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Physics - Science in the Garage

  • Susan K. Stewart Contributing Writer
  • Published Apr 04, 2005
Physics - Science in the Garage

I didn't take physics in high school. I wasn't planning to major in any science-type area and it seemed that only the very brilliant students took it. When my son wanted physics, I wasn't sure. But, I found out that it really isn't all that bad.

Your children have been using physics since birth. The first lesson is gravity when a child learns to walk. As children grow, they begin to wonder how things work and these wonderings are the rudiments of physics. That is what it is about - how things work.

Physics is the study of the physical universe. It demonstrates principles that keep the planets moving, people from falling from the earth, and machines in motion. It is the science that demonstrates the perfection of God. Physics laws sometimes cannot be explained by man but can refute man's theories about the origin of the universe.

Look at Newton's Law of Inertia: Every body remains in a state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by forces from the outside. A car traveling on a straight road illustrates this. Unless an outside force acts on the car, say the steering wheel being turned, the car will continue on that straight road. The same can be said for the rotation of the earth around the sun. According to the big bang theorists, the earth was the result of a large explosion. According to Newton=s Law, the earth would continue in the path it started on unless it was acted upon by an outside source. The only way for the earth to now be in an orbital path around the sun, using the Big Bang Theory, is for it to have started an orbital path at the time of the explosion. Not a logical conclusion.

Physics is a math intensive science. A foundation in algebra and geometry is a plus for your student. The textbooks usually have a chapter on measurement and the metric system as well as explanation of formulas used.

How deeply do we need to study this science? It depends on your student. Like the other sciences, there are areas of physics that you may want to just glance through or skip completely. Most cover nuclear physics, some more in depth than others. I decided that my students only needed enough to understand when nuclear bombs, nuclear power plants, and radiation (and radiation numbers) were being talked about. We did not cover every detail of how these things work, but we did cover the basic vocabulary. Remember, the idea is to present basic familiarity and expand as the interest of the student expands.

Physics Around the House

Physics can be called "science in the garage." Most of the materials needed are found in the garage. A variety of tools will be needed to build the various projects and take things apart, nails, hammer, and screwdriver.

Tools also provide some of the underpinning of physics. The screw is based on the inclined plane; a lever and pulley are found in many tools. So, a field trip to the garage is a good beginning to your physics course. A good rule, however, is "Ask Dad first." 

When covering the area of magnets and electricity, older Boy Scout handbooks have good projects. These can be found in used bookstores. You will find these simpler projects can replace more complicated ones in the high school physics textbook while still emphasizing the principles involved. Parts for magnetic and electrical projects can be purchased at electronic stores, as well as kits that can be used.

A source of light is needed which can be a flashlight, light bulb, or sunlight. Prisms are usually available at educational supply stores. I recommend having two to see the changes of light in two directions. Partially filling a rectangular glass dish with water and holding it in an inclined position is one way to make a prism. A glass crystal can also be used.

Things To Do

In physics, most labs are actually demonstrations of principles rather than proving. One good way to study the principle of physics is to look at it backwards. Take something apart, examine it, and explain why it works. Finding old, broken things at thrift stores or garage sales is an inexpensive way to go.

Answering questions that your child already has, such as "How does a VCR work?" or "How can my skateboard go faster?" is another approach. Physics answers these questions.

Simple machines are in Dad's tool box, levers, pulleys, and inclined planes. Students can demonstrate the use of these simple machines by building more complicated machines like a Ferris wheel. Legos and erector sets are perfect for machine projects.

The study of machines will lead to the study of powering the machines, usually with electricity. Many encyclopedias have directions for building an electric motor. Again, Boy Scout handbooks are a good source for projects.

Studying light is more than how a light bulb works. It is also the theory of light, how it travels, the color spectrum, and even touches on the incredible eye. Making a camera, looking at the color spectrum made by a prism, or playing with a lens from old eyeglasses can aid you in studying these scientific topics.

Light waves are similar to sound waves. Sound is what started my son's physics quest. He wanted to build perfect audio speakers. Learning the basics of sound was necessary. He even delved into the ears and hearing during this study. 

I learned the basics of physics with my son. He knows more than I do, and that's o.k. What I learned is physics is everywhere, it points to the Creator, and I don't have to be the super-intelligent student to understand it.

Wander to the garage, find a few tools, nuts and bolts, and start your adventure in physics.


Susan K. Stewart is the author of Science in the Kitchen, Fearless Science for All Ages. She presents workshops on teaching science at home including high school lab sciences. Susan and her husband Bob began teaching their three children in 1981 graduating all of them from home school. She can be reached at or visit her web site