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By: Dr. Andreas Economou, Physical Science/ IB Chemistry Teacher
Teaching physics is never an easy matter. This year, we engaged our Grade 10 students in a siege engine-building project. The challenge was to build a siege engine that could shoot a projectile with a range greater than the one that their teacher had produced. The aim was for the students to grasp the specifics of projectile motion, simple engines, energy conservation and efficiency as well as work and power.
In general terms, students showed extensive engagement and excitement with the building aspects of the project as well as with the design aspects. To paraphrase Socrates: “no real instruction can be bestowed on learners by a teacher who does not give them pleasure." And this is where the real benefit arose. The engagement that students showed for the given task was remarkable. Students worked for long hours during the day and some even stayed after school in order to complete their siege engines.
Participating students had just completed a physics module on projectile motion and were able to extract the necessary equations required to calculate the range of a projectile, assuming that they knew the initial velocity of the projectile. But this was not the case. Students were allowed to research and construct their own personalized siege engine so the projectile velocity would be different in each case. This was key to a successful design and the overall success of the project.
To calculate projectile velocity students had to comprehend concepts that they had not been explicitly taught yet, such as Hooke’s Law, kinetic energy, work and engine efficiency. The beauty of this hands-on approach was that students came to their teacher with honest inquiry. They really wanted - nay! they needed! - to know how to calculate these variables. The students, rather than the teacher, initiated the conversation on these physical concepts in order to solve a real life problem. Concepts that are usually covered over multiple teaching periods with a series of “scary” algebraic formulas on a whiteboard came to life and students engaged on them with more interest and passion.
While these kinds of projects require a lot of preparation and can consume teaching time, they also yield an honest inquiry as well as an enjoyable process of understanding the physics behind various inventions.