This is a project that I present to the class the day before Christmas break. This is typically a half-day of school, so the periods are shortened. At this point, from previous lessons, students are quite familiar with the concepts of inertia, force and Newton's Laws of motion. Now they apply these concepts in an engineering project, where they have to send me a single Pringle potato chip in the mail. The goal is to send the Pringle in the lightest possible package that fully protects the chip so it doesn't break.
This is a project that can fit anywhere in a force unit as it involves understanding and minimizing the forces acting on an object with package design. I always do this project right before a vacation break to give students time to gather their supplies, design and test their package and get it to a post-office. There is also the added benefit that some students travel so they can take advantage of the distance portion of the project where their score goes up with distance traveled by the package (I had one student send their package from Japan).
This project is aligned with NGSS HS-ETS1-3, where students "evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs", which in this case is package mass versus Pringle protection. Students are encouraged to package their chips and test their designs by dropping and banging their package around and opening it to see if their chip has broken. This connects to NGSS Science Practice 1: Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering) and Science Practice 3: Planning and carrying out investigations as students test out their designs on a package to test if it protects their potato chip. The project is in the context of performance standard HS-PS2-1 Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on a macroscopic object, its mass, and its acceleration.
At the beginning of class, I tell students that they will have homework during the Christmas break. After the groans and moans have subsided, I put the Pringle Project Power Point on the board and tell them that their homework is to send me a single Pringle in the mail. This gets their interest and smiles begin to appear on several students faces, others look at me in disbelief.
Postmarked no later than December 31st, they are to send me a package containing a single Pringle in the mail. The Pringle must make it safely through the mail in one piece, in the lightest package possible. I hand out the Pringle Physics Project sheet and let them read through it. I point out the formulas and graphs and have students calculate the score for various situations (e.g. package mass of 30 grams and chip in two pieces).
There are two things I stress that are on the sheet.
I also pass around some packages from previous years and the scores those packages received from past years so students can get ideas on what NOT to do. For example, they should avoid using cardboard boxes and large bubble wrap envelopes as they add significant mass.
Here are some FAQs I get
Q: Can I encase it in epoxy?
A: No. The chip must arrive editable (no one is required to eat it, but it must remain delicious)
Q: Where do I send the chip?
A: Danbury High School, c/o Mr. Parker
Q: What happens if it breaks while it is being opened
A: Students will open their own package, and if it breaks while opening, they lose points.
Q: How many chips typically survive their trip intact?
A: Typically, 8 out of 10 survive their passage through the mail whole and unbroken!
There are some students who shine with this project. They love the challenge and are highly successful in their design and packaging. Other students are not so keen on this project, so I give them other choices for the holiday break project. Displayed on the back of the Pringle Physics Project sheet are three other choices. I talk about them as I display the Other Project Choices power point. The power point contains samples of past work passed in by students. I give the students the choice of project in the hope that every student finds at least one project that appeals to them.
One choice is to write a physics song using the tune from another song. I play the NASA Johnson Style which is an excellent parody of Gangnam Style song. Students don't have to produce the song, they are just required to pick a known song and write science lyrics that go along with the rhythm and rhyming scheme of that song. Another choice I offer is for them to produce an artistic interpretation or representation of the Law of Gravity. Students can choice either Einstein's view or Newton's view. The final choice is for them to create a poster or presentation that explains why Centrifugal Force is not a real force.