Starting Circular Motion

I’ve been looking for a better way to start circular motion for quite some time. Though many people use the spinning stopper lab, I found it difficult to get quality data or even a decent trend, even when I did the experiment. I tried using a pendulum setup, but I wasn’t happy with the hand-waving about non-uniform circular motion. I really like this particular treatment because it first focuses on the conceptual aspect of centripetal acceleration as toward the center, and then follows that up with lab quantifying the acceleration. It also gives some really nice opportunities to review and refine some lab techniques like uncertainty propagation and linearizing (both could be dropped or modified for your purposes) that my students will need as we progress through the year.

Day 1

We spend the first day investigating the accelerometers in Labquest 2s so that we understand the direction of the acceleration based on the graphs of x, y, and z acceleration versus time. (Note: certain this could fairly easily be adopted to use Arduinos or student phones; but note that asking students to risk their phones on a spinning apparatus in day 2 is tough). First the students turn on the built-in 3 axis accelerometer and observe that it reads approximately 9.8 m/s/s in the vertical direction, no matter the orientation. Then we watch the video below up to the two minute mark to explain why that is, and to help understand how the accelerometer is collecting data.

Next we do a series of short trials to confirm directions of positive and negative for each axis. We then turn off the z axis accelerometer as we will be working only with x and y.

Students are told they will be spinning in one place with arms outstretched, with very smooth, fast steps, as quickly as possible. They will be starting the data collection while spinning to eliminate the spin up process from data collection. I ask them to graph what they will see; most think it will be sinusoidal. Then students actually do the trial, and sketch what they see. It takes a lot of individual conversations here for them to see that the primary acceleration is in the negative y direction (based on how we hold the Labquests). Spinning faster and smoother helps this, and I have to point it out for a lot of groups, who then confirm with more trials (and more falling over from dizziness). It’s a good time.

Next we have a quick conversation about how the acceleration is negative y, so that means it’s….wait, what? Toward the center? “Hey everyone, go grab a bowling ball and a hammer.” I instruct them to make the ball go in a circle using small taps with the hammer. No, not spin…actually travel in a circle. Then I ask what direction they have to tap it in order for it to go in a circle. “Toward the center.” I go through a quick note about how applying linear taps speeds the ball up or slows it down, and that the net force from the taps is in the same direction as the acceleration. Thus for our circle, we apply a net force inward, and as a result the acceleration is inward. They don’t like this, not one bit.

Now is the right time to talk about turning in cars. I ask them to get in a car with me, and I slam on the gas. What way did the car accelerate? “Forward.” What way did you *feel* like you were moving? “Backward.” We do the same treatment of slamming on breaks, and talk about how really our bodies are just trying to keep on doing whatever they were doing, so we feel like we move the opposite direction as the actual acceleration. Ok, so now we are going to turn left. What direction does it *feel* like you are moving? “Right.” So what direction are you accelerating? “Huh. Left. Towards the center of the circle.”

And that’s enough for today.

Day 2

Now that we have the basic idea about centripetal acceleration it’s time to quantify it. We brainstorm; what factors affect how strongly you feel pushed to the outside of the car? (but are you really being pushed to the outside? No? Good) They come up with speed and radius pretty quickly. This part does have to go pretty fast, as data collection is tough to get done in our 48 minute periods. If there’s time we have a conversation about how investigating the radius and it’s affect on acceleration is tough because speed also depends on the radius. So we settle on changing the speed of rotation and measuring the resulting acceleration. On what you ask? Only the best equipment for my physics students.

To measure v; How far does an object go around this circle? “The circumference, 2 \pi r .” Ok, so we’ll call the time it takes to go around once the period T, so the speed is v=\frac{2 \pi r}{T}.

Thus we measure the period to calculate the velocity (which we’ll do later). We use the statistics function on the Labquest to measure the mean of the acceleration, only while the acceleration is moderately constant, and use the standard deviation for the uncertainty. We collect data for 20 seconds since we now can’t avoid the spin up. Some very important student instructions;

  • Only use the linear section of the y acceleration graph
  • Each trial involves hitting play, starting to spin, maintaining that constant rate of rotation, then starting to count revolutions to measure the period. T=\frac{total time}{number of revolutions}
  • It’s hard to actually spin the chair at a constant rate. I’ve seen a variety of techniques, but most groups either reach from above on the back, keeping their hand on the back the whole time (as discrete pushes show up as very obvious waves on the acceleration graph) or spin from below with quick, regular pushes.

This year I had some timing issues so we really only had time to collect data this day; in future years I think we’ll have time to go over the calculations of speed and uncertainty using Google Sheets here as well. I walk them through how to use the period data to automatically calculate speed using Sheets. We also have a conversation about uncertainty in the speed; it’s a propagation of the uncertainty in the radius and the period. So we estimate those uncertainties, then use sheets to calculate the maximum possible speed using the maximum radius and minimum period for any particular trial. It’s really nice to do this now, as we do an experiment later using photogates where we have to similarly propagate the uncertainty.

Day 3

Start today by graphing acceleration vs speed in linreg. In most cases their are two pieces of evidence that the trend isn’t linear; it looks a bit curved (though this depends a lot on the group), and the intercept is usually significantly negative.

cent acc vs speed


As much as possible I have the conversation about these factors with each group, but as there gets to be more of them I toss it on the overhead and we hash it out there. We talk through why the intercept should be zero, and use the combined evidence to try linearizing. Below is a student spreadsheet with a wonderfully linearized graph.


Once the graphs all have linearized graphs, they whiteboard them. There will be a number of groups with data that makes no sense; I think they generally missed one or more of the “Important student instructions” bullets above. We talk about it, and I have them take a look at other groups’ data. The following discussion centers first on the quadratic nature of the data. Either someone does a unit analysis of the slope or I point out how nasty it is (\frac{m/s/s}{m^2/s^2}), so we simplify it to 1/m. Eventually someone notices that the smallest radius has the largest slope and vice versa. I ask them to combine the evidence of the units of the slope with the radius–>slope information into a claim about the slope, and we end up with a_c=\frac{v^2}{r} (note that facilitating this discussion is significant, but material for a different post).

I then emphasize the evidence that we’ve used to get to that point; the curve in the acceleration vs speed data and the negative intercept leading us to a quadratic relationship, and the units and radius comparisons leading us to an inverse relationship between acceleration and radius. We finally test it against our original musings; as we go faster around a curve, does it feel stronger? As we decrease the radius, does it feel stronger? It’s good that our equation matches our experiences.

In addition to the reasons stated at the beginning of this post, I love that the kids have a blast doing the lab. Playing with spinning chairs is fun for people of all ages.


4 responses to “Starting Circular Motion

  1. Pingback: Modeling Central Force: Day 1 | LEARNINGANDPHYSICS

  2. Pingback: Modeling Central Force: Day 2 | LEARNINGANDPHYSICS

  3. Pingback: Modeling Central Force: Day 3 | LEARNINGANDPHYSICS

  4. Pingback: New Centripetal Force Lab | Teaching. Learning. Thinking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s