Physics senior wins top prize at American Association of Physics Teachers conference


Physics senior Harvey Kaplan

Physics senior Harvey Kaplan and his research project on gyroscopic motion were unwittingly part of a competition at the American Association of Physics Teachers summer conference.

Those strangers chatting him up about his research? Those were judges, the student from Wilmette, Ill., later realized.

No matter. Kaplan took home the Outstanding Student Poster Award from the event held July 13 to 17 in Portland, Ore. He and his work were up against other undergraduates from across the country. Kaplan was the lone Purdue undergrad at the event.

Working under Prof. Rebecca Lindell and interim department head of Physics Dr. Andy Hirsch, Kaplan’s work puts a new spin on gyroscopic force.

The research project started with an old paper Hirsch found. The 1960 publication took a then-new look at gyroscopic motion. It examined how a simplification of a gyroscope works while appealing to the most easily understandable concepts of forces acting on “point” masses. What if a physicist in 2013 looked at the same idea but got to use 21st century technology to display and describe the motion.

“Now with the availability of programming, I was able to take the ideas from the 1960 paper one step farther and make a working computer model that will help with student understanding in introductory physics,” Kaplan stated. “Prof. Hirsch found that it described the mechanics of the gyroscope in terms of force and linear momentum instead of the usual torque and angular momentum. … They thought it would be a great research project to create a computer simulation of this linear mechanical analysis of the gyroscope to serve as an educational tool to help students understand how the gyroscope works. In the simulation, the gyroscope is modeled as a discrete, but variable number of masses attached to a rigid, massless support. When the number of masses is large enough, the model looks like a typical gyroscope.

“The main idea behind this is that students are most comfortable with force and momentum. When it comes to these angular quantities – torque and angular momentum – I like to say it adds one more level of mathematical abstraction, one step away from just being able to think about your experience and getting the physics.”

Hirsch was impressed with his student’s work and composure throughout the project and particularly during the conference.

“Harvey was able to build a computer simulation of the gyroscope that displayed the motion and forces on each mass quantity one step at a time. Furthermore, utilizing the features of vPython, one can change one's perspective enabling a clearer understanding of the force vectors,” Hirsch stated. “Harvey encountered many subtle issues in building his computer model. He managed to conquer each one. Harvey is very persistent and does not let setbacks lead to frustration. I am certain that this project has enhanced his self-confidence.”

Now that gyroscopic force is behind him, Kaplan’s senior research project is heading in a completely different direction.

“My next project is looking at radioactive decay rates and trying to look for possible deviations from the regular half-life decay trend,” Kaplan revealed.

Kaplan's abstract: Gyroscopic motion is often described in terms of torque and angular momentum. This method of describing gyroscopic motion proves to be powerful, but conceals the forces responsible for the motion. Using the VPython programming language, a simplified version of a gyroscope of four identical masses is used to study the forces on each mass. The program allows for effective analysis of gyroscopic motion in terms of forces and linear momentum, and permits the user to increase the number of masses until the limit of a physical gyroscope is reached. This program is intended to serve as a pedagogical tool for understanding gyroscopic motion in terms of forces.

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