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Lesson ideas for teaching middle schoolers about force

Teaching the concept of force is a staple lesson in any physical science unit. That being said, balanced and unbalanced forces can be a confusing topic for middle school students to comprehend. I find that using a variety of visual aids and hands-on activities is a powerful way to boost student engagement and understanding of this important topic. As you put together your motion unit, here are my best lesson ideas for teaching middle schoolers about force.

Start With the Basics:

You can plan the most amazing demonstrations or stem challenges that illustrate forces of motion, but if your science class doesn’t already have a foundational understanding of the vocabulary surrounding these key concepts, the power of these engaging activities will be diminished. I recommend starting with an introduction to the key science topics and new vocabulary involved in teaching force.

Concept terms may include:

  • Force: a defined push or pull
  • Balanced force: when the net force is equal to 0N
  • Unbalanced force: when the net force is equal to anything other than 0N
  • Net force: the sum of all forces acting upon an object
  • Newtons: the unit used to measure force

To introduce these concepts, I’ve created a guided reading worksheet with accompanying application exercises. This lesson activity can be used in whole-class instruction, small groups, guided partner work, etc. Check it out!

Make it Tangible:

One of the reasons that Newton’s Laws can be tricky for middle school students is because it feel abstract (especially when being taught about in theory.) So what can we do? Make these abstract concepts tangible! Basically, we want to transform the concept of balanced/unbalanced forces from just a bunch of science talk into a physical reality that we experience everyday. This best way this can be done is through a variety of visual demonstrations and hands-on activities. In essence, we need to help our students SEE different types of forces if we want them to UNDERSTAND this disciplinary core idea.

When it comes to lesson ideas for teaching middle schoolers about force, finding not one, but several hands-on science resources is an essential component to a great physics unit. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Balance Practice

Collect a variety of different objects (or have your students bring them in) and have students practice balancing these objects. For this activity, you’ll need several balance scales in addition to the objects you’ll be balancing. I like to have my students time how long it takes to bring their objects into balance and to record their observations along the way. This activity makes a great small group or partner activity (depending on how many scales you have access to.)

Tip: If you only have one or scales to work with, consider incorporating this hands-on experiment into a learning stations rotation.

Hot Air Balloon Experiment

If you’re looking for lesson ideas for teaching middle schoolers about force that are both informative AND lots of fun…look no further! For this activity, students will applying the concept of force to their own “hot air balloons.”

Here’s how it works:

  1. Have students construct their hot air balloon by tying a helium filled balloon to a paper cup (simulating the balloon basket.)
  2. As helium balloons typically do, it will likely try to turn sideways as it floats towards the ceiling. Students will be attempting to balance their balloons by adding “force” to the hot air balloon basket.
  3. Instruct students to add toothpicks to the cup one at a time until the balloon is balanced.
  4. Students can record their learning by drawing a force diagram that represents the force of the helium pulling the balloon upward with the counterforce of the toothpicks pulling it down.

Virtual Motion Lab

In this activity, students will use an online simulation from the Phet interactive site to explore balanced and unbalanced forces, friction, speed, acceleration, and Newton’s Laws in an inquiry based fashion. I LOVE this activity! Why? Because it gives the visual demonstration I’m looking for without requiring any supplies, mess, or additional prep-work. Let’s be honest, we all could use a few of those activities in every unit.

This activity can be in a variety of ways, including:

  • Independent work time
  • Small group learning stations
  • Homework assignment
  • Substitute lesson plan

Arm Wrestling or Tug-O-War

One of the simplest ways to demonstrate laws of motion is with a good ole’ fashioned game of tug-o-war or an arm wrestling competition. These activities both provide a visual representation of one force counteracting another force. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to conduct these activities “tournament style!” Not only will your students gain a deeper understanding of the main concepts surrounding force, they will have a whole lotta fun doing it!

After conducting the “experiments” and hopefully enjoying a bunch of laughs along the way, I ask students to put on their critical thinking hats by drawing a force diagram of the tug-o-war game and answer a few follow-up questions. You could even require that their responses include pertinent vocabulary words such as “net force” or “direction of an object.”

Play Jenga

That’s right! The old school block tower building game is actually an AMAZING representation of basic concepts relating to force. (Not to mention – It’s one of my personal favorite lesson plans ideas for teaching middle schoolers about force.)

In this fun experiment, students begin by simply playing a game of Jenga. As they play, they can observe the contact forces that are impacting each individual block. Obviously, each block will react differently to being touched or pulled based on the amount of outside force being exerted at any given moment. This article gives a great explanation of the variety of force involved in a game of Jenga. This would make a great close reading activity to go along with gameplay.

Force, Mass, & Motion Investigation

This student led investigation is a wonderful way to teach students about balanced and unbalanced forces. This great resource is intended to be spread out over the course of four class days. During these lessons, students will investigate how the collection of force on an object combined with it’s mass effects the direction of the object’s motion. This investigation can be completed virtually or using printed paper packets. Check it out:

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