NASA Physics Education Activities
When I left my High School Physics classroom for a position as a NASA education specialist, I was both impressed and annoyed by the resources available from NASA for teaching physics concepts. I was impressed that there was such a wide range of resources for all aspects of physics at so many different levels. I was annoyed that I had taught physics for 10 years and never knew that any of the resources existed. Thus began my continuing mission to make sure that as many of my fellow educators know more than I did about what is available for free from NASA education. In pursuit of that goal, I offer you a small sampling of resources in some of the major physics subtopics for your consideration.
Force and Motion
Probably my favorite resource to give teachers for teaching force and motion is the Rockets educator guide (nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/Rockets.html). It begins with a wonderful background section which includes a pictorial history of rockets, an explanation of how rockets work and how to apply Newton’s Laws to rocketry. The activities are written for a wide age range from Kindergarten (3..2..1..Puff!) to High School (water rocket Project X-51). My absolute favorite activity is a modified version of the Newton Car which allows your students to explore all of Newton’s Laws of motion in one simple apparatus.
The Marble Run activities from the Amusement Park Physics with a NASA Twist guide (spaceflightsystems.grc.nasa.gov/outreach/appd/documents/physics_nasatwist_guide.pdf) for Middle School are also quite good for exploring force and motion. These same activities allow the students to link in energy and energy conservation concepts as well.
In addition to the transfer between gravitational potential and kinetic energy that students explore in Marble Run, the Genesis Mission education modules have an excellent unit on thermal energy titled, “Heat: An Agent of Change” (genesismission.jpl.nasa.gov/educate/scimodule/heat/index.html). This Middle School unit covers definitions of heat, methods of heat transfer, and minimizing thermal flow.
Cool Cosmos (coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu/) is an online resource relating thermal energy to infrared astronomy and electromagnetic waves. The infrared zoo and infrared world features at the site are especially useful as hooks to engage the students. The Teachers section has some great lesson plans, posters and printouts.
Waves and Optics
Moving into waves and optics from the introduction to infrared astronomy of Cool Cosmos, I find that, had I known it existed, I would have used the Optics: Light, Color and Their Uses guide (nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/Optics.Guide.html) to teach my entire optics unit. The guide has activities for Kindergarten through High School which scale up and down very well. I am especially fond of the simple lenses activity for teaching about refraction.
I also recommend the first four units of the Space Based Astronomy guide (nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/Space.Based.Astronomy.html) to incorporate introductions to the electromagnetic spectrum, detecting electromagnetic radiation and the use of waves for information transfer. The Spectroscope activity in this guide is better than the Optics guide, in my opinion.
Simple Harmonic Motion
The pendulums activities from Amusement Park Physics (linked above) are good introductory labs for students. I do, however, recommend changing the instructions to timing ten swings rather than counting the number of swings in ten seconds.
Electricity and Magnetism
There are some strong video (archive.org/details/NasaWhyFiles-ElectricalCircuits) and online interactive activities (knowitall.org/interactive/circuits-nasa-online) for basic circuits through the NASA Why Files series.
NASA’s IMAGE mission education (image.gsfc.nasa.gov/poetry/magnetism/magnetism.html) has a good explanation of geomagnetism and activities in the basic properties of magnets and Earth’s changing magnetic field.
Special and General Relativity
The Gravity Probe B mission explored Einstein’s frame dragging as a test of relativity and the educator guide and presentations created for education are excellent resources (einstein.stanford.edu/RESOURCES/education-index.html) for giving your students a chance to do some hands-on demonstrations of the concepts.
I hope that this survey of resources helps you in your classes. Please understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there are so many more resources out there if you just know to look. Another option is to attend the webinars offered through Texas State’s NASA STEM Educator Professional Development Collaborative (txstate-epdc.net/events/).
Education Specialist, NASA STEM EPDC
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center