When it first comes up, we go through the stable/unstable/neutral equilibrium discussion and the corresponding shapes of potential energy graphs, but I really wanted a way for students to apply that. I've thought of a few, only three of which I have tried out so far:
- Have VPython plot a potential energy vs. tip angle curve for a box that's standing on its end - compare for different heights/widths of box
- Have VPython graph total potential energy vs. stretch amount for a mass on a vertical spring
- Have VPython graph potential energy for a mass of a spring that doesn't necessarily stay vertical (on y vs. x axes, with U value signified by color)
- Investigate the Lenard-Jones (interatomic) potential, both for meaning and location of equilibrium points and to fit an approximate quadratic to it near the equilibrium point, justifying the use of the ball-and-spring model of matter.
- Later in the year, during rotation, have them create a physical pendulum program with a box on a pivot not through its center - modify this to show the graph of potential energy as a function of angle
For the first and fifth, I have some results using VPython to show. (The fourth is great, too, especially if you're using Matter and Interactions!) For the box tipping, the graph is neat, not least of which because of the discontinuity in the derivative at 0. Calculus wouldn't find this minimum on without intervention from the student, and it's easy to forget to check those endpoints! This gives a nice graphical reminder. My one concern is that the geometry is fairly harrowing - determining the height of the CM as a function of angle isn't super-easy, and requires a high-quality diagram.
Here's a screen shot:
When you vary the parameters, that central well can become deeper (more stable) or shallower (less stable), and vanishes as the box gets narrower (and becomes a pencil).
For the final one, I think that the program, being a modification of a previous one, isn't too difficult to do, though it does bring in the complication of having a "meta loop," where the whole simulation runs several times, with different placements of the axis.
Here's a screen shot that links to a video of the program running:
The graph here is incredibly rich. Not only do we see two different kinds of equilibrium (three, if you let the pivot be at the middle for the first run through), but we see how the system is forced away from or towards those equilibrium more or less violently as the pivot moves. This helps to bring together their common-sense understandings of stability and the physical principle that we're trying to investigate.