Category Archives: APT Year Two

The Great (Mini) Robot Race

Robotics – The Synthesis Project

The final project of the two year academy program requires that the students design, fabricate, program and test an autonomous robot. We have been doing this project since the inception of the program, but this year we have made some significant improvements on the project. In this post I will explain the project, and highlight those improvements.

This project is an extremely challenging task that requires successfully completing several “sub-projects”. We tell the students at the beginning of the school year, that this project is more difficult than any of the other projects – by a long shot!

“If you haven’t done everything, then you haven’t done a thing.” – Red Whittaker

We completely changed our robot competition parameters this year. In previous years we had the students design sumo wrestling battle bots. Although this was a fun project, we started to notice that some robots performed really well without really having to “think”. These robots generally lumbered around the ring, sometimes without even actually “seeing” their opponents. Through pure luck they just managed to push their lighter opponents out of the ring. We decided that we needed to change the project in order to force teams to be smarter and we also wanted to get away from a robot competition that seemed to focus on aggressive battle.

Ironically, I suppose, our robot project changes were inspired by the classic Nova film that documented the DARPA challenge known as the Great Robot Race. In this race, the autonomous vehicles raced through the Mohave dessert on a course that was revealed to the competitors only hours before the beginning of the race.

Bob set about building an impressive “maze” for the robots to navigate. The robots had to make their way through a series of 90 degree turns defined by a series of connecting corridors with vertical walls about 20 cm tall. The robots were then given two attempts to make it through the course as fast as they could.

The Brains and Braun

When we first started this project about twelve years ago, we first used a Java based board that we liked, but it was really expensive and we didn’t really need much of the hardware and software features that it offered. About eight years ago, the Arduino board was taking the Maker community by storm and we decided to hop on the Arduino bandwagon, and we have been very happy ever since. The simplicity, online community, the plethora of code examples and tutorials as well as the price have been key points in why we have decided to keep using the Arduino. This year we decided to incorporate DC motors from Sparkfun and Adafruit’s motor shield. The combination allowed the students more flexibility regarding drive train design, and also allowed for some interesting discussions around the advantages and disadvantages of servos vs dc motors. Our only complaint with the shield would be that it would be nice to have the headers pre soldered!

Designing The Circuitry


One of the major additions to the project was to require that students design and fabricate the circuitry for their robots. We did this by introducing two new skills to the project. Students had to learn how to use a printed circuit board (PCB) design software known as Fritzing, and then they had to learn how to fabricate their PCB boards using a CNC mill.

There are a number of amazing PCB design tools out there – and many are free! They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Here is what we found out as we did our research to find the right tool.

Autodesk’s Circuits is great because its web based, super easy to use and has an amazing feature where you can actually simulate the circuit. You can add a virtual voltmeter of ammeter to your virtual circuit and then with a push of a button, you can get virtual readings on the meters. I found this tool to be amazing for teaching circuitry and I allowed the students to use it as a “key” for their worksheets. It also has the ability to simulate an Arduino too! You can add an Arduino to your project, connect up LED’s, servos, etc. and actually see them light up or rotate as you change the code. It is a bit limited in that it doesn’t support most added libraries, but it is still amazing. We eventually decided not to use it for PCB design because it is unfortunately a bit clunky and doesn’t allow for much customization of the board.

Eagle is of course one of the most advanced and feature rich PCB design tools out there. It is also very complicated. IT of course offers the largest toolset, complete control of the design process and the free version is as close to a professional tool as one could hope for. The problem is that all these features come at a price – complexity. If we had an entire year to spend on this project, I might have decided to go with this tool, but we needed something that the students could learn quickly and weren’t going to get frustrated with…

Fritzing is a free, open source “beta” software that is very similar in look and feel to Autodesk’s Circuits – in fact I think Autodesk’s product must have been inspired by Fritzing? Although Fritzing lacks the amazing simulation tools that Autodesk Circuits has, it does offer a much better PCB design environment. The options that are available for editing the component foot prints, the PCB attributes, etc. make it really nice to work without making the tool too complex. This is the tool we decided to teach and use in class, and the students liked it.


Fabricating The Circuitry

Back in the fall we decided to invest in a small CNC mill produced by a local company out of San Francisco named Other Machine Co. This machine, called the OtherMill has been an amazing addition to the lab. With this machine, we have been able to teach the students how to fabricate their own PCB’s. The OtherMill is not just for PCB fabrication, in fact we have used it to mill small aluminum parts as well.


This micro CNC desktop mill is super easy to setup, really easy to use and plays really nicely with Fusion 360 – our 3D CAD and CAM software. I was incredibly surprised and pleased by how easy it is to learn the operating software – known as OtherPlan. The company has a great support website full of great tutorials, and we were able to teach all the students how to use the machine in just a few days.

The PCB files generated by Fritzing (we exported them as Gerber files) worked flawlessly with the OtherMill, and within a very short period of time, all the students had designed and fabricated single sided PCB boards for their robots.


The Final Results

As with any major changes to a project, there are lessons to be learned. We realized that the task was rather complicated and many of the students did not make it as far through the course as they had hoped. It was clear however that this competition proved more interesting from the perspective of getting students to see the importance of software design. Not only did we see very different software strategies, but the variance in hardware design was surprising. They really had to think about how the hardware and software had to work together, and they had to think about optimization. This was a clear advantage of this competition over the previous year’s competitions. Students spent far more time trying to figure out how they were going to shave time off their attempts, and how they were going to adjust software and hardware to better navigate the course. From our perspective, the changes to the project proved to be fantastic, and we are looking forward to improving on the project design for this year. Some of the things that we are going to do this year is introduce some different sensors for the students (like “feelers”) and also give them a price list and budget so that they have more hardware choices.

Simulate, Test, Analyze: A Framework For Rigor


“Have Fun Storming The Castle!”

At the end of this fall semester, the second year students in the Academy rolled and carried their medieval mechanisms of mayhem to the SRHS track and we spent the afternoon watching the devices hurl lacrosse balls across the athletic field.This project was the final performance assessment of the semester and required that students design a gravitationally powered projectile launcher. This is an age old engineering/applied physics project.

Like many engineering projects done in high school, the physics principles governing the dynamics of the project are quite complicated, and ultimately the actual “application” of the science principles is often cursory. Students don’t have the background or mathematical abilities to to do the complex calculations needed to make an optimization adjustment to their mechanical device.This leads to the disconnection between the science content and engineering practice. Students don’t have the ability to make an informed decision about design choices. This is because it is difficult, very difficult.

Over the past few years I have been very interested in addressing this problem. This post discusses a framework that I have been working on to incorporate science into engineering projects. I think this framework allows high school students to engage in difficult scientific analysis without overwhelming them.

A Framework For Rigor

I won’t claim that this is a perfect solution, but so far I think we have experienced some success in creating a tighter relationship between science and engineering.  Last December I helped conduct a workshop at the NCCPA Professional Development Conference in Petaluma, CA. The name of the workshop was “NGSS, Prediction Reports and Your Science Class” and the point of this workshop was to give the attendees a framework for incorporating the Engineering standards into the science curriculum.  My co-presenter (Vipul Gupta) and I focused on the creation of prediction reports using computer simulations as a way to address two very important standards in the NGSS framework:

Using Simulations with Informed Input

Computer simulations are very popular in the educational space. They give teachers and students a virtual space where students can interact with virtual lab equipment or virtual objects that behave similarly to physical objects in the real world. With that said, they can fail to address students misconceptions because they do not always succeed in linking a conceptual model to the physical behavior. I also believe that the best simulations are ones that output data that can be analyzed with other scientific/mathematical tools. I also think that a good simulation requires that students provide meaningful input that gives them opportunities for analyzing the relationship between the input and the output.

Simulations used in engineering projects can be extremely helpful in addressing one of the main problems in engineering education. Students often design and build mechanical devices without understanding the physical principles that govern the design. The design process becomes an exercise in trial and error, or simply is reduced to copying a design from the internet.

To do a predictive analysis of a rocket’s flight, or a bridge’s structural performance is extremely difficult and often requires advanced mathematics and physics. Simulations can give the students the ability to analyze their designs and understand how changing the design inputs affects the output. Once again, it is important to find a simulation that requires students to understand the inputs and outputs.

Virtual Trebuchet

For example, in our project, students were introduced to an online Trebuchet simulation tool. This simulation tool is great because it requires that the student learn how to measure and calculate certain inputs. The students must have a working knowledge of rotational inertia, center of mass, and other concepts before they use the simulation. This was ideal for our project because it gave students a relevance and motivation . They had learn about these concepts in order to actually use the simulation. The students could then change certain inputs and see how that would change the efficiency of the design, or the range of the projectile. The point is that they needed physics knowledge in order to use the tool. They might not have the ability to know how the simulation eventually calculated the output, but they knew that the simulation required an understanding of the inputs.


Example Report

The Prediction Report

The next step is to ask the students to prepare a prediction report. This report is designed to get students to demonstrate their understanding of the inputs, display evidence of the required calculations or measurements needed to create the inputs and then analyze the simulation outputs. In the report for this project, I asked students to show a set of calculations and measurements for determining the center of mass of their throwing arm and the rotational inertia (moment of inertia). Students also had to provide similar information for the counterweight.  The students then had to run the simulation and document the outputs from the simulation.

The Test:  Data is Needed

The next step is to test the device. To make this step more rigorous and to be able to relate the scientific analytical process to the engineering process, it is crucial for the students to collect data that can be used to analyze the performance of their device/product and then reflect on how they would improve their design.

For this project, we decided to use high-speed video and Vernier’s LoggerPro video analysis software to plot the position of the projectile as it was launched from the device.

The Analysis

The analysis is actually broken into two parts. The first part requires a collection of calculations while the second part uses those calculations to make some qualitative assessments.

For example, in the above project, students had to use the collected position data from the video analysis tool to calculate the kinetic energy of the projectile and then the efficiency of the device. They had to be proficient at the analytical tool, which in itself requires physics content knowledge, providing once again an opportunity to apply scientific models in the analysis portion of this engineering project.

I have included the instructions for the analysis report here: Projectile Launcher Analysis Report.

Finally, students are given the opportunity to use the information gathered in the analysis report to reflect on their design, and more importantly use the information to inform how they would improve on a future design. I have included below the set of questions that I asked my students:

  1. Compare the efficiency calculation of the simulation to the efficiency rating that you calculated for your actual performance. Please describe why you think these values are not the same.
  2. Consider the design of your trigger. What design and fabrication decisions would you change in order to improve your trigger, AND explain WHY you would make those changes.
  3.  Consider the design of your sling. What design and fabrication decisions would you change in order to improve your sling, AND explain WHY you would make those changes.
  4. Consider the design of your release mechanism (called the nose). What design and fabrication decisions would you change in order to improve this mechanism, AND explain WHY you would make those changes.
  5. Consider the design of your arm. What design and fabrication decisions would you change in order to improve your arm, AND explain WHY you would make those changes.
  6. Consider the design of all other components and the overall design. What design and fabrication decisions would you change in order to improve your device (other than the trigger, sling and arm), AND explain WHY you would make those changes.


The overall design of this framework can be boiled down to this:

  • Engage students in a computer simulation that simplifies the process of modeling and analyzing a complex physical/chemical/biological process, but be sure that the simulation requires some conceptual and computational thinking.
  • When testing the performance of the design (bridge, rocket, etc.) make sure that the students are required to  collect data that can be analyzed and that once again demands that they apply their theoretical models.
  • Design an assessment that uses the analysis and gives the students an opportunity to make informed judgements of their designs for the purpose of redesign.

Building The Central Force Model

From Lines To Angles, and Particles To Rigid Bodies

We dove straight into circular motion with the 2nd year students this past week. The primary focus of last year was linear dynamics and although we did study objects that moved along curved paths (projectiles), we were still looking at two-dimensional motion as being composed of two component motions along straight lines.

In the second year program, a good part of the first semester is dedicated to looking at objects that rotate around a central axis. There are two major shifts that will be introduced. The first is the introduction of an entirely new coordinate system – polar coordinates. The students spent most of last year learning about two dimensional vectors in Euclidean space, but this year, we will see that for objects traveling in various curved paths, a polar coordinate space can actually be much easier work with. The other shift will introduce students to collections of particles composed into continuous rigid bodies. This requires some significant changes in how the students view an object’s orientation in space and how an object’s mass is distributed. No longer can we assume that the object’s mass is located at a single point in space. In both cases, we are adding to the complexity of our conception of the universe by adding new representations of both space and the objects that inhabit that space.

Observing Circular Motion

In the modeling pedagogy, a new concept or collection of concepts is introduced using a paradigm lab. These labs are meant to introduce students to a new phenomenon and to be the launching off point of the actual building of a conceptual model.

Using the video analysis and vector visualization tools of LoggerPro, I had the students track the motion of a Styrofoam “puck” that was placed on our air hockey table (yes, we actually have an air hockey table that was donated to the school!) but was also attached to a thin thread to a fixed point on the table. The students used the video to track the motion of the puck as it essentially traveled in a circular path.

Although the lab is a bit tricky to set up, the ability to not only track the position of the object in two dimensions, but also the ability to attach velocity and acceleration vectors to the object is really helpful in engaging students in a great conversation around why the acceleration vector points to the inside of the circle. It also allows us to discover a whole new set of mathematical functions for describing motion. After tracking the position of the puck, we are ready for a class white board discussion.

The Graph Matching Mistake Game

I ask the students to draw the motion map of the puck’s motion in two dimensions including the velocity and acceleration vectors. I then ask them to include the graphs created by LoggerPro. LoggerPro produces a really interesting position vs. time graph in both the x and y dimensions. At this point the class knows the drill, and they use the mathematical function matching tool in LoggerPro to match the graph. I ask the students to include on their whiteboards the function that they think best fits the plotted data. This is where it gets really interesting.


Notice in the above photo that the students used a polynomial function. I then ask the students to use Desmos to plot their graphs. Then I ask them to zoom out on the graph.


This is where they discover how this function can’t explain the position vs time data for an object that continually repeats the same path. Some of the students in the class recognize that the data is better explained using a sine function. Because not all the students have been introduced to this function, it presents an opportunity for some students to teach the other students about how these functions work.


I allow the students to explore the sine function in Desmos, asking them to change the coefficients of the function in order to discover how these coefficients affect the graph.


The next step is to investigate more thoroughly the relationship between the acceleration and the velocity, as well as introduce the benefits of using polar coordinates to describe how an object’s position changes when you are dealing with an object that is traveling in a circular path. Desmos has the ability to change the graph type from the x,y coordinate plate to a polar representation. We discuss the difficulty of representing an object’s circular path using x(t) and y(t) functions as opposed to r(t) and theta(t) because r(t) is just a constant.

Next up, trying to answer the question: “If it’s accelerating inward, then why isn’t it speeding up towards the inside of the circle?!” Once again, the difficult concept of inertia…

Building the Electrical Current Model with The Amazing $25 Programmable Power Supply

Not Just For Teaching Robotics

Thanks to the generous donations of supporters of the Physics Academy, we were able to purchase a new set of Arduino Uno micro-controllers for use in this year’s robotics competition. As I was planning out the unit on teaching DC circuits, I realized that some of our DC power supplies might need to be replaced. I got to thinking – could the Arduino replace these hulking, expensive power supplies?


The answer has been (with one caveat) – yes. The above power supplies are nice, no doubt about it, but they are big, costly ($199) and they are not as nearly as extensible as a micro-controller.


The Arduino micro-controller can act as a fixed 5V power supply, or using its PWM pins, you can vary the voltage from 0V to 5V with a resolution of about 20 mV. The other advantage about using the Arduino is that it gives you a chance to teach a little bit of programming too! In our case, it allows for a great introduction to robotics well before we are ready to start our unit on robotics.

The one disadvantage is that you can’t test any circuits that need over 5V of electrical potential difference, nor can you test things like motors or other higher current (> 40 mA) circuits. We didn’t find this to be a big problem, but if you do, you can actually purchase a shield (an attachment that fits on top of the Arduino) from Adafruit Industries that allows you to use a higher voltage, higher current power supply that is controllable through the Arduino.

Mapping Electrical Potential (Voltage)

One of the first activities that the students do, which is a great activity from the AMTA curriculum repository, is to have the students “map” the voltage between two metal bars that are partially submerged in water.


Using the Arduino as the power supply, the students use a multimeter to check the voltage at specific locations on a grid that is placed under the transparent pan holding the water. These numbers are recorded into a spreadsheet. Excel has a great tool for doing a 3D map of the values.


What results is a really nice visualization of the potential isolines and the spacial variance of the voltage, and thus the electrical field.

Ohm’s Law – A Flow Model

We then move from voltage maps to flow model. The students investigate how voltage, current and resistance are related to one another. The students begin by investigating the current flowing into and out of a resistor, and most are surprised to find that the current in the same flowing into a resistor as it is flowing out. They expect that current should be “used up” by the resistor – causing a bulb to glow for example. When they find that this is not the case, they either think that they have done the experiment incorrectly or that perhaps the multimeter is not precise enough. This confusion comes from the idea that they are expecting current and energy to be equivalent.


The hydrology analogy is introduced as a possible model for describing this phenomenon. We discuss the movement of water past a water wheel, and how the water flowing into the wheel is equal to the amount of water flowing “out” from the wheel. Students quickly realize that the wheel still turns, not because the water is “used up”, but because the water looses energy.

The final challenge for the students is to confront the oddity that is parallel circuits. This is made a bit easier by thinking about the flow model, but the confusion with parallel circuits stems from the idea that a battery is a constant current supplier – which of course it is not. The Arduino, just like a battery, will increase the amount of current flowing from its digital output pins when more pathways are added for the current to flow. This is where I would be careful to make sure however that you don’t approach the 40 mA limit. If you do, you can get some weird results in your observations as the Arduino will naturally cut off current draws around this range to protect its electronics.


The switch to the Arduino has been quite successful, and as stated before, it launches the students into the robotics project with a knowledge that the Arduino is simply a controllable power supply. They learn very quickly from that point on that the Arduino can also act like a voltmeter too! Using its analog input and switching the digital pins to be input pins, the Arduino can also mimic the functionality of a multimeter. If you are considering new power supplies, I would recommend looking into this as an option.

Simulating Planetary Motion (Using Code!)

Simulating Newton’s Law of Universal Law of Gravity

Interactive simulations (like those created by the University of Colorado – PhET) can be really nice for impressing students, and giving them a way to explore the dynamics of a simulation. If incorporated into a lesson well, they can add to the active learning process. The question that I always struggle with though is “are the students learning how the simulation works, or are they learning how nature works?”

I have a nagging feeling that the students would possibly get more out of being able to see the simulation source code, specifically the rules of behavior of the simulation, and then through “tweaking” the code, see how those rules govern behavior. I would like to develop curriculum that would allow my students more opportunities to explore the code “behind” the simulations. This presents a few challenges that have been identified by other great physics educators, and if you are thinking about doing the same thing – I would suggest reviewing their insights. I include a quote from Ruth Chabay’s brief, but very interesting article on this topic:

To integrate computation, especially programming, into an introductory course, it is necessary to minimize the amount of non-physics related material that must be taught. To do so it is necessary to teach a minimal subset of programming constructs; employ an environment and language that are easy to learn and use; ensure that program constructs match key physics constructs; provide a structured set of scaffolded activities that introduce students to programming in the con- text of solving physics problems

This was my first attempt at doing just this, and I had some success and realized that I have some work to do.

Which Code?

A popular programming language in the Physics Modeling community is VPython. I have chosen to use a different language to use called Processing. There are reasons I chose this language, but I am sure there are reasons one would choose VPython (or other languages). At this point, I have not had the opportunity to work with VPython, so this post will not attempt to compare Processing to other languages. Perhaps I will do so in the future…

Here are some general reasons why I like Processing:

  1. It’s free and open source.
  2. Because its built on a visual programming interface, its really easy for the students to create visual content on the screen, and it is very easy to create visual animations due to the embedded “draw” loop.
  3. The official website has great examples and tutorials. It is full of great code samples and quick tutorials. You can loose yourself for hours (or days!) just having fun exploring the examples and tutorials.
  4. The IDE is simple and very similar to the Arduino IDE, so if you plan on doing any Arduino programming, the similarity is nice for the students.
  5. There is a nice vector library for doing vector operations (.add, .mult, .norm, .dot, etc.)
  6. Its object oriented so that you can have the added benefit of teaching important programming concepts – though this might be why some people might not like it.

The Simulation

The simulation that the students were introduced to was a simulation that modeled Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. The students were given some instructions on the basic structure of the program, and I made sure that there was some guiding comments embedded in the code. This program was inspired/adapted from a similar program created by Daniel Shiffman who has also written an amazing book on simulating nature through code called Nature of Code.

The program defines two classes. First, there is the parent class called Particle. This class defines some basic attributes like location, velocity and acceleration as well as mass. It also has some basic functions that allow it to move and allow it to respond to a force. The second class is the child class called Planet. It can do everything that a Particle can (because it inherits from the Particle class), but it can also exert an attractive force on other Planets.  Here is the code below:

/* A parent class for all moving particles
class Particle {
  PVector location;
  PVector velocity;
  PVector acceleration;
  float mass;

  Particle(float x, float y, float m) {
    mass = m;
    location = new PVector(x, y);
    velocity = new PVector(0, 0);
    acceleration = new PVector(0, 0);
  void applyForce(PVector force) {
    // Newton’s second law at its simplest.
    PVector f = PVector.div(force,mass);

  void move() {

 This class defines an object that behaves like a planet.
 Planet objects extend Mover objects, so they can move. They
 also can attract other planet objects.
class Planet extends Particle {

  float size;
  float G = 1;

  // To create a planet, you need to supply coordinates, mass, and size
  Planet(float x, float y, float m, float s) {
    super(x, y, m);
    size = s;

  // This function allows a planet to exert an attractive force on another planet.
  PVector attract(Planet p) {

    // We first have to figure out the direction of the force
    // This creates a unit vector for the direction
    PVector force = PVector.sub(this.location, p.location);
    float distance = force.mag();
    distance = constrain(distance,size + p.size,500);

    // This is where we use Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation!
    // The stength of the attraction force is proportional to the
    // product of the mass of this planet and the mass of the other planet
    // as well as the value of G. It is also inverseley proportional to
    // the distance squared.
    float strength = (G * mass * p.mass) / (distance * distance);
    // To get the final force vector, we need to 
    // multiply the unit vector by the scalar strength

    // Return the force so that it can be applied!
    return force;
  // Just displays the planet as a circle (ellipse)
  void display() {
    fill(255, 100);
    ellipse(location.x, location.y, size/2, size/2);

  This program simulates the gravitational interaction between planet objects
Planet planet1;
Planet planet2;

void setup() {
  // Inputs for each planet:
  // (x, y, mass, radius)
  planet1 = new Planet(width/2,height/4,6000,60);
  planet2 = new Planet(width/2,height/1.25,6000,60);
  // This is where you can change the initial velocities of the planets.
  planet1.velocity.x = 0;
  planet1.velocity.y = 0;
  planet2.velocity.x = 0;
  planet2.velocity.y = 0;

void draw() {
  // f1 is a force vector that is created by calling the planet's attract function
  PVector f1 = planet1.attract(planet2); 
  // Now apply that force on the other planet.
  // Now deal with the opposite force pair
  PVector f2 = PVector.mult(f1, -1);
  // Allow the planets to now move.
  // Display the planets

Experimenting With The Code

The students could change the initial values of the planets, such as the starting positions, the masses and radii by changing the input values of these two lines of code:

planet1 = new Planet(width/2,height/4,6000,60);
planet2 = new Planet(width/2,height/1.25,6000,60);

The planets initial velocities could also be modified by changing the values assigned in these four lines of code:

planet1.velocity.x = 0;
planet1.velocity.y = 0;
planet2.velocity.x = 0;
planet2.velocity.y = 0;

The code that actually guides the strength of the gravitational attraction between the two planets is actually very simple. This is the magnitude of the force as defined by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravity in code:

float strength = (G * mass * p.mass) / (distance * distance);

There is some slightly complicated code that controls the direction of the force and how that force is then applied to the planet object’s state of motion, but I didn’t have the time to explain this, which was a bit disappointing (see below).

For The Future

I am currently really interested in incorporating programming into the academy program, but have found myself a bit intimidated by the challenges identified by Ruth Chabay. The most significant challenge is time:

In an already full introductory physics curriculum, there is little or no time to teach major programming skills. Students who are new to programming are also new to the process of debugging; teaching debugging strategies requires even more time…Working on programming activities only once a week in a lab or recitation section may not be adequate to keep knowledge of syntax and program structure fresh in the students’ minds.

I plan on taking some time this summer to see how I could integrate computer programming more significantly into the curriculum without causing the learning of Physics to suffer – that would of course defeat the purpose!

Testing Motors For The Solar Dragster Race

Torque/Speed Curves

In this post I’m going to describe our attempt to measure the power curve for the DC motors used in the Solar Dragster race this year. I’m going to be honest, our efforts weren’t really that successful, but I can at least say that I learned some things that might help for next year, and I think the students were able to do some authentic device testing – a part of being an engineer.

Last year I was a bit concerned that the DC motors that we were using in the Solar Dragster Race were not actually outputting the same power. I wanted to devise a way to measure the motor power, and then have each team do their own analysis. I wanted the students to do this without understanding the electrical power parameters involved because we were at this point only looking at motors as being a black box that gets energy from a source and transfers that energy into a rotational device – i.e. an axle, then to a gear, then to another axle, and finally to a wheel. I looked into getting a torque sensor, but quickly found out that these cost a fortune!

I came across this interesting website from MIT, which was a nice resource for the theory about DC motor performance. The site does a nice job in explaining torque/speed curves, and how the graph of torque vs angular speed is essentially linear for DC motors. That meant that all the students really needed to do was to measure stall torque and the no load speed of their motors and then we would have the torque/speed curve. The website identifies a device that they custom built for testing motors, and it looks interesting, but I didn’t have time to reverse engineer what they had built and unfortunately the images and videos aren’t clear enough to easily understand how the device works – something perhaps for summer tinkering…

One of the issues with the little DC motors that you buy is that the arbor is really small, and it has no index, so its really hard to attach anything. Generally, you have to go with a friction fitting, and I was worried that doing a stall torque test was going to be difficult. Mr. Holt and I designed and printed out a little lever arm to attach to the motors. This little arm could then be attached to a force meter to measure the stall torque and then also used to help measure the rotational velocity using a Photogate. The final “test-bench” looked like this:

Torque-speed test bench

The motors were clamped to a lab stand that was then placed so that the little lever arm would rotate and block the Photogate laser as it spun. This is how the students measured the no load speeds. Then they attached a string to the little hole in the arm, and then attached this to a force meter to get the stall torque. All the motors were tested with essentially the same power source – two AA batteries.

I then had the students share their data using a Google Spreadsheet and I compiled the data – here it is on Plotly:


There is obviously some variability in the motor performance, but its hard to tell if any of the motors give a distinctive advantage over the others because I suspect that the data is not that reliable unfortunately. I do suspect that the angular speed data might be inaccurate due to the fact that we were getting some very differing results from the Photogate. Although we made the sampling rate as rapid as possible, I still am not confident that the Photogate was able to read the blocking of the laser accurately – the motors spin VERY fast (upwards of 5000 RPM’s when not loaded). I’m also not sure if the data then could then be used in any instructive way to help students make design decisions about their dragsters.

Although this may seem like a failure, it did allow the students to identify at least two motors that we knew were malfunctioning, so we were able to swap those out before the competition.

For Next Year

I think at this point I would want to make some changes to this activity. Although it was somewhat helpful in giving the students a direct interaction with data associated with the performance of a DC motor, and how that performance is calculated at the product of the torque and angular velocity, I’m not sure that the activity supplied data that was good enough to then use as an input factor in the competition. For example, I didn’t feel confident about allowing students to use the calculated maximum input power as a scaling factor for their dragster race time.

Perhaps next year, we can find the funds to purchase a high precision, digital torque meter, or find the time and money to build our own “analog” torque/speed meter like the one that MIT designed. All in all, I’d say this activity was partially successful.

Building The Net Torque Model – Part 3

Appending The Conservative Models

After investigating the causal relationship between torque and angular acceleration, I introduced the possibility to the class that perhaps we also needed to revisit the Energy Transfer Model and the Momentum Transfer Model. The students agreed that an object that is rotating must have energy. This was pretty easy to demonstrate.

I set up a situation in the class where two of the variable inertia disks that we created on the 3D printers were placed at the top of an inclined ramp. The internal marbles were placed at two different configurations inside the disks and then the students predicted which disk would reach the end of the ramp first. I was pleased to find out that the class appeared to agree that the disk with the marbles located closer to the radius would be the winner. I really think that our investigation with the variable inertia disks solidified the students’ conceptual understanding of rotational inertia and the importance of mass distribution.

I have not yet found a good experiment where students could discover the rotational kinetic energy relationship, so I decided to take them through a derivation based on linear kinetic energy. I then asked the students to do some whiteboard work. I asked them to demonstrate that the disks would indeed reach the end of the ramp at different times. Although this wasn’t strictly a constructivist approach, it was good practice in doing some fairly difficult algebra without numerical values – something the students traditionally are not very good at.

We then moved onto momentum. Again, I started by reviewing the Momentum Transfer Model for a particle. At this point the pattern had been fairly well established. The relationship between angular and linear quantities seemed to have taken hold because the students were quick to propose a mathematical definition for angular momentum. Our next goal was to figure out whether this was a conserved quantity.

Mr Holt and I had created a set of metal disks that could be attached to the rotary sensors. I decided to create our own, rather than (sorry Vernier) buy them as I thought that the commercial kit was over priced. It wasn’t too hard to create the disks, especially when you have access to a CNC plasma cutter!


The students attached one disk to the rotary motion sensor and then got that disk spinning. They then took a second disk that had small magnets attached to it, and dropped this disk onto the spinning disk. The students compared the angular velocity before and after the disks were combined and then calculated the angular momentum of the system before and after. The data we got was quite good with the class getting in the range of only about a 5% to 6% difference.

Wrapping it Up (or Un-Rolling It Down)

As a final deployment, I decided to try the deployment activity that Frank Nochese did with his students. It seemed like a good (and fun) way to wrap up our model (or as I have already argued – models).

Before doing the deployment activity, I reviewed all the model specifics with the students. My point here was to impress on them that what we had not really built a new model, but rather had extended many of the prior particle models to include rigid extended bodies. This generally only required that we consider the moment arm in all the particle models. I think this really helped a number of students see the connection between models that they felt they understood and all this rotational stuff that seemed a bit confusing.

I then set them up with the deployment activity, but I asked them to specifically solve the problem using both energy and net torque. There was some success, but I realized that the task was a bit much for the class. Once again, it is clear that I need to give them more practice with these problems that require multiple steps and that involve algebraic manipulation of symbols without numbers. Plenty of time to practice that!