How to Plan and Conduct Physics Practical Investigations | Physics Study Guide Part 2

Do you need help with your Physics practical assessment task? Read this guide and learn how to apply the scientific method to design, conduct and analyse any Physics practical investigation.

Physics Practical Investigations

Physics practical investigations are an important part of your Year 11 & 12 Physics course. They are compulsory and weigh at least 60% of your overall school assessment mark.

Physics practical investigations involve the collection of primary data. They may include

  • undertaking laboratory experiments, including the use of appropriate digital technologies
  • undertaking fieldwork and surveys
  • constructing models

In this article we’re going to discuss:

 

How to Plan and Conduct any Physics Practical Investigation

Step 1: Know the essential scientific skills

The essential scientific skills required for practical investigations are listed below.

  1. Identifying types of variables (independent, dependent, and control variables).
  2. Assessing validity, reliability and accuracy.
  3. Determining the source of experimental errors.
  4. Drawing and analysing appropriate graphs, including a line of best fit.

You’ll need to be demonstrate a high level of competency in these scientific skills prior to planning your physics practical investigation.

For a detailed explanation on the essential scientific skills, read the Matrix blog ‘The Beginner’s guide to Physics Practical Skills‘.

 

Step 2: Apply the scientific method to design and conduct a practical investigation

When designing a practical investigation, you’ll need to apply the scientific method illustrated in the flowchart below.

The Scientific Method for designing and conducting a physics practical investigation
Flowchart: The Scientific Method (Copyright Learnable 2019)

 

The scientific method consists of four main stages:

  1. Questions and predicting
  2. Planning investigations
  3. Conducting investigations
  4. Analysing data and evaluating results.

The scientific method is explained in the table below.

StageSteps and Explanations
Questioning and predictingStep 1: Theory

A practical investigation must be designed based on a hypothesis or a theory. For example, a practical investigation involving projectile motions can be based on the equations of motions.

Step 2: Aim

Using a theory, we can make a prediction. This is the aim of the experiment.

Planning investigationsStep 3: Method

To design a valid controlled experiment, write the method by:

  • Justifying the selection of equipment, resources chosen and the design of an investigation.
  • Ensuring that all risks are assessed, appropriate materials and technologies are sourced.
  • Identifying variables as independent, dependent and controlled to ensure a valid procedure is developed that will allow for the reliable collection of data.
  • Including strategies that ensure controlled variables are kept constant and experimental control is used as appropriate.

When writing the method, we must ensure each step incorporates reliability, accuracy and validity. The purpose for the method of an experiment is to provide a clear instruction on how to conduct the experiment validly whilst improving accuracy and reliability of the results.

Conducting investigationsStep 4: Results

To conduct investigations:

  • Construct our equipment by selecting appropriate equipment.
  • Use appropriate technologies.
  • Ensure risk assessments are conducted and followed.
  • Ensure the selection and criteria for collecting valid and reliable data is methodical.
Analysing dataStep 5. Quantitative analysis of results: Graphs and calculations

To analyse data:

  • Identify trends, patterns and relationships; recognise error, uncertainty and limitations in data.
  • Apply, where appropriate, mathematical models to demonstrate the trends and relationships that occur in data.

Step 6: Qualitative analysis: Evaluation of method and errors 

To discuss experimental errors and suggest improvements

  • Assess the appropriateness of the method.
  • Evaluate the relevance, accuracy, validity and reliability of the data collected.

For more information on analysing and evaluating data, read Physics Study Guide Part 2: ‘How to Study for Year 12 Physics Data Analysis Task‘.

 

 

How to Write Physics Practical Investigation Report

When writing the Physics practical investigation report, it should include:

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Hypothesis or Theory the investigation is based on
  5. Aim
  6. Method
  7. Results
  8. Discussion
    1. Quantitative analysis of results: Graphs and Calculations
    2. Qualitative analysis: Evaluation of method and errors
  9. References

Let’s apply the scientific method to plan, design, conduct and analyse the practical investigation.

For a step-by-step explanation on how to write a practical report for your depth study, read this article, ‘How to Write a Practical Report: Depth Study Report Template’.

 

Sample Physics Practical Assessment Task: Projectile Motion

Projectile motion is used by most schools for their first Physics practical assessment task. This is because most Projectile Motion practical investigation is relatively easy to design and conduct by students.

A typical Projectile Motion practical assessment task used by schools is outlined below.

Task title

Task 1 of 4 Open-Ended Investigation Report on Projectile Motion from Module 5 Advanced Mechanics.

Task weighting

20% of Overall school assessment

Description of Assessment Task

  1. Design and conduct a practical investigation to collect primary data to validate the relationship between the launch velocity and the range of a projectile.
  2. Use the results to calculate the acceleration due to gravity.

 

In this sample practical assessment task, we are required to investigate the relationship between the range s_x and the launch velocity of a projectile released from an elevated position.

Let’s apply the scientific method to design and conduct a practical investigation for the assessment task outlined above.

 

Sample Physics Practical Report

1. Theory

The simplest type of projectile motion is a ball being projected horizontally from an elevated position.

Physics Practical Investigation - Projectile motion

In this situation, the range of a projectile is dependent on the time of flight and the horizontal velocity. Hence this experiment is based on the equation s_x=u_xt .

To express the time of flight t in terms of the acceleration due to gravity, we analyse the vertical motion of the projectile

  • s_y=u_yt+\frac{1}{2}at^2
  • -y=0+\frac{1}{2}(-g)t^2
  • t^2=\frac{2y}{g}
  • t=\sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}}

Hence the range of a projectile can be expressed in terms of the horizontal velocity and the other control variables such as y and g by substituting t=\sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}} expression into  s_x=u_xt

  • s_x=u_xt
  • s_x = u_x \times (\sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}})
  • \therefore s_x = (\sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}}) u_x

 

2. Variables

Before designing your investigation, all the variables need to be identified.

  • Independent variable: Horizontal launch velocity u_x
  • Dependent variable: Range \Delta x
  • Control variables: Height of the table y, acceleration due to gravity g, the shape of the projectile

Keeping the control variables constant allows the experiment to be more valid.

To learn more about how to improve the validity of your experiment, read the Matrix blog on ‘Validity, Reliability and Accuracy of Experiments

 

3. Aim

To determine the relationship between the range of a projectile \Delta x  and its horizontal launch velocity  u_x and use the results to calculate the acceleration due to gravity  g .

 

4. Method

  1. The apparatus is set up as shown in the diagram below.Projectile Motion Physics Practical Investigation
  2. A smooth metal ball is placed at the top of the ramp, and the vertical distance from the ball to the table is measured.
  3. The ball is rolled down and timed along the 1 m horizontal length using a stopwatch. The time is recorded.
  4. The distance from the foot of the table to its landing point on the carbon paper is observed, measured and recorded.
  5. Steps 1-4 are then repeated at different heights up the ramp.

 

5. Results

The results are given in the table below. Using the times taken for the ball to travel 1 metre. Data collected from the experiment is highlighted in blue.

Vertical height on ramp Δh (m)Time to travel 1 m (s)Range Δx (m)
0.60.301.37
0.50.311.26
0.40.371.14
0.30.400.98
0.20.530.81

 

6. Quantitative Analysis of Results: Graphs and calculations

Calculate the horizontal velocity of the ball as it leaves the table and hence complete the table.

Vertical height on ramp Δh (m)Time to travel 1 m (s)Launch velocity u(m/s)Range Δx (m)
0.60.30u_x = \frac {s_x}{ t}

u_x= \frac{1}{0.30} = 3.33

1.37
0.50.31 u_x= \frac{1}{0.31} = 3.23 1.26
0.40.37 u_x= \frac{1}{0.37} = 2.70 1.14
0.30.40 u_x= \frac{1}{0.40} = 2.50 0.98
0.20.53 u_x= \frac{1}{0.53} = 1.89 0.81

 

Plot the range of the ball \Delta x against the launch velocity u_x and draw in the line of best fit. 

  • The range of the ball is plotted against the horizontal launch velocity.

Graph

  • A line of best fit is drawn.

 

Determine the relationship between the launch velocity ux and the range of the ball Δx and hence discuss its significance

  • The relationship between the launch velocity and the range of the ball is linear. The range of the ball is directly proportional to the horizontal launch velocity: s_x = u_x \times t
  • The linear relationship implies that the horizontal launch velocity affects the range but not the time taken to fall from a fixed height. Therefore horizontal and vertical motions are independent of each other.
  • This also validates the results expected from the equations of projectile motion.

Use the gradient to find the acceleration due to gravity

ActionDetail
Step 1: Find the gradient of the line of best fit.
  • Gradient can be determined from the graph.
  • Gradient = \frac{Rise}{Run} = 0.40
Step 2: Identify the variables
  • Independent variable: Horizontal launch velocity u_x
  • Dependent variable: Range \Delta x
  • Control variables: Height of the table y, acceleration due to gravity g, the shape of the projectile
Step 3: Rewrite \Delta x = (t) u_x  in the form y = (k)x to determine the relationship between the dependent, independent and control variables.\Delta x = u_x t
\Delta x = (t) u_x
\Delta x = (\sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}}) u_x
Step 4: Write the gradient in terms of control variables.Since \Delta x is directly proportional to u_x , the gradient equals to  \sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}}
Step 5: Find the unknown in the control variable.Using the launch height y = 0.7 m and the gradient, determine the acceleration due to gravity g.

  • gradient = \sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}}
  • g= \sqrt{\frac{2y}{gradient}}
  • g= \sqrt{\frac{2 \times 0.7}{0.4}}
  • g= 8.75 ms^{-2}

The acceleration due to gravity is – 8.75 ms-2 downwards.

 

7. Qualitative Analysis: Evaluation of method and errors

Let’s investigate the errors, reliability and accuracy of this experiment.

QuestionAnswer
How would you determine if the results are reliable?
  • Reliability refers to how close the experimental results are to each other.

  • In order to assess the reliability, we must consider the deviation of each point from the line of best fit. If the deviation is low, then the results can be considered reliable

Suggest a method of improving the reliability of your results.
  • Reliability here can be improved by taking repeated measurements at each of the vertical heights and using the average of these values when plotting the graph.

  • Averaging will reduce the effect of random errors.

What are some potential errors in this experiment? How can these errors be reduced?

The main errors experienced in this experiment are:

  • Errors associated in measurement of time to travel 1 m. This error can be reduced through the use of light gates and a data logger to measure the time taken to fall.
  • Incorrect calibration of the instruments such as the stopwatch used. This will systematically shift the measurements in one direction away from the true value. To reduce the occurrence of this error, compare the stopwatches against several others before commencing.
  • Parallax errors in measuring the height and ranges. To minimise this error, ensure that when you are taking measurements, your eyes are placed perpendicular to the ruler.
If a foam ball or Ping-Pong ball was used instead of the metal ball, what would happen to the range and the value of g obtained?
  • The range would consistently reduce as the new objects will be more affected by air resistance.

Would the use of the ping-pong ball affect accuracy, reliability and/or validity? Justify your answer.
  • This would produce a shallower gradient on the graph, and since grad = t = \sqrt{\frac{2y}{g}} this will indicate a larger value of g than the true value. This will affect accuracy.
  • Furthermore, this experimental setup will not be appropriate to determine the value for gravity, affecting validity.

 

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Written by DJ Kim

DJ is the founder of Learnable and has a passionate interest in education and technology. He is also the author of Physics resources on Learnable.

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