Winter Physics

It’s snowing today and I can’t help but think of all the marvelous Physics lessons I see all around me:

Driving In Snow

I was out driving today and the roads were barely snow-covered, but it made me think about occasions when I wasn’t so lucky. Most New England drivers have experienced their car fishtailing; some are even lucky enough to spin out and maintain control of the vehicle. I think it’s safe to say that most people aren’t calculating the equations involved in their sloshy adventure, but a little Physics might help them get home safer. Snow and rain are a great opportunity to talk to students about safe driving techniques and discussing the mechanisms built into vehicles to prevent accidents. As I always warn my husband when driving in slick conditions, “Be careful, your coefficient of friction is constantly changing.”

Now that I think about it, there could be a pretty cool lab activity simulating conditions on slippery roads – anyone have anything already?

Seeing Your Breath In The Cold

When I am visiting my parents and in-laws I like to listen to the local Country radio station. This morning, the announcers were discussing shoveling snow. One of them said he liked shoveling because it’s out in the cold with all the snow where you can see the “smoke” coming out of your mouth. If I have learned anything throughout my two years in grad school, it’s been that teaching science within the context of students’ misconceptions is a great way to ensure student understanding. That why I got upset when I heard the radio announcer call their condensed breath “smoke”. It makes it so hard for teachers to teach correct and accurate information when public figures only perpetuate misconceptions? How can teachers correct psuedoscience in the classroom when nothing changes outside the classroom?

I worked with a few colleagues to develop at least an introductory unit on Heat based on correcting student misconceptions. The links to the concept map and lessons are found at the link above.


In the December 2009 edition of Physics Today, there was a great article titled, “The Surprising Science of Ski Moguls” by David B. Bahr, W. Tad Pfeffer, and Raymond C. Browning. All AAPT members get free access to this publication, but if you are not a member, I believe this article is free online anyways. I can’t wait to find an opportunity to share this with my class!

What kinds of science do you think of when it snows?


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