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Hands-On Teaching Strategies to Help Students Understand the Physics Behind Electricity and Sound

Let me begin with a confession: I majored in chemical engineering, not physics. In addition, when I was in college, calculus-based physics and electrical fundamentals courses were used to weed out would-be engineering majors. 

Unsurprisingly, when I was reteaching myself physics as a new physics teacher, I never had a great handle on where capacitors fit into the big picture of our lives—and building that context is so important. 

Sound waves and beats were a bit more intuitive for me and my students. But I feel like I left a lot on the table by not taking time to explore topics like phase shift and fast Fourier transform (FFT). 

At Vernier, I’ve drawn on these experiences to help develop solutions that today’s educators can use to help students understand the physics behind electricity and sound. A great place to start is our “Capacitors” and “Sound Waves and Beats” experiments. Another useful tool is our Vernier Graphical Analysis® app, which can take learning to a new level. 

We took a deep dive into these solutions in our recent Capacitors, Sound Waves, and Beats: Lessons to Energize Your Classroom webinar. Here are five key takeaways, along with strategies and tools you can use to deepen student comprehension.

Provide Concrete Examples

For the “Capacitors” experiment, start by giving your students specific examples of a resistor-capacitor (RC) circuit to help increase comprehension. Students can observe the phenomenon relatively easily; it’s as simple as seeing a light quickly turn on and slowly fade. However, understanding the value of an RC circuit is less intuitive. By providing a concrete example, such as windshield wipers, you can help students connect the dots.

Demystify the Units of Measurement

A key concept related to electricity is capacitance, a capacitor’s ability to store an electric charge. Capacitance is measured in farads (or, more commonly, microfarads)—and these units of measurement are unique and not easily related to more common units, such as those used for voltage and current. Your students will likely benefit from a quick introduction to the lesser-known farads and microfarads.

Build in Time for Exploration

Give students time to explore the circuit. Specifically, let them discover how changing a resistor or capacitor value in the circuit can shorten or lengthen the delayed response. This sort of hands-on learning helps deepen student comprehension more so than simply doing the math. You could also consider giving your students a challenge. For instance, you could ask your students, given the components available to them, how they could create a two-second delay in the circuit.

Explore the Opportunity to Try a “Flipped Classroom”

If you are new to the idea of flipping your classroom and shifting the emphasis for direct instruction to students, the “Sound Waves and Beats” experiment, along with the sample experiments in Graphical Analysis Pro (see below), offer you an easy entry point. Students can conduct the experiment on their own at home or during a free period. Then you can use your class time to guide students toward mastery of the concepts.

Sound Waves and Beats

Take Advantage of Features in Graphical Analysis Pro

Our Graphical Analysis app helps students form critical connections between abstract scientific ideas (such as electricity and sound) and the real world—and when you unlock key features with Graphical Analysis Pro, you can do more with your Vernier sensors to deepen and extend learning. 

As it relates to teaching your students about capacitors, sound waves, and beats, four Graphical Analysis Pro features are especially useful.

  1. Data Sharing
    Graphical Analysis Pro gives you the ability to share collected data from device to device in an instant. If you decide to run the “Capacitors” experiment as a demonstration (there are many benefits to taking this approach), you can use Graphical Analysis Pro to share the experiment data with your students; they would get the data in real time on their devices.
  1. Uncertainty of Fit Parameters
    The fit uncertainty tool is a relatively new feature in Graphical Analysis Pro, and it helps students gauge how well determined the fit coefficients are. If statistics are a significant part of their coursework, students could use this tool to see how close the curve fit actually matches their data—which could come in handy for the “Capacitors” experiment.
  1. Sample Experiment Files
    “Sound Waves and Beats” is one of the more than 45 investigations available in Graphical Analysis Pro’s experiment library. These experiments include lab instructions and experiment videos. They also feature real experimental data that students can analyze to better understand the scientific phenomena. 

    With its embedded experiment videos and data, “Sound Waves and Beats” can give you an opportunity to flip your classroom. As mentioned above, you could assign the experiment for homework and then use your class period the following day to unpack what your students learned, discuss the phenomena they observed, and answer any questions as students complete the lab work. 
  1. FFT Tool
    The FFT tool in Graphical Analysis Pro gives students a new view of their sound data. Specifically, it provides the ability to change the graphical view of sound data from a time domain to a frequency domain. Students can also explore the superposition of waveforms and identify harmonics. 

Want to take a closer look at how Vernier technology can help students understand the physics behind electricity and sound? Check out Capacitors, Sound Waves, and Beats: Lessons to Energize Your Classroom. I’ll walk you through our “Capacitors” and “Sound Waves and Beats” experiments, and you’ll get to see how to use Graphical Analysis Pro to measure the potential across an RC circuit, examine the properties of sound waves, and more. 

If you have additional questions, we’re happy to help! Feel free to contact us at or 888-837-6437.

Capacitors, Sound Waves, and Beats: Lessons to Energize Your Classroom

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