Day 11: Children’s Toys Are Surprisingly Complicated

One of the things we’re trying to do in our travels is see science museums and children’s museums. On our last big road trip a few years ago, we stumbled upon a small math and science museum that’s in an elementary school in Grand Junction, CO. Despite the size and the fact that it was clearly run mostly by volunteers and on a shoestring budget, it was one of the best science museums I’ve ever seen. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in visiting science museums of all sizes. They all do a great job of presenting complex ideas in a simple, accessible way, which is appealing to me as a teacher, but I’ve also seen some unique ways to present the ideas, which helps expand my own thinking about the idea. (I think my kids don’t like going to these museums with me anymore because I often spend much more time at each exhibit than they do.)

On Wednesday morning, we had planned to visit the Mobius Science Center and Children’s Museum in Spokane, WA. The science center is quite small and we arrived right after a summer camp got there, so we decided to head to the children’s museum instead. It was small, and a little light on exhibits for the price, but I still managed to find a couple of interesting things. One of them was this: 

You can probably imagine what happens, but you can click here to see this in action. I think we could build a significant part of a physics class on this simple toy. Energy is the first thing that occurred to me here. There’s clearly potential and kinetic energy involved, and if we idealize the motion (no slipping) then we can talk about both rotational and translational kinetic energy. In addition, energy is not a vector quantity, which means that it has no direction, so the direction changes here would certainly challenge students to understand the difference between vectors and scalars. We could also talk about forces, inclined planes, and kinematics (position, velocity, and acceleration) in an interesting way. I love finding simple toys like this and discovering how they can engage 16-year-olds (and for that matter 41-year-olds) as well as they engage 6-year-olds.


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