of energy you're getting from the fuel and how far the potato goes and therefore conclude something about your gun's efficiency. (You already knew you needed to point it at a 45 degree angle for maximum distance, and probably even why...) Can you find other ways to learn something new from your projects, even if it's less interesting that the fun of doing the project?

    • by HuguesT (84078)

      It depends how it's presented. If you are requiring freshmen to do actual-frontier-of-science experiments then there will be a lot of failures and frustration. The result should also not just be a good mark but a publishable paper. Needless to say this is a little ambitious.

      At the other extreme there is the follow-a-recipe project where everything is pretty much avaiable off the shelves, and this is not as much fun, but still good if not a lot of time is available.

      In between you have projects where the teac

    • The problem on a planet of many billion people who have recorded history over dozens generations is that finding a truly "new", "interesting", and "worthwhile" experiment that can be accomplished in 72 man-hours with minimal funding can be rather difficult. You could easily spend 72 man-hours on the problem selection research alone.

      The cool thing about intro to physics courses is that they aren't concerned with breaking new ground, they get to present easily demonstrated and understood principles so th
  • Trebuchet (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CaptainPatent (1087643) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:51AM (#26882781) Journal
    Back in AP Physics in high school my teacher didn't quite have a full agenda for us so we had about two spare weeks to kill at the end of the semester. He wanted to do a project similar to what you're describing and he came up with the idea to build a trebuchet.

    There was plenty to build and measure, but there is a ton to calibrate which is the important part. In order to see how far we were from the ideal launch many of us (on our own) were calculating the theoretical maximum lanch distance using the weight we had loaded, the weight of our "ammo" (a tennis ball) the length of the arm and attached string, and quite a few more factors.

    The best part about this is you have a very wide variety of math you can accompany with it because a lot of the more negligable forces can be ignored or simplified. If you want you can just do some basic angular momentum / vector acceleration equations and get pretty close to the correct efficiency or you can go as in-depth as calculating frictional forces, properly describe the launch cord motion as a differential equation, etc.

    Honestly the experience was probably the most inspirational experience I had not just in physics class, but in school. I'd compare it to a good episode of mythbusters because not only did we get to build something cool and do some calculations, but we got to launch things across our school's front lawn.
    • by srussia (884021)
      The question:

      A good project would include something they can build, something they can measure, and something they can calculate. Previous projects have included cloud chambers, a Jacobs ladder, a laser Doppler speed camera, laser sound detection, smoke rings, and physical random number generators. This is an opportunity to really inspire students into the joy that can be experimental physics â" but it only works if we demonstrators propose interesting projects.

      Your answer addreses it quite nice
    • That's not physics, that's engineering.
  • Start with a battery powered watergun. Add a couple of small motors to pan back and forth, and to adjust angle up and down. Next, you'll need a ultrasonic rangefinder. Hook that all together, and write a piece of software for a control computer to watch for differences in the distance that it thinks things are at. Scan back and forth, and look for things that are different, then hose them down. We almost got to build one of these, until we mentioned to the prof that we wanted to fill it with naptha, and
  • by syousef (465911) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @12:53AM (#26882803) Journal

    Here's a simplified Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment
    http://tonic.physics.sunysb.edu/~dteaney/F07_modern/lectures/mlab1_michelson.pdf [sunysb.edu]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson-Morley_experiment [wikipedia.org]
    http://www.wikinfo.org/index.php/Michelson-Morley_experiment [wikinfo.org]

    How about building your own Radio Telescope
    http://www.radiotelescopebuilder.com/ [radioteles...uilder.com]

    For that matter you could get them to build their own Dobsonian although the physics there isn't too hard (basic optics), especially if you don't hand figure the mirror. There's also a large metalwork or woodwork component that might not be considered relevant.

    Here are some really good astronomy tutorials (though the prac work is done with simulated software). You might be able to modify them to something more practical
    http://www3.gettysburg.edu/~marschal/clea/CLEAhome.html [gettysburg.edu]

    Some of the topics covered by the above
    Radio Astronomy of Pulsars
    Astrometry of Asteroids
    The Revolution of the Moons of Jupiter
    The Rotation of Mercury by The Doppler Effect
    Photoelectric Photometry of the Pleiades
    Spectral Classification of Stars
    The Hubble RedShift-Distance Relation
    The Flow of Energy Out of the Sun
    The Quest for Object X
    Jupiter's Moons and the Speed of Light: The Classic Roemer Experiment

    There are books and web pages out there....many tend to be geared to highschool, then there are some that would require you to up your insurance...so you'll have to sift through them

    http://physics.about.com/od/physicsexperiments/tp/experimentbooks.htm [about.com]
    http://www.educypedia.be/education/physicsexperiments.htm [educypedia.be]

  • I recommend having them build a Theremin ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theremin [wikipedia.org] ). Several students did this at CU Boulder, and the results were both informative and amusing.
  • Some simple experiments [umd.edu].

  • Nothing is cooler, and nothing is such a opening to the amazing magic of physics

    • by aquabat (724032)

      Nothing is cooler, and nothing is such a opening to the amazing magic of physics

      with an electron gun, slowed down to emit a single electron every couple of seconds or so, aimed at a photographic plate, so they can see the interference pattern form, one dot at a time.

    • We did this as a 3 hour experiment. Its not really a 36 hour project.....
  • Take a long length of cable (or fiber, but cable is fine) and turn it into memory...

    Give them an appreciation for how much of an ethernet frame is actually in transit over 100m of ethernet at any one time. (about 33 bits). Teach them to take Ethernet cards apart and use the circuits in them to build a complete memory unit.

    Make them develop their own memory - enough to store their name, using common components, eg, using sound waves or similar to store data. You can even store data as mechanical waves in a s

  • Bubble Fusion (Score:2, Interesting)

    by GravitonMan (1145905)
    In undergrad we spent a few weeks attempting to reproduce Dr. Taleyarkhan work on sonic cavitation experiments in deuterated acetone. While there is much controversy surrounding the this type of fusion, it is an interesting and simple experiment, but hard to get reliable results.
    http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Bubble_fusion

    For students it is be exciting to be apart of the human quest for fusion power. And is useful as a teaching tool for all methods of fusion. Taking part in a controversial res
  • For ideas:

    http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm [wisc.edu]

    [Mirror: http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:Czfkx2_qDggJ:sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm+http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us&client=firefox-a [74.125.95.132]
    ]

    (He had our attention when he rolled into the lecture hall on a liquid-nitrogen propelled tricycle..)

    [Prof. Sprott -- sorry about the Slashdotting...]

  • A good engineering challange is building a something launcher. Whether it be eggs, taters, t shirts, etc., the project will provide many reasons to do the engineering. Recently I participated in an engineering challange for high school students to build a t shirt launcher.

    Some of the items needed solved were what type of stored energy to use, how to release it quickly and effeciently, and how to transfer the energy with little loss of energy.

    Some of the material was beyond HS physics, so some stuff came t

  • by shmorhay (781528)
    The San Francisco Exploratorium, an interactive, hands-on science museum, published a three-volume set of instructions for creating useful and educational (and sturdy) projects for children and adults to manipulate and study, although these are now hard to find, and expensive. Search the used books website http://www.abebooks.com/ [abebooks.com] for "Exploratorium Cookbook" (and grab any copies you can) and see also the Exploratorium website at http://www.exploratorium.edu/ [exploratorium.edu] . See also the very recently published book "L
  • Lumen meter? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thogard (43403) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @01:43AM (#26883139) Homepage

    Have them build a lumen meter for measuring light bulbs. Its the sort of thing that each year and add to or redesign since it seems simple to get initial results but the problems go much deeper.

  • To engage them, give them broad topics to explore such as conservation of momentum, change of state, magnetism, and illustrate them with they own experiments.

    That microgravity on human body thing's good too.

  • by deek (22697) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @01:55AM (#26883211) Homepage Journal

    I hear that the Large Hadron Collider is currently having problems. Maybe your students can build a replacement ... except smaller. Call it the SHC, or even the VTHC.

  • Frickin' Lasers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sakusha (441986) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @02:04AM (#26883253)

    What the hell is this with the lasers? These are not projects that are comprehensible on a fundamental physics level, at least not in the construction of the projects you described. And Jacob's Ladder? Seriously? I remember doing that experiment in JUNIOR HIGH school. What has happened to science education today?

    I'll give you an example of a laser experiment gone wrong. I remember when I was a junior in high school back in the 1970s, I was taking AP Physics, and lasers were brand new and expensive. But our school just bought one and we were dying to figure out experiments to fiddle with it. One day I read an offhand remark in a physics book that the angle of polarization of a laser beam could be altered by a magnetic field. This seemed impossible to me, sure a laser was an electromagnetic phenomenon, but it was light, how could magnetism affect it? So I figured I could get one of our strongest magnets that weighed about a hundred pounds, run the laser through the gap, and measure deflection with a couple of simple polarizing filters. But no matter what I did, I could not measure any deflection. The teacher suggested I try using a longer beam, maybe hundreds of yards between the source polarizer and the detector. That was a total red herring. My lab partner and I tried all sorts of things to use as long a laser path as possible, a few hundred yards even, but even a car driving by the building would make the whole rig vibrate enough to make it impossible to hit the target, let alone measure the polarization. After a week of fiddling around, we finally went back to the physics teacher and admitted defeat. The teacher burst out laughing, and said, "oh of course, what you were trying to do is impossible, and the length of the beam is irrelevant. It would take massive magnets the size of a house to cause any measurable deflection. I just wanted to see what lengths you'd go to to try to measure it." Oh was I pissed.

    Well anyway, I have a dim view of the sort of example physics experiments you described (other than the cloud chamber). We did much tougher experiments in high school. Try giving your students the classics, experiments they'll really learn the FUNDAMENTALS of physics from. I have fond memories of doing the Miliken Oil Drop Experiment in high school, it was so much fun I did it over and over to get more accurate results. Or give your students old school equipment like oscilloscopes. You little kiddies DO know what an oscilloscope is, don't you? We did experiments like setting up two microwave emitters side by side to generate an interference pattern, then hooking up an oscilloscope to a detector, then moved the detector around to measure the high and low energy points of the pattern, then plotted the positions of the detector over graph paper. The teacher didn't tell us the frequency of the emitters so we had to work that out for ourselves from the interference pattern. There are loads of classic physics experiments using oscilloscopes, but they are largely forgotten today because the teachers never learned to use them properly when they were undergrads. Maybe it's time for YOU to learn about them.

    If you can't get freshmen physics students motivated by the classic experiments showing the most fundamental aspects of physics, experiments that once were so difficult that they were only done in the greatest labs of Nobel Prizewinning physicists, but now are easily performed in any school lab, you will fail as a physics teacher, and at the goal of teaching physics. Flashy gadgets with frickin' lasers are no substitute for the beauty of the simplest physical phenomenon. If you can't get students to see that through your labs, it will be your failure, not theirs.

    • I also did most of the experiments you describe in high school. But we did them again in 1st year. But we only have 3 hours for each one, and we had to hand in the lab report at the end of the session. 36 hours is a lot of time, and you could get quite a lot done.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo (153816)

      Well anyway, I have a dim view of the sort of example physics experiments you described (other than the cloud chamber). We did much tougher experiments in high school.

      That's so very nice for you, but it doesn't change the fact that's an elitist, arrogant answer. I'm glad YOU did tougher experiments in high school, but I (and many others) never had the chance because we didn't do such things in our schools.

    • Re:Frickin' Lasers (Score:4, Informative)

      by sgtrock (191182) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @10:22AM (#26885985)

      In the '70s your high school's physics lab had:

      1) A laser
      2) More than one o'scope (which if I recall correctly, cost about $10,000 apiece at the time)
      3) At least one magnet that weighed more than 100 pounds, with the implication that smaller ones were also readily available.
      4) Microwave emitters
      5) You were able to do something called the Millikan's (sp?) Oil Experiment which I've never heard of. A quick googling seems to indicate that some sort of electrical field generator was necessary.

      In the '70s my brand new (built in '72) high school in northern Minnesota had:

      1) A handful of scales with assorted weights up to about 2 kg
      2) Some small mirrors and prisms
      3) 10 year old text books brought up from the old school
      4) very little else.

      We also had a brand new track and field layout, a brand new Olympic class swimming pool and dive pool, and an updated hockey rink and football field. Not hard to tell where our the voters' priorities were in our school district, eh? :(

      Now, I'll grant you that we were on the far end of the spectrum from you in terms of equipment. We had a new hire physics teacher who had joined the teachers' staff the year before I got there. Rumor had it that when he saw the state of the lab he just shook his head.

      Mind you, this was a guy who was a retired U.S. Navy sub commander who had spent his time in the engine room of nuclear powered subs. He was just his thesis short of a PhD in physics. He had stopped short because he wanted to teach at the high school level. He figured that he would have a hard time getting such a position because he would be seen as overqualified if he had completed his doctorate. (How many teachers at that level have Dr. before their name, I wonder?)

      He was a great teacher. Even with the almost complete lack of equipment, he did his best to create opportunities for us to demonstrate the scientific method. I did learn a lot in that class.

      Still, you should understand that my high school was probably closer to the norm than yours was. As well equipped as it was, I have to wonder if it wasn't a private school. It was at least a public school in a very affluent neighborhood, and it had a very sympathetic principal and school board to be able to afford that much equipment.

      • Re:Frickin' Lasers (Score:4, Insightful)

        by sakusha (441986) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @11:22AM (#26886791)

        Perhaps what you have a point. I lamented the sorry state of science education today, apparently the George Bush era happened to it, and all the money got sucked out of basics like science education and instead, is spent on foolish crap like standardized testing. I don't see the point of testing all students if they don't spend money on TEACHING them stuff first.

        But you overstate your point. Yeah, I went to a well-supplied school public school that was brand new, I was in the second graduating class. We had:

        1) One laser that cost a few hundred bucks.
        2) One used oscilloscope that cost about $750 when new
        3) One rusty military surplus magnet that weighed about 100 pounds, and a few other magnets under 5 pounds.
        4) Two little tiny microwave emitters that cost about $5, they looked like little metal capacitor cans about 1 inch in diameter.
        5) A microscope borrowed from the biology class, a bunch of used electronics parts we cannibalized from old TVs and breadboarded together to make a basic electric field generator, and an atomizer from an old perfume bottle, to perform the Millikan Oil Drop experiment.

        Perhaps it is just the passing of time and memory since your high school physics classes, but I have a hard time believing that the Millikan Oil Drop Experiment wasn't covered, at least in the text book. That's how the electrical charge on the electron was measured. It's pretty basic.

        But I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's about priorities. We both had highly educated, committed teachers just short of PhDs. But my school district is in a university town and is committed (even today) to education. Apparently your town is committed to producing dumb jocks that will become truck drivers and fast food workers. That's just sad.

        But more to the point.. Even with a reduction in funding for high schools, the equipment that I described is easily within reach of a freshman college course (which is what the OP was about). Or rather, if your college does NOT have access to an oscilloscope and other basic equipment, just drop out and go to some other university because you deserve a real education.

  • This is a *perfect* excuse to build a Tesla coil.

  • by kybur (1002682) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @02:17AM (#26883301)
    ...When I was in grad school for physics, and I remember what inspired me when I was an undergraduate.

    Forget about all these complicated electrical experiments that the students will feel like they only vaguely understand. First years have no idea what Maxwell's equations are and are probably still very shaky on Kirchhoff. Anything else in Modern Physics, forget it. Many will be overwhelmed because they have no possible way of understanding all the assumptions that went into setting up the experiment. (And you really don't want people questioning whether a meaningful solution can actually be attained).

    Have them do something with mechanics. There are plenty of really neat demos that can be done in mechanics that can also be explained to a very high degree without calculus. Something along the lines of the ventomobil, for example. This is cutting edge engineering rather than cutting edge physics, but this is the type of thing that they can understand just by looking at it, and they will have fun pondering questions like: "can it go directly into the wind?" and "can it ever exceed the wind speed?". When you have an intrinsic idea of how things work, exploring the details of something neat will be much more interesting.

    The biggest factors here are your enthusiasm, and how well you identify the needs of each student. Physics is a touchy subject for many, and if they get started off on the wrong foot, forget it. They will stop trying. Take your time (really take your time) at the beginning so that no one gets lost, and your students will have lots of fun.

    • (And you really don't want people questioning whether a meaningful solution can actually be attained)

      That's exactly what you do want. If there's a more important question in science I don't know what it would be.

      One comment above refers to a failed attempt to observe Faraday rotation as a "laser experiment gone wrong." He explained what he expected to occur, why he was skeptical that it would happen, what actually happenened when the test was conducted, and the outcome of further research into what (didn'

  • I was always impressed hearing a friend describe her low-temperature physics class, where they were always cooling things to 3 degrees Kelvin and then doing various interesting experiments. I'd imagine that takes a fair bit of resources and department expertise, though.

    I don't actually remember the specific experiments, because as happens with most research of this kind, building the equipment to cool a chamber down to 3 degrees Kelvin is 95% of the work...

  • Build a particle accelerator. Not a big one. I've seen homemade cyclotron on slashdot before: http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/10/20/1626204&tid=134&tid=14/ [slashdot.org] Point it at your cloud chamber when you're done, of course.

    Superfluid He is also wickedly cool. If you can build something to house it, and pump on it until it gets cold enough, you should be able to do some cool experiments with it.

    Though not as visually appealing as a cloud chamber, building a detector to measure the lifetim

  • Build Steel Pans (Score:2, Interesting)

    by unkiereamus (1061340)
    Have them build Steel Pans [hotpans.se] 72 Man hours wouldn't be enough for building a complete pan, but they could certainly build a pan with 5 or 6 notes. Lots of things to be calculated, dish size, note size, groove size etc. It was all worked out originally by pure empirical experimentation, so if the calculations are off by a bit, it's there's enough wiggle room that you can adjust things. (What? That note marked C3? Nono, that was a typo, it was supposed to be a F3 all along...) The physics of it are actually
  • Build an electrocardiogram. The students get to learn some electronics, some programming, some data analysis, and some biology.
  • They've already signed up and completed most of their first year of study. Why do you feel the need to inspire them now? Surely they were inspired when they joined the course - or is this to remedy a dull & turgid year of academia?

    You'd be better off with projects that consolidated on what you've taught them during the year. The description on the website sounds very patronising and appears to be more like something to keep them entertained while the exams are on.

    (A better idea would be to have the s

  • That's the first question...

    Thermodynamics, waves, subatomic particles etc etc.

     

  • Have a look at IEEE's RWEP project library (http://www.realworldengineering.org/library.html) Quoting: It is "A library of high-quality, tested, hands-on team-based society-focused projects for first-year students. These projects are designed to increase the recruitment, persistence to degree, and satisfaction of all students, and particularly women, in baccalaureate EE, CE, CS, BE and EET degree programs." Most of them have a strong physics background...
  • As an undergraduate, I recently built a Paul Trap from this paper: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1991AmJPh..59..807W [harvard.edu] It was rad! I suggest using a tesla coil to charge the particles.
  • Experimental errors (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sobrique (543255) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @07:25AM (#26884575) Homepage
    I'm reminded of a project given to physics undergraduates at the Uni I went to.
    They were given the task of measuring the earth's magnetic field, and estimating altitude/height of the buildings around the campus based on it.
    Of course what they weren't told was that the physics lab has an Nuclear magnetic resonance lab, with ... something of a beast of a magnet.
    Catches out the lazy undergrads, or the ones that 'fudge' results, whilst rewarding those that are paying attention and going to the effort to explain quite why the physics lab gives such insane results.
  • For the non-physicists of us wandering around Imperial, any chance we could get to see some of the cool experiments? Just for kicks and giggles quite frankly (*far* too down the CS route to considering switching allegiance), but might it be possible anyway?

  • by PShard (1478961) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 @07:37AM (#26884637)
    Dear SlashDotters, Firstly may I thank you for taking your time to respond in such numbers. Some of your suggestions and comments I shall attempt to respond to directly but due to the sheer volume this is an impossibility due to the paper I must submit by the end of the day (for the progress of science and all). There have been a number of excellent project proposals, far more than I could hope to run, but I'm sure this advice will become helpful to my colleagues as well. Firstly may I clarify that these are university students, not school students. The definition of these things seems to go slightly awry when converting between us British and our esteemed American colleagues. Secondly, thank you very much to those of you who have spent the time to suggest changes in teaching practices. Advice on focusing on core ideas instead of flashy gimmicks is something which I agree with entirely. There is no point in getting the student to do something which looks cool but they cannot contemplate or understand what is going on. This said I feel there is no reason why these two things cannot be coupled together giving both that fundamental understanding and the experience of a project which may inspire them away from banking and into a life of science. Thirdly I thank those of you that have pointed me to online resources for ideas, I havenâ(TM)t had a chance to run through them yet, but will get round to them in the full course of time. Fourthly regrettably some of the projects suggested I have disregarded as they have either already been covered or will be covered the following years (Such as measurement of G, The Hall effect and resonant modes in sand on a plate to name a few). Others I have been forced to resign to the drawer of ideas other demonstrators will be putting forward, some of them have been doing the same thing for years, such as the Theremin, the autonomous robots or building an ECG. And others I have not yet excluded, such as the bubble fusion idea (sonoluminescence). Actually I believe we may have a full experimental kit for a sonoluminescence experiment, but I will have to investigate. Finally I will thank those of you who have suggested projects that I may well run, and the inspiration for project connections that I have gleaned from some of your responses. I am currently considering a number of them including looking at solar cells and methods for improving light capture onto a the small area. Or looking at the possibility of building a spectrometer, calibrating it and then using it for calculations on either extra-solar red shifts or from a physical chemistry side (chemiluminescene â" energy transition and catalysts for example). Anyway, I better return to work now and think further on this later. With great thanks, Peter p.s. Those who made me smile get a special thank-you. Submarine avoidance may become a field of further investment.
  • Visible semiconductor sources are dirt cheap. You can buy a manual single-axis linear stage/micrometer fairly cheaply. Only one of the mirrors needs to move. They will learn a good deal about optics, beam splitters, interference, optical path-lengths and all that. They will also need to build a photodetector, so you get electronics aswell i.e. get them to do all the pre-requisite op-amp experiments. I assume most Physics Depts have access to data acquisition software so they can learn about collecting da
  • Let's do the experiment and settle this puzzle once and for all.
  • by pbhj (607776)

    How about oscillations, decay, harmonics in swinging breasts .. preferably not male ones ..

  • Somebody mentioned barometer already, but what I did in one of my meteorology classes a few years ago was build a water barometer out of clear rigid plastic pipe. A mercury barometer is so short because the density of mercury is so high; water is less dense but safer... and for a hundred bucks or so of materials (pipe segments, glue, clamps, fittings etc.) you can build one in the stairwell where people will see it and ask lots of questions. You can also teach about the idea of saturation vapor pressure and

  • Why not make them build a tesla coil.

    They are great fun to play with, and they
    do not require alot of components.

    tesla coil videoes [youtube.com]

  • You could always go with the old stand by: A ballistic catapult launching steel balls. My twist on that idea was demanding the neighboring tables in lab heave to or be boarded. Arrrrrrr! Send over your wenches, ya scurvy dogs! Arrrrr!

    College was so much fun.

    • That is actually a good one for first year students. First it covers first year physics pretty well. Calculating where the ball will land, and try to get them to factor in different envrioments (wind, projectile shape and size, and weight). Plus you have built a war machine which is always fun.

      It gives them a sense of accomplishment and a real physical thing to show for. Not just a bunch of numbers on a paper. You can give them different challenges. Say one that just focuses on getting the Maximum distance

  • You could demonstrate that a washed out student jumping off a bridge falls at the same speed as a credit rating when you don't pay your crushing student loans.

    That aught to motivate the hell out of them.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonoluminescence [wikipedia.org] I haven't looked into it in depth, but a colleague once mentioned it as being the sort of thing a smaller institution could set up for the price of some water and transducers and it has some pretty nifty effects and is still largely not understood. Conceivably this could be the basis of a whole range of activities over a number of years as different groups could explore different aspects of it while designing and building equipment to measure the various aspect
  • As an undergrad I did an experiment in my 1st year lab to measure an FID from a basic NMR setup (large electromagnet, wire wound around a test tube for the RF coil, lock-in amp for recording the signal). The experiment was a pig to set up, but somehow I really enjoyed it. I think it was the only experiment in the lab that gave a sense of achievement for actually recording something, and again for figuring out what I had recorded. As a novelty, and earth's field NMR rig should produce a signal in the audio
  • Nothing piqued my interest in physics like witnessing the double slit experiment done with a laser.

    It was a total mind frag.

  • Have them build a water-drop electrostatic generator. Very doable on the time-frame and budget.
  • It might not be as thrilling as blowing something up, but the principles behind Foccault's pendulum and it's daily precession seem to fit the stated timescale and budget. If you've got appropriate facilities, you could have the students construct a model or two (maybe one big one outdoors and a smaller one in a more controlled environment), attempt to derive predictions about what's going to happen, then at the end of the experiment do some statistical analysis to see if the class as a whole performed bet
  • If your students are gamers (likely, since they are science nerds), you may be able to think up some experiments in the interest of advancing in-game physics. Games like half-life2 and portal have only opened the door.

HELP!!!! I'm being held prisoner in /usr/games/lib!

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