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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.
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Your Science!
What will you explore for your science project this year? What is your favorite classroom science activity? Email us a short (one to three sentences) summary of your science project or teaching tip. You might end up featured in an upcoming Science Buddies newsletter!



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