Energy Conversions Using Inclined Planes: Physics Lab

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  • 0:03 Conservation of Energy
  • 1:30 Physics Lab Steps
  • 3:04 Analyzing the Data
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lab, you will be able to explain what conservation of energy is and use it to calculate how much energy is lost to friction when an object goes down a ramp. A short quiz will follow.

Conservation of Energy

There are many types of energy, from kinetic (or movement) energy to elastic energy to gravitational potential energy, and while in our everyday lives it can seem like energy vanishes - when you push a shopping cart, for example, it does eventually stop - the truth is that energy can never be lost. Conservation of energy says that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it only moves from one type to another. So, if you lose one type of energy, you must gain another.

One type of energy, gravitational potential energy, is based on how high an object is. Higher objects have more gravitational potential energy, and the gravitational potential energy of an object in Joules can be calculated from this equation: GPE (or gravitational potential energy) is equal to mgh - the mass in kilograms multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity, which is 9.8 on Earth, multiplied by the height of the object above the ground or above a surface.

Another type of energy, kinetic energy, is greater if an object is moving faster. The equation for kinetic energy says that kinetic energy, measured in Joules, is equal to one half mv squared, which is one half multiplied by the mass of the object in kilograms multiplied by the velocity of the object in meters per second squared.

In today's lab, we will investigate conservation of energy using an inclined plane and calculate how much energy is released as heat through friction.

Physics Lab Steps

For this physics lab, you will need:

  • Materials to make a ramp (such as a plank of wood and a stack of books)
  • A flat, smooth surface
  • A stopwatch
  • A tape measure or ruler
  • Duct tape
  • A toy car (or similar)
  • A weighing scale (like a kitchen scale) set to measure in grams or kilograms

Step 1: Set up your ramp using your materials. Try to make the transition from ramp to surface as smooth as possible.

Step 2: Use the duct tape to mark a starting point near the top of the ramp and a stopping point around a meter beyond the end of the ramp on the surface. Measure the distance between the end of the ramp and the stopping point and write it down. Also, measure the height of your starting point above the surface and write it down.

Step 3: Release the toy car at the starting point marker. When the toy car reaches the bottom of the ramp, start the stopwatch.

Step 4: Stop the stopwatch when it reaches the second piece of tape and write down the time in a data table that looks like this:

Example data table

Step 5: Repeat the experiment at least five times and write down all the trials.

Step 6: Find the average of your five or more trials by adding up the numbers and dividing by how many trials you did.

Step 7: Measure the mass of the car using the scale and write it down.

If you haven't already, now it's time to pause the video and get started. Good luck!

Analyzing the Data

In order to analyze your data, the first thing to do is calculate the speed of the car at the bottom of the ramp using the equation speed equals distance divided by time. The distance is your measurement from the bottom of the ramp to the final piece of duct tape, and the time is your average time measured using the stopwatch. Here is an example calculation:

Example calculation for speed
example calculation for speed

Once you have the speed of the car at the bottom of the ramp, you can use it to calculate the kinetic energy of the car. Kinetic energy is given by this equation:


Plug in the velocity of the car and the mass of the car you noted down, and calculate the number of Joules of kinetic energy.

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