Newton's Laws of Motion Simulation Investigation

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SWBAT understand that the motion of objects depends on the sum of the forces on the object and the mass of the object.

Big Idea

Simulations provide experiences that are difficult to replicate in the lab and help students explore how forces change the motion of objects.


20 minutes

"Who wants to play a game?!" is an excellent engagement strategy for middle school students. Rarely do students say no! Gamification of classrooms is a huge educational trend that helps stimulate students into "living" the concepts. Students can become immersed in experiential learning. For more on gamification, check out this section's reflection: Online Simulations Changed My Teaching! In this lesson, students use an online simulation to explore Newton's Laws of Motion. This lesson can be used as an introductory or deep exploration of the laws of motion (PS2.A: Forces and Motion). Either way, students are actively engaged due to the high-interest game-like nature of online simulations. 

In addition to addressing forces and motion disciplinary core ideas, rigor is added in terms of the science practices. Students practice using models to describe phenomena and unobservable mechanisms (SP2) while utilizing digital tools to analyze data (SP5). Students also integrate scientific information obtained previously with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings (SP8) which is related to the "Research to Build and Present Knowledge" Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Science and Technical Subjects. Additionally, students explore patterns in numerical relationships (such as F = m x A) that can provide information about natural and human designed systems (CCC).

In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, I make the proclamation above, "Who wants to play a game?!". Students are numbered into two groups and assume their positions on opposite ends of a tug of war rope. Students tug until one team wins or there is a stalemate. No matter the outcome, the following questions help students make connections between tug of war, forces and why using an online simulation can help us collect data that is difficult to collect in a physical lab:

1. What are the forces like when one team wins?

2. What are the forces like when there is a tie?

3. So, how would we measure the forces in our tug of war game?

4. How could we measure the forces of each person pulling on the rope?

5. What would happen if we wanted to test this game on a different surface, like ice?

These questions should lead to a discussion about the limitations of physical experimentation and investigation which can segue to showing students a possible solution: online simulations such as the University of Colorado PhET Forces and Motion Basics Simulation. Show students the tug of war simulation in the "Net Force" module of the simulation as a way of modeling how to use the simulation. Close the loop as you show students the simulation by showing them how the simulation models phenomena that is difficult to test in a physical middle school laboratory.

Teacher Note: Safety while playing tug of war is obviously a large concern and rules should be reviewed prior to playing: Tug of War Rules. If time allows, tug of war is a great outdoor activity! If you aren't able to safely play, this video provides some fun footage: Tug of War Championships.


60 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 the simulation they use the Newton's Laws Simulation Investigation lab sheet as a guide. The lab sheet is organized by the four modules: Net Force, Motion, Friction and Acceleration. These modules are best conducted in order. As students work through the lab sheet, they collect data by writing or drawing as shown here: Newtons Laws Simulation Investigation Student Work - Written Example and Newtons Laws Simulation Investigation Student Work - Visual Example. By encouraging students to use words and/or pictures, students can record data capitalizing on their unique learning styles.

Teacher Note: Depending on your students' attention span, level of engagement and impulse control, it may be beneficial to utilize any (or all) of the of the following strategies when conducting investigations online:

1) Remind students of norms for digital citizenship (safe searching, access only the assigned site, refrain from social media).

2) Monitor progress and/or build in timed checkpoints. Students can easily "get lost" in these simulations because they seem like games.

3) Use strategic partnering. Pair students who have challenges with staying on task or comprehending difficult concepts with students who can model appropriate learning behaviors.

4) Chunk the investigation. This investigation is very long for one class period. If time and technology allow, it may be beneficial to break the investigation into its four modules with discussion and review in between each. This way students also "process" what they are learning.

The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for ongoing formative assessment. Built into the lab sheet are two types of responses: data collection and explanation. While students use the simulation, it is important to circulate to not only check for understanding but to encourage kids to dig deeper into their thinking about the explanations and reasoning they are writing. Here is an example of students collecting data and explaining their reasoning:

 Some prompts that will help students dig deeper are:

1) What occurred in this scenario and why did it happen?

2) What can you tell me about the forces in this situation?

3) What would happen if...?

4) How does ___________________  affect ________________?

5) If you change the ___________________ what happens?

6) Can you tell me about another example where you might see this happen?


The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. There are many novel situations students could apply their knowledge to. Here are several ideas:

1) Free Body Diagrams: Students use these models to visualize objects and forces in the Force Practice Extension Activity.

2) Design an Online Investigation: Using one of the related PhET simulations, students can generate a scientific question and conduct an online investigation. Related simulations can be found here: PhET Motion Simulations or CK-12 Simulation Series.

3) Design a Physical Investigation: Students can generate a scientific question and conduct an investigation using real objects and tools related to one of the MS-PS2 Motion and Stability Performance Expectations.


20 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. The three ways I assess student understanding are:

1) Check student work for evidence of understanding. The level of detail and accuracy students include on the lab sheet can provide an excellent peek at potential points of confusion.

2) Ask students to complete a "less is more" conclusion activity found in Part 7: Communicating Scientifically. Rather than construct answers to analysis and conclusion questions, students develop three important conclusions about motion that Bob should report during his physics of water slides presentation to middle school students. This conclusion activity does not assess a comprehensive understanding of Newton's Laws, but rather, results in a bigger-picture view showing if students can distill the essentials from the extensive pool of Newton's Laws information.

3) Upon completion, students complete Newton's Laws Notes Student Handout. This is a comprehensive summary of Newton's Laws that could be completed as an assessment to check for understanding. When complete, students receive Newton's Laws Student Notes to use for review.

If extension or remediation of learning is needed, we may also use Newtons Laws of Motion Interactive Presentation as a supplementary tool to explore the laws. This presentation includes links to simulations, examples and questions that can be used for assessment.