Making physics exciting for 5th graders

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  • #1
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Hello! A teacher friend wants to organize a STEM week for her 5th grade students and she asked me if I can prepare a few lessons on Physics. Ideally each one should be about one hour long. I have never taught a class before and wherever I explained physics it was in a formal, scientific way to my classmates/colleagues (I am doing a PhD). I would like to make these lectures as entertaining as possible for someone in the 5th grade (in the USA). Ideally I would like to do some basic science experiments, too. Do you have any suggestions or can you point me towards any online resources I can use/get some inspiration from? Anything advice be really appreciate it.
 

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  • #2
anorlunda
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Sounds like fun. First thing, you should find out what the students are supposed to know before your lectures. In other words, what level are they at? Perhaps others in this thread can help you with that.

Second, what it your teaching goal? Is it to teach physics that forms a basis for further learning, or is it to inspire interest in physics as a suitable study program or as a career? If the former, then the topics should fit within a curriculum plan. If the latter, you have much more freedom. You could even talk about what physicists do all day, or what the many branches of physics are, the difference between academic, research, or applied physics jobs.
 
  • #3
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Sounds like fun. First thing, you should find out what the students are supposed to know before your lectures. In other words, what level are they at? Perhaps others in this thread can help you with that.

Second, what it your teaching goal? Is it to teach physics that forms a basis for further learning, or is it to inspire interest in physics as a suitable study program or as a career? If the former, then the topics should fit within a curriculum plan. If the latter, you have much more freedom. You could even talk about what physicists do all day, or what the many branches of physics are, the difference between academic, research, or applied physics jobs.
Thanks a lot for your reply! The goal is to make them love physics, so I have as much freedom as I want (which in this case makes it a bit more difficult for me than following a predefined schedule :P). But I really like your suggestions. Do you have any advice on the format? Should I just talk to them, maybe make a powerpoint presentation (I would think of a short movie, too, but I am not sure I have much time for that)?
 
  • #4
berkeman
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I got this book for my son when he was starting high school -- it has a mix of levels of examples of "Thinking Physics", so maybe some of them would be appropriate for your 5th graders. You should be able to borrow it from your local library or school library. It's a pretty fun read, and may give you some ideas and inspirations:

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https://www.amazon.com/dp/0935218084/?tag=pfamazon01-20
 
  • #5
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One entertaining phenomena that could take up a class period or more is to have the students add a couple of drops of food coloring to whole milk on a (clean) plate (thin layer of milk). They can use any color or combination of colors, but it is good to limit them to a few drops. Then, come around and put a drop of dish soap (Dawn works well) onto their plates and have them make a series of drawings of what they observe. You can experiment with where to drop the soap.

The slow color churning alone (after the initial fast breaking of the surface tension) will probably capture their attention for close to half an hour and they may want to do it again. The content of the lesson could take any number of directions. Simply, you could talk about surfactants and how soap works. If you have a flair for the dramatic (and maybe at least two or three classes on the subject) you could discuss reversible/irreversible processes and entropy, throw in some stuff about atoms and star formation and you aren't too far off from discussing the idea of the heat death of the universe. That should cheer everyone up!

Use the milk on the plate as a metaphor for the universe. If they use all 4 colors of dye it will turn a green/gray sludgy color if you wait long enough. Heck, tie it into entropy and life and use it as a metaphor for growing old. Shakespeare may be a bit much for 5th graders, but sonnet 60 would go nicely with the concepts.

Of course, that's all very hand wavy, but they are 5th graders after all. No math. Save the rigor for high school/college.
 
  • #7
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Use a bicycle wheel to illustrate gyroscopic motion. The effect may be bigger if you turn the spinning wheel while on a piano stool. You can bring a baseball bat and ask the student(s) to turn the bat about the midpoint and about one end. Which is harder to turn. This illustrates moment of inertia and torque. Bring gyroscope's and explain physicists can determine the motion. (You can mention gyroscopes and accelerometers are used to guide rockets and missiles.) Use a vacuum cleaner blowing outward to suspend a baseball, or maybe a wiffle ball. Use pullies, maybe use a pendulum and shorten the pendulum. Use Phets from the University of Colorado. Google this if you do not know what phets are. See a few Walter Lewin lectures as he seems to do some in lab presentations for his introductory physics course.

I prepared a lecture once with a light sensor (photocell) and a multimeter from radioshack. If you are really ambitious you can see about arduino.

Actually 5th graders boys (and girls ?, (I have never been one) but at this age, I think girls like toys too) tend to see physics as play. Toys generate a lot of physics. You can have the kids build circuits too. Maybe bring in motors, and generators. Be comfortable and this will allow them to be comfortable. They will be less critical than say eight and ninth graders and beyond.

I would not go overboard, but do not worry too much about getting in too deep. I think kids have a tendency of taking in what they want and tuning out what they do not.

Here is interesting experiment you can do with polarized sunglasses you are willing to break. Turn the polarized lenses until you see no light getting through, then interpose a third polarized lens in between the two and show light does get through. What does the middle lens do, and why if two lens admit no light, the third lens in between allows light through. Isn't this weird.

If you go to a science museum store you can generally by gyroscopes, prisms, maybe polarized lenses, and stuff like that. Talk to the sales clerks to see what they may suggest.
 
  • #8
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Two experiments that blew my mind in physics and chemistry labs is take a rubber rod, rub silk on it to charge it. Run a steady stream of water nearby, not too fast. The stream of water will be deflected towards the rod. This shows water is a polar molecule. BTW you can take your comb, brush your hair to give it a static charge and deflect the water coming out of your faucet, (if the water does not run too fast). I've done it myself even with my lack of hair.
Another experiment though you probably cannot do this one after covid. Strike a tuning fork. Wait until you cannot hear it. Then take the end (the unforked single end), and put it between your teeth and bite gently on it. You will hear the tuning fork through your teeth.
I have used helium from a balloon to change my voice, but be careful, with some of these ideas as you may get complaints if students or parents can think they are injured, like inhaling gases, or biting metal tuning forks.
 
  • #9
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I think Caro corn syrup in a transparent glass or plate looks colorful under polarizers or maybe it was using two crossed polarizers, I do not remember , but I have not tried this one lately.
 
  • #10
Astronuc
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Back in the 1960s, my parents started buying How and Why Wonder books.

I believe it was in 4th grade, I received the book on Scientific Experiments. The experiments were simple that one could do at home.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B002G9OSP6/?tag=pfamazon01-20
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_and_Why_Wonder_Books

By the time I was in 5th grade, I was reading whatever science books I could get my hands on, and I was already interested in the chemistry and the periodic table, and in basic nuclear physics, where I learned about protons, neutrons, electrons (and atoms) and various exotic subatomic particles. My classmates started called me 'Spock' because of my interest in STEM, my lack of humor and my hair style (my mom's doing).
 
  • #11
vela
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Use a bicycle wheel to illustrate gyroscopic motion. The effect may be bigger if you turn the spinning wheel while on a piano stool.
This one's a good one because the effect is unexpected by most people. Ask your teacher friend to be the guinea pig who holds the spinning wheel and turns it over.

I usually avoid electricity demos as they tend to be kind of boring, but a Van de Graaff generator is always fun on a dry day. Make people's hair stand up and have pie plates fly off the top.

If you can get the materials, you could have the kids make a simple electrophorus and shock themselves.
 
  • #12
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You can make a cartesian diver. Even a regular coke bottle and matches with a celophane wrapper will work. You can look up cartesian diver in google. I will not expalain it. I have tried it with wooden matches and a coke bottle with water and even the plastic from a bread wrapper. The matches rise with relieving pressure and sin with compression of the cellophane. Easy materials.
 
  • #13
robphy
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You might get some ideas from a collection of videos

by Julius Sumner Miller
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbdjjTZBHNSgjzuJQqH5-pw




by Jearl Walker (Flying Circus of Physics)
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChrOvC-DFkPNxKIxe-XKD3g
(the first one... but maybe not a good one to try...)



by Clint Sprott http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/wop.htm#videos (Wonders of Physics)
https://wonders.physics.wisc.edu/videos/
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuufjn8154b-l4ahiZQ5SIQ



from the Exploratorium
https://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/subject/physics
 
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