Speed Demon Investigation (Part 1/2)

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SWBAT design an investigation to practice calculating speed/velocity.

Big Idea

Our class mascot, Bob, wants to get to a local water park. Can you help him?


"Are we there yet?" is a common middle school refrain when on a road trip - especially when the destination is anticipated. The Speed Demon Investigation provides students an opportunity to solve the authentic problem of, "When will we get there?" This series of lessons is designed to allow practice planning and carrying out scientific investigations (SP3) while exploring fundamental concepts (calculating speed of objects by collecting data) related to the performance expectation that states: a change in an object's motion depends on the sum of the forces on the object (MS-PS2-2). While this series of lessons does not directly teach or assess MS-PS2-2, it does provide a sound basis for understanding motion, which students need in order to understand forces.

From beginning to end, students are engaged in investigation to collect, analyze and interpret data (SP4); use mathematics and computational thinking (SP5); and engage in argument from evidence (SP7).

Additional connections to Common Core Mathematical Standards in Measurement and Data occur when students use measurement of time and distance to collect data and then analyze their data. Students also access Common Core Language Arts Standards when writing arguments from evidence in Part 2 of the lesson.

While I use this series of lessons as an introduction to calculating speed, the lessons can also be used or re-used to explore many different concepts including: mass, weight, displacement, forces and Newton's Laws of Motion (PS2.A: Forces and Motion). Rather than trying to teach all of these concepts at one time, I choose to concentrate on scientific practice learning objectives and tailor the activities, discussions and assessment to match the objectives.

The Speed Demon Investigation series of lessons is a scientific inquiry investigation taught over the span of 1 week. To help manage the magnitude of this activity, you will find the project split into 2 parts.

  • Part 1 includes the ENGAGE and EXPLORE components of the lesson; Time: 2-3 50-minute lessons or equivalent block periods. 
  • Part 2 includes the EXPLAIN/EXTEND and EVALUATE components of the lesson; Time: 2-3 50-minute lessons or equivalent block periods.


20 minutes

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, we explore how the motion of objects can be described in different ways by using diagrams, graphs, existing data sets and speed calculations. Lessons such as Motion of the Ocean Part 1 and Part 2, introduce students to basic motion concepts. The Speed Demon Investigation builds on that introduction by asking students to apply what they have learned about speed in a less structured inquiry investigation. Additional ways to build anticipation is to use high interest practice problems such as: Speed Demon Investigation ENGAGE Examples. These examples give students very structured practice using "clean" data (data that is manipulated to keep the mathematical computations at grade level) prior to collecting less tidy data during this investigation.

Authentic problems to solve during scientific investigation also increase student engagement by giving them a reason to solve the problem. This authentic problem also ties to the synthesis-based thinking that they are asked to do in Common Core and NGSS performance task assessments. For more discussion on this topic, view the reflection: Performance Tasks - Creating Authentic Problems to Solve. Students are introduced to the authentic problem from Part 1 of the Speed Demon Investigation:

Bob wants to go from Platt Middle School (insert your own school) to Water World (insert your own water or amusement park). He only has use of his tiny car. Conduct research to find the distance from Platt to Water World. Design an investigation to determine:

1) The average speed of Bob’s car.

2) How long it will take Bob to get to Water World.

Without fail, students start buzzing with ideas just in time to EXPLORE the problem.


70 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore, students work in lab groups to plan and carry out their Speed Demon Investigation. To start, as a whole group, we discuss the problem presented in the investigation to clarify the scope the investigation, resources available, and the final product they will create to express their understanding of speed. The final problem students solve is:

What time Bob will have to leave his house (in room 209/210 at Platt) to arrive at Water World by opening time (at 10:00 am)?

Students write a one paragraph PACER argument describing the process they used to solve the problem. For additional resources, visit Writing Arguments from Evidence (PACER Arguments).

Students work collaboratively to collect data in Part 2 of the investigation. The first data students collect is used to complete: Data Table 1: Distance/Displacement. To do this, students use an online resource to research and record the distance and displacement from school to the local water or amusement park. This data will be used to complete Data Table 3 when students calculate final how much time it will take to get to the water or amusement park.

Students then develop a procedure to find the average speed of Bob's tiny car using the Speed Demon Investigation Materials List. As students develop their procedure, walk the room and check procedures for complete, understandable and accurate steps. An example of a complete procedure can be viewed here: Speed Demon Investigation Student Work.

Once procedures are approved, students follow their steps to complete Data Table 2: Speed and Velocity as shown here: Speed Demon Investigation Data Collection 1 and here: Speed Demon Investigation Data Collection 2. As practice for designing data tables, students complete the labels on the table prior to investigation. An example of a complete data table can be viewed here: Speed Demon Investigation Student Work Math. There are several factors to consider during this part of the investigation:

1) Do students have the necessary measurement skills to collect data? If not, insert a lesson like the Measurement:Distance lesson. This lesson requires an additional one or two 50-minute lessons or equivalent block period.

2) Check pacing of the lesson. At this point, are student groups scattered throughout the process? Do you have the space, classroom management and patience to handle students using materials and tools? If it is better for the class to have everyone conduct their investigations at the same time, give groups that are finished the opportunity to write final draft procedures or work on an extension (reviewing position v. time graphs of velocity is a good core disciplinary idea connection).

3) As students build and test, remind them to follow the safety precautions for investigations.

When students complete the explore stage, they continue on to the EXPLAIN/EXTEND and EVALUATE stages described in Speed Demon Investigation Part 2.