Students Explore Galileo’S Ramp Experiment



Andy Towle/Roundup -

Nicole Scott checks her figures, angles and height of the board and then checks again to make certain the measurements are exact.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Alex Graham, left, and Jacquelyn Oesterblad mark a spot on the board before running any tests. Maddie Nossek, in background, goes over the information she just read before she writes down any measurements.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Aman Sharma releases the steel ball as his lab partner Elizabeth Luna, not pictured, checks the time with a stopwatch.


Andy Towle/Roundup -

Jimmy Behrens watches the ball as it rolls down the ramp, ready to click the stopwatch when it passes the marked line of a completed journey.

An information exchange between the high school in Payson and one outside Chicago is propelling a scientific experiment beyond socio-economic limitations, and even those of human error.

Students in teacher Andrew Fiala’s advanced placement physics class at Payson High School recently replicated Galileo’s ramp experiment, in which he searched for how fast objects fall to earth due to gravity.

“He knew things fell to earth, but he didn’t know how fast,” said Fiala.

A scientist today could measure an object as it falls straight down, but Galileo lacked the technology to measure that quickly.

So students angled a ramp to slow the objects down enough to measure their descent with a sand timer-like contraption.

“That was all they had back then,” Fiala said.

These days, sand timers have evolved into stopwatches. But Galileo still had complex mathematical formulas that allowed him to accurately calculate how fast gravity makes objects fall.

Still, as PHS students replicated the experiment, human error resulted from the delay in starting and stopping the stopwatches, along with friction from the ball rubbing the ramp.

In affluent Chicago, Fiala’s father, Frank, teaches at Glenbrook North High School, which can afford a miraculous contraption that helps students there complete the same experiment, minus human error.

“I thought it would be cool to share data between two schools,” Fiala said. “They have equipment we don’t have.”

And by leveraging technology, students at each school can wonder at the cutting edge and enjoy the rush of working in a collegial environment among a fellowship of scientists.

Using trigonometry and algebra, students first calculated the ball’s speed, which is essentially velocity, and then confirmed what Galileo discovered many centuries ago — how fast gravity makes objects fall.

Speed differs from acceleration due to gravity because while speed can be constant, gravity makes objects fall faster and faster the longer they fall.

In Chicago, the elder Fiala’s students eliminated human error with a vacuum contraption that blows air between a V-shaped aluminum toy car and an A-shaped ramp. The air eliminated friction, and lasers set off timers.

“They took Galileo’s experiment and moved it into the 21st century,” Fiala said.

Payson can’t afford such extravagant technology. But through an exchange, they can vicariously experience it, along with the possibilities it offers.

Camaraderie is key in science, Fiala added.

“In a scientific community, if you’re doing something by yourself, it’s a long and lonely road.”

Students here recently finished the actual experiment, and they’re still compiling data, which they will send to Glenbrook North.

Then, Glenbrook North will send its data to Payson, and each school will compare data sets.

Fiala wants to continue the education exchange with future experiments, possibly one with light and color.

“It’s cool to do something with someone you don’t know,” said Fiala.


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