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July 2014 Archives


Now you're cooking solar oven from pizza box science activity / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an energy-focused family science activity that doubles as an alternative energy experiment and a recycling project. Using a pizza box (or other shipping box), foil, a few other readily available materials, and the power of the sun, you can make a functional solar-powered oven. Cooking will take longer than in a kitchen appliance, but with some planning, you can cook a meal or prepare a campsite batch of s'mores with your own homemade solar oven! How does a solar oven work? How does the design of a solar oven work to trap and use radiated heat? Build your own to find out. You might discover a solar oven has something in common with a greenhouse, too!



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Holey Porous Rock Science!


Examining rocks can be a springboard for a fun family science exploration. With different kinds of dried beans, plastic cups, and water, kids can model rocks and observe the way different sized particles in rocks affect how much water a rock can hold.

Rock porosity science project with rocks modeled from cups of dried beans

What do rocks and sponges have in common? Rocks may be hard, and sponges may be soft, but both have pockets of empty space. Surprised? It may be easier to see the pockets in sponges since most sponges are covered with holes, but if you toss a pumice stone in water, it will float—because it has many pockets of empty space, just like a sponge!

Some rocks are more like a sponge than others though. It depends on their porosity.

Porosity is the word we use to talk about the volume of empty space in an object compared to the total volume of the object. When the particles of a rock are small, they may be packed together closely with very little space between them. Such a rock is defined as not very porous. When the particles of a rock are large, there may be more space between them because they don't fit together as tightly. This makes the rock more porous.


Science Activities Mean Fun for the Whole Family

Porosity is a concept that may be hard to imagine, but with the quick and easy How Particles Affect Porosity science activity, students can make a model of a rock to observe firsthand what porosity means and how it works.

That's what Sherry Smith, a Science Buddies mom, decided to do when she was looking for a fun science activity that would appeal to both her 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old nephew.

"Both of the kids are interested in rocks, and the techniques of Science Buddies' porosity activity seemed fairly simple," said Sherry, "so I thought it would work with my young nephew."

To build their model, the kids filled one plastic container with large dried beans and another plastic container with small dried beans. In the project, the different-sized beans represent different sizes of rock particles. Each container becomes a model for a "rock." The next step for Sherry and her students was to carefully measure how much water they could pour into each container. Which model rock holds more water? Why?

On their first try, some of the water spilled, says Sherry, so they had to start over, but in the end, their experiment was a success. The kids were able to see how the difference in the porosity of each model rock made a difference in how much water each cup held.


Learning on Different Levels

Overall, Sherry thinks that the porosity project is a great way for kids of different ages to share a memorable science experience. "While my nephew perhaps had trouble understanding that the beans were modeling porosity, he enjoyed acting like a 'real scientist' and was very careful pouring the water on the second try."

Sherry's daughter, on the other hand, was able to connect the concept of porosity to what she had learned about the rock cycle in school, particularly that the porosity of a rock can change over time due to pressure.


Modeling Rocks in the Classroom

Like Sherry and her family, students and families can experiment with porosity using the procedure in the How Particles Affect Porosity classroom science activity. Teachers looking to replicate this hands-on geology experiment in the classroom will find step-by-step guidance, including downloadable educator and student guides. The activity only takes about twenty minutes, including teacher prep time, and lets students explore how and why some rocks really soak up liquid while others do not.

Check out Science Buddies' new Science Activities for All Ages area to discover more fun science experiments and activities for the whole family! Teachers can also browse additional classroom activities.


A Deeper Look at Porosity

Students looking for a geology science fair project related to rocks can continue the exploration with the Porosity and Particle Size project idea.





Support for Geology resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies is provided by Chevron.

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Finding ways to improve a product often means breaking it first and then brainstorming ways to make the product better so that it will last longer. Students can experiment with the engineering design process—and the ways in which engineers design and test new solutions—by trying to improve the durability of a simple handheld device. Making a calculator ironclad might make it harder to break, but would a customer like the new-and-improved version?

Calculators after crash testing during science and engineering project
Above: A device may show various kinds of damage after being put through various kinds of product testing. Testing may help engineers find ways to improve a product's design and durability.

Have you ever seen an advertisement for a product that brags about the fact that it is so strong that you can even drive a car over it, and it will still work? You might wonder why the product would ever be at risk of being rolled over by a car, but such a claim is meant to highlight an important selling point for many products—durability. How much wear and tear can an item withstand? For consumers, this is an important question. When it comes to buying certain kinds of products and devices, like electronics, customers want a product that will last because the longer it lasts, the better value it may prove to be.


Finding the Breaking Point

Making something better sometimes depends on first seeing what it takes to break, tear, or destroy an object.

Autodesk DigitalSTEAM Workshop mobile accessory challenge

Designing a Mobile Accessory

Students interested in designing protective cases can take this project a different direction by using 3D design software from Autodesk. The Mobile phone accessory project in the Digital STEAM Workshop challenges students to bring their ideas about phone accessories into reality using Autodesk® 123D® Design. Students are challenged to design an accessory small enough to fit into a person's pocket and made from plastic. What phone gadget, tool, or accessory can you envision that you think people would love to have for their phones?

Using 123D Design, students digitally design an accessory that can be made using additive manufacturing, the process used in 3D printing. For additional information about 3D printing, see 3D Modeling Layer by Layer: A Glue It Together Introduction to 3D Printing.


Premier Design Tools for Educational Use

Autodesk gives students, educators, and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps, and real-world projects. For more information, details about educational use, and to download software, visit the Autodesk Education Community.

If you try the mobile phone accessory Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop challenge, show us the accessory you design!

It may sound counterintuitive, but for product engineers, finding ways to improve an item in terms of its durability often means first identifying weak spots. After she knows where the potential pitfalls are—What could happen? Where will it break? What kind of stressor or use is too much?—a product engineer brainstorms possible solutions, makes prototypes, and puts these new versions through use tests to see if the modifications bring improvement.

Does the improved product bring corresponding and measurable improvements in terms of durability? Do the changes add to the price of the product? Do the improvements change the size (footprint) or appearance of the product? Are the changes ones customers will like in terms of visual appearance as well as in terms of the added protection? All of these are questions a product engineer has to consider when trying to improve an item.

Cell phones are a great example of a device where durability matters. Because they are always with us, cell phones are often subjected to lots of bumps, accidental drops, spills, and even dunks. Whether the phone falls to the concrete when you get out of the car, drops to a hard floor, or gets crunched between hard objects, you hope that the phone comes out unscathed.

In the past, cell phones have not always held up well, but today a dropped phone doesn't always equal death of the phone. Hopefully, improvements in the design and manufacturing of the type of cell phone you carry have given it a stronger profile—added durability.


Putting Engineering Design in Action

In the new Crash! Can Cell Phones Survive a Drop Test? project idea, students get hands-on with the engineering design process as they simulate the steps that might go into improving a product like a cell phone.

While a science fair project that tests and then improves actual cell phones might be cool, crash testing a bunch of cell phones is not practical for most students. Using inexpensive calculators instead keeps project costs down but still lets students model the steps involved in product testing and development. How durable is a cheap calculator? Can it be improved, and is the improvement worthwhile in terms of the form factor and price of the device?

Students first put calculators to a drop test to assess (and quantify) starting durability. Then, they brainstorm design changes to try and address weaknesses they observed during their drop tests. After making prototypes of their new and improved products, students put the new models to the same drop test to see if the design changes made a difference.

What kinds of changes might you make to better protect the calculator from drop zone damage? Changes in materials are up to the student product engineer, so bring your creativity, your innovative ideas, and your willingness to crash test a bunch of calculators!


A Career in Product Engineering

Students who enjoy the idea of creating and improving products—and even breaking them first on purpose to pinpoint areas of weakness and figure out what might be fixed or improved—may enjoy learning more about product engineering as a career path. The following career profiles highlight career options for a student with an interest in building and engineering: Industrial Engineer, Mechanical Engineer, and Materials Scientist and Engineer.


Science Buddies Project Ideas in mechanical engineering are supported, in part, by Motorola Solutions Foundation.



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Melting Ice: Weekly Science Activity


Melting ice chemistry science activity / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a chemistry family science experiment that explores how different substances may lower the freezing point of ice. By adding sand, sugar, and salt (separately) to ice, students observe how long it takes the ice to melt. Do any of these substances make the ice melt more quickly than it does by itself? In this family science activity, you can find out—and find out why. Follow this experiment up with the Science Buddies activity on making homemade ice cream for a tasty, related science add-on! In one project, you will melt the ice. In the other, you'll be working to make things colder!




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For families living in drought conditions, careful monitoring of water usage is especially important. With hands-on science and engineering projects, students can investigate water-saving strategies and science and engineering related to water conservation.

Folsom lake drought 2014
Above: The effect of drought can be seen in the above photo of Folsom Lake. Image: California Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey.

Remember "Ring around the rosie" and "Rain, rain, go away"? Familiar with the "jinx machine" saying? You may recall these singsong chants from your own childhood or from watching your students on the schoolyard. Kids grow up repeating lots of songs and fun sayings—rhymes that, for better or worse, stick.

Today's California kids have added a new one to their repertoire—"If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." It's catchy and a bit gross. It's got all the markings of classic potty talk. But these kids are talking about flushing strategies at school—in the name of water conservation.

When my elementary school student came home last year spouting "if it's yellow," it was new to me. It was a startling rhyme, but it does stick with you. As California's drought continued to worsen and the threat of a real water crisis grew, I started thinking more about the saying and discovered it is actually more than playground potty talk. As one strategy for helping reduce consumer water usage, the "if it's yellow" approach may have statistical merit.

Today, California's drought situation has gotten even drier, so much so that the state will soon be fining consumers for certain kinds of unnecessary water usage. Washing cars, spraying off sidewalks, and watering plants are all culprits for excess water usage. You probably won't find kids running through a free-flowing sprinkler system this summer in many California neighborhoods either.

Smart family water practices, like smart family electricity practices, can make a difference. Beyond flushing, there are lots of drips and drops of water in a typical day that the average family could save, and small-scale, house-by-house changes can add up to significant savings.


Water-saving Science

The threat of running out of water may seem distant and hard to fathom, but scientists are predicting California's drought is far from over. As families and schools talk with students about water conservation, it is important to think about household practices. Even tweaking simple routines like brushing teeth can make a difference. Do you leave the water on when you brush your teeth? How much water might you save if you turned it off while brushing and then turned it back on at the end?

These kinds of questions can lead to fun, informal science investigations at home or school and pose engaging real-world math problems for kids to work through. Collect the water during a normal teeth brushing session and measure it. Then collect the water during a session where the water is turned off during most of the two minutes of brushing and measure it. Multiply the amounts by the number of times a day each person in the house brushes. Multiply those numbers by days and then weeks.

Map of US drought 2014 July

Innovative Engineering and Design

California's water crisis is mounting, but California is not alone in its water shortage. The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that roughly a third of the country is currently experiencing some level of drought.

As everyone from state officials to families to local farmers look for new approaches to improve water usage efficiency, stories of innovative solutions highlight the ways in which applied engineering and technology can make a difference at home and around the world. For example, in May, NPR reported on an unusual bamboo structure called the WarkaWater designed to gather water from the air.

You can keep extrapolating by multiplying by households or city populations. How do the numbers compare? Then do some research to give those numbers real-world meaning. You might compare how many gallons of water your toilet uses per flush, for example, to the water being used brushing teeth. How do baths and showers compare?

As you and your kids take a closer look at how you use water in the house, think about things like indoor plants, running the dishwasher, rinsing dishes, washing clothes, filling the coffee pot, boiling pasta, and making ice. How much water do you really use? How many times is the water running unnecessarily or for longer than it should? Is there anyway to capture and reuse some of the household water that is otherwise wasted?

The following science and engineering projects guide students in thinking about and exploring different aspects of water conservation and drought:

For more information about strategies you can use at home, see the Save Our Water site's collection of tips for indoor and outdoor water conservation.


Making Connections

Students in California (and in many other places in the U.S.) are hearing a lot about drought, but water is still available. In some areas around the world, access to water is even more seriously limited. Exploring water conservation, filtration, and decontamination strategies through hands-on science projects helps students better understand local and global water supply issues.

Projects ideas like these guide students in investigating strategies for decontaminating and desalinating water:

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Civil engineers work on all kinds of construction projects that help shape communities and cities and help solve problems and challenges in those areas. Sometimes, those challenges involve reconfiguring existing space in unexpected new ways, like turning parking places into parklets. These little green pockets of social space provide interesting challenges and opportunities for engineers, designers, and planners. With software from Autodesk and a fun Digital STEAM Workshop challenge, students can design their own parklets and see what is involved in reimagining a few parking spots as a gathering or resting spot—with a small budget and tight space requirements!


3868 24th Street Parklet (hosted by Martha Brothers)
Above: The 3868 24th Street Parklet (hosted by Martha Brothers) sits in place of a few parking spaces. Photo: San Francisco Planning Department.

Parking in San Francisco is rarely easy. A driver may circle a destination multiple times hoping to score a treasured meter space. A challenge to begin with, city parking is becoming even more difficult as parking spaces here and there are repurposed as social spaces.

Across the city, coveted parking spots have gradually been transformed into no-parking park zones—parking spaces for people, not cars. On a corner of Haight Street, for example, there is a small area of benches that looks like an extension of the sidewalk and juts right out almost into the street. At first glance, you might look over and see it as a little niche seating area, a little resting place, an extra spot to hang out and enjoy a scoop in a cone from the nearby Ben and Jerry's. Look just a bit closer as you pass, and you will realize that the seating area, the bit of green, sits where a few parking spaces formerly waited to eat up meter money.

It's the age of the parklet.


Exit Parking, Enter Parklet

In San Francisco, turning parking spots into social spots is a movement that has gained momentum and both community and city support. The Pavement-to-Parks site contains a section devoted to parklets, and an eighty-six-page PDF booklet describes the role of a parklet and the process of moving from idea to permit to implementation. The fun "Parklet-OMatic" game board-style infographic flowcharts the process from start to finish. Those finishing the process with a successful permit are instructed to "Keep it clean. Water the plants. Renew in one year."

According to the Parklet Manual, a parklet that stands in the place of extra parking spaces may support and foster social consciousness, lifestyle and behavior, and city change. A parklet, says the manual, can help: reimagine the potential of city streets, encourage pedestrian activity, encourage non-motorized transportation, foster neighborhood interaction, and support local businesses.

Despite the tighter parking scene, the city loves parklets, and there is currently a waiting list for parklet applications.


The Parklet Phenomenon

While the origin of the parklet may lead back to San Francisco and a one-day temporary parklet experiment, the city is not alone in its interest in reclaiming pavement for people. Chicago calls these little spaces carved into the city "people spots." Seattle, too, has its own government parklet page, with a dotted map of existing or proposed parklets that looks like a transit map.

Whether you view them as small injections of green into a cityscape, a subtle reminder to slow down, or just an ingenious way to make the quest for parking even tighter, parklets are a fascinating societal phenomena and example of civil engineering.

While parklets vary in terms of their overall "flavor" or vibe, they typically follow certain requirements. Size, especially, is key. A true parklet replaces a few parking spaces, so sizing parameters are tight. There is not a lot of wiggle room. Location, too, matters. As San Francisco's Parklet Manual makes clear, there are a number of criteria for selecting a location for a proposed parklet. (You can't just plop a parklet into any parking space.)

Cost is also a factor.


A Perfect Parklet

What kind of parklet do you envision? Do you imagine wooden benches and planters? Do you see natural seating spaces or bright umbrellas and canopies? How do you think people will use the space? Will they sit and talk? Will they meet up for a game of street chess? Will people eat their lunch?

The design of a parklet will play into how the space is used and what kinds of activities and interactions it invites. Multi-use structures, for instance, might facilitate eating as well as provide a surface for other activities. How will you fill the space?

Imagining how you will "decorate" a parklet is part of the fun of the process. But there are many stages of planning and consideration that happen before you can move benches into place.

After choosing a location, one of the first steps is doing a site plan for the parklet. The plan needs to account for the footprint of the parklet (its size and shape rather than its contents) as well as the surrounding parking spaces, street traffic flow, and buildings. Later, designers work on drawings or computer renderings that show what the parklet looks like, including approaches to the foundation, the enclosure (remember, the parklet may be right next to moving traffic), and the cool things that will give the parklet its unique flavor and feel.

So what would you do if you could convert a few parking places in your own city into a parklet?


Experiment with Parklet Planning

Using Autodesk's AutoCAD software (free for student use with an educational license), students can design a parklet and experiment with a world-class computer-aided design (CAD) tool. The parklet challenge on the Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop site puts students in the middle of city planning—on a very small scale...the size of a few parking spaces.

In the challenge, students are given parameters they must meet as they create their parklet solutions. Starter files are provided, and students can further explore the challenge through a set of real-world videos that follow a designer through the process of brainstorming, planning, and testing a solution. These videos help students see steps of the engineering design process in action. (See the Engineering Design Process guide at Science Buddies for more information on the engineering method and design process.)

After creating a parklet design for the challenge, students can upload it to share and show it off to the Digital STEAM Workshop community. Who knows, your parklet design might be one you want to share with your city, too!


Premier Design Tools for Educational Use

Autodesk gives students, educators, and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps, and real-world projects. For more information, details about education use, and to download software, visit the Autodesk Education Community.


What Will You Make?

If you are already a user of Autodesk software, we would love to hear from you! If you take the Autodesk Parklet challenge, please let us know. We would love to see what you build, design, and explore using Autodesk design tools. Show us your parklet!

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As the number of medications, both over-the-counter and prescribed, continues to rise, pharmacists play an increasingly powerful role in helping ensure patient wellbeing, safety, and quality of life. Is the medication you were prescribed safe for you? Beyond an apple a day, feeling better may require advice from a pharmacist!

2014-blog-pharmacist-bottles.png

Whether you need an antibiotic to help fight an infection, powerful cough syrup, insulin, or another doctor-ordered medication, when it is time to pick up your prescription, you probably head to a local pharmacy. Your pharmacy may be a neighborhood business, a branch of a drugstore chain, or a pharmacy nestled inside a large grocery store. Your pharmacy may even have a convenient drive-through or a vault from which you pick up your medicine without waiting in line, or maybe your pharmacy offers 24-hour service.

Regardless of where your pharmacy is or how you pick up your medications, the person who filled your prescription—counted out or measured the quantity—is a pharmacist. Someone else may ring you up. Someone else may have taken the prescription from you when you dropped it off. But the pharmacist is the one ultimately responsible for ensuring you receive the right medicine, the right strength, and the right quantity, all matching up to your doctor's orders.


Recognizing Patients as Individuals

It is easy to think of being a pharmacist as simply a job of shuffling pills into safety-lock bottles, but pharmacists do much more than that. Pharmacists also help patients understand how to take a new medicine and warn them of possible side effects. Pharmacists also answer questions about generic versus non-generic medications and changes in medications. If a pill changes size, shape, or color, your pharmacist may tell you before you even have a chance to notice. Pharmacists need to know as much as possible about a vast number of available medications. But pharmacists also need to know you—an individual patient.

Just because a doctor prescribes a medicine to treat a specific problem doesn't mean it is the right medicine (or dosage) for a patient. Every patient is different. Each patient has her own medical history and medication history. Before a prescription is filled, a pharmacist may catch a problem with the prescription or with the combination of the prescription and a specific patient's health history. Computer profiles help flag possible problems, but pharmacists are the ones who talk directly with patients to explain any possible problems and relieve any concerns.


Safeguarding Patient Health

A recent NPR story covered the emergency department of a children's hospital in Dallas, TX, where pharmacists work, around the clock, to ensure the accuracy of prescriptions being made to treat patients. This kind of safety net may help decrease prescription-related problems, problems that reportedly cause thousands of deaths each year.

In an emergency room setting, pharmacists can make a tremendous difference, but even beyond critical care and emergency department scenarios, pharmacists are predicted to play an increasingly important role in day-to-day healthcare. Variables like increased life expectancy, increased preventative healthcare services, increased number of people with chronic conditions, increasing numbers of available prescription drugs, changing medical insurance policies and ongoing changes in prescription coverage, and ever-increasing medical knowledge put the pharmacist in a pivotal position between the prescribing doctor and the patient—a position where precision and accuracy must go hand in hand with an ability to synthesize pharmaceutical information, spot potential big-picture issues and complications, and convey necessary information to patients.


Making Connections

Students interested in human health and biology, medical biotechnology, and medicine, can explore science questions related to health issues and medications in science projects like these:

To learn more about the educational requirements, daily tasks, work environment, and career outlook for pharmacists, see the Pharmacist career profile, part of Science Buddies's science careers area.





Support for Science Buddies Career Profiles in chemistry-related fields provided by Astellas USA Foundation.


2014-blog-pharmacist-bottles-300x150.png

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Seeing Is (Not Always) Believing!


Visual illusions and other optical puzzles are fun for families to share and explore. With hands-on science projects and activities, students can create and test their own visual illusions. For more advanced exploration, a new electronics science project guides students in creating a mesmerizing infinity mirror that invites viewers to gaze into a seemingly infinite tunnel lit by a series of lights.

Visual illusion - Kanizsa Triangle
Image: Wikipedia.

How many triangles appear in the image above? The correct answer is zero, but your brain probably perceives several triangles because your brain is filling in information that is not actually present. Your brain is "interpreting" the image as a whole, despite what your eyes are actually "seeing." You probably see a white triangle atop of what you assume is a black outlined triangle. You may also argue there are other clear smaller triangles within the image as well! But this image, known as a Kanizsa Triangle, contains no triangles at all.

The Kanizsa Triangle is comprised of three "v" shapes and three "Pacman"-style, open-mouth shapes. The white triangle seemingly formed by the negative space is something our brain interprets even though it isn't drawn into the image. In fact, the "white" of that central triangle flows unimpeded into the white of the background. There is no defined triangle—other than the one our brain perceives.

The visual illusion created by the Kanizsa Triangle is one of a number of types of perceptual illusions, and, like sleights of hand that a magician might perform, visual or optical illusions are fun because they trick the eye and challenge us to understand how our eyes and brain work together.

How many dark dots appear in the following image?

Visual illusion -- Hermann Grid
Image: Wikipedia.

Did you have trouble isolating or counting the dark dots? The above image is a grid illusion, specifically a Hermann grid illusion. You will find similar versions with more boxes and more dots, but the problem of counting the dark dots remains because as your eye moves around the image, the dark dots seem to shift. In fact, there are no dark dots at all in this type of grid illusion, just white lines on a black field.

Visual illusions are engaging puzzles because they tease the brain. The brain and the eye don't agree about what they are seeing or how to interpret the information. Do you see an old woman or a young one? Do you see a rabbit or a duck? Do you see two vases or a face? In some types of visual illusion, you may see more than one image, your brain bouncing back and forth between possible interpretations as your focus shifts.

There are countless visual illusions to explore, and delving into the "why" we see (or think we see) what we see is a great way to learn more about the eye, the brain, and human biology and neurology.


Making Connections

Students and families can explore visual illusions with the Afterimages: The Colorful Tricks Eyes Play science activity. The activity, a simplified version of a longer, independent science project, helps students explore what happens when you stare at blocks of color for a long time, effectively fatiguing color-receptive cones in the eye. Better than a game of who can not blink for the longest amount of time, this fun science exploration challenges you to stare at something for a set amount of time.

Infinity Mirror Student Electronics Science Project

An Endless Tunnel?

How many LEDs do you think are used in the construction of the infinity mirror shown above? How deep do you think the infinity mirror is? You might be surprised! Get answers to these questions by making your own infinity mirror in the Explore Optical Illusions science project.

If you can do it without blinking, you may see something that isn't really there!

To explore other ways to experiment with afterimages, including combining fun computer programming tools and environments, like Scratch, see A Trick of the Eye for Halloween. A classroom-friendly exploration of afterimages is also available, complete with educator and student materials.


Electronics Fun with Illusions

While many familiar visual illusions are flat renderings designed to be viewed on paper (or on a screen), with a bit of creativity and electronics know-how, you can create cool dimensional optical illusions that will further challenge viewers to understand what they are really seeing. In a mirror at a carnival, for instance, you may appear either shorter or taller, or thinner or wider, than you really are. Or, you might wander through a fun house room of mirrors, looking for a way out.

A new electronics engineering project at Science Buddies guides students in creating an infinity mirror. In the Explore Optical Illusions: Build an Infinity Mirror project, students design and construct an infinity mirror from a cardboard box, a set of LEDs, and two mirrors. When activated, a viewer looking into the mirror will see what appears to be an infinitely long tunnel, a lit tunnel stretching far into the distance of the box. But the box is really just a shallow box!

Creating your own LED infinity mirror is a fun DIY electronics project. In the end, you will have a light-up optical illusion that will amaze friends and family!


Award-winning Optical Illusions

For more fun with visual illusions, check out the Dynamic Ebbinghaus visual illusion, the winning entry in this year's Best Illusion of the Year Contest. You can view all 10 finalists from this year's contest on the contest site. It is fun to look at the visual illusions and to read the descriptions that accompany each. Some of these are real eye puzzles!


Further Reading

For more information about visual illusions and other great examples, see:

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Sauces and marinades kitchen and food science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a food sciences family science experiment that investigates the way different ingredients make a difference in how well a marinade sticks to food. In this science activity, students simulate the process of soaking a food in a marinade by doing a controlled study with tofu, food dye, and four different ingredients that might be found in a marinade recipe. Setting up a set of standards for what the tofu looks like when soaked in different levels of dye concentration makes it easy to evaluate how well the test marinades made with different ingredients stick to the tofu. Based on this kitchen chemistry experiment, cooks of all ages can make more scientific decisions about how to best mix up a marinade or tweak a favorite recipe for even more sticking flavor!


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Many popular video games involve aspects of city planning. Whether nurturing a small village or populating and running a sprawling city, kids can experiment with city planning on a variety of levels, from ensuring available resources to strategically positioning city protection. A fun SimCity science project from Science Buddies helps turn in-game city planning into a science experiment, one students can also use to enter the annual Future City competition.

2014-blog-simcity-suburbs.gif
Above: A "suburbs" image from a city created in SimCity.

City planning. As a kid, I don't think I gave much thought to city planning, urban design, and civil engineering. I was wowed by whatever local structures, landmarks, or skyscraping architecture I passed by or saw when on vacation, but, growing up in a small town, the intricacies of city planning were not on my radar.


Since then, having lived in and visited cities of all sizes, I have comes to appreciate and marvel especially at the networks of roadways and transportation paths that snake through and around metropolitan cities. Road planning fascinates me. But there is a lot more that goes into city planning than just streets and highways. Civil engineers work on transportation systems, but they also work on energy and water systems and all kinds of buildings and construction projects both for business and residential use.


Video Games and Virtual Cities

SimCity, a computer game devoted to virtual city building, first appeared in 1989. The popularity of the game led to several iterations and versions of the game. You may have missed the height of the SimCity craze back in the 1990s, but video game-based city planning and world building has continued to evolve and reappear as a theme and challenge in lots of games, including computer games, console games, mobile apps, and games integrated in social networks like Facebook.

Clash of Clans village planning and design
Above: In Clash of Clans, a popular mobile game, players design their village (or base) using an in-game editor and positioning elements to best protect their resources.


Whether set on a farm, medieval times, the present day, or in the future, many games rely on creative and strategic world building. Sometimes, games pegged as something else, especially tower-defense games, have a large element of world building. This plays out in different ways, depending on the game.

In some games, you grow a city by buying and upgrading things like housing, farms, mines, and social structures.

Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop park challenge

Experiment with Planning City Spaces this Summer with Autodesk Online Challenges!

Two creative challenges on the Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop encourage students to explore elements of city planning using computer-assisted design tools to design city parks. The Shape: Small Park Design challenge invites beginning designers to use Autodesk SketchBook Express to mock up a small city park that fits within a set of design and cost parameters.

The Urban Park challenge offers a more robust activity for intermediate students ready to experiment with a number of tools from Autodesk's software suite. Using Autodesk AutoCAD, Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Revit, and Autodesk Inventor, students work on a park design that will appeal to a wide range of ages, uses recycled materials where possible, does not exceed 3,600 square feet, and falls within a given budget for construction.


Premier Design Tools for Educational Use

Autodesk gives students, educators, and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps, and real-world projects. For more information, details about educational use, and to download software, visit the Autodesk Education Community.


What Will You Make?

If you are already a user of Autodesk software, we would love to hear from you! If you try one of these park planning Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop challenges, let us know how it goes!
You may also be responsible for setting the taxes and making other decisions that are integral to how the city grows and functions. In some games, you have to build and upgrade social buildings in proportion to work spaces and residential housing in order to keep the city in balance, the residents happy, and the gold flowing.

In other games, you design a base or village, a lot like a small city, but you don't have to deal with the essentials of survival (food and shelter) or with ensuring the happiness of residents. Designing a sustainable base that is properly defended and laid out in ways that successfully ward off attack from the outside may be a central element of game play, however, equal in importance to conducting raids, gathering more resources (either by harvesting or looting), and making decisions about what to upgrade and how to grow and evolve the base to higher levels.

The pervasive popularity of Minecraft and the countless maps and worlds available for players to visit epitomizes the appeal of world building in the video game space—and highlights keen interest in world building among younger players and students, too. In the open-ended Minecraft game, you can play the game as an explorer of a map created by someone else, maybe a map in which survival is the key, or you can play creatively and build your own world, block by block. (After you finish designing a map, you can make it available for other players to explore.) In survival mode, you need to first build a work bench (so you can get tools) and then build a house so you have somewhere to sleep at night to protect you from the zombies, skeletons, creepers, and spiders. But in creative mode, your imagination is the limit, and using a range of available blocks (including command blocks that can be programmed to do specific things), you can build a house, a town, a city, or a full world.

If you enjoy games that encourage creative in-game design or enjoy rearranging your in-game village over and over again, either for the creative fun of it or in response to things going wrong (losing against attacks, for example), you may want to take the idea to the next level and explore city planning as a career path or experiment with city planning for fun or for your next science fair project.


Making Science Fair Connections

In the To Infinity and Beyond: Plan a City of the Future with Sim City. science project, students use Sim City to design a city for a future population of 50,000 or more people. Designing the city of your dreams may sound like a lot of fun, but students may quickly find out what lots of city officials know—it can be hard to keep everyone happy!

Using tools in the project, students test and evaluate the success of their cities and make changes to better understand how various aspects of city planning work together to create a successful city—one people want to live in!

Part of the Sim City science project involves surveying friends and family to find out what elements they really want and care about in a city. To learn more about setting up and using surveys as part of a science project, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide.


Making Connections

The To Infinity and Beyond project ties in with the annual Future City competition, so spending time with Sim City this summer and translating your ideas about a perfect city into a computer simulation may be the first step into next year's science project or a first step on the way to Future City.


Motorola Solutions Foundation, a sponsor of the Future City competition,
is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.




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As this year's Tour de France rolls into view, students can take an inside look at the science involved in successful road racing. What do gears and tires have to do with who wins the premiere race—or how long it takes to ride to the corner store? Find out with hands-on sports science projects that help tie science to the sports kids love to do and watch. This is pedal-power science that requires you to hop on a bike and put mechanical engineering in action!

2014 Tour de france map

Above: map of this year's Tour de France. For full route and stage information, see the Tour de France website.

Exercise and the Body

Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle for most people, but long and strenuous endurance events like the Tour de France (spread over many days) or a marathon can be a real challenge for athletes in terms of training, health, and nutrition. Students can explore how exercise impacts the body in health and human biology projects like these:

Drink of Athletes

Before, during, and after exercise and competition, athletes often choose foods and drinks to help balance their nutrition and improve their performance.

In the Electrolyte Challenge project, students investigate the difference in electrolyte content of sports drinks and orange juice. What drink should an athlete choose to help replenish lost electrolytes? A convenient kit of specialty items for the project is available from the Science Buddies Store.

In Lactose, Sucrose, and Glucose: How Many Sugars are in Your Smoothie?, students investigate how digestive enzymes convert sucrose and lactose into glucose to better understand how different kinds of sugar in smoothies may affect blood sugar. If you need a boost of energy before a sporting event, how might you alter your smoothie recipe? What if you want your smoothie to give you sustained energy?

Last year, Christopher Froome (Team Sky) won the 2013 Tour de France after coming in second in 2012 to his teammate Bradley Wiggins. This year, Froome will defend his title, again riding as part of Team Sky.

For bicycle racing enthusiasts and fans, the Tour de France is one of the premier sporting events of the year, the pinnacle of competitive cycling for many riders. The 21-stage race runs from Saturday, July 5 to Sunday, July 27 2014. Riders in this year's 101th a challenging combination of flat, hill, and mountain stages and will ride more than 3,500 kilometers through Leeds, Harrogate, York, Sheffield, Cambridge, Ypres, Oyonnax, Risoul, and Maubourguet Pays du Val d'Adour.


Making Connections

As the race gets underway and the cyclists begin their 3-week journey, students and families can learn more about the ways in which science can help explain certain aspects of successful cycling. The following sports science projects address elements of bike mechanics, mechanical engineering, and applied physics that will come into play as riders tackle the varying terrains and altitudes of this year's Tour de France stages.

  • How Do Under-Inflated Tires Affect the Difficulty of Riding a Bike?: During a race like the Tour de France, riders may ride with varying tire pressure (psi) amounts based on the stage of the ride and the weather conditions. In this sports science project, students explore how tire pressure relates to the way a bike rides. What does how full a tire is have to do with air resistance of the bike wheel as it rolls over the ground? Attach a spring scale to a bike, grab a tire pump, and find out. This project requires one person on the bike and one to pull it along, so grab a friend or sibling to sit on the bike!
  • Jack and Jill Went Up a Hill and Came Biking Down After: Choosing the Best Gear Ratio for Speed: Learning to properly use and shift between gears on a multi-gear (or multi-speed) bike can be one of the biggest challenges of transitioning to a more advanced bike. But for race cyclists, understanding how gears relate to speed, control, and the elevation and curve of the road is a must. In this science project, students experiment with gear ratios on their bikes by riding a set path over and over using different gear ratios and recording the speed of each ride. Riders may feel the difference a gear ratio change makes during a ride, but this project guides students in gathering scientific data that correlates gear ratio and speed on the path. Bikers can try the same project steps with a different path, one with a slight hill, for example, for even greater understanding of gears.

Learning more about the science involved in how a bike works and rides can make for interesting family discussion as the Tour de France takes place. These kinds of hands-on sports science investigations can also make your student a better rider—even just in the neighborhood!


Winning Speeds

Sports fans watching the Tour de France or other sporting events from home that involve being "fastest" to win can learn more about figuring speed in the Speed Quest project. For summer fun, students can use the basic parameters of the project to time and compare their own speeds in certain favorite sports (like bike riding) to speeds of world record holders or participants in a race like the Tour de France. How fast are you, really? (This is a great activity for encouraging students to put math skills to use this summer, too!)


Cyclists Raising Diabetes Awareness

For another look at pro cycling, see Changing Diabetes: A Pro Cycling Team with a Mission. Team Novo Nordisk is a cycling team comprised of riders who all have Type 1 Diabetes. See also, From a Boy on a Bike to a Catalyst for Diabetes Inspiration, Education, and Change, about Phil Southerland, founder of Team Novo Nordisk and author of Not Dead Yet: My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance.





Science Buddies' Sports Science Project Ideas are sponsored by Time Warner Cable.
Science Buddies Project Ideas that support student exploration of diabetes and other global health issues like hemophilia and nutrition are sponsored by Novo Nordisk.

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When you combine your circuitry know-how with fabric, you can, literally, wear your electronics on your sleeve.

Red, white, and blue monster soft circuit patch
Above: this little monster is a fun and kid-friendly electronic textile patch that lights up red, white, and blue!

There will be plenty of loud, booming, and colorful nighttime celebrations for this week's 4th of July. Even before the sun goes down, the sounds of fireworks begin, sometimes starting days in advance of the official holiday. The Discover the Flaming Colors of Fireworks family science activity is a great way to get hands-on with a science investigation that helps kids hook science to the anticipated fireworks finale, but you don't have to set something on fire to create a portable burst of celebratory color and light!

While you wait for your local Independence Day fireworks display to start, you (and your kids) can create your own red, white, and blue light-up display, one you can wear, wave, or carry. With a needle, some conductive thread, and a few electronics parts, you can sew your own lighted soft circuit to show off your national pride.

The LED Dance Glove project guides students in creating an introductory soft circuit. Also known as a wearable textile, electronic textile, or e-textile, this kind of fabric- and thread-based electronics project approaches wiring and circuitry from a new—softer—angle. Sew the components in place, being careful not to cross threads and keeping positive and negative traces separate, and you can add electronics to clothing or other fabric items.

The glove in the project can be used to create cool light effects in the dark. (See the project background information to learn more about competitions involving LED glove light shows!) Change things up a bit, and you can create your own gloves for the 4th of July using a combination of red, white, and blue LEDs or white gloves. Or, use the same general e-textiles approach and add an LED soft circuit to a backpack, a jacket, wrist band, or hat.

The LED Dance Glove project at Science Buddies features a simple circuit with an on and off switch, a coin cell battery holder, and some Lilypad LEDs. The project requires no programming (the lights are either flipped on or off), so the project is a great first step in designing and sewing wearable electronics. Sew the elements of the circuit in place, flip the switch, and wear your science with pride!

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What variables make a game popular with players, and do boys and girls choose different types of games? Design a survey-based science project this summer and do some statistical analysis of the data you gather. Your results might be eye opening and informative in terms of game design, the gaming industry, and what works and what doesn't depending on the audience.

Boys and girls and video games / Student science project



There are only three girls, as far as I know, in the clan in one of my current favorite games. With a staggering more than seventy-five thousand clans floating around in the game, and hundreds of thousands of players around the world, clan members come and go. A few other self-identified female players have pitstopped in our clan before moving on, but three of us have been clan members for a long time and seem to be staying—three out of a clan that typically weighs in right around the max of fifty players.

That simple statistic—3 out of 50—seems revealing. It seems to support gender stereotypes about who plays video games. But there are other variables to consider. Age and location, for example, throw a possible wrench into the picture. Our clan is global. Twenty-four hours a day there are people in our clan online from all around the world, and there are players of all ages, a strong mix, in fact, of adults, teens, and even younger players. How old might you guess the three girls are? Where do they live? Do age and location have anything to do with which games boys and girls play?

Minecraft skin

Who is the Hero?

In a game like Angry Birds, the gamer remains off screen. You pull the slingshot, but your identity is not part of the game. What matters is what happens between the birds and pigs in response to your aim and launch. In games where players appear on screen as a visible protagonist, choosing between available characters—or enabling customization of one's avatar—is a common game element. Minecraft players, for examples, create and change "skins" to control the appearance of their character (like the one shown above).

In story-based games, however, players often take on the role of a predetermined main character, a protagonist who appears in video cutscenes as well as in game play. Some story-based games offer a choice of playable characters, but many do not. Does the gender of the playable character make a difference in terms of who buys and plays a game?

Discussion and speculation surrounding previews of new Zelda, Halo, and Assasin's Creed titles suggest that the gender of playable characters is, indeed, a big deal for many gamers.

Conducting survey-based science research projects like Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? and Gamers: Myth or Man? can help you better analyze today's gaming scene and make some predictions about the future of game development and design.


Survey Says

To learn more about setting up and using surveys as part of a science project, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide.

To view more science project ideas like the ones discussed here, see the Video and Computer Game section at Science Buddies.

In other games I play, the balance of male to female players appears more equal or, in some cases, maybe tilted to the "more girls" side. Who plays Words with Friends? Who plays Candy Crush? Who plays Hay Day or Farmville? Who plays Infinity Blade? Who plays Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls? Who plays Temple Run or Subway Surfer? Who plays Minecraft or Wizard 101? Who plays Pokémon, Zelda, Uncharted, or Assasin's Creed?

Or maybe we need to step back and ask, what kinds of games are those listed above—and does that have anything to do with who plays them?


Games, Games, Everywhere

As an adult gamer, "who plays games" and "what games do they play" is an interesting social puzzle. As a parent of kids who also play video games, I find the gender dynamics fascinating. After all, kids today are kids growing up in an age saturated with video games, mobile apps, social media, and an always-on, always-connected, pervasive tech-based lifestyle and social reality.

I often ask my teen "do any of the girls you know play video games?" While most of the boys he knows do play video games, Minecraft, Terraria, and phone-based games like Clash of Clans topping the list in current popularity, his sense is that most of the girls do not. The ones that do appear to be on the fringe.

It can't be that clear cut. Or can it?

Is it really true that video gamers are still, by and large, male? Or is that stereotype outdated, wrong, and a real misreading of today's gaming scene? What does the type (or genre) of game have to do with the numbers of males and females who play? What trends can be found in different age groups, and how do those age groups compare to one another when you look at gender demographics?

These are great questions for a gamer to ask, and a clever gamer can turn questions like these into a really cool science project that does a study of human behavior, social trends, and the video gaming industry—and opens up opportunities for doing some impressive statistical analysis of the results.


Surveying the Gaming Scene

The Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? science project offers a framework for designing and conducting a survey of gamers to see if girls and boys differ in the genre of games they choose.

With summer break here, you could do a social-media or text-based campaign to get friends (and their friends) involved in answering your survey. (While the project outlines a traditional paper-based survey, you might want to set up an electronic survey instead and run it through your social streams to cast a really broad net for responders. The more people who take the survey, the more data you have to help support your findings!)

Before you get started, be sure and really look at the games that are on top of the charts today. (Make sure you keep a list of your sources and the dates since top game lists change frequently.) What categories or genres of games do you want to ask about? The list of genres and example games in the project helps get you started, but you will want to spend time editing and adding to the list to make it really fit today's gaming scene. You might also want to create additional categories to study different platforms and the subcategories of games that appear on each platform. You may find that you want to ask about genres (as the project shows) but that you also want to ask about a bunch of specific games, since some games cross genre boundaries or defy easy classification.

There are lots of ways to customize and personalize a study like this, but summer is a great time to get started. You may be surprised at what you learn about gaming, gender, game genres, platforms and devices, and how people of different ages approach gaming. With a bit of data crunching down the road, you could crank out a large portion of next year's science fair project without leaving the couch this summer. (If you are thinking that far ahead, it might not hurt to drop your teacher an email first and let her know you are tackling a summer science survey that you hope to turn into your science fair project.)

We do advocate leaving the couch, but this kind of study makes it easy to combine something you love with something that can really shine a light on social trends. Not only can a project like this give you better insight into gaming and the personality and profile of gamers, but this kind of data is also critical for aspiring video game designers and developers. The more you understand people who play games, the better you can develop successful games that attract thousands and thousands of players and fans. (For a related science project that compares gamer stereotypes to real gamers, see Gamers: Myth or Man?.)

We would love to see the survey you create and hear about your experience with the project!



Note: assumptions above about the number of boys vs. girls in games the author plays are based on guessing from user names or avatar photos or based on things said during in-game conversations. Many players do use ambiguous names or adopt a different identity during game play.

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Nick and Tesla Explore Robotics


The science-savvy twins return in book two of the Nick and Tesla series. As their summer of intrigue and engineering continues, they find themselves in the middle of a small-town mystery and a bunch of robots. Along the way, they make their own—and you can, too!

Nick and Tesla Book 2: Robot Army Rampage

Fun with Robotics Engineering

Like many beginning robotics engineers, Nick and Tesla build their own robots using toothbrush heads. Follow along as they design their bots, try out the DIY build from the book, and continue the exploration with bristlebot projects from Science Buddies: Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! and Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter.

Book 2 in the Nick and Tesla series, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself, picks up where the first book left off. Having solved the mystery surrounding the neighborhood mansion, Nick and Tesla have settled into their summer with their scientist uncle.

As Robot Army Rampage by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith (Quirk Books) opens, Nick is experimenting with a homemade volcano, Tesla is working on a rocket, and Uncle Newt is tweaking a compost-fueled vacuum, which (of course) explodes, creating a smelly mess that sends them all running from the house.

The action in Robot Army Rampage moves from Uncle Newt's neighborhood to the town of Half Moon Bay. Escaping the fumes from the compost explosion, the kids and Uncle Newt head for pizza and catch their first glimpse of what turns out to be a wave of robots that have quietly taken up residence in businesses on Main Street. Inspired, the kids head to the local electronics and hobby store for parts to make their own robots.

At the Wonder Hut, a few new players enter the story, including Dr. Hiroko Sakurai (a former scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a store employee, and a joystick-controlled robot modeled after the Curiosity Mars rover. Unfortunately, the shelves for robotics parts at the Wonder Hut are, mysteriously, empty.

With no new parts, the twins challenge each other to build a robot from what they can salvage out of their uncle's lab, and the robot engineering begins. Their first bots are also the first projects in the book that readers can make themselves—Nick's Do-It-Yourself PC Leftovers Wander-Bot and Tesla's Do-It-Yourself Semi-Invisible Bottle Bot. With coat hangers, an empty soda bottle, a cast-off fan from an old computer, and some basic hardware and electronics parts, readers can build their own bots and put them to the test.

Building and battling robots takes the kids' minds off of their parents (who have been mysteriously whisked to Uzbekistan), but when Tesla's bot is crushed under a set of bike wheels, a new mystery rolls in, and the story takes off.


Mystery on Main Street

The father of one of the neighborhood kids from book one owns a comic book store on Main Street. When a valuable collectible comic is stolen, the kids decide to try and help solve the case.

As the kids play detective, robots continue to appear in town and be interwoven in the story. Early in their investigation, Nick and Tesla decide to use robotic bugs to distract their first suspect. Again, the siblings have different ideas about the design of the bugs. One wants to use LED eyes. The other wants to incorporate grape jelly to make a gooey mess. They argue, too, about the body (housing) of the bugs, debating the merits of cardboard or bottle caps. Ultimately, they compromise on toothbrush robots with mini vibrating motors (which are suddenly back in stock at the Wonder Hut).

From the Wonder Hut store clerk, the twins learn that Dr. Sakurai has been giving robots to the businesses in town to help promote the store. What follows is a comedy of errors and a series of misreads and half information as the kids try and sort things out.

As the mystery begins to unravel, the robots in town take on sinister overtones. But Nick and Tesla are up to the challenge. During a final showdown, Nick improvises exactly the right tool to save the day. Read the book to find out how (scientifically) his Super-soaker Bot Blaster takes down a robot army!


Making Connections

Readers of Robot Army Rampage will delight in Nick and Tesla's second summer adventure. As they follow along, they will pick up general robotics vocabulary, information, and inspiration. Servo motors, actuators, hydraulics, pneumatics, kinematic functions, micromotors... it's all here! As in book one, Robot Army Rampage contains guided versions of some of Nick and Tesla's inventions as DIY activities for readers, including Nick's Do-It-Yourself PC Leftovers Wander-Bot, Tesla's Do-It-Yourself Semi-Invisible Bottle Bot, Homemade Robo-Bug, Replacement Angel Hoverbot, and the Totally Improvised Super-Soaker Bot Blaster.

Readers can find similar hands-on science and engineering projects at Science Buddies that extend the fun and encourage students to try out additional approaches to building and designing robots and hovercraft! See the following science project ideas, blog posts, and family science activities for more information:

On the Nick and Tesla website, students, parents, and teachers can watch videos of projects from the book. A great educator's guide is also available for parents and teachers. The guide includes vocabulary, chapter summaries, questions for discussion, writing/research suggestions, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) notes, and more.

Don't miss our in-depth look at book 1, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself and stay tuned for our review of book 3, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle! Book 4, Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove: A Mystery with a Blinking, Beeping, Voice-Recording Gadget Glove You Can Build Yourself, is scheduled for release in October, 2014.


If you have a favorite science-themed book—for any age—let us know!

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