Spinning Things: An Investigation
Greg De Francis
Montshire Museum Of Science
This is a quick outline of the inquiry investigation we will do today. We could
easily use this 45-60 minute investigation with students to launch into a month-long
unit of play and experimentation with tops, gyroscopes, and other spinning things.
If you need scientific jargon to back up your reason for doing such foolishness
in the classroom, your students will gain a greater conceptual understanding
of such abstract concepts like momentum, inertia, mass, gyroscopic precession
and much more through their play with tops. I chose this investigation as an
example of what we mean by inquiry science, and how good inquiry lessons lead
to students becoming scientists themselves: asking questions from the material;
designing experiments to answer these questions; manipulating and changing the
material in various ways to perform their experiments; and finally possibly
finding an answer to their question, but more importantly finding new questions
to ask. Thus the thinking, experimenting, and questioning (all part of doing
science) can go on and on, in exciting and sometimes unanticipated ways. This
evolves into a wonderful and positive feedback loop for the learning process.
- Cardboard (paperboard,
and corrugated), foam core, paper plates, etc.
- Dowels - some cut to
6 inches with one end sanded round. Pencils also work well as spindles too.
Try different diameter dowels. Get to know the wood shop teacher for cutting
and sanding the dowels.
- Nail to punch holes.
- Modeling clay (plasticene).
- Markers if color mixing
is involved in lesson/experiments.
- Washers and nuts to
be used as weights.
- Scissors, rulers, utility
knife (to be used by teacher).
- PRE-UNIT DRAWING:
Have each student draw a picture of a top and to label any parts that they
think are important to make it "work". This will be used as an assessment
tool at end of unit.
- PRE-UNIT DISCUSSION:
Have a group discussion with class about what a top is, what are the important
parts, etc., to get a handle on their current knowledge of tops and other
spinning things. This will clue you in to their misconceptions, etc. Save
this discussion on newsprint/flip chart to review at end of unit.
- FIRST CHALLENGE:
Working in groups of 3, using materials available, design and build a top
- EXAMINE other
groups tops, discuss questions that students may want to ask: How can we
make a top that spins for a long time? What if the spindle is really long?
How far above the table should the disc be? What happens if we add more
wt? These questions can be student-generated and then it could be their
group's decision on which question to ask , then design and carry out an
experiment. The teacher could also be more direct in approaching these problems
by giving the students a second challenge: MAKE A TOP THAT SPINS AS LONG
At this stage the students should be designing and experimenting in their
groups. As a facilitator the teacher must be aware of the group interaction
within the groups (are the quiet girls getting to play with the tops or
are the activities being led by the loud boys?) and the interaction between
groups (are the different groups noticing what the other groups are doing
and using/sharing/learning from the other groups ideas?). The teacher also
needs to gently give hints, ideas, and help where needed. But remember,
it is the students' experiments, not the teachers.
- THIRD CHALLENGE:
Does a top always need to be circular? What would happen if the top where
an oval, triangle, or some very wild, asymmetrical shape? This will lead
to a whole new series of investigations.
- POST UNIT DISCUSSION/DRAWINGS:
When your unit on tops is complete, and you are ready to move on in your
science curriculum assess how you and your class did by brainstorming new
ideas about what makes tops spin. How many of the questions generated earlier
were answered? And what do the answers say? Also have students do a second
drawing and then compare the drawings. Did your students gain a greater
understanding of the concepts involved in tops and spinning things? Do they
have better understanding of a concept like momentum and inertia?
This is an example of the kind of teaching outline I might follow if I were
covering this subject with my students. I might add to it in places, delete
in others. Be aware of your students ideas, be willing to deviate from your
agenda to let them answer their questions, and have fun experimenting (playing)
Reproduced with permission
from the author.
© 1996 Exploratorium,
3601 Lyon St., San Francisco, CA 94123