For students keen on science, a physics project can make for a challenging, fun and rewarding experience. Physics subjects ripe for investigation include magnetism, light, heat, sound and motion. The best project ideas match an interesting topic to the student’s grade level, whether it’s in elementary, middle or high school.
Projects for Elementary School
In first through sixth grade, students learn basic facts of science: Rain comes from clouds, the sun is big and hot, and magnets attract bits of metal. The science is almost all concepts with little if any math. As the grades progress, the concepts become progressively more complex. Good topics at this level include light, basic electricity and magnetism, and heat and cold.
Magnet Holding Power
Obtain a few magnets of different sizes. Collect small steel objects of various sizes such as nuts and bolts and carefully measure their weight. Note that they must be either steel or iron; copper, aluminum and other metals won’t be attracted to your magnets. Organize your metal objects by weight, from lightest to heaviest. Test each magnet to find the heaviest object it can hold. If your magnets can easily hold your heaviest metal object, add another one that’s heavier. Create a chart that lists your magnets from the weakest to the strongest. Note the shape of the magnet and its size. If you can, find out what the magnet is made of. For example, ceramic magnets are not as strong as some other types and have a dull gray or black color.
Heat of Different Light Bulbs
Make a list of the different kinds of light bulbs in your home, or the home of a friend. Create a hypothesis as to which type you think gives off the most and least amounts of heat. Touch a thermometer to each light bulb, or use an infrared thermometer. If you use a regular thermometer, wrap it with a small piece of cloth to avoid being burned on a hot light bulb. Do not use an oral thermometer, as their temperature readings don’t go high enough; a digital meat thermometer is better. Allow several seconds of contact with the thermometer until it reaches the bulb’s temperature. Find the wattage of each bulb and record this number along with the bulb type. Record the temperatures of various kinds of light bulbs and organize your data from coolest to hottest. Compare the wattage of the bulbs and the temperature readings.
Projects for Middle School
The science taught in middle school uses some arithmetic. The concepts are more complex and include social concerns such as the need for clean energy.
Loudness of Sounds and Noises
Think about the different noises you encounter every day and create a hypothesis that states which ones are truly the loudest and which are the softest. Use a decibel meter to measure various everyday sounds and noises. Example sounds include people talking, dogs barking, music and television, and ambulance sirens. Measure each sound source two or three times and calculate the average of the results for each source. If you don’t have a professional sound meter handy, free cellphone apps are available that perform this function, though some may not be as accurate, depending on different factors. Carefully write down your measurements along with the type of source and the number of measurements. Sort your results by decibels, from quietest to loudest. Try to find a pattern in the things that make the loudest or softest sounds. For example, does the size of a thing affect its loudness? Are electronics and machines louder than living things?
Investigate Evaporative Cooling
Obtain four small cloths of the same size. Using several ounces of room-temperature water, moisten two of the cloths. Aim a fan at low speed so it blows on one wet and one dry cloth. Create a hypothesis that asks if their temperatures are the same or different. After preparing the wet cloths, allow about 10 minutes for them to cool down, but don’t wait too long, as they will dry out. Carefully measure the temperature of each with a thermometer. For best results, measure the temperature twice and take the average of the two readings. Compare the results for each cloth. Are they the same or different? If they are different, do you think the water caused the difference, was it the fan, or was it both?
Projects for High School
In high school, physics becomes an entire class subject; students apply algebra and some calculus to their studies. Physics topics include forces and motion, light and sound as waves, and atoms and subatomic particles. At the same time, many students develop their own interest in math, electronics or computers and have their own motivation to do a physics project.
Temperature Effect on Magnets
Create a hypothesis that defines how temperature affects the strength of a magnet. Obtain a magnet and test its lifting power at room temperature. Use an electronic gaussmeter if you have access to one. For those without a gaussmeter, find assorted small steel objects, weigh them carefully and organize them by weight. Test the magnet by trying to pick up each steel object until you find one it can’t lift. If you have a gaussmeter, measure the magnet before and after heating and write down the magnetic strength in gauss. Next, heat the magnet and test its strength again; this portion should be done with adult supervision. Use wooden tongs or an oven mitt to handle the hot magnet. Repeat the experiment by heating the magnet to higher temperatures.
Analyze Swing Motion
Come up with a hypothesis that states which part of a playground swing’s motion is the fastest and which is the slowest. Use your cell phone to take videos of a friend on a playground swing. Obtain video motion analysis software (usually free) to determine how the speed of the person on the swing changes with time. While swinging, your friend may need to hold a brightly colored object such as a yellow tennis ball to give the software a “target” to track their motion. Use the software to find the fastest and slowest parts of the swing. Repeat the experiment with a few people of different heights. Record the height and weight of each person. Does the height or weight affect the speed of the swing?
About the Author
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance." Please, no workplace calls/emails!