FASTLY - Faith & Science Teaching

Activity Map: Newton’s Laws

Overview

What's the Focus

In the process of exploring Newton’s three laws of motion, this activity map explores how both “miracles” and “natural processes” represent God’s active and sustaining power in creation, which in turn make possible our actions in creation and our participation in God’s goodness and glory revealed through creation.

Modern culture assumes there is a clear distinction between miracles and natural processes. We often regard miracles as God’s actions and see natural processes as happening without God. Or we assume natural processes require less divine action than miracles do. Each time science uncovers another natural process explaining something that was previously mysterious, we fear God is being pushed further out of the picture. Our classroom practices may unconsciously reinforce this picture, relegating God’s activities to the gaps between accepted scientific theories. This happens especially when we express wonder about creation or make explicit connections to faith only when surprising, mysterious, or unexplained things are mentioned.

The assumption that science glorifies God best when it cannot explain nature, or that a science class is most Christian when it points out what science cannot explain, is widespread. If students see the world in terms of inexplicable events that either happen, and thereby show God’s presence, or don’t happen, and thereby reveal his absence, then students learn to set God’s miraculous actions in creation over and against a closed system of fully explainable natural laws that have nothing to do with God. Changing underlying pictures of the world is extremely difficult. This activity map offers multiple opportunities for students to engage with these matters using hands-on activities that allow learning to unfold gradually. 

It is not necessary to use every activity in your class. This activity map offers a range of possibilities to enrich your existing teaching resources. While some of the activities form a possible sequence, you can select the ones most suitable for your context and adapt them to connect to your own plan for learning. Some of the activities could be used in Bible class as part of a cross-curricular collaboration to deepen student learning.

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic and are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

You can mix and match these activities as you wish. It is not intended that all these activities should be used with the same class.

Quick Stop Lesson Plan

The best way to use this activity map is to explore all the activities and see which ones fit in your particular teaching context. If you just need a quick way to explore the themes of the map, you can use the links below to preview and download a sampler of three activities selected from this activity map.

PreviewDownload Files

Discover Activities

Discover activities offer brief ways into the topic and are designed to set the stage and get students thinking.

  • Activity

    10 min

    Miracle Survey

  • Activity

    20 min

    Natural Processes as God’s Tools

  • Activity

    10 min

    Miracles versus Natural Processes?

  • Activity

    This activity occurs over multiple class periods

    Regularity in Nature: Boring or Blessing?

Miracle Survey

In Brief

This activity uncovers how students see divine action in both the laws of nature and in God’s more surprising activities. It engages students in articulating and clarifying their initial assumptions. Making explicit what students already think increases the likelihood of fruitful change in their assumptions as learning proceeds.

Goals

Students identify and articulate their own assumptions concerning the relationship of miracles to natural processes.

Thinking Ahead

One overall emphasis of this activity map involves challenging the common assumption that miracles, as God’s actions, are to be contrasted with natural processes that do not involve God’s action. We assume natural processes require less divine action than miracles do, or even none at all. This results in the assumption that as science explains more natural processes, God’s place gets smaller, as if “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) most clearly when science cannot explain them. This contrasts with the teaching of Scripture that natural processes are God’s tools and show not only his greatness, but also his steadfast love for all his creatures, allowing them to meaningfully participate in his creation.

This activity focuses on bringing students’ existing assumptions to the surface to create a baseline so that later we can see what has been learned, and increase the potential that those assumptions might change as learning proceeds. Take time to reflect on your own assumptions. Consider the range of meanings for the word “miracle,” which can include events that defy natural process and events that involve natural process, such as an uncannily timed natural event. Consider how your own classroom practices either perpetuate or improve on poor thinking in this area. Do you invoke God only in relation to surprising things or things that science cannot yet explain? Do you choose topics for classroom devotions that focus mainly on miracles and mysteries? Do you focus intentionally on how God’s greatness is revealed in what science can explain about nature, modeling wonder for the natural world as it is sustained in its regular daily processes?

The main purpose of also having a parent complete the survey is to promote family conversation about the issues surveyed and to prompt students to reflect on what others might think about these issues. This is part of a broader focus in teaching FASTly on practices that take relationships seriously. Compare, for instance, the activity maps on Labs and Community and on Engaging Parents.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Directions:

The handout provided contains two copies of the survey on one page to be cut in half.

Teaching the Activity

Give each student two copies of the Miracle Survey. Explain there is no score for this activity and the purpose of this survey is simply to record everyone’s initial assumptions. This will make it possible to look back and see if anything changed by the end of this activity map. The goal is for students to record what they think, rather than guessing what answer the teacher wants. The student is to complete one copy in class and turn it in. Do not discuss the correctness of responses at this time.

Tell the class that they will take the same survey at the end of this activity map to see if their thoughts have changed. Save the student surveys to compare answers with the ones they give at the end of this activity map. See Activity 11.

Send the second copy of the survey home for a parent or family member to complete and return. Allow parents/family members 2-3 days or a weekend to respond.

Natural Processes as God’s Tools

In Brief

Christian theology teaches that God is responsible for all that happens in the created order, whether God’s role is obvious or veiled. Contrary to the common assumption that God does miracles while natural processes happen on their own, this activity introduces the biblical idea that both are God’s work. It engages students in thinking through a demonstration that challenges how they see miracles in relationship to natural processes.

Goals

Students will understand the difference between the popular view of divine action as consisting only of, or mainly of, miraculous interventions and the Bible’s view of God’s involvement in all natural processes.

Thinking Ahead

Consider how your own classroom practices either perpetuate or improve on poor thinking in this area. Do you invoke God only in relation to surprising things or things that science cannot yet explain? Do you choose topics for classroom devotions that focus mainly or wholly on miracles and mysteries? Do you focus intentionally on how God’s greatness is revealed in what science can explain about nature, modeling wonder for the natural world as it is sustained in its regular daily processes?

Consider the challenge of changing what may be deeply habitual assumptions for some students about how miracles relate to science and natural processes. Plan to avoid simply stating conclusions yourself and focus on inviting students to think through the implications of the demonstration themselves.

Related Book Review: From Nature to Creation by Norman Wirzba.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • String

  • A small mass

  • An object to knock over such as a block or toy figure

  • A sheet or card large enough to serve as a screen that hides your hand

  • Dominoes or larger wooden blocks

  • A cardboard box or other freestanding object

  • A Bible or presentation slides

Directions:

  • Tie the small mass to one end of a string. Have about 30 cm of string free of the mass, so you can hold it.
  • Place a cardboard box or other free-standing object on a table top in front of the classroom to serve as a screen to hide your hand from student view.
  • Set a small object such as a block or toy action figure on the table to be knocked over.

Teaching the Activity

Set the object upright on a visible surface at the front of the room and cover just the top of it with your card screen, so students can see almost all of the object but not your hand behind the screen. Tell the students to imagine that you and the screen are invisible. They only see the tabletop and object. With your hand hidden behind the screen, knock the object over. Ask students what they would see if you and the screen were truly invisible, and how this resembles what we commonly call a miracle. (In other words, God does something striking and visible, but we cannot see how he does it, such as Jesus walking on water.)

Now do the demonstration again, but this time use the mass, swung like a small pendulum, to knock the object over. Keep your hand holding the pendulum string hidden, but let the string and swinging mass be visible below the screen. Ask the students how this situation differs from the first one, and how it compares to what we call a natural process where we see an event and the chain of events and processes that causes it. An example is rain falling due to processes of evaporation and condensation, something we can study with science.

Explain to students that while in a naturalistic worldview the hand hidden behind the screen is solely a natural process, in a Christian worldview the hand of God is always at work, whether more evident in cases that seem to go against natural processes, or more hidden as in natural processes. Ask students to consider:

  • Is God only involved in the miracle example, and not in the natural law example?
  • Is God more involved in the miracle example and less involved in the natural law example?
  • Why do we tend to think of miracles as involving God’s action but do not see him working in natural or scientifically explainable processes?
  • How might something be seen as a miracle while at the same time being entirely explainable in terms of natural processes? An example could be something that happens with perfect timing in answer to prayer.
  • Consider the origin of the materials of this activity. Can you explain why there is something, that is, material creation, rather than nothing? Why are there natural processes?
  • Can only the “miracle” example lead us to worship, or could natural processes lead us to worship as well? How?
  • How do the regularities of creation’s natural processes make worship possible?

Display and read, or have students read, the following passages from the Bible. Presentation slides are provided in Natural Processes as God’s Tools: Jeremiah 14:22, selections from Psalm 104, and Matthew 6:26-30. Ask what each passage says or implies about how divine action relates to natural processes. Do these passages suggest we should mainly praise God for the “miraculous”? Discuss briefly the pros and cons of using the terms natural and supernatural, natural process and miracle. Do the terms communicate something useful about how obvious or hidden God’s action is, or do they imply a false dichotomy in which God is involved in miracles but not in natural processes? Might this dichotomy, and the way Christians have accepted it, be part of why some Christians suspect science of being inherently atheistic, even when devoted followers of Christ are practicing it?

To check understanding, have students write a few sentences in response to the prompt: “What are the problems with thinking of miracles as the moments when God acts in the world?”

Optional Extra

Explore the difference between deism and biblical theism by comparing the pendulum-swinging natural process demonstration to the following activity. Set up a row of dominoes or blocks with an object at the end of the row to be knocked over. With your hand hidden by a screen, knock over the first domino, so all others fall and eventually topple the object. Ask students how the picture of God’s activity in nature differs between the pendulum and domino demonstrations. For example, in deism a remote God sets natural events in motion but is not directly involved afterward. This is similar to setting up dominoes and tipping the first one. Biblical theism represents God as intimately involved in all natural events for the sake of his creatures. Compare with this further activity about deism.

Miracles versus Natural Processes?

In Brief

This activity explores why we think of various events in terms of God’s participation in creation rather than in the two opposing categories of miracles and natural processes. This shift in thinking avoids building into our terminology from the outset the common assumption that God is involved in one set of events and not the other. It helps students to see how our categories and assumptions can make it either easier or harder to think about the relationship between faith and science.

Goals

Students will understand the difference between the popular view of divine action as consisting only or mainly of miraculous interventions and the Bible’s view of God’s involvement in natural processes.

Students will understand the relative merits of contrasting miraculous divine action versus natural processes and visible versus hidden divine action.

Thinking Ahead

This activity engages students in categorizing some biblical passages in ways that may challenge their habits of thought. As preparation for this activity, think about your own habitual choice of words when describing natural processes and your verbal practices as you talk about science and faith.

Does your language imply a closed world of “nature” in which things proceed deterministically or by chance, balanced by occasional “supernatural” events in which God is active? Does the way you talk about the natural world leave room for the possibility that God is involved in sustaining the creation even when we can scientifically explain how things work? Might there be a way for the everyday workings of creation to participate in and reveal the glory of God? Does it help to make a distinction between God’s action as being hidden versus discernible, and God as involved versus uninvolved? Do we need to separate the question of how to explain an event from the question of whether God is involved? For example, we do not need to invoke God to describe how photosynthesis works, but we can ask whether or not photosynthesis participates in God’s purposes.

Teaching FASTly involves intentional consideration of how our teaching practices invite or inhibit reflection on the relationship between faith and science, and between creation and the Creator. Consider what assumptions your students may bring to this activity, and ways in which they might struggle with the ideas. For example they may find it hard to separate God being hidden from God being absent. Avoid debating these points with students. Counsel patience and give them time to process the new ideas.

Related Book Review: Song of a Scientist by Calvin B. DeWitt.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Bibles

  • Technology to project Bible passages onto a screen or wall

Directions:

Be ready to display the following biblical passages which are listed in order by Bible reference. See Miracles versus Natural Processes. It will be useful to have Bibles on hand.

  • Abraham’s servant finding a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:10-21 selections)
  • Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph’s release from prison (Genesis 39:20-41:40 selections)
  • The immune system fighting off disease (Psalm 103:2-3)
  • The development of a baby in the womb (Psalm 139:13)
  • The water cycle producing rain (Psalm 147:8; Jeremiah 14:22)
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:19-28 selections)
  • Jesus healing blind people (Matthew 20:29-34)
  • Jesus and Peter walking on water (Matthew 14:25-33)
  • Jesus and the large catch of fish (John 21:3-6)
  • Paul surviving a viper bite (Acts 28:1-6); Inform students that venomous snakes sometimes give “dry bites,” which do not release venom.

Teaching the Activity

First, explain to students that they are going to read extracts from various Bible passages for an overview of how the Bible presents God’s action in the world. This is important background for thinking about how God is related to the natural processes described by science. Then ask students to silently read each passage and decide for each whether they think the Bible says God is responsible for the events described. When the passages have been read, ask how many of the activities are presented in the Bible as examples of God’s agency. After taking suggestions tell students that the Bible gives God credit for every event on the list even though they do not feel the same. How do the events differ?

Tell students that they are going to make distinctions in the list in a different way, based not on which events God did, but on whether God’s agency is obvious or hidden. Have students work in pairs or small groups to arrange the items on the list in order from those in which God makes himself most obvious to those in which God remains more hidden behind familiar, stable processes. If students need clarification, model the decision-making process using contrasting examples from the list, for example, seeing rain fall versus seeing someone walk on water. Which of these draws attention to God’s agency? After a few minutes, have groups compare their lists with one another. Some variation is normal.

As a brief way of drawing the class’s findings together it may be helpful to create three columns on the board under the overall heading “God’s Actions in Nature.” Label the first column, “God Is Most Obvious,” the second, “In-Between,” and the third, “God Is Most Hidden.” Have each group suggest one clear example for any column until you have two examples in each column. Gather the examples quickly without much discussion.

Ask the class which of the examples should be called miracles and let students discuss this briefly. Point out the tension between wanting to label things that God does as miracles yet acknowledging that God is involved in ordinary processes. Similarly, ask which examples are natural processes, and discuss whether a miracle would stop being a miracle if we could show that God made use of some natural process to bring it about. The goal here is to help students see that Christian thought does not view God as only involved when the rules of nature appear to be broken, as if God is intervening occasionally but is otherwise absent. Rather, miracles are startling reminders that God is always in control of nature, a fact we easily take for granted. At the end of this exercise, if it has not been added to the list, ask the students to consider if God is most hidden or most revealed on the cross? Why? 

As a final prompt for small group discussion or individual journaling ask, “If God is involved in everything that happens in his creation, even when he is hidden, should we use the word miracle at all? If no, why? If yes, how?”

Regularity in Nature: Boring or Blessing?

In Brief

This brief, repeated activity seeks to engage students in thinking about how the regularity of natural processes reflects God’s consistent, gracious governance of creation rather than God’s absence. It offers a way of seeing natural processes as signs of faithful care that make space for creatures to participate in the life of God. The activity can also introduce or reinforce the concept of inertia.

Goals

Students are introduced to or review the concept of inertia.

Students reflect on God’s role in predictable natural processes.

Thinking Ahead

This activity is so simple it needs to be done with a sense of humor. It works best if the teacher is willing to be considered silly. If this is uncomfortable for you, consider finding a student who would enjoy the opportunity to do the demonstration each day. Once students understand the demonstration, this activity requires only a few minutes each day for the next several days. While the demonstration is lighthearted and brief, consider how it helps frame the science class as a place where practices include reflecting on how faith and science connect to reveal the glory of God. This is key to teaching FASTly.

If students have not already studied inertia, this demonstration can introduce the concept. In this case, the first time the demo is done should be for that purpose alone. Help students to understand that the coin’s mass resists acceleration and that this is called the coin’s inertia. An unbalanced force on the coin is required to overcome inertia and make the coin move sideways from rest. When the card is flicked out from under the coin, the unbalanced frictional force between the smooth coin and the smooth card is too weak to accelerate the coin as quickly as the card, so the card flies off alone and the coin drops into the cup. The coin will accelerate ever so slightly in the direction the card goes, but probably not enough to notice.

Related Book Review: Song of a Scientist by Calvin B. DeWitt.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • A clear plastic cup that is heavy enough to not tip over easily

  • A coin

  • 3×5 inch card

Directions:

Place the 3×5 card flat over the cup’s mouth and place the coin on the card, centered over the cup.

If students have studied inertia but not seen the demonstration, do it once and then explain, or have students explain it, before repeating it at the beginning of the next class. After students understand the demonstration, have it set up when they enter class each day.

Teaching the Activity

When you are sure students are watching, but without comment, flick the card out from under the coin. Do this several times in a row, looking as if you are waiting for something new to happen. When someone asks what you are doing, or after several repetitions, comment that you are wondering if God might make it work differently one time if you keep trying. He could, couldn’t he? He made and sustains inertia. Couldn’t he mix it up once and do something different? Maybe have the coin hang in the air, or shoot off sideways, or rise, or…? At this point, students might be rolling their eyes, but you will have invited a thought: Is God involved when things operate normally?

Do this for a day or two, quickly and without fanfare: “Hmmm. Same thing today. Ah, well.” Have fun and the class will as well. Be brief and it will not distract from the business at hand each day. After two or three days, raise a new question: “If God loves us, why won’t he give us a little treat and make the coin do something odd?” Just raise the question; don’t go further unless the class does. Even if the class picks up on the question, be brief. Let the question linger.

The day after you raise this question, add after the demo: “I wonder if nature’s regularity, the way God makes it operate so consistently 99.99999% of the time, reflects his love? Would we be in trouble if nature were not predictable? Would we be able to participate in God’s life meaningfully if the rules of the game changed every day? Why or why not?Again, it is effective to let the question linger unless the class dives in. If the class wants to discuss it and you have time, see the ideas below.

After the demonstration the next day, or perhaps over a couple of days, it is time to ask, “What are some ways we would have trouble if things like gravity or Newton’s laws of motion were unpredictable from minute-to-minute or place-to-place?” Suggest examples such as, what if backpacks weighed 5 pounds in the classroom and suddenly rose to 500 pounds while going down steps, or if heads and torsos suddenly accelerated very differently while they were jumping off a diving board, or if gravity suddenly stopped working when outside in a thunderstorm, or if the plastic and rubber on electrical plugs insulated one moment and conducted the next?

Make the question more general: What would it be like to try to do science in a world governed by capricious, unpredictable gods like those of the ancient Greeks and Romans? Might the lack of novelty in how God operates his creation, and the rarity of those dramatic events we call miracles, be evidence of God’s loving and steadfast care rather than his absence or indifference? Point students to a few key Scriptures describing God’s faithfulness, such as Psalm 100, Psalm 111, Psalm 136, John 3:16, and Hebrews 10:19-15. This conversation need not take long each day to be memorable.

After a few days, the demonstration will start to wear thin and its point will have been made. Give it enough time to make a clear impression and then stop.

Delve Activities

Delve activities promote more extended learning. This is where the main substance of the lesson unfolds.

  • Activity

    30 min

    Inertia—The Only Way to Travel to the Moon

  • Activity

    30 min

    F = ma—Do Mathematical Rules Leave God “Unemployed”?

  • Activity

    40 min

    Action-Reaction—You Cannot Walk Without It

Inertia—The Only Way to Travel to the Moon

In Brief

This activity introduces Newton’s first law of motion, inertia, and connects it with the question of whether God is only active when miracles happen. It goes a step further to ask whether it is a sign of faith or a lack of humility to conclude too quickly that an apparent breach of a law of physics is a miracle.

Goals

Students will understand the concept of inertia and that it is the subject of Newton’s first law of motion.

Students will understand why an unexpected result does not immediately imply divine intervention.

Students will reflect on God’s role in predictable natural processes.

Thinking Ahead

This activity engages students in hands-on learning that helps them to see how theological and philosophical questions connect to the investigation of concrete phenomena. Consider how this activity models the relationship of faith questions to the practice of science. Do our classroom practices suggest to students that such theological and philosophical questions are abstractions added outside of learning science itself, or do they help students to see how faith questions can arise from within the practice of scientific inquiry? Teaching FASTly involves discovering how faith and science can be intertwined in a joint quest to participate in and declare God’s glory and not simply two separate sets of answers to life’s questions.

Before doing this activity, it will be helpful to review the file Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective as part of your preparation.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • A soft lightweight ball such as a tennis ball

  • Safety glasses

  • Meter sticks

  • Two identical smooth blocks of wood or two weighted tissue boxes

  • Fuzzy fabric or Velcro and some form of adhesive

Directions:

Stick fuzzy fabric or Velcro to the bottom of one of the blocks of wood or weighted tissue boxes.

In preparation for the demonstration, practice tossing the ball straight up from waist height as you walk across the room talking. The ball should come back down into your hand without you reaching forward to catch it and should not hit your body. This is more difficult than it sounds and practice helps.

As students enter have this written on the board or projected: “Guess how much fuel the Apollo missions used to travel the distance to and from the moon, a distance of about 500,000 miles.”

Teaching the Activity

Draw students’ attention to the question on the board, but do not yet fully explain the answer. Telling them, “This is a trick question! None! ” will hold their interest.

When astronaut William A. Anders was asked who was driving the Apollo 8 module on its way back from the moon the day after Christmas in 1968, he replied, “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.” Read this quotation to the class and tell students that today they will find out what he meant. Then use the following ball-tossing demonstration.

Walk back and forth across the room, tossing the ball and catching it as you walk. After a pass or two, ask, “Why is the ball not hitting me in the face? Once I toss it up, shouldn’t I walk into it?”

Let students share ideas. They may accuse you of tossing it forward, so stop and toss it a few times to show that you are tossing it straight up. You can also demonstrate that it will hit you in the face if you stand still, toss it up, and step forward while it is in flight.

Eventually encourage students to watch only the ball and not you as you toss it while walking. Instruct them to see the path the ball traces against the background of the wall. They will notice that it is not going straight up and down but following a parabolic path, even though you are tossing it straight up. You can make this clear by tossing it up as you walk with it, then stopping while it is in upward flight. It will come down ahead of you.

If students have not done so already, explain that the ball has two motions: your toss upward and also the motion it has by being carried in your hand as you walk. Once it leaves your hand, you are not pushing it forward any more but it keeps that motion. Write “Newton’s first law of motion: Inertia” on the board and explain the principle. For your own reference see Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective. Point out that this is one of many mathematical rules describing the patterns God makes nature obey and is especially obvious when things move in outer space. To check your students’ understanding, ask how a baseball thrown in outer space, far from any planet or star, will move. If gravitational pull from other objects is negligible, it will fly away at the same speed and in a straight line forever.

Next conduct the following sliding activity. Have students wear eye protection in case a ball hits someone in the face. Give each group of 2-3 students a pair of wooden blocks or weighted tissue boxes, one smooth underneath and one rough or fuzzy, with fabric or Velcro stuck to the bottom. Make both items as similar in size and mass as possible. Have students slide both objects at equal speed across a lab table or tile floor, comparing how far each one goes. If time permits, have students measure and record the distance each travels.

Have students experiment to see how they need to slide the objects to have them stop at the same distance. Ask them to consider if they could get both objects to stop at the same distance and at the same time if they are launched together. Let them figure this out. To go the same distance, they must be pushed with different speeds, which means their times must be different because speed = distance / time.

Conclude by gathering students as a whole class and discussing these questions:

  • When an object stopped sliding, did God stop the object? (The answer would be “No” if we think in terms of miraculous intervention, but “Yes” in terms of God’s sovereignty over natural processes.) See Activity 2: Natural Processes as God’s Tools
  • Why does it seem as if the objects were not obeying Newton’s first law? Did God intervene and change the rules? (The answer would be “No”. Newton’s second law will explain this further. For now, it is enough to note that something else—friction—is affecting them in addition to inertia.)
  • If we encounter an event that seems to violate nature’s rules and assume God is intervening with miracles rather than governing through natural processes, we might instinctively think of that as a sign of having faith. In what way could it also show a lack of humility? For example, pride could make a person more confident than knowledge allows, leading to the claim that the event could only be accounted for in terms of a miracle. Would it diminish the place of faith if it turned out that God were governing his creation through natural processes we do not yet understand? What are some possible examples?
  • Based on the difference between the smooth and rough objects, how might a perfectly smooth object on a perfectly smooth surface with no friction behave? The answer is it would slide forever.
  • Return to the question about fuel for a moon trip, and why fuel is not being used in transit. You may like to share the story of how the crew of Apollo 8, the first people to orbit the moon, celebrated Christmas Eve 1968 by reading from Genesis.   

F = ma—Do Mathematical Rules Leave God “Unemployed”?

In Brief

Newton believed that the mathematical patterns he saw in nature showed God’s greatness, but atheists later claimed those patterns made God unnecessary. This activity introduces Newton’s second law of motion, F = ma, and asks students to consider whether mathematical explanations for natural phenomena render God unnecessary.

Goals

Students will understand Newton’s second law of motion.

Students will reflect on how divine action relates to natural processes.

Thinking Ahead

Before doing this activity review the attachment, Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective.

It is possible to see science’s ability to articulate the laws of motion and to explain the mechanics of the universe with mathematical precision in differing ways, depending on the kind of faith we bring to the scientific findings. If we believe the universe to be empty of divine presence or action or if we see God as only involved in the inexplicable, then we will assume that increasing scientific precision in describing how the universe works renders God ever more distant, unemployed, or even non-existent. Newton, however, drew a different conclusion and saw the mathematical patterns of the universe as indications of God’s genius and provision for us.

Consider how your students are used to seeing the relationship between scientific and mathematical description and God’s presence in the universe. What assumptions do you need to help them articulate so they can begin to examine their ideas? What kind of view is encouraged by your own classroom practices, including the words you use to describe the laws of physics and the degree to which you seek to engage students’ underlying assumptions? How can you engage students in examining the assumptions that we bring to scientific findings as we weigh their meaning? Teaching FASTly involves not just conveying scientific or theological information, but engaging learners as whole selves in thinking well about how we connect faith and science and the kind of persons we are becoming as we study the world.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Safety glasses

  • A ramp (such as an open book cover) for each group

  • Three balls of approximately the same size but with very different masses (such as a golf ball, ping-pong ball, and large steel ball bearing, or a tennis ball, hard baseball, and light hollow plastic play ball) for each group

Teaching the Activity

Ask the class to imagine a universe in which nothing could change its motion. Do not spend a lot of time on this, but make the point that inertia is a great thing only if it can be overcome when necessary. Fortunately, God allows motion to be FORCED to change.

Write a fraction on the board, such as 1/2, and ask what happens to the fraction’s value if the numerator doubles. Does the fraction get bigger or smaller? Do the same with the denominator. Now say, “Newton’s second law of motion tells how inertia is overcome so objects can change their motion. The rule is a fraction.” Write on the board: NEWTON’S SECOND LAW: a = F/m.

Introduce the variables and briefly make the point that more force on an object results in greater acceleration, and more mass in the object results in less acceleration. Do not spend too much time on this, but move on to the ball rolling activity to develop the ideas.

Have students wear eye protection in case a ball hits someone in the face. Have each group roll the medium-mass ball down the ramp to hit each of the two target balls in turn, the high-mass ball and low-mass ball. Each time, the medium-mass ball should be rolled from rest, from the same height on the ramp, and with the ramp at the same angle. These are ways of controlling the force with which the medium-mass ball hits the target balls. Groups are to observe and record how the target balls, with different masses, respond differently to the same force from the rolled ball. They will find the higher mass resists motion change more than the lower mass does.

As a whole class, fit these observations into what was said earlier about the equation a = F/m: greater force on an object causes greater acceleration and greater mass of an object reduces its acceleration.

You can assess your students’ understanding of Newton’s second law of motion using your usual means. To check on how students are thinking about divine action and natural processes, ask the students to respond to one or more of the questions below as either a final discussion, journal prompt, or homework assignment. If you are using multiple activities from this map, vary the final activity to avoid too much repetition.

  • Some people see mathematical explanations for why things work the way they do as removing the need to invoke God. Newton saw the same explanations as showing God’s genius and provision. What do you think and why?
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in God’s Grandeur, 1918, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Does the mathematical regularity of the universe make it easier or more difficult for you to see God’s glory in it? Why?
  • What life practices lead someone to recognize that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God”?  What kinds of life practices might make this harder?

Knowing how God does things in nature by using processes we can study, might make his existence or agency less obvious, but it does not automatically make him less necessary for explaining what is there.

Action-Reaction—You Cannot Walk Without It

In Brief

This activity introduces Newton’s third law of motion, action – reaction, and considers how this law shows God’s care. It engages students in learning through examples and encourages them to see this law as related both to everyday experience and to God’s care for the universe.

Thinking Ahead

This activity will engage students in learning through examples. This is a familiar way of helping students understand how abstract scientific formulations relate to the behavior of the world around them and grasp the principles themselves more clearly. Consider how this activity can also help students think differently about how faith questions intersect with science.

Theological ideas about God’s action in sustaining the world can seem abstract and distant from everyday experience. If these ideas are connected with tactile demonstrations, their concrete relevance may be more evident and students may come to see God’s providence as intimately related to everyday processes. Using practical demonstrations makes both the physics and the connected theological understanding less abstract. Teaching FASTly is not about leaving science behind for theological debate, but about exploring their connections.

Before doing this activity review the attachment, Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • A tennis ball

Optional:

Two skateboards and safety helmets, or an office chair with a seat that spins, a spring scale, and a hanging mass.

Teaching the Activity

Write or project on the board: “Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Bounce the tennis ball and ask, “Using what you know about Newton’s first two laws of motion and what you see on the board, explain why the ball bounces.” Be patient. This can take a long time as students try to explain it using faulty assumptions they have had since childhood, now mixed with bits and pieces of Newton’s laws. Once the students seem to have the idea that the floor must be hitting the ball in the opposite direction to its initial motion, do the demonstrations and ask the questions below. In each case, have students write what happened and why in their journal or on a question and answer sheet.

  • Have two student volunteers wearing safety helmets stand on skateboards on a tile floor. Have one push off carefully against the rigidly outstretched hands of the other. Do not let both students push at once because that would obscure the point that one push makes both move. Why did both students move even though only one pushed? (The answer is that you cannot push without being pushed back.) If one student is much larger than the other, the smaller one will move more. Why? (Both experienced the same force but the student with less mass and thus less inertia accelerates more.) Did God make both students move? (The answer is “No” if we see God’s agency only in terms of miraculous intervention, but “Yes” if we believe that Newton’s third law is one aspect of the predictable way God makes the universe behave so that we can interact with it meaningfully.) See Activity 2: Natural Processes as God’s Tools.
  • Have a student sitting in a swivel chair push against the wall or a heavy desk. The student will spin the other way. Why? (You cannot push without being pushed back.)
  • Hang a stationary mass from a spring scale. How hard is the mass pulling down on the scale? (It would be equal to the mass’s weight.) How hard is the scale pulling up on the mass? (The same amount.) Which pull is the scale showing? (The one on it, not from it.) Why are the two pulls equal? (Action-reaction.)
  • How is it possible to pick up a heavy object if it pulls back on you equally hard? Lift any heavy object in the room as you ask this. Students enjoy this question but it can take a while for some classes to realize that it is only the pull on the object that affects its motion; its pull on you affects your arm but not it. Did God help you pick up the object? (“No,” if we think in terms of miraculous intervention. “Yes.” if we think in terms of God sustaining the regularities of the universe. “Both,” if we think in terms of God providing a regular and predictable creation in which we are free to live and express our will through action).
  • Does Earth’s gravity pull on you or do you pull on the Earth? (
    “Both,” equally hard.) Expect this question to puzzle students at first. Gravitation is a mutual attraction but we tend to ignore the smaller object’s role when the mass difference is as large as it is between a person and a planet.
  • Why might you break your hand punching a wall? (Its solidity allows you to hit it with force, and it hits you back equally hard. Given its composition, your hand might break before the wall does.)
  • Why is it impossible to break your hand punching a tissue paper held in the air? (It moves out of the way or tears before you can push with much force, and it can only push back with equal force. This is also why you cannot hurt your hand hitting air but might sting it slapping water.)
  • How is the third law involved when you swim? (We push the water backward and it pushes us forward.)
  • When we walk, don’t we push off the ground to move forward? Does this require the third law? (What moves us forward when we walk is not our feet pushing the ground. The ground pushing us back propels us forward; this is the force on us—not from us—that changes our motion.) This example, especially, can bring home how important Newton’s third law is to us every day and how we can see it as part of God’s provision for us.

As a final discussion, journal prompt, or homework assignment, ask the students to respond to the questions below. If you are using multiple activities from this map, vary the final activity to avoid too much repetition.

  • If a person’s paychecks appear automatically in their bank account every week without fail by direct deposit, does that mean that this person’s employer or the work done by the person are no longer necessary? Is that a fair analogy for thinking about God’s role in sustaining a mathematically predictable universe? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of another example of something that happens with mathematically predictable regularity but not “on its own,” that is, it has a known cause that is needed for it to continue?
  • Colossians 1:15–17 says of Christ: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for all things in heaven and on earth were created in him—all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers—all things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.” (NET) How is this relevant to thinking about Newton’s laws of motion?

Debrief Activities

Debrief activities bring the sequence of the study to a thoughtful close by helping students reflect on how they have been invited to see science and faith anew.

  • Activity

    HW + 30 minHomework

    Building a Balloon-Powered Vehicle

  • Activity

    25 min

    The Challenges of Surgery on the Space Station

  • Activity

    15 min

    Breaking the “Laws” of Nature

  • Activity

    10 min

    Miracle Survey Revisited

Building a Balloon-Powered Vehicle

In Brief

This activity draws together more than one dimension of teaching FASTly by asking students to consider the relationship of faith to both scientific ideas and collaborative practice as they learn. The activity requires collaboration among students as they apply their knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion to build a balloon-powered vehicle capable of traveling at least 20 feet. Some have gone as far as 100 feet.

Goals

Students will be able to explain how what they have learned about Newton’s laws of motion relates to their design and testing of a model vehicle.

Students will be able to articulate similarities and differences between moral and physical laws and will reflect on how both relate to divine agency.

Thinking Ahead

The group activity engages students in collaborative learning and in reflection on the meaning of their collaboration. It asks students to think about the bigger context of the practices in which they engage. It draws on a variety of strengths and provides an opportunity for students who are spatial thinkers, designers, and good with their hands to shine in the classroom.

The closing piece of writing invites students to think about the connections between the physical order of the world and its moral order. You may wish to discuss this briefly with the students before assigning the paper. Consider the questions first yourself. Christian theology sees God as the author and sustainer of both physical and moral boundaries within which human life can flourish. Consider how this pushes against what has been referred to by Christian Smith as “moral therapeutic deism,” the sense that God’s role is to comfort me and make me a better person, but that God has little involvement in the larger working of the world.

Thinking about God in terms of both moral and physical order helps students see God’s role in a bigger light. Yet the moral order seems to contain more leeway than the physical order. Our moral decisions may vary in different times and places. For example, loving my neighbor might require different actions on different occasions.  Also, we have more freedom to disobey moral norms than a falling object has to disobey gravity. What does this suggest about human beings and our relationship to the world?

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Two skewers and two straws per group

  • Plenty of balloons that are identical in size

  • Masking tape

  • One container with lid and four additional lids (for wheels) per group

  • Tools to be shared (see Directions below)

  • Safety glasses

Directions:

  • Divide the class into groups of four or five; groups of two are too small for this activity.
  • Make a copy for each student of the three-page handout: Balloon Vehicle Project.
  • On the day of the activity, provide (or have each group of students bring) its own container (with a lid) and four additional plastic lids for wheels.
  • Have a few tools on hand that students might want to use in assembling their vehicles, including pliers, hammer and nail, and/or a drill to punch holes in the plastic lids, and safety glasses.

Teaching the Activity

Separate the students into groups and distribute the handouts.

Challenge each group to build a balloon-powered car capable of traveling at least 20 feet using only the following materials: one small container with lid as a vehicle, four additional lids for wheels, two skewers, two straws, one balloon, and one meter of masking tape.

Drawing on their knowledge of Newton’s three laws of motion, have each group of students work to design, test, redesign, and retest their vehicle.

Following the testing day when each group demonstrates how far its vehicle can travel, each student is to write a paper reflecting on the following two questions. Remind them to consult the grading rubric in the handout.

  • How did each of Newton’s laws of motion relate to your vehicle design and how your vehicle performed?
  • As you worked together as a group, it is hoped that you treated one another well by drawing on each person’s contribution and respecting each member of the group. In other words you worked within both a moral framework (a set of norms about how to treat one another) and a physical framework (a set of rules governing how objects behave, including Newton’s laws of motion). Is God involved in one, both, or neither of these frameworks? If both, is God involved in the same way? What sort of consequences, hidden or visible, might have been incurred if you refused to work together? 

Follow this task with a short debriefing discussion in class.

The Challenges of Surgery on the Space Station

In Brief

This short activity asks students to apply what they know about Newton’s laws of motion to the problem of doing surgery in space and to revisit the idea of natural order as a gracious gift that allows us to participate and act meaningfully in God’s world.

Goals

Students will apply their understanding of Newton’s laws of motion in a new context.

Students will reflect on the relationship between natural processes and God’s care.

Thinking Ahead

This activity assumes students have studied Newton’s laws of motion and serves as an application step to reinforce that learning. It also assumes students are familiar with the ideas introduced in Activity 4: Regularity in Nature.

This is a review activity and the number and sophistication of the groups’ ideas are less important than the intellectual processing of Newton’s laws of motion and how they affect our ability to carry out our activities. Leave room in the discussion for a sense of weirdness and wonder; the universe is often more strange than we imagine.

This activity uses practical strategies such as storytelling, grouping, and changed lighting to encourage students to imagine and make connections. Creative connections are at the heart of teaching FASTly. This activity prepares the way for briefly revisiting the question of whether, and why, we are able to see physical order as a gift and a sign of divine presence. Even patterns of divine action that we call natural laws are merely summaries of what those of us who believe perceive to be God’s everyday sustaining of nature. Newton’s laws themselves, as useful as they are, are incomplete. For more on this, see Activity 10: Breaking the Laws of Nature and the conclusion section of the file Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • Story of surgery on the space station given below

Directions:

Divide the class into groups of four or five; groups of two are too small for this activity. Lower the classroom lights to simulate the dark of space and create an expectation of something new.

Teaching the Activity

With lights dimmed, sit near the students (rather than standing in front of them) and tell a story: “Imagine you are on a year-long mission in the International Space Station. Even in an emergency, you and your fellow crew members cannot return to Earth for days or weeks. Suddenly one of the crew members develops severe abdominal pain. The only crew member with medical training, a paramedic, consults with doctors on the ground and diagnoses the problem as acute appendicitis. Immediate surgery is necessary; waiting to return to Earth is not safe. The paramedic must perform the surgery with help from other crew members and a doctor on Earth who will watch a video feed.”

Briefly remind the groups of what they know about Newton’s laws of motion within a box in space: moving objects, including globs of liquid, will keep drifting in a straight line. The only thing that will change this motion is a push or pull from outside. In a box this usually means hitting something. Every push or pull results in an equally strong push or pull back. These effects stem from the environment of microgravity. As you mention these, remind students of the key terms: inertia, F = ma, and action-reaction.

Each group’s task is to think of as many ways as possible that this surgery is going to be different in space, in an environment of microgravity, than it would be on Earth, and what might need to be done to adjust. Allow at least ten minutes for groups to work, then combine groups and have them share their ideas with another group, adding each other’s ideas to their list.

Circulate through the classroom to remind each group to think about the meaning and relevance of each of the three laws and to assess their understanding. Their lists might include predictions such as: blood will flow from severed blood vessels into the air; random movements of or by the patient might cause an unrestrained arm or leg to drift upward and bump the surgeon, pulling or pushing on the patient to cut or move tissue will cause the surgeon to drift in the opposite direction.

After groups have had time to consider the implications of all three laws, allow a short time for them to share their favorite predictions with the rest of the class. As a conclusion, remind students that Newton’s laws operated in this scenario, just with different results than one expects on Earth. They knew application of the rules would change in space, but they assumed the rules themselves would exist. Ask, “Would this surgery be possible in space, or anywhere else, if nature followed no rules?” How does thinking about this scenario help us see how the laws of motion can be seen as a gift and a sign of God’s care rather than God’s absence? Why do some people understand the rules in this way and others do not? What is the role of worship and Scripture in learning to see the laws of nature as a sign of God’s care?

Optional Extra

Have students search online for articles about surgery in space, including research being done to develop a small robot that could enter the body and do emergency surgery from within.

Breaking the “Laws” of Nature

In Brief

The word “law” implies a rule that cannot be broken. What do we mean when we refer to a pattern in nature, such as inertia, as a law? How should we understand these patterns in light of God’s rule over his creation?

Goals

Students will reflect on the implications of speaking of scientific “laws” and on how they relate to divine agency.

Thinking Ahead

Before doing this activity review the file Newton’s Laws of Motion: An Overview and Christian Perspective as part of your preparation.

Related Book Review: Song of a Scientist by Calvin B. DeWitt.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

  • 48 half sheets of colored paper (16 each of three different colors)

  • Three small cards with different instructions that involve numbers, such as “Give one paper to any person wearing a small amount of red and two papers to anyone wearing a lot of red,” “Put two papers on each empty desk,” “Give a paper to every other person in each row.”

Directions:

Select three student volunteers and give each volunteer an instruction card and 16 sheets of one color of paper.

Teaching the Activity

When the volunteers are ready, tell the class, “Each volunteer has been told to do something different with their paper. See if you can figure out what it is.” Once the papers are distributed, take guesses as to what the instructions were. Once the instructions have been guessed, discuss these questions, using them to check students’ understanding:

  • Once you knew the instructions, each volunteer’s behavior was predictable. You saw no exceptions to the patterns. How could there have been an exception, even if each volunteer obeyed the instructions completely? Let students wrestle with this. As soon as someone thinks beyond the written instructions and realizes the teacher could have whispered new instructions to a volunteer, the solution is easy.
  • Scientists use the term law, as in Newton’s laws of motion, for mathematical relationships that have been observed to be true over and over. They are predictable, like the patterns our volunteers exhibited. How is this different from the way we use the word “law” when we talk about federal laws?
  • Does it follow necessarily from the predictability of scientific laws that events that do not conform to Newton’s laws are impossible? How? (No. God will do what he must to love, care for, and bring to fulfillment his creation.) Ask the class to think of an example. The resurrection is the paradigmatic example that all other miracles point toward. Consult the activity map that focuses on the resurrection and consider coordinating your teaching of themes from this activity map with work in Bible class on resurrection. The fact that God so rarely diverges from his normal patterns is a sign of his love and care for us, allowing us to meaningfully participate in his creation. See Activity 4: Regularity in Nature.
  • Does using the term law of nature imply the existence of a lawgiver? Do natural laws lead one to ask where they come from?
  • If God freely allows nature to follow the patterns we call laws of nature, but occasionally allows nature to operate differently, should we still call these normal patterns laws or do we need a better word? If so, what would be an alternative word?
  • How would you respond to someone who said, “If God does miracles, scientific study and prediction are a waste of time. Either science works and miracles do not happen, or miracles happen and science is impossible because anything could happen at any time!” This is a difficult question and more appropriate for older students. Another way to frame the question is, “In what way are Newton’s laws of motion a gift to us, even if they are not rules that can never be violated?” How might the law of love give us a frame for understanding God’s actions through natural processes? It is important to take into account ideas explored in Activity 4: Regularity in Nature.

Miracle Survey Revisited

In Brief

This is a follow-up to Activity 1: Miracle Survey. It uses a repeat of the survey from that activity to gather information on how students see divine action and natural processes differently after the intervening activities and also to engage them in reflection on what they have learned. It also focuses on the implications of changes in their views on students’ relationships and on how to communicate new learning graciously. 

Thinking Ahead

This activity allows both you and your students to see how their assumptions have shifted over the course of this activity map. It also explicitly places these changes in the context of the students’ wider relationships, allowing students to reflect on how they can graciously communicate new learning to their family members, creating an opportunity for the work done in class to serve as an educational resource for your wider school community.

Do you usually consider students’ wider relationships as their understanding of faith and science changes? Why or why not? As you prepare to discuss with students how to communicate their new learning graciously to others, consider how your own classroom practices help provide a model. What specific behaviors in your own teaching serve to communicate new ideas without belittling students or focusing on your own expertise at their expense? Teaching FASTly brings to light the connections between what we know, who we are, and how we live with one another.

Preparing the Activity

Needed:

Directions:

The handout provided contains two copies of the survey on one page to be cut in half.

Teaching the Activity

Give each student one copy of the Miracle Survey to complete in class. Once students have completed it, hand out their pre-surveys from Activity 1: Miracle Survey at the beginning of this activity map. Ask them to compare their answers to see if anything has changed.

Allow time for students to discuss, either in small groups or as a class, what changes they see and what has surprised them. How do they view God’s involvement in a rainstorm differently now than at the beginning of the activity map?

Hand out the parent/family member surveys that were completed at the beginning of this activity map. Discuss with students whether any changes in their own understanding leave them with an understanding at odds with that of the parent/family member they interviewed. How will they approach this difference? Is there anything they have learned that could help someone else’s faith or understanding if they were to share it?

Consider explicitly: How could they share their new understanding without communicating pride or condescension? Urge students to articulate specific behaviors that could signal the difference between constructive engagement and creating distance through insensitivity. This will be most useful if students can articulate what is needed, rather than having you admonish them. Consider asking students to choose one item from the survey to discuss with their parent/family member and have them report back on the discussion the next day.

Collect the students’ surveys at the end of the discussion so you can see what changes took place and see what gains in understanding have, or have not, been made.