February 16, 2011

Floating and Sinking

I never really thought of floating and sinking as a physics topic until I saw it done up at MSU in Bozeman in the introductory physics classes. Sure seemed pretty simple... Oh boy was I wrong. It was consistently the unit that gave people fits. While I don't want to drag my students through something hard for the sake of being hard, I do think a challenge is good for them.

So this year my class is cruising along much faster than last year so I'd been thinking I'd toss in some floating and sinking to occupy a week or so of class. It's something that they have experience with, that is assuming they've been in a bathtub or swimming pool before.

When I saw that the PhET folk had created a floating and sinking simulation I was sold on the idea.

The simulation does just about everything I would want it to do. It allows you to use 4 or 5 different material blocks and allows a continuum of densities for the fluid. It also comes with 2 scales, that can be moved, and function in the water and out of the water.

I did my usual which is to have the students work through some guided inquiry type questions. Seemed to work great for most, a few hiccups here and there. The questions could use some refinement, but in the end they picked up on the two main ideas. That is that floating objects displace their mass in water. Sinking objects displace their volume. That's good a start as far as I'm concerned.

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