Hands-on Activity: Couch Potato or Inertia Victim?

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A woman at a computer doing research.
Students learn the importance of performing research
Copyright © U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics http://www.bls.gov/ooh/images/2032.jpg


Students design a simple behavioral survey, and learn basic protocol for primary research, survey design and report writing. Note: The literacy activities for the Mechanics unit are based on physical themes that have broad application to our experience in the world — concepts of rhythm, balance, spin, gravity, levity, inertia, momentum, friction, stress and tension.

Engineering Connection

For large-scale engineering projects that impact a lot of people, engineers conduct primary research. For example, building a new power plant or a dam can have positive and negative consequences on the surrounding environment, community and populations. Engineers strive to collect all the facts, opinions and points-of-view; then they analyze what they learned and report their findings. Understanding the problem helps engineers design a solution that best meets all the requirements.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Pre-Req Knowledge

General familiarity with Newton's laws of motion, inertia

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Undersand that, for large-scale engineering projects that impact a lot of people, engineers must conduct primary research
  • Learn basic protocol for primary research, survey design and report writing.
  • Incorporate source materials into their speaking and writing (for example, interviews, news articles, encyclopedia information)
  • Write and speak in the content areas using the technical vocabulary of the subject accurately

Materials List

  • paper, pencils and clipboards
  • access to the Internet


Are you a couch potato? Are you feeling the effects of inertia? Do you know anyone who is? You may have heard that behavioral researchers are finding that young people are watching more and more TV, and becoming less and less physically active. Researchers worry about the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on health.

In this activity, you will learn about how primary research is conducted. You will design a simple survey questionnaire and interview friends and acquaintances in your age group about how much time they spend in an average week watching TV and playing video games. You will also ask questions about their level of physical activity, including organized sports and free play. After you complete your interviews, you will tally your findings and analyze the results using simple percentages. Then you will write a report of your findings.


anonymous: Having an unknown or unacknowledged name: an anonymous survey respondent.

confidential: Given and kept secret as a matter of trust: confidential information.

confirm: To support or establish the certainty of. Verify: confirm the results of the research.

couch potato: A person who spends much time sitting or lying down, usually watching television.

inertia: The tendency of a body to resist acceleration; the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest or of a body in straight line motion to stay in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force. Resistance or disinclination to motion, action or change: the inertia of bureaucracy.

influence: A power affecting a person, thing or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort: the influence of television on modern life.

objective: Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic. Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: objective research.

primary research: Information collected by interview or questionnaire.

protocol: A code of correct conduct or proper method: a research protocol.

questionnaire: A form containing a set of questions as a way of gathering information for a survey.

respondent: One who responds.

sedentary: Characterized by or requiring much sitting: a sedentary job. Accustomed to sitting or to taking little exercise.

survey: A gathering of a sample of data or opinions considered to be representative of a whole.

tally: (noun) A mark used in recording a number of acts or objects, most often in series of five, consisting of four vertical lines canceled diagonally or horizontally by a fifth line; (verb) to reckon or count.

trend: The general direction in which something tends to move.


Technically, inertia is resistance to acceleration — a body at rest tends to remain at rest and a body in motion tends to remain in uniform motion unless acted on by an outside force. Colloquially, inertia is associated with the tendency of a body to remain at rest, namely, the human body: "I need to overcome my inertia and get back to work." "I've got a bad case of inertia today." Imagine a court of law where a lawyer is defending his client against a charge of laziness: "Your Honor, Mr. Slouchbottom is not a couch potato, he's an inertia victim!"

In a previous lesson (Mechanics unit, Lesson 3), students learned about the mechanics of inertia. In this literacy activity, they will think about the physical and psychological effects of a body at rest tending to remain at rest, specifically, the effects of a sedentary lifestyle centered on TV-watching, video game playing and snacking — the life of the career couch potato.

Recent research appears to demonstrate conclusively that excessive television viewing is linked to obesity because it encourages unhealthy snacking and discourages physical activity. That makes logical sense. But research conducted in Australia suggests that the picture may not be black and white. Viewing sports or other activities on television or playing activity-oriented video games appears to encourage physical activity in children (see the References section).

In this literacy activity, students conduct their own peer-group study to determine the degree to which watching TV and playing video games correlates with levels of physical activity. They learn the basics of research protocol, survey design and report writing. As an introduction, the project is kept simple. Only basic math is required to tally results, with no complex statistical analysis, just simple percentages. The research itself follows the basic approach of the Australian research, focusing on the relationship between TV watching and activity levels, and not on the question of obesity. Once students have completed their research, a positive class discussion can bring out the health implications of being physically active.

"The challenge for adults is not so much to stop kids from watching TV, but to channel this enthusiasm for play and fun into healthy, physical activity."

Source: see the attached Kids Say TV is Not the Enemy of Physical Activity Reading.


Have the students do some background reading to learn about research that has already been conducted. Some links to summaries of existing research are provided in the References section. What does most research on trends in TV viewing and video-game playing show in terms of the effect on physical activity? Also, look at the summary of a study completed in Australia that provides a contrasting view. The kids interviewed said television can motivate them to be active and try out a sport.

Stephanie Walker, age 11, is an example. She watches TV, but also plays three basketball games a week, swims once or twice a week and plays netball once a week. "I just tape something if I am going to be playing sport," she says. "I would be out of the house if I had to watch it more than that. I couldn't be away from the sport. I really love my sport...I think you can watch television and be a fit person." Source: TV Motivates Kids: Study Challenges Past Links to Childhood Obesity by Laura Anderson, Herald Sun Melbourne, December 10, 2003.

You are going to conduct a survey and see how your findings compare with the Australian research. You will see if your findings confirm or deny the other research. In that study, 200 kids aged 8-12 were interviewed. If possible, as a class project, try to interview at least 100 students in the same age group. If you have 20 students in your class, each of you will interview five students. Tip: 100 is a nice round number; it will be very easy to calculate percentages. But, if time does not permit, just interview your class members (approximately 25 interviews), or your class plus one other class (50 or so interviews).


Protocol — In doing research of this kind there is a certain "code of conduct" called a protocol — a way of doing things — that you should keep in mind. First, some professional terms:

The survey is the research project as a whole, as distinguished from the questionnaire, which is the formal set of questions you use to interview (question) a respondent, someone who responds to your questions. You will record the responses you receive, using a separate questionnaire for each respondent. When you are through with your interviews, you will make a tally of your results. Finally, you will analyze the results in terms of simple percentages and write a report of your findings.

  1. The first rule of any research is objectivity. To remain objective, you will need to keep your personal opinions and feelings to yourself. You should not influence the respondent. Simply ask the question and record the response.
  2. The second rule is confidentiality. If you want to use the name of your respondent, be sure to ask permission. Otherwise, assure your respondent that the results will be kept confidential.
  3. The third rule is accuracy. Be sure you record responses accurately and quote respondents accurately. They will be very upset if you do not, especially if you quote them.

Purpose of the Research — To develop appropriate questions, you need to keep your overall objective in mind. Your purpose is to determine what impact, if any, TV watching and video-game playing have on the physical activity levels of students in your age group. You are also going to ask students' opinions of whether TV viewing and video-game playing make them more or less interested in sports and other physical activities. Brainstorm possible questions.


Make the survey design and reporting a class project. Everyone can participate in brainstorming the questionnaire. Then, divide up the remaining tasks, assigning teams to type up the questionnaire, interview respondents, tally the results, analyze the results in terms of percentages and decide which quotes are most interesting to use in the report. The results should be discussed by the class as a whole and written up by the team of "analysts."

Prepare the Questionnaire and Conduct Interviews — Keep your questionnaire as simple as possible in order to get the basic information you need. Try to make your questionnaire no longer than 10 questions.

Generally there are two types of questions. Closed questions are answered with a simple "yes" or "no" response. They usually begin with a form of the verb "be," "do" or "have." "Do you watch TV?" is a closed question. Open-end questions are similar to journalist's questions. They usually begin with "who, "what," "when," "where," "how" and "why," and can lead to longer responses.

One way to control open-end questions is to limit possible responses to true/false or multiple choice. It is easier to tally responses for controlled-choice questions than for open-end questions. You will want to ask at least one open-ended question, though, to get a better sense of your respondent's opinion, for example the quote from Stephanie in the Australian research, as stated in the Observing section. Quoting from your respondents will also give life to your report.

Below are some example questions that would be appropriate to ask in this research project. These are just examples; you will want to come up with your own questions or versions of these. When conducting your interview, use a separate questionnaire sheet for each respondent. Circle the response for each question.

  1. On average, how many hours of TV do you watch per week? (If the respondent has trouble thinking of a number, it is okay to have them think of an average day and multiply by seven.)

a. None

b. 1-2 hours

c. 3-4 hours

d. More than 4 hour

  1. On average, how many hours per week do you play video games? (Provide same answer choices as in question 1.)
  2. What sports do you participate in? (Make as long a list of choices as you think is necessary to cover the possibilities.)

a. Soccer

b. Skateboarding

c. Basketball

d. Swimming

e. etc.

  1. How many hours per week do you participate in the sports you mentioned? (Insert the name of each sport mentioned. When you tally the results, you will add up the total. In your report, you will compare this total with the combined total hours of TV viewing and video game playing.)

a. _______ (sport): ____ hours

b. _______ (sport): ____ hours

c. etc.

  1. Do you think that watching television makes you more interested in doing sports and other physical activities or less interested? Why?

a. More interested

b. Less interested

Notice that the last question, which asks "why," is an open-end question. Be sure to leave enough room to take notes you can quote from accurately.

Finally, be sure to ask your respondent's age. Note whether the respondent is a boy or girl. If you plan to quote your respondent, you can either do so anonymously (without mentioning the name) or by name. In either case, you need to ask permission.

Tally Results — Once you have completed all the interviews, tally the results. It is possible to do this using a computer application such as Microsoft ExcelTM, so you can automatically add columns of numbers. To keep things simple for now, just do a hand tally using tick marks like this:

Four vertical lines parallel to each other and one diagonal line (lower on the left side, higher on the right side) crossing through the four lines.

To keep track of the questionnaires, number them in the upper right-hand corner from 1-100 or 1-25, depending on the number of interviews conducted. Use a blank questionnaire to keep track of the tally marks next to each question. Collect answers to open-end questions on separate blank sheets. An easy way to do this is to photocopy the answers and cut and paste them onto the blank sheets of paper. That way you can see all the open-end responses together. Just make sure to number each open-end response with the number of the questionnaire (source) it came from.

Report Your Findings — As time permits, the report can be a simple discussion of results as a class, or an oral report prepared by a team of "analysts" or an individual- or class-prepared written report.

Your results will guide you as to what needs to be included in the report. You will be looking for patterns in the answers to the questions that prompted the research in the first place. Is there a connection between TV watching, video-game playing and low levels of physical activity, or does it seem that students who watch TV and play video games are also active in sports? What do students say about the effect TV and other media have? Do they think media are turning them into couch potatoes or introducing them to new sports? By watching their sports heroes on TV, do they get ideas about how to improve their abilities in sports they already love? Are results different for boys and for girls? Is age a factor?

These are just a few of the possible questions you might answer in your research. Have fun with it. This is called primary research (first-hand research). It can be a great way to learn what real people think and do.


Troubleshooting Tips

Plan on three 50-minute class periods: one to prepare the questionnaire; one to conduct the survey; one to tally the results.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Questions: During brainstorming and preparation of the questionnaire, question students orally to determine how well they understand the importance of objectivity, confidentiality, accuracy in survey data collection, tallying and reporting.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Mock Interviews: Have students conduct a few mock interviews to be sure they ask the questions correctly and consistently, and record responses accurately.

Post-Activity Assessment

Survey Report: Tallies should be checked for accuracy. The quality of the final report demonstrates how well the students understood and executed the assignment.

Activity Extensions

Think about how extreme sports athletes work with and against gravity (see Riding the Gravity Wave literacy activity for Mechanics unit, Lesson 2) and work with the force of inertia. Write an article about the role of inertia in extreme sports with the title, Inertia...It's not just for Couch Potatoes. For reference, see Skateboard Science at http://www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding/ and Momentum Machine at http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, the questionnaire can be quite simple with only three or four questions.
  • For upper grades, the questionnaire can be more complex.


Conducting Polls: Gathering Information Often Includes Surveys. Cyber Oregon Online COOLSchool. coolschool.k12.or.us/courses/190200/lessons/lesson6/conductingpolls.html Accessed May 12, 2004.

Design a Survey Using Microsoft Word, Then Evaluate the Data Using Microsoft Access. Updated April 14, 2004. Microsoft Corporation. www.microsoft.com/education/en-us/Pages/index.aspx Accessed May 12, 2004.

Kaufman, Ron. Kill Your Television. TurnOffYourTV.com. www.turnoffyourtv.com Accessed May 11, 2004.

Kids Say TV is Not the Enemy of Physical Activity. Updated December 9, 2003. Media Centre Archive, Department of Health, South Australia. www.health.sa.gov.au/Default.aspx?tabid=53&mid=454&ctl=ViewDetails&ItemID=1098&PageIndex=1&DisplayDateIndex=15 Accessed January 2, 2005.

Momentum Machine, How ice skaters, divers and gymnasts get themselves spinning and twisting faster, Science Snacks. Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA. www.exploratorium.edu/snacks Accessed May 11, 2004.

Skateboard Science. Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA. www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding Accessed May 11, 2004.

Television and Obesity among Children, Fact Sheet. Updated July 7, 2002. National Institute on Media and the Family. www.parentfurther.com/technology-media/facts/facts_tvandobchild.shtml Accessed May 11, 2004.

TV Used to Fight Child Obesity. The Age Company, Ltd. Updated December 9, 2003. www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/12/09/1070732201179.html Accessed May 12, 2004.


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: July 21, 2016