Petersen Automotive Museum

Author(s): Jim Schwagle
Field Trip - Teacher's Guide
SED 695B; Fall 2005

Click on Map for Larger pdf Version

Petersen Auto Museum Link


Topics addressed

  • Chemical Energy
  • Pollution
  • Los Angeles History
  • Momentum
  • Recycling
  • Mechanical Advantage
  • Levers
  • Angular Momentum
  • Kinetic & Potential Energy

Description of Field Trip

The Petersen Auto Museum is a museum dedicated to automobiles, automotive technology and the history of automobiles with an emphasis on its place in Los Angeles. The museum has three floors, two dedicated to automotive displays and a third housing the May Family Discovery Center. The Discovery Center houses many interactive displays allowing students to learn more of the technology and physics behind the automobile. If technology or science is the purpose of the visit, the museum can provide an overview of autos before the students go to the May Center. Here, hands on activities allow the student to learn about Energy, Momentum, Machines, Pollution and other technologies and scientific principles that underly the automobile.


H.S. Physics

2. The laws of conservation of energy and momentum provide a way to predict and describe the movement of objects. As a basis for understanding this concept:

  • a. Students know how to calculate kinetic energy by using the formula E=
  • b. Students know how to calculate changes in gravitational potential energy near Earth by using the formula (change in potential energy) =mgh (h is the change in the elevation).
  • c. Students know how to solve problems involving conservation of energy in simple systems, such as falling objects.
  • d. Students know how to calculate momentum as the product mv.
  • e. Students know momentum is a separately conserved quantity different from energy.
  • f. Students know an unbalanced force on an object produces a change in its momentum.
  • g. Students know how to solve problems involving elastic and inelastic collisions in one dimension by using the principles of conservation of momentum and energy.
  • h.* Students know how to solve problems involving conservation of energy in simple systems with various sources of potential energy, such as capacitors and springs.

3. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, although in many processes energy is transferred
to the environment as heat. As a basis for understanding this concept:

  • a. Students know heat flow and work are two forms of energy transfer between systems.
  • b. Students know that the work done by a heat engine that is working in a cycle is the difference between the heat flow into the engine at high temperature and the heat flow out at a lower temperature (first law of thermodynamics) and that this is an example of the law of conservation of energy.

The Pinebox Derby track is a good illustration of Potential to Kinetic Energy changes. Children can build their own car at the May Discovery center and race them.

A display of child seats and their changes through time display attempts to protect not only children but adults in a crash. This is a good illustration of impulse to more advanced students.

A container showing the recycled parts of an auto make a good topic for discussion.


Study Guide:



  • What parts of the typical automobile are recycled?
  • How does an auto reduce air friction?
  • What effect does air friction have on gasoline mileage?
  • What controls on a car can change the car's speed?
  • What controls on a car can change the car's velocity?
  • List the processes in which the chemical energy of the gasoline is transformed into kinetic energy of the auto.
  • List 5 levers used in a typical automobile.
  • What construction techniques or devices are used to reduce the effects of a crash on the occupants?
  • How does each increase the time factor in the impulse of a crash?


The May Discovery Center contains many hands on activities to illustrate scientific principles behind automotive technology.
A display of fuels and alternative fuels shows the benefits and drawbacks of each as well as illustrating how energy transfers are made possible through fuels.
Place additional photos here
A parabolically shaped surface is used to "donate" coins to the museum. Patrons place a coin on a small ramp and it circles the surface for long periods of time before finally falling through the hole in the center. Possible learning uses, gravity rubber sheets, math examples, friction, etc.
Students can see how a transmission works, illustrating the transfer of motion and energy through it.
A "racetrack"down which two wheels of identical mass and dimensions travel. The wheel with the mass more closely placed toward the center wins every time showing that in circular motion, total mass has no effect, it is its placement with regards to the axis of rotation, moment of inertia, that determines the acceleration of the wheel.

References & Links:

Petersen Auto Museum Automobile Club (AAA) California Highways & History
Ford Motor Company Short History of US Highways Automobile Recycling
General Motors


Daimler-Chrysler Automotive Technology Organizations