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January 2014 Archives

Video and Computer Game Pixel Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a video and computer games project and family activity that lets you investigate how the number of pixels used to create a video game object determines how it will look in the game. If you compare older games to new ones, you probably see a big difference in how the characters look today. Which look better? Do you know why? The number of pixels used in creating the images has a lot to do with the differences you see. In this family science activity, you can get create your own video game characters and experiment to see how much detail an image has (and how it looks) at 8 pixels, 16, 32, or even more. What happens as you increase the pixels? Put it to the test with your own graph-paper drawings!



Super Bowl Sunday and Science on the Field

Before or after the big game, tune in for great hands-on sports science ideas that help turn an interest in football into an exciting science experiment. No matter who wins on Sunday, science will be part of every play, run, fumble, kick, and score. You just have to know where to look.

Football catapult field goal experiment with Science Buddies Store catapult kit

To Kick or Not to Kick

Not every field goal attempt will score. There are many variables that come into play when the kick team comes onto the field, including distance and wind. Knowing when to kick may be as important as having a perfect kick trajectory. A recent post-game headline about the San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks American Football Conference (AFC) playoff reads: "Kicker helped Seahawks reach Super Bowl by not attempting field goal.". That's right—he gets a thumbs up for knowing when not to kick. In this case, the wind was the defining issue for the kicker. If the wind hadn't been an issue, would the 53-yard kick have been in the bag? What's the average yardage for a successful field goal kick?

With a cool catapult kit (available from the Science Buddies Store), students can put the question of distance and field goal kicking to a fun indoor simulation in the "Field Goal! The Science Behind a Perfect Football Kick" science project. With some creative thinking, students can introduce some simulated wind into the equation, too. When wind is added to the variable of distance, do the percentages of successful kicks and go-for-it distances change?

Tip: The ping pong catapult can be used for a number of other hands-on science projects, from a medieval-inspired catapult exploration to baseball batting!

Football fans are gearing up for this week's NFL Super Bowl XLVIII (that's 48!) showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. A season of Sunday- and Monday-night games have led to this final match, and millions will be tuning in to see who comes out on top and goes home with this year's title. (A reported 111.3 million people tuned in to the 2012 Super Bowl!)

Whether your favorite team made it to the final two or not, most likely you've got a new favorite for Sunday's game. Sports media coverage, including the official Super Bowl site, is full of catch phrases and headlines like this one describing the coming face-off between this year's best offensive and best defensive teams: "Irresistible force vs. Immovable object." This sentiment is echoed in a column in the Los Angeles Times by Gary Davenport, who writes: "On paper, the matchup is a football fan's dream. Strength on strength. The unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Peyton Manning and Denver's record-setting offense against the Seattle Seahawks and the NFL's stingiest defense."

Unstoppable? Irresistible? Immovable? Strength? Force?

If these descriptions sound like a physics or math project in the making, you are definitely in the right end zone! There is all kinds of sports science involved in how teams play, what passes are caught, and what field goal kicks clear the goal posts. The more you understand the science going on in the game, the better you can understand what's happening on the field, what plays may have game-changing potential, and what the outcome may be.

Here are a few football science project ideas to get you thinking about various angles, trajectories, energy transfers, and variables that will be on the field come Sunday:

  • Football Field Goals: Going the Distance: the distance of a field goal kick attempt has a lot to do with the chance of scoring. Head to the field and explore in this hands-on (or foot-on) science project. For a home stats activity, look up season stats on the two Super Bowl teams field goal attempts. See what the math reveals about the relationship between distance and success.
  • Field Goal! The Science Behind a Perfect Football Kick : in this exploration of distance and field goal kicking, students use a rubber-band catapult for a fun indoors football experiment.
  • Measuring Concussion Risk in Football and Other Contact Sports: tackles, sacks, and pile-ups are part of the game, but the level of impact in football often leads to injury, and some injuries may not be evident until after the game. In this project, students experiment with shock indicators mounted on helmets to explore the level of impact during a typical practice or game.
  • How Far Can You Throw (or Kick) a Ball?: a last second hail Mary pass can change the game, but the angle of the throw has a lot to do with how far it will go. Experiment with the relationship between angle and horizontal distance in throwing (or kicking) a football or another type of ball.

Big Game Weather

To the list of variables surrounding this year's Super Bowl, you also have to add weather. This year, in addition to season stats, like the fact that quarterback Peyton Manning heads into the Super Bowl with a record-setting 5,477 yards passed and 55 touchdowns, weather stats are making the news as the teams prepare to play at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Already in 2014, New York and other East Coast states have hunkered under nearly a foot of snow dropped in a matter of hours, and a few weeks ago, stadium officials put their snow-removal skills and procedures to the test—a useful practice-run for the "what if" related to the upcoming game. Reportedly, NFL officials have already talked about contingency plans related to weather, including Super Bowl Sunday not being on a Sunday! See the Washington Post's "Super Bowl cold and snow: Big game history, local odds, and an early outlook" for a predictive look and some nice coverage of historical weather stats in relation to game day play.

Exploring the Science Behind the Sports You Love

Thank to Time Warner Cable's Connect A Million Minds program, Science Buddies continues to develop exciting sports science projects for hands-on student exploration. See also:

Science Buddies' Sports Science Project Ideas are sponsored by Time Warner Cable.
Time Warner Cable



Electricity Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: an electricity project and family activity that takes the zap out of static electricity. What causes the buildup of static electricity and may cause you to get "shocked" when wearing, rubbing up against, or touching certain materials or objects? What does what the object is made of have to do with static electricity? In this project, you and your family can build a cool tool, an electroscope, to detect electric charges and test to see how different materials conduct electricity.



mammalian biology puppy warmth science Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a mammalian biology project and family activity that encourages families to talk about and explore why puppies and other animals huddle together for warmth. Does cuddling up really increase warmth? Put it to the test in this hands-on science experiment!



Stories about Mary Barra have the potential to empower, encourage, and inspire students of all ages as she takes on a very visible and important leadership role in the automotive industry. As Barra shows, even something as simple as making paper boats can make a difference in how students (or adults) perceive science and engineering—and maybe in how a company performs!

Mary Barra, GM Senior Vice President with students from Bates Academy
Mary Barra, new CEO of GM, leads the GM "A World in Motion" skimmer boat in Bates Academy student competition last year. Image: © General Motors.

The weeks leading up to the start of Mary Barra's reign as CEO of General Motors (GM) have sent ripples of excitement and inspiration through all kinds of media corners, from those who cover the glass ceiling, to those who see Barra's rise as a wonderful tribute to hard work and company loyalty, to those who simply love cars, to those who see in Barra a role model for female engineers and scientists of all ages. Indeed, since the December announcement that Barra would be handed the keys and become GM's new CEO upon the retirement of Dan Akerson this month, the media has been buzzing with stories about Barra, a Michigan native, who started at GM as a teenager, who really wanted a fancy sports car for her first car but bought something more practical in order to be able to afford college, and who has risen, quietly, to the top of a global auto manufacturing company that has been on a successful rebound since its financial troubles in 2009.

Though Barra has carefully sidestepped many gender-specific questions, it is clear that, just by being who she is and where she is, she is poised to become a powerful role model for young engineers, especially for young women. With the status of "girls in science, technology, engineering, and math" (STEM) frequently under the media microscope and a concern for teachers, parents, and community leaders, Barra's history, educational background, and new position in the world of automobile engineering offers a wonderful beacon of possibility. To girls who love cars, who love engineering, or who love any STEM subject that is frequently viewed as "for boys," Barra's story offers inspiration and a reminder that doing what you love is what matters.

The Engineering Design Process

In reports and interviews this week surrounding the Detroit Auto Show where she unveiled the 2015 GMC Canyon, Barra has talked about teamwork and about collaboration, ideals and practices that may prove to be cornerstones of her strategy leading GM. While these qualities could be highlighted to smooth the transition into her new role, it seems they are not new catchphrases for Barra but are, instead, central to her style, vision, and approach.

A team-building activity she spearheaded last year at GM showcases Barra's emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and on the engineering design process—Barra orchestrated a "paper sailboat challenge" for more than 200 GM engineers and designers.

While team-building exercises and activities are common in big business, Barra's paper sailboat challenge stands out for its novelty, for the simplicity of getting everyone involved in doing something that might feel a bit silly but showcases the fun in the process, and for the simple fact that the event has its roots in an activity she did with third grade students as community outreach at a local school.

At Bates Academy in Detroit, Barra and other members of her team got hands-on with a group of students in a "skimmer" competition where they created boats and then raced them across hard floors (not water) using fans to simulate the necessary winds. This kind of community STEM event is wonderful for students and helps to show students that science, technology, math, and engineering can be fun, that the steps of the engineering design process are accessible, and that even small changes can bring innovation and, maybe, a winning new design—or the fastest skimmer.

We love the story of the paper sailboat challenge and its skimmer origins with Detroit students. We love the photos and video of Barra and her team working side-by-side with the kids. And who can help but love the "C'mon, mama needs a new pair of shoes!" comment from one of the enthusiastic participants?

Getting Involved

Creating opportunities for hands-on science and engineering at a local school is a great way to contribute to science education and to help show both girls and boys that science and engineering is fun, exciting, and offers many different paths for the future. If the story of Barra and her paper boats inspires you, and you are wondering how you might create a similar kind of activity either for students at a local school or with a group of kids at home, take a look at these hands-on science projects, all of which are ideas that could be transformed into a fun class or group activity or competition:

Prefer dry ground? There is no need to stop with boats. Paper airplanes, hovercraft, and marble runs make great hands-on engineering activities for students, too:

Real People, Real STEM Inspiration

For more stories about volunteers helping create hands-on science and engineering opportunities in classrooms, schools, and programs in their communities, and for additional stories about encouraging girls in STEM, see the following posts on the Science Buddies Blog:

More Information

To learn more about Mary Barra, see:



Cellphone cameras do a great job of helping us capture funny and memorable moments that we can share through our favorite social media sites, text messages, or email. That same imaging technology can be used as the basis for useful medical and scientific tools—or just for fun at home-exploration.

color wheel
Image: Based on a figure from Martin Silberberg's Chemistry: The Molecular Nature of Matter and Change; McGraw-Hill, 2011.
In our last installment, we covered a DIY project for the tinkerer—turning a cellphone into a functional microscope. If you are looking for another science-inspired cellphone project or are curious about maximizing the value of a cellphone but prefer a bit less "tinkering" than the cellscope requires, consider using a cell phone as part of a homemade spectrophotometer.

The "See the Light by Making a Cell Phone Spectrophotometer" project guides students in constructing and using their own homemade spectrophotometer. This is a great hands-on project for an aspiring chemist or a photography enthusiast!

Creating a Home-size Model of Key Lab Equipment

A spectrophotometer is a piece of lab equipment that measures the intensity of light. Scientists use this expensive tool for a range of applications, including exploring how chemicals react, how quickly microorganisms multiply, and how much protein or DNA is present in a sample.

To understand how a spectrophotometer works, you will want to review how we "see" light, the relationship between visible light and electromagnetic radiation, and how the colors we see around us are related to varying wavelengths of visible light and the electromagnetic spectrum. (See the image at right to see a standard color wheel of primary and secondary colors annotated with typical wavelengths expressed in nanometers (nm).)

To measure the intensity of light, a spectrophotometer separates white light into a spectrum of colors as the light passes through a colored solution and measures the amount of light that comes out on the other side of the solution (light that isn't absorbed).

With a cellphone and some specialty items like an LED and a simple diffraction grating slide, you can create your own DIY apparatus to mimic the functionality of a spectrophotometer. Using your cellphone's camera to record the light that passes through a solution of colored liquid, you can then use computer-based spectrophotometry tools to analyze the images and evaluate light intensity.

Once you have your cellphone spectrophotometer working, you can experiment to find out ways to improve the quality of your images for more robust analysis. This is cool hands-on and applied science!

See Part 1 of our "Science-hack Your Phone" student science series...



health exercise and sports sweaty science Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a sports science project and family activity that lets you experiment to find out how different activities affect your heart rate. Exercise is important, but do all forms of exercise make your heart work the same? Does your heart work as hard when you are walking as it does when you are jumping on a trampoline or playing a game of basketball? Which activities and exercises really get your heart going? What does it feel like when your heart starts working harder? Put these and other sports and health science questions to the test as a family science experiment!



The story of the next General Motors CEO may help change ideas about car engineering and gender and inspire future generations of female engineers.

Mary Barra takes over as CEO of GM / inspiring girls in science and engineering
Photo: John F. Martin for General Motors
What happens when a girl grows up loving to build, design, engineer, tinker, solve, create, and improve upon what's "out there"? What happens when a girl who loves those things gets encouragement, opportunity, and education that supports her interests? She might just take over as chief executive officer of a major company, just like Mary Barra is preparing to do at General Motors (GM) where she will lead the company and its more than 200,000 employees worldwide.

A recent writeup in the Buffalo News notes that Barra, who grew up in a Detroit suburb, "remembers pining as a 10-year-old for her cousin's red Camaro convertible and tinkering in the garage with her father, a die maker who spent four decades at GM."

Following in her father's footsteps, Barra started at GM while in college and has been there for thirty-three years. You (and your students) can read more about Barra, her history as an engineer, and the recent announcement that former CEO Dan Akerson is handing over the reins to GM in stories at Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and in this Stanford Alumni profile (Barra attended Stanford Graduate School of Business).

Engineering Keys to the Castle

Barra's interest in cars started with her early love of a shiny red Camaro, and when you read through the many news stories about Barra's recent appointment as CEO (see links above to get started), you will see recounted the dilemma she faced when buying her first car in the 70s—and what she chose instead of the Pontiac Firebird she wanted. Barra's love of cars was not only about exteriors, however. She was also interested in the nitty-gritty of engineering, and Barra has talked about the importance of her mother's support of her interest in science and math—even though these were not areas of expertise for her mother.

Support for Girls in Engineering

At Science Buddies, we encourage you to nurture your student's interest in engineering at every age and stage, and we frequently post information designed to help parents and teachers find and facilitate exciting and inspiring science, technology, engineering, and math moments for their students.

For female students, this can be especially important as early interests may sometimes falter in the face of stereotypes about gender and science and engineering careers. See "Exciting Girls about Science and Engineering" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers" for more information and links to related Science Buddies content.

Making Connections

If Barra's story inspires your family's dinner or New Year's discussions, or if you have a student who really grooves on cars, auto racing, the way gears go together in a toy kit, or how future design and innovation will need to be more and more fuel-aware and fuel-efficient, consider the following Project Ideas:

Careers in Engineering

For more information about careers related to engineering and automobile design and
manufacturing, see the following science career profiles:



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