Thursday, January 21, 2016

Laser Cutter Advances Physics Project

The addition of a laser cutter to the Penn Charter Idea Lab has allowed for a drastic change in an intro physics bridge project this year.

Over the last 20 years, my introductory physics classes have designed and built traditional truss bridges using wood sticks and glue. The students have worked in groups to design bridges and spent a couple of weeks building them before the bridges were "loaded to breaking" to find their strength. While students learned about forces and bridge strength this way, due to the time required to build the bridges they were unable to take this knowledge and use it to create an improved design.

The use of the laser cutter is an example of Goal 2 of our Strategic Vision and how the introduction of new technology can maximize student learning, engagement and success.

With the laser cutter, students spend ~20 minutes to take the bridge from design to final product instead of two weeks. The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs. Less time with wood sticks and glue and more time to create designs, test them, and then create additional bridges based off the results.

This iterative process gives students a chance to explore different ideas. Some designs may “fail,” but this is where the real learning occurs. Looking at the “failures” of their own designs and those of other class members allows students to determine the critical factors for a reliable bridge. Observing and learning from the solutions of others is also a fundamental part of the engineering design process.

The addition of the new technology has allowed the classes to build approximately four times as many bridges as they would have with the old technique, and they have had the opportunity to be far more creative with their designs while still working towards making the strongest possible bridges.  As students have refined their designs some students have managed to double their original strength-to-weight ratios.  In the future students will be able to run multiple tests of the same design and to compare a bridge model using different materials to get a deeper understanding of variability and material properties.

Tim Clarke, Upper School Science 

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