Hanging Slinky Analysis 1: Sums to Integrals

Hanging Slinky

Last time, we (re-)introduced the Hanging Slinky problem, designed a few years back as a physics lab but suitable for a math class, say Algebra II or beyond. We looked at the length of the hanging slinky as a function of the number of slinks that hang down, and it looked seriously quadratic.

I claim that knowing that the real-world data is quadratic will help you explain  why the data has that shape. That is, “answer analysis” will guide your calculations.

I beg you to work this out for yourself as much as you can before reading this. I made many many many wrong turns in what is supposed to be an easy analysis, and do not want to deprive you of that—and the learning that comes with it.

HangingSlinkyWithParabola Continue reading Hanging Slinky Analysis 1: Sums to Integrals

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The Hanging Slinky

Hanging SlinkySlinkies are great. You can demonstrate waves. You can make them go down stairs. They are super-dynamic physics toys. They make a great sound.

But they are also pretty great when static. Consider, for example, a hanging slinky. How far down does it hang?

Well. It depends.

For this post, I’ll skip the question-posing part of this and go directly to what it mostly depends on: the number of coils (slinks) that are hanging down.

Let’s skip all the way to the data. Here is a graph of the length (in cm) of a hanging slinky as a function of the number of slinks. You should, of course, record your own data, if for no other reason than to experience the glorious difficulty of measuring the distance.

HangingSlinkyRawGraph

 

We can pause here and make sure the graph makes sense. What do you see in the slinky itself? How would you describe the spacing of the coils in the hanging slinky? How does that pattern get reflected in the data and in the graph?  Continue reading The Hanging Slinky

What’s Modeling Good For?

What’s the purpose of mathematical modeling? The easy answer is something like, to understand the real world. When I look more deeply, however, I see distinct reasons to model—and to model in the classroom. I hope that trying to define these will help me clarify my thinking and shed light on some of the worries I have about how modeling might be portrayed.

(So this is the third in a series on modeling. We began with some definitions, then proceeded to look at “genres” of modeling.)

Let’s look at a few purposes and try to distinguish them. To save the casual reader time, I’ll talk about prediction, finding parameter values, and finding insight. I think the last is the most subtle and the one most likely to be missed or misused by future developers.

Maybe I’ll post more about each of these in detail later, but for now I’ll move quickly and not give extended examples.

Continue reading What’s Modeling Good For?

Wave Slicing and Remainders: a cool way to find the period of a periodic function

Last month, in Falmouth High School in Maine, some Honors Physics students were estimating the period of a mass hanging from a spring. They used InquirySpace/Data Games software and Vernier motion sensors, and got data that looks like this (Reading is in meters; Time in seconds):

oscillating data

To do their investigations, they needed the period of this wave.

  • Some students found the peak of one wave, and subtracted its time from the peak of the next wave. This is the most straightforward and obvious. But if you do that, your period will always be a multiple of the time between points, in this case, 0.05 seconds. (This is part of what must have happened in the previous post.)
  • Some students—sometimes with prodding—would take the time difference across several waves, and divide by the number of periods. It’s not obvious to students that this technique gives a more precise measurement for the period. It’s interesting to think about how we know that this is so; for example, if you use five periods, it’s now possible to get any multiple of 0.01 seconds; but does that mean it’s actually more precise? (Yes.) This technique also gives students a chance to be off by one: do you count the peaks? No. You have to count the spaces between the peaks. (Getting students to explain why is illuminating.)
  • We could imagine trying to fit a sinusoid (and some students would, but it’s hard) or using a Fourier Transform (which is a black box for most students).

But this post is about an alternative to all of these techniques—one that uses all the data and gives a much more precise result than the first two.

You can read about this is excruciating detail in a paper I wrote. And I made one particularly careful group of students this (awkward and quickly-made) video describing the technique. So I will be brief here. Continue reading Wave Slicing and Remainders: a cool way to find the period of a periodic function

Strom’s Credibility Criterion

Long ago, way back when Dark Matter had not yet been inferred, I attended UC Berkeley. One day, a fellow astronomy grad student mentioned Strom’s Credibility Criterion in a (possibly beer-fueled) conversation—attributed to astronomer Stephen Strom, who was at U Mass Amherst at the time.

It went something like this:

Don’t believe any set of data unless at least one data point deviates dramatically from the model.

The principle has stuck with me over the years, bubbling in the background. It rose to the surface in a recent trip to the mysterious east (Maine) to visit a physics classroom field-testing materials from a project I advise called InquirySpace.

Background

There is a great deal to say about this trip, including some really great experiences using vague questions and prediction in the classroom, but this incident is about precision, data, and habits of mind. To get there, you need some background.

Students were investigating the motion of hanging springs with weights attached. (Vague question: how fast will the spring go up and down? Answer: it depends. Follow-up: depends on what? Answers: many, including weight and ‘how far you pull it,’ i.e., amplitude.)

So we make better definitions and better questions, get the equipment, and measure. In one phase of this multi-day investigation, students studied how the amplitude affected the period of this vertical spring thing.

If you remember your high-school physics, you may recall that amplitude has no (first-order) effect (just as weight has no effect in a pendulum). So it was interesting to have students make a pre-measurement prediction (often, that the relationship would be linear and increasing) and then turn them loose to discover that there is no effect and to try to explain why.

Enter Strom, after a fashion

Let us leave the issue of how the students measured period for another post. But one very capable and conscientious group found the following periods, in seconds, for four different amplitudes:

0.8, 0.8, 0.8, 0.8

Many of my colleagues in the project were happy with this result. The students found out—and commented—that their prediction had been wrong. So the main point of the lesson was achieved. But as a data guy, I heard the echo of Stephen Strom.

Continue reading Strom’s Credibility Criterion