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Simple Harmonic Motion in a Spring-Mass System

Time Required Short (2-5 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues


Many things in nature are periodic: the seasons of the year, the phases of the moon, the vibration of a violin string, and the beating of the human heart. In each of these cases, the events occur in repeated cycles, or periods. In this project you will investigate the periodic motion of a spring, using a mini Slinky®. Basic physics will then allow you to determine the Hooke's Law spring constant. Your analysis will also yield the effective mass of the spring, a factor that is important in real-world engineering applications.


In this science fair project you will investigate the mathematical relationship between the period (the number of seconds per bounce) of a spring and the load (mass) carried by the spring. Based on the data you collect, you will be able to derive the spring constant, as described in Hooke's Law, as well as the effective mass of the spring.


David Whyte, PhD, Science Buddies

Slinky® is a registered trademark of Poof-Slinky, Inc.

Microsoft, Microsoft Excel is a U.S. registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Simple Harmonic Motion in a Spring-Mass System" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 10 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 July 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p064.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2013, January 10). Simple Harmonic Motion in a Spring-Mass System. Retrieved July 27, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p064.shtml

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Last edit date: 2013-01-10


This project requires very simple materials to explore the physics of periodic motion. All you need is a mini Slinky® and some weights, such as small fishing sinkers. The period of the Slinky is the time it takes to go through one down-and-up cycle when it is hung vertically from one end. The spring with the weight is a simple harmonic oscillator, which is a system that follows Hooke's law. Hooke's law states that when the simple harmonic oscillator is displaced from its equilibrium position, it experiences a restoring force, F, proportional to the displacement, x, where k is a positive constant:

Hooke's Law: F = -kx

Physics Science Project simple harmonic oscillator

As you add weights to the spring, the period (or cycle time) changes. In this project, you will determine how adding more mass to the spring changes the period, T, and then graph this data to determine the spring constant, k, and the equivalent mass, me, of the spring. The equation that relates period to mass, M, is shown below:

Physics Science Project equation 1

  • M is the load on the spring in kilograms (kg).
  • k is the spring constant in units of Newtons/meter (N/m).
  • T is the period in seconds (sec).

In an ideal spring-mass system, the load on the spring would just be the added weight. But real springs contribute some of their own weight to the load. That is why the Slinky bounces even when there is no weight added. So the equation can be modified to look like this:

Physics Science Project equation 2

In this equation, the total mass pulling down on the spring is actually comprised of two masses, the added weight, m, plus a fraction of the mass of the spring, which we will call the mass equivalent of the spring, me. Rearranging equation 2, will give you the form of the equation you will use later for graphing, so:

Physics Science Project equation 3

Based on this equation, if you graph the added mass, m vs. Physics Science Project equation, you will be able to find the spring constant, k, and the mass equivalent, me, of the spring.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • Simple harmonic oscillator
  • Hooke's law
  • Simple harmonic motion
  • Physics of springs
  • Spring constant


  • How does adding mass change the period of a spring?


Materials and Equipment

To do this project, you will need the following materials and equipment:

  • Mini Slinky
  • Weights to hang from the spring. Here are some tips:
    • Fishing sinkers work well since they have holes in them for attaching to the spring. You could also use hex nuts, or AAA batteries attached to the wire with tape.
    • You will need five identical items to get a spread of data for the graph. The total weight should be around 35 g, or approximately 1 ounce.
    • Depending on the weights you choose, you might need fine wire or string to attach the weights to the spring.
  • A scale for measuring actual mass of weights used, accurate to +/- 1 gram. Use an electronic kitchen scale, a scale from your school lab, or a postal scale.
  • Stopwatch, or clock with a second hand
  • Lab notebook
  • Graph paper

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions above. Be sure to record your data in your lab notebook as you go along.
  2. Measure the mass of one of your weights, using the scale. If your scale does not measure small weights, you can weigh all five of your weights and divide by five. Then measure the mass of the spring.
  3. Perform the following steps to collect your data:
    1. Hold one end of the spring in your hand and let it bounce gently down and then back up.
    2. Count the number of cycles the spring makes in 60 sec with no weight hanging from it.
    3. Hang one weight from the spring (using a fine wire or string, if needed).
    4. Count the number of cycles the spring goes through in 60 sec with the weight attached.
    5. Perform at least three trials for each weight.
    6. Repeat steps c-e for a series of different weights.
  4. Keep track of your results in a data table like this one. Try using the program Microsoft Excel to make the tables and perform the calculations when you work through this project.

    Load (mass added to spring)
    Number of cycles per 60 sec Average
    Trial #1 Trial #2 Trial #3

  5. Make another table like the one below to convert your raw data into numbers that can be used to determine the spring constant and spring's effective mass.

    A B C D E
    Added mass (kg) Average # cycles in 60 sec
    f, the frequency, or cycles per second
    T, the period of spring, or the time for each cycle (sec) (sec 2)
    Convert to kilograms From the table above Divide "Average # cycles in 60 sec" in column B by 60 Reciprocal of cycles per second in column C (divide 1 by the numbers in column C) Multiply value in column D by itself and divide by 4(pi)2

  6. Make a graph with "Added mass," m, in kilograms, on the y-axis, and Physics Science Project equation, in sec2, on the x-axis. Use kilograms rather than grams so that the value of k is in units of N/m, which is equivalent to kg/sec2. Usually you are instructed to graph the independent variable (mass in this case) on the x-axis and the measured parameter (Physics Science Project equation) on the y-axis. You should ignore this rule in this project since graphing m on the y-axis will let you read me from the y-intercept.

    This graph of m vs. Physics Science Project equation has the same terms found in Equation 3:

    Physics Science Project equation 3

    Let's look at the equation. It has a form similar to the equation of a straight line: y = ax + b, where a is the slope and b is the y-intercept. In fact, Equation 3 is an equation for a straight line, with slope equal to k, the spring constant, and y-intercept equal to the negative value of me. In other words, there is a linear relationship between m and (Physics Science Project equation), so a graph of m vs. (Physics Science Project equation) will be a straight line with slope k and y-intercept -me. The reason you calculated Physics Science Project equation was to be able to read the values of k and me from the graph of m vs. Physics Science Project equation.

    Physics Science Project graph

    How do you determine the slope of the line you have drawn? The slope is measured as change in m, divided by the change in Physics Science Project equation, over the same range.

    slope = k = Δm/Δ(Physics Science Project equation)

    Δm/ Δ(Physics Science Project equation) can be read as "delta m over delta Physics Science Project equation ", with the Greek letter for delta, Δ, indicating "change of." Make another table like the one below to find the slope. Pick points that are near the ends of the graph, rather than adjacent points.

    Added mass (kg) (sec2) Δy (kg) Δx (sec2) Δy/ Δx
        Subtract one y value from another, larger y value Subtract one x value from another, larger x value This is the spring constant, k, in units of N/m (kg/sec2)

    Once you have determined the value of the spring constant, k, from the slope of the line, you're ready to determine the effective mass of the spring. To do this, extend the straight line until it intersects the vertical y-axis. The line will intersect the y-axis at -me (negative me). Based on theoretical considerations, the absolute value of me should be around one-third of the mass of the spring.

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