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Don't Let the Keys Drop!


You and Your Students!

Script By

Vicki Cobb, Education World Science Editor


Stop keys from falling to the floor in an amazing feat.


Physics, Motion, Simple Machines

Props Required

  • a set of keys
  • a length of string, about 4 feet long
  • a pencil
  • 3 paper clips

Setting the Scene (Background)

To get students engaged in an activity, few things work quite as well as asking them to predict an outcome. In this demonstration -- a tug of war between three paper clips and a set of keys -- you will produce an unpredictable result. Your students will only understand the result after thinking it through.

Stage Direction

Show-Biz Science is scripted by popular children's book writer Vicki Cobb. Click to learn more about Vicki or to read a brief synopsis of her philosophy of teaching science.

Visit our archive of archive of Show-Biz Science Activities. Watch for a new activity each week. Then chat with Vicki -- share your feedback and ask your questions about teaching science -- on our special Showbiz-Science message board.

Be sure to visit Vicki's Kids' Science Page for more great science fun, a complete list of her books, and information about how you can invite Vicki to come to your school. And don't miss her library of science videos too. Or visit Vicki and other great authors of nonfiction for children at the INK Think Tank.

Do this activity first as a demonstration. After that, many of your students will want to try it themselves. Doing the activity first as a demo drives home my point that science is about sharing an experience. Anyone can repeat the experiment if they have any doubts about it.

The Plot

Act I
Tie the keys to one end of the string; then tie the paper clips to the other end. Hold the pencil by one end so that it extends horizontally in front of you. Grasp the paper clips in your other hand. Drape the string over the pencil so that the keys are hanging down. The string between the pencil and the clips is also held horizontal. Two-thirds of the string should be between the clips and the pencil. [See illustration.]

At this point in the demonstration, tell your students that you are going to let go of the paper clips. What do they think is going to happen? Since the keys are [clearly] heavier than the paper clips, will the keys pull the clips down to the floor? Will the keys hit the floor? Discuss the possibilities with your students.

Act II
Now let go of the paper clips. Naturally, the keys drop. But amazingly, they don't reach the ground! The paper clips spin around the pencil and wind up the string. Six wraps are enough to break the fall of the keys. You've stopped the drop cold!

Your students might be under the misconception that heavier items fall faster than lighter ones. Untie both ends of the string. Hold the keys in one hand and the clips in another. Open both hands simultaneously. Listen to learn which object first hits the ground. This dropping race is always going to be a tie.

Behind the Scenes

The instant you release the paper clips, gravity acts simultaneously on both the keys and the clips and they both start to fall. Because the keys are heavier, they fall with a greater force than the clips; the keys win the tug-of-war on opposing ends of the string. In this activity, the pencil acts as a fulcrum. It changes the direction of the string. As a result, the length of the string between the clips and the pencil is shortened; that gives a sideways force to the clips, which combines with the downward force of gravity. These combined forces cause the clips to rotate around the pencil. The shorter the string gets, the faster the clips rotate. After a series of wraps, another force -- friction -- kicks in. Friction is a force that resists motion between two surfaces -- in this case, the pencil and the string. Six wraps is usually enough friction to top the fall of the keys.

The End

See more of these show-stopping activities in You Gotta Try This! Absolutely Irresistible Science by Vicki Cobb and Kathy Darling. For younger kids interested in why things fall, look for Vicki's brand new "Science Play" book, I Fall Down.

Article By Vicki Cobb
Education World®
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