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FHS Students Build Hovercrafts and Catapults to Learn Physics (November, 2005)

HovercraftFrisco High School Junior Daphne Wu had never touched a power tool until this year. But now that she and her teammates, Kristi Morris, Staci Travis and Whitney Newman have built a hovercraft for Pre-AP Physics, she has experienced the thrill of the drill and learned about Newton’s Second Law first hand. In fact, the entire team agreed that their biggest challenge in building their hovercraft – which flew the distance of 23 parking spaces – was using a power saw to cut out the circle of wood that formed the base. “We were so slow, it was hard to cut,” Morris said. In post-design analysis, the entire team thinks the craft, which works well, would have worked even better if they had designed with fewer air vents and different placement of those vents, Travis said. Not a bad outcome for four girls who didn’t know much about power tools.

“I had one mom who didn’t want her 17-year-old son using a drill,” Anthony Chavez, the team’s teacher said. “But I think this is one of the safest places for kids to learn to use tools. We learn safety rules and these are practical devices you need to know how to use in every day life.”

Hovercraft @ RogersMost people may not use hovercrafts, rockets or catapults in their every day existence, but the students who take Chavez’s physics classes get more than their share of hands-on applications of the mathematical equations that have built modern civilization. And they learn lessons that may be used in all aspects of life. “I want them to think,” Chavez said. “These are little engineering teams. They do the design. But the big thing they learn is troubleshooting. It is not about getting it (in this case the hovercraft) to work on the first try. It is about troubleshooting, not just trying the same thing over and over again.  They collect data and they do the calculations to put the math we’ve learned into practice.”

Chavez’s classes have been building hovercrafts and doing other hands-on labs for the past five years. Chavez helped write the current FISD physics curriculum and knows the value of the practical labs for meeting the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) requirements. “The state requires that 40 percent of the instruction for physics be labs,” Chavez said. But it is important that the lab work be exciting and interesting while still teaching the student, he noted.

   “One student, Daniel Hale, came in on the first day and said “I can’t wait to do rockets!” Chavez said. One student who had not taken advanced science in previous years specifically took Pre-AP physics because of the project such as the hovercraft and the rockets. “He has to work hard but he’s doing well,” Chavez reports, “he’s even talking to me about different types of engineering degrees offered at college.”  Chavez, who has built his class lab supplies up from the days when he had a small toolbox with little more than a screwdriver and hammer, says he is often surprised by the reaction of students to the labs.

“Sometimes the bookworms, the ones who always do well on tests, are timid about using tools and doing the hands-on work. Of course there are always those students who do great at everything, but there are also students who struggle with the math and the tests but do great at the labs.” he said.

Chavez sees his role as a teacher as the person who will turn kids on to subjects such as technology and engineering. “That’s what high school is. You do a little of this, a little of that, and find out what you love.”   

Principal Rick Burnett says his favorite project the physics students do involves tearing down cars. “You would think its auto shop class in there.” Burnett admires Chavez and the work he has done with the curriculum. “Some people think teachers just teach from a textbook. But a really good teacher brings the lesson out of the textbook and into the classroom.”

The cars are part of the AP Physics class curriculum. The AP students study friction, fluids and combustion by working on a salvaged car. AP major projects include the car, catapults and rockets.

So what is Newton’s second law and how do the Pre-AP Physics students get a hovercraft to fly? Newton’s Second Law states that Force equals Mass times Acceleration. The students get their hovercrafts to fly by using leaf blowers. Chavez started the project years ago with just two blowers. Each year, he tries to buy one or two more and now has three pair.  

The team of Morris, Travis, Wu and Newman won the competition for their class with a distance of 23 parking spaces or about 230 feet. The team that has won out of all the classes is made up of Anthony Pham, Ben Dossett and Dan Waymel. That craft went 290 feet. Chavez says he thinks the winning craft would have gone farther except for the existing landscaping of the high school parking lot.

“Winners get some extra points, but I don’t grade on how far the crafts go. I grade on how well the teams solved design problems. Then the lab report is the formal part of the project,” Chavez said. Class members who are in the school science club take the hovercrafts out to elementary school science nights for demonstrations and get service points for their work. Morris and Travis have been taking their model out to several of the schools and have kids and parents lined up the entire evening for rides.

The purpose of testing the crafts for distance is student driven. They seem to thrive on competition, Chavez says. The competition factor helps the students to learn the equations and apply the science. “It is a means to an end,” he said.