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You Can Do That with Yogurt?


Grow bacteria colonies, create yogurt ravioli, even make your own top-secret recipe for delicious homemade yogurt. Head into the kitchen for some tasty food science fun!

Yogurt ravioli
With the Spherification kit from the Science Buddies Store, students can turn yogurt into self-contained yogurt ravioli. Experiment with the variables involved, or just make some to eat for a fun kitchen chemistry treat!

Step into my kitchen on a hot summer afternoon, and you are likely to hear the roar of the food processor. Plain yogurt and frozen fruit are all we need to create a delicious, cooling treat so thick and creamy that a spoon will stand up in it! The kids love the taste, and I love the fact that this healthy snack provides so many good nutrients.


Bacteria That Are Good for You

Do you know how liquid milk turns into something you can eat with a spoon? Bacteria are the culprits. They consume milk's lactose (milk sugars) and produce lactic acid. This process is called bacterial fermentation.

Perhaps it doesn't sound very appetizing to eat something made from bacteria. After all, grown-ups are always telling kids to wash their hands to get rid of bacteria, right? But some bacteria, known as probiotics, are helpful to humans, and that's exactly the type of bacteria in your yogurt. So, grab a spoon and enjoy!


Playing with Your Food

Yogurt is not only delicious and good for you, but also thick with opportunities for fun kitchen science. Check out these microbiology and food science projects for a yogurt-themed science exploration at home:

  • Abracadabra! Transforming Yogurt into "Ravioli": Explore the technique of reverse spherification and magically turn yogurt into little sealed ravioli-like pouches that you can eat with your fingers! The process of making your own ravioli is easy. (Using a kit from the Science Buddies Store, you can also make your own juice balls!)
  • Yogurt Cultures: Why buy yogurt at the store when you can make your own? Experiment with different types of (safe and healthy!) bacteria to see how it changes the type of yogurt you create.
  • The Art and Science of Making Yummy Yogurt*: Besides bacteria, what other variables can affect your homemade yogurt? Play with cooking temperature, cooking time, or another step in the process or recipe. How can you make the most delicious yogurt?
  • Is That Really Bacteria Living in My Yogurt?: "Live cultures" is a claim you see on lots of yogurt packaging. But how can you know that living, healthy bacteria are really in that plastic cup? Using a variety of yogurts, see what happens when you attempt to grow your own bacteria!

So now the cat is out of the bag—bacteria are the secret to making great yogurt. Yes, it sounds a little weird, but sometimes weird is good!

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Hands-on medical biotechnology projects guide students in scientifically evaluating how common moisturizer ingredients work.

Lotions and moisturizers biotechnology science project


As winter weather starts creeping in, you may find yourself reaching for a grab bag of lotions and moisturizers to deal with dry and chapped hands, skin, or lips.

Store shelves are often loaded with products that claim to be the best, the most moisturizing, or the most long-acting, but all lotions are not equal when it comes to how well they moisturize human skin and how well they help lock in and preserve important oils and water. How do you know which product will really work for you?

If you base your buying decision on the product packaging that most catches your eye, on clever writing and buzzwords that may appear on the product packaging or in ads, or even on price, you may find yourself with a bottle of lotion or a tube of moisturizer for your lips that really doesn't work the way you expect.

So how should you choose? Not surprisingly, the answer lies, partly, in the list of ingredients. Just as when you head to the grocery store to buy food and read and compare nutritional info and ingredients labels, you can make a more educated decision about your moisturizer by learning more about certain key ingredients commonly found in moisturizers and how they behave when used on your skin.


Simulating Skin in a Petri Dish

In the The Skinny on Moisturizers: Which Works Best to Keep Skin Moist? medical biotechnology project, students investigate the correlation between the ingredients in various moisturizers and the effectiveness of the moisturizer. If you ask twenty people to all rub a lotion on their hands and tell you how it feels or how well it works, you may get a broad range of opinions and subjective comments. What this project helps students do is scientifically assess how well a product works. In this biotechnology project, students simulate skin (using gelatin) and then test different lotions to see what happens to the gelatin (skin) over a period of time. Specifically, students investigate the use of products containing mineral oil, glycerin, petroleum jelly, and triethanolamine to see how they affect the dryness of skin. (See the project directions for details regarding how to find appropriate moisturizers for testing.)

Doing this project, students use and practice important lab techniques, including careful record keeping and observation of petri dishes of simulated skin to which moisturizers with different ingredients have been applied. The intermediate-level project may take several weeks to complete, but at the end of the experiment, students are able to draw conclusions, based on data they have collected, about the effects of certain ingredients in moisturizers.

What moisturizers should you buy if you really want to moisturize your skin or help alleviate dryness? Have a student put it to the test. You might be surprised to find out how your favorite moisturizer performs! After doing this project, students will also be able to better evaluate a product by looking at the ingredients list on the label!


Science Buddies' Project Ideas in Medical Biotechnology are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation.

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Seeing Science: Weekly Science Activity



In this week's spotlight: a human behavior-themed science activity that puts families to a fun brain-twister test. How quickly can you say the name of the color in which a word is printed? Does your speed (or accuracy) change if the color of the word and the word itself don't match? This science activity makes for an engaging exploration of the Stroop effect. After learning more about (and trying) the classic Stroop activity, you can expand the fun with other puzzle- or test-oriented projects that involve similar human behavior and perception processes.

For additional student science projects related to Stroop effect or similar perceptual behavior, see:




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Ebola Fighters Receive TIME Recognition


Ebola fighters TIME Person of the year covers from Twitter post
TIME tweeted the announcement with a snapshot of all the cover photos.

Today, TIME announced this year's Person of the Year—the Ebola Fighters. This general "grouping" of people is represented with cover photos paying tribute to five people who have played a notable humanitarian role in the Ebloa epidemic. Each person has a different story and a different experience with Ebola. Taken together, the group is an inspiring set of people making a global impact in the midst of what remains an unsolved and frightening health care epidemic.

To read more about TIME's selection, see the following articles:


Making Real-world Connections

Students can learn more about the science being used and researched as the Ebola crisis continues by exploring a related science project. For relevant project recommendations in areas of microbiology, biomedical technology, genomics, human biology, and even mammalian biology, see the Ebola: Understanding the Science of Viral Outbreaks special interest collection at Science Buddies.

For additional information and context in which to discuss and explore student science angles related to the global healthcare crisis, see Ebola Outbreak Reaches Epidemic Proportions in West Africa on the Science Buddies Blog.

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A science project, especially an advanced one, may have a longer shelf life than just a single fair or a linear competition circuit. Top science students may find many events and venues in which to enter and showcase their research and findings. Science Buddies' Advanced Project Guide helps students follow a roadmap to advanced project success.

Advanced Science Competition for students

Many students come to Science Buddies looking for an entry-level (or grade-level) science exploration to meet the requirements of a school science fair or class assignment. Science Buddies has hundreds of scientist-authored beginner and intermediate projects in more than 30 areas of science to match up to student interest and experience. But Science Buddies also has a wide range of advanced science projects, as well as abbreviated project ideas, designed to engage and challenge advanced science students.

From simulating the biochemistry and biomedical engineering required for a smart insulin pump to exploring the efficiency of a cobalt-based catalyst at helping to form molecular oxygen, building an X-ray machine, setting up a cloud chamber to study radioactivity, or modeling ocean acidification, students looking for a more complex or long-term science investigation will find plenty of advanced project ideas at Science Buddies. Beyond the school fair or a specific class assignment, some students choose an advanced project and end up on an exciting path to advanced science competition. Other students approach science fair each year specifically with advanced competition in mind and seek out a long-term project that they hope to demonstrate at higher levels of science competition.


No matter which path a student takes, the end result may be a ticket to advance to a fair like Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), which invites students who win at local and state ISEF-affiliated science fairs. Other major science events that advanced students can target include the Intel Science Talent Search; the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology; and the Google Science Fair. Students can learn more about these and other top science competitions in the Advanced Project Guide.

In addition to competitions that have a long history in science education, students should always look around and see what other competitions (or scholarships) may be available for which their project might qualify. Advanced science fair projects require a lot of work and often involve months and months of experimentation and data collection. Turning a single project into an entry for a number of events makes the most of the hard work!


Turning Science Ideas into Reality

In some cases, a special event like MIT's THINK Scholars Program (THINK) may provide the impetus for a science project that can then be leveraged into other competitions. THINK is an MIT outreach program that invites high school student project proposals in any area of science. Winning proposals receive a budge, a scholarship, mentorship, and a trip to MIT to help bring their project into reality.

To learn more about THINK, visit: think.mit.edu. Submissions for this year's competition are due January 1, 2015.


Student Success Stories

Get inspired with these stories of advanced science students:

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Singing Science: Weekly Science Activity



In this week's spotlight: a music-themed science activity that guides families in an exploration of vocal ranges. What determines how high or how low you can sing? What does the length of your vocal chords have to do with your vocal range? Does age or gender have anything to do with the highest note you can hit? Put these questions to a singing test with a science experiment.


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Squash Power


Veggie Power with squash / Electronics activity and science experiment kit

The Veggie Power science kit at Science Buddies is popularly used to explore the way simple potatoes can be used to generate a small amount of power and light up an LED light or activate a little buzzer. But potatoes are not the only veggies that can be used in a circuit!

With the plethora of pumpkins, gourds, and squash varieties in the produce section at the grocery, there are a number of vegetables kids might test as they explore alternative energy, electronics, and the basics of setting up a circuit. How do your favorite veggies compare when it comes to generating power? What about fruits?

We put a pair of butternut squash to the test recently using the Veggie Power kit from the Science Buddies Store and the how-to directions in the Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power! project. This is a simple electronics experiment for kids to set up, and the results are fast, fun, and easy to see!


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Globs of Gluten: Weekly Science Activity


Explore the science of gluten in baking / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a food-themed science activity that helps families explore the role of gluten in baking—and the different levels of gluten content in different types of flour. Many favorite holiday foods contain gluten, from stuffing and rolls to pies and pastries. But their different textures may have something to do with gluten. Extracting gluten from wheat flour can be sticky business, but in this science activity, families can get hands-on with their own gluten balls and compare the amount of gluten in different kinds of wheat flour.


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A Bus Powered by Human Waste


A bus that runs on a gas powered by human waste goes for a test run in England. Students can explore alternative and renewable energy sources and processes with biofuel and microbial fuel science projects.

Bio-Bus in England
Learn more about the Bio-Bus from the Bath Bus Company.

Did you catch wind of the new Bio-Bus (dubbed the "poo bus") that hit the roads this week in England for a 4-week trial? The bus, operated by the Bath Bus Company, is powered by bio-gas.

An experiment in putting alternative energy on the roads, the Bio-Bus uses gas generated by the breakdown of human waste, something the company is putting front and center for passengers with the illustration on the outside of the bus!

According to a writeup in The Guardian, one tank of gas will carry the bus more than 150 miles and "takes the annual waste of around five people to produce."

Students can learn more about biofuel and other alternative energy sources with hands-on K-12 science projects like these:

For more real-world biofuel, microbial fuel, and alternative fuel inspiration, see:

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A lighthearted how-to guide puts students on a yellow brick road to setting up a website using basic HTML and CSS or a content system like WordPress.


Learn the Basics of Web Publishing by Following the Comic Adventures of Kim

Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress helps teach new web coders the basics of HTML, CSS, and WordPress by following the story of Kim and her little dog Tofu as Kim creates her first website.


Computer Science Projects for Fun or School

Students interested in computer programming may enjoy the following science projects. Many of these projects use JavaScript, a scripting language that can be used with HTML pages:

For more about computer science and K-12 STEM education, see the following posts:

From Weebly to Wix, students (and teachers) today are building their own websites to go along with school projects and assignments. With a wide range of available tools that hide the code behind push-button GUIs, it is easy enough to stake virtual ground, and information that was once shared via a poster or a PowerPoint presentation is now often handled with a student-made website. While more students are putting up websites, they are not necessarily learning more than how to put content on the web in the most surface-level, drag-and-drop way—similar to how content is formatted and saved in a word processing program.

Knowing more about what's going on under the hood of a basic web page offers more control and the ability to better fine-tune a generic website. A graphic novel introduction from No Starch Press takes a Wizard of Oz approach to helping the main character learn about HTML, CSS, and WordPress (where the Wizard lives). The result is an engaging introduction to web coding basics as a stepping-stone approach to understanding, using, and controlling a content management system like WordPress.


Not Really 'Coding'

There are levels of code, scripting, and markup used to develop websites and web-based applications. The pages that users see when they visit a site are typically created using HTML and CSS. HTML (hypertext markup language) is used to tell the browser about the structure of the material (e.g., this is a headline, and this is a list). CSS (cascading style sheets) is used in conjunction with HTML to tell the browser what the content should look like (color, size, placement, etc.).

Once upon a time, coding for the web required working directly with HTML and CSS in a text editor. The "tags" you wrap around content when "coding" (or, more accurately, "marking up") information to show on a web page are interpreted by a browser, and only the content is shown to the viewer. (You can see what these tags look like by using the "view source" option in a browser to look under the hood of a web page and see how these tags are used to denote headlines, paragraphs, lists, and more.)

Today, many, many web sites are created using tools that simplify the process of preparing web content. These tools make it easy for people to create websites using front end interfaces that let you type (or paste) content directly into an online editor and format it much as you would using a word processing tool. The information is then automatically marked up by the system and each page (or entry) is stored in a database. Within these environments, you can also control the site's overall look and feel.
While learning to use HTML markup isn't necessarily "computer coding" in the sense that learning a language like Python, C++, or Java is, learning to use basic HTML is, arguably, a good way for students to begin working with text files that use a required syntax to make something "show up" in a computer browser. A basic HTML error won't necessarily crash a page, but learning to debug HTML or CSS issues is good practice and helps young coders develop good habits and testing skills.

Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress, written by Nate Cooper and illustrated by Kim Gee, takes a yellow brick road approach to learning about website development, beginning with HTML, adding in CSS, and then introducing WordPress, a popular content management system originally developed to make it easier for non-coders to create blogs. Today, WordPress is used by people to easily and quickly create and manage a wide range of websites (not just blogs). Much of the "code" that runs a website created using WordPress is already in place to make it easy to customize a site and publish your own content. But knowing the basics of HTML and CSS will help you have more control of how your content is displayed.

The more you know, the more you can tinker, which is why Kim, in Build Your Own Website gets a literal crash course in HTML.


The Comic Format

Build Your Own Website is presented, partly, in comic book (or graphic novel) format. The book tells the story of Kim (the illustrator), a young woman who has signed up for an evening class called Web Basics 101 because she wants to create an online portfolio website to share her art. Kim's teacher is Nate (the author).

Pretty quickly, we see that Kim, who does yoga and has a dog named Tofu, is confused about what she is learning in Nate's class and needs, you guessed it, a Wizard of Oz dream sequence to give her web skills a jolt. There is no tornado in site, but Kim crash lands a spaceship and discovers an HTML guru who is "learned in the ancient language of HTML."

The storyline of Kim's journey to learning basic HTML, CSS, and building her site with WordPress is simple to follow, funny in a roll-your-eyes, I-see-what-you-did-there way, and does a good job explaining concepts in a pared down, straightforward manner that fits inside dialog bubbles. The humor, be prepared, can be a bit forced (A tag like a shirt tag?), but the approach may especially capture the interest of students who think coding isn't something they can do and draw them into the story.

Each chapter contains a comic portion followed by traditional how-to instruction, information, examples, and lots more background information. (You will need to read both the comic vignette and the textbook portions! Not everything is covered in the graphic novel sections.)

From the guru, Kim learns about HTML tags and making, saving, and viewing files. With a few basic lessons from the guru, and armed with her site map, the Sword of Standards and Conventions (a few basic rules for file naming), and a healthy fear of the wild 404 dragon, Kim is sent off into the content forest to create her pages.

In Chapter 3, Glinda, the good witch, appears to teach Kim about CSS so that the site doesn't "look boring." With help from Glinda, Kim gets a look at how CSS can work with HTML to help her control the look and feel of her site.

In Chapter 4, Kim runs into Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow on her way to WordPress City. The man (a la Emerald City's Wizard?) at the entrance calls her HTML poppycock and says that WordPress City is a "modern, managed city that makes it easy to create web pages." Kim stays at the village inn, visits the library, learns about blogs, and sets up her first WordPress page. Later, she and the librarian "go shopping" in the Appearance Panel where Kim learns how themes work and how formatting can be taken on, off, and customized in WordPress (like an outfit).

In the end, Kim stumbles behind a curtain, and rather than finding the Wizard, she runs into the guru again, coming full circle and getting a reminder that HTML is still there, underneath it all.

With a supply of quarters to power her spaceship (rather than Dorothy's red shoes), Kim flies off, finds a host to set up her site, and puts what she has learned in action.

Build Your Own Website will appeal to a very specific audience looking to learn more about building a website, but for someone intimidated by the process, the book is a lighthearted and practical introduction. At the end of the book, a new web coder will have the skills needed to set up a free WordPress site and begin putting content in place and, if necessary, should be able to tweak the content directly using HTML and CSS.


Build Your Own Website cover

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Musical Bottles: Weekly Science Activity


Explore the science of sound by playing music on bottles / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a music-themed science activity that helps families explore the relationship between the sound an instrument like a clarinet makes and the length of the air column. When a sound wave travels down a longer or shorter distance, how does what we hear change? In this activity, students use glass bottles filled with differing amounts of liquid to experiment. With some careful listening and trial and error, you might be able to play a song by blowing on the bottles in a specific pattern! But you will for sure be able to hear and appreciate the differences in sound you can make by changing one of the variables involved in how the sound is produced.



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Solar Ovens Are Totally Hot!


Can you harness the sun to cook your dinner? A solar oven skeptic is converted.

Solar oven science project success story

My 6th-grader loves to build things, so when he needed an energy-related project for his science class, constructing a solar oven was right up his alley. He looked online for kid-friendly solar oven designs, many of which involve pizza boxes, and was skeptical. "I don't think this is really going to work," he announced.

After weighing the pros and cons of different designs, he decided go for Science Buddies' double-box solar oven, outlined in the Now You're Cooking! Building a Simple Solar Oven project. Spurred on by visions of roasted marshmallows, he was ready to start building!


Cardboard, Tinfoil, Black Paint, Glue, and a Turkey Bag

Perhaps my son was skeptical about a homemade solar oven because the required materials are so low-tech. Instead of making a trip to a hardware or electronics store, we picked up black paint and a turkey bag at the grocery store, and found everything else in the house.

The toughest part of the construction phase was adjusting the boxes so they were the right dimensions. My son calculated the required box height, which is based on the cooking pot size, and then measured and drew the lines. After one hairy attempt at cutting the heavy cardboard, dad took over use of the utility knife.

Attaching tinfoil to the cardboard surfaces of the oven was a different sort of sticky situation. After using lots of white glue to secure the foil to the oven's flat "heat shelf," my son decided that a glue stick was probably sufficient for attaching foil to the vertical interior sides of the boxes and would also be a lot less messy! As it turns out, the glue stick worked just fine. The final steps, gluing in the turkey bag "window" and bending a coat hanger to prop open the reflector panel, were a snap for him.


Time to Cook!

Construction was finished by half past three on a Saturday afternoon, and we were all excited to see the solar oven in action. My son measured one cup of water into the cooking pot, grabbed the oven thermometer, and carried it all out to the sidewalk. The goal was to get the water to boil. Would it work? Would the skeptics be proven wrong?!?

Dad and son played catch and peeked through the turkey bag window every five minutes (without blocking the sun!) to record the temperature. The oven heated up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit pretty fast, but then it seemed to stall out. We live on a hill, there are lots of trees, and the shadows were starting to get long in the late afternoon, given the time of year. The project was put on hold for the day, a pretty big disappointment.


Take Two

The next day, my son took his oven to the big, flat school parking lot at 11 a.m. It was windy, and the night had been cool, so again the skeptics wondered if it would work. At 11:12 a.m., the starting temperature in the oven was 65 degrees. In ten minutes, it was up to 145 degrees. Slowly, slowly, the temperature climbed, and the water was boiling an hour later. Success!

Part of the assignment was to make a change to the oven and then test it out again. My son constructed an additional reflector with yet more cardboard, tinfoil, and glue. Now it was my turn to be the skeptic. How could one extra flimsy tinfoil panel make a difference?

After letting the oven cool down, my son put the extra reflector in place and began recording the time and temperature again. Within 20 minutes, the difference was clear. (You will have to try it yourself to see what happens!) Excited by the results of his test, we continued to monitor the oven. As we were wondering how hot the oven could get, a strong gust of wind ripped the lid off, ending the experiment for that day.


Solar Cooking? S'more Please!

Yet a third trial on a later date provided mixed results. Not long after setting up the oven, cloud cover began to form in the sky. As we scanned the horizon, hoping to see a break in the clouds, the oven heated up enough to melt the chocolate in the "victory s'mores" that were cooking, but it was nowhere close to the high temperature it had reached on a sunny day.

Nonetheless, the success of the project turned my son and I from solar oven skeptics to true believers! Sitting in the parking lot, we licked dripping chocolate from our fingers, talked about the advantages and limitations of solar ovens, and plotted our next solar-cooked meal!

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November is Diabetes Awareness month. Learn more about Type 1 Diabetes and the kinds of medical devices, solutions, and applications being used and developed to help treat and manage the disease—and put yourself in the middle of ongoing research and development with a cutting-edge student biomedical engineering, human biology, or computer science project.

Diabetes science projects for students / Exploring medical bioengineering

When you get sick, you want to make sure you have the best possible treatment (or the right medicine) to help you get better quickly. Your needs in that situation are, hopefully, short-term. The right medicine or treatment may make the problem go away. If you have a chronic, lifetime disease, however, your interest in ensuring you have the best treatment plan in place may shift into hyperdrive because a single course of a medication won't solve the medical problem.

For a disease like Type 1 Diabetes (T1D), an autoimmune disease in which the body destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, both proper ongoing treatment and round-the-clock monitoring are required to ensure a person with Type 1 Diabetes stays healthy and prevents serious medical complications that may be associated with uncontrolled diabetes.


The Need for Insulin

For people with T1D, insulin is a requirement—not an option, and insulin isn't something you take occasionally, once a day, or even for just a few weeks. Every day, throughout the day, people with T1D monitor their blood sugar and take insulin in proportion to what they eat to keep blood glucose levels within a certain range. (In a person without diabetes, the pancreas manages the production and release of insulin.)

Many people with T1D take insulin by injection, which involves taking multiple shots a day, and many people at some point switch to an insulin pump to make insulin delivery more convenient and more precise. Insulin pumps can deliver insulin in much smaller increments than possible with a syringe, for example. A pump can also help deliver insulin over time, rather than all at once as a typical shot of fast-acting insulin does.


The Need to Monitor Blood Glucose

Taking insulin is only part of the day-to-day picture for people with T1D. They also have to always keep a close watch on their blood glucose levels. While blood glucose levels rise and fall in response to carbohydrates and insulin, blood glucose levels also go up and down in response to exercise, strong emotion, periods of intense concentration, illness (like the flu or stomach virus), and many other variables. Complicating things even more is the fact that blood glucose responses are different for different people. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan for T1D.

Fluctuations in blood glucose happen all day long, and people with T1D have to work to keep their numbers from going too high or too low, both of which can cause serious medical problems. The primary tool someone with T1D uses to keep tabs on blood glucose is a blood glucose meter. The meter uses a special strip to which the person applies a small sample of blood from the finger. The meter reads that blood sample and returns a blood glucose value. Many people with T1D check blood sugar levels 7-10 times a day or more.

Another tool people with T1D may use, in conjunction with finger-stick testing, is a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). A CGM involves a small sensor that is inserted just under the skin and performs blood glucose readings every few minutes, which it then transfers to a receiving device. The data gathered by a CGM can provide warnings to someone with T1D and help prevent a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemic (high blood sugar) problem. A CGM not only reads current levels, but it can offer an indication of the way blood glucose is trending. One popular CGM, for example, uses a system of arrows to alert someone with T1D whether blood glucose is rising or falling—and how fast. CGM data also helps provide a look at the patient's blood glucose over time. Looking at the data over a period of days, for example, can help the patient (and her medical team) spot trends and patterns in the numbers that may result in changes in the patient's insulin plan (or food choices) at certain times of the day.


Smarter Tools

Both pumps and CGM options give patients greater control over their diabetes, but medical and biomedical research looking into ways to make these devices even smarter is ongoing.

Even with existing tools, there are improvements that could be made. For example, despite the fact that people with T1D rely on blood glucose meters when making decisions regarding their insulin needs, blood glucose readings can vary significantly even when tests are performed one right after another or from the same drop of blood. Blood glucose meter strips are also known to have different levels of accuracy at different thresholds of blood glucose. Improving the accuracy of blood glucose testing could make a real difference in how effectively a person can manage her T1D.

When looking at solutions to improve treatment and monitoring for those with T1D, the search for a smarter, more integrated solution immediately comes up. There is, in fact, a great deal of research time and money being spent trying to bring what is often referred to as an artificial pancreas, or a "closed" system, to the market. Researchers are looking to develop a piece of biomedical equipment which will act autonomously to regulate blood glucose—as a pancreas does. Such a system has to be able to read and monitor blood sugar; make decisions about what to do based on blood glucose levels, carbohydrates being eaten, and other variables; and administer insulin.

While there are many biomedical engineering research projects underway that may hold great promise for the treatment of Type 1 Diabetes in the future, advances take time and a great deal of testing. The process of getting something FDA-approved and into the hands of patients is often years and years away.


Individuals Brainstorming Solutions for Today

People with T1D or who take care of someone with T1D are often looking for answers and solutions that can help them right now with the management and monitoring of T1D. Already the desire to better use CGM data and have more visibility into T1D glucose numbers has led a group of parents to patchwork together a solution that allows data from a CGM to be transmitted to a cloud and thus accessible from a smart phone (or a smart watch). This kind of approach makes smart use of the tools and technologies already available and increases the potential and effectiveness of the tools.

A CGM often works only if the device on the person is within a certain number of feet of the receiver that shows the blood glucose number. Even in a single house, this proximity requirement may not allow a child to sleep in one room and a parent in another room to be able to monitor blood glucose with the receiver. Similarly, for parents with children with T1D in school, blood glucose events during the day are often a large unknown until the child comes home and data from a meter or CGM (or both) can be reviewed.

What parents want seems simple—the CGM data to be accessible from a mobile app, a website, or another device to enable remote monitoring.

Finding a way to change the current proximity requirements and limitations and get the data from the CGM device and into the cloud where it can be accessed and viewed by users via a website or mobile app is a powerful concept, especially for parents, and more than 8,000 families have already jumped on board with the Nightscout project, also referred to as CGM in the Cloud. Nightscout was started by a father of a child with T1D and has rapidly evolved with the support and collaboration of a number of families, both those helping further engineer the solution and those following the directions to implement their own Nightscout at home.

Nightscout requires a dedicated OTG-capable Android phone, a website, a cloud account, specific cables, and some old-fashioned tinkering (and maybe tape) to get the solution up and running, but with a mantra of "We are Not Waiting" (#wearenotwaiting) families are scrounging up parts, hacking the solution for their own families, and making blood glucose monitoring something more easily done anytime, anywhere.

Nightscout is not the only individual or small company solution dedicated to changing T1D management. From mobile apps to new meters to other cloud approaches, the T1D community is thriving with ideas, prototypes, and projects designed to make living with and managing T1D easier. (For a summary look at a few of these projects, see: CGM in the Cloud, Joslin's HypoMap and More at the DiabetesMine D-Data ExChange!.)


Students Making Real Connections

For students interested in diabetes research or in medical biotechnology, the kinds of projects underway related to T1D offer lots of exciting opportunities for student science project connections. The following projects at Science Buddies support students in learning more about T1D and the kinds of biomedical engineering, computer software and application development, and health and human biology that come into play treating and managing T1D today and tomorrow:

  • Dealing with Diabetes: The Road to Developing an Artificial Pancreas: This project idea guides students in a biomedical engineering project that lets them tackle and explore some of the issues researchers are addressing with similar real-world projects.

    In the Dealing with Diabetes project, students create a simplified model of an artificial pancreas that uses an electrical circuit and acid/base chemistry to enable a beginning investigation into the complexity of a self-regulating system.

  • Blood Sugar Balancing Act: How Exercise Tips the Scales: Exercise can have a big impact on blood sugar levels, but the way exercise affects blood glucose varies from person to person. Some people find that their blood sugar drops during exercise or immediately after, some people find that their glucose levels rise during exercise, and some people find that their blood sugar shows dramatic difference as many as twelve hours after exercise (in the middle of the night, for example). The variable response to exercise can make properly predicting insulin and carb needs tricky for someone with T1D. Understanding personal trends in response to exercise can help.

    In the Blood Sugar Balancing Act human biology science project, students conduct a series of trials to evaluate how someone's blood glucose responds to exercise.

  • Staying Healthy with Personal Medicine Apps: With MIT's App Inventor, students can set up apps that can help people remember important tasks—like taking their medicine. The new Staying Healthy with Personal Medicine Apps science project idea guides students in programming a medication reminder app. The project is not written specifically for diabetes, but students interested in healthcare and app development might explore MIT App Inventor and the idea of a personal medicine application that is geared for T1D treatment and the need for frequent testing and injection of insulin. (To better understand the uses of mobile apps for someone with T1D, a survey of popular glucose tracking tools like mySugr may provide helpful insight.)





Notes:


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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Explore the science of speed and constant acceleration / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a physics science activity that helps families see gravity, acceleration, and speed in action. Gravity exerts force upon an object, but what does this mean in terms of how fast something falls? Does the speed of falling change based on how far something falls? Using a simple marble run, you can put these questions to the test and see how gravity's constant acceleration affects the distance that an object travels over time. (You can see how this works when riding a bike down a hill, too!)



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Explore the science of movie music / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a music-themed science activity perfect for Halloween week. What sounds do you associate with Halloween movies or Halloween music? What makes the sounds spooky,scary, or eerie? When you watch movies, what kinds of music do you hear, and how does the music fit what is happening in the movie? Are there patterns of instruments, pitch, or tempo that accompany certain scenes in movies?

Pull out your favorite Halloween family movies or playlists, put on your listening ears, and get ready to really tune in to the "sounds" of the movie or music using one of these sets of directions for either an independent science project or a home or classroom science activity:




Photo credit: Thomas Fries / Lizenz: cc-by-sa-3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

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Halloween Science Connections


Halloween black light science project Halloween brushbot science project Halloween lava lamp science project Halloween M&M science project

Halloween squishy circuits science project Halloween candy waterfall science project Halloween clot blood science project Halloween spherification juice balls science project

As Halloween approaches, there are a number of ways you can tie science in with activities and projects that let kids get hands-on with things slimy, ghoulish, gross, light-up, or glow-in-the-dark. For the trick-or-treat crowd, there are plenty of candy-themed experiments to help kids whittle down—or statistically analyze—some of their All Hallows' Eve loot, too!

Browse the following list of inspired Halloween science activities and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) connections to bring science to life for your kids and students this October:

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Candy Corn Geodesic Dome


A classic science (and geometry) project takes on Halloween tones with candy corn-colored candies, a few ordinary toothpicks, and a bunch of triangles.

Gumdrop geodesic dome halloween science activity

We are big fans in my house of the geodesic dome. We initially tried a bigger-than-expected version made from straws a few years ago. We had a great time putting it together—but it would not fit through the front door!

Making a small-scale geodesic dome from gummy candies is a much easier and faster way to introduce kids to the structure and shape of a geodesic dome. The Build a Gumdrop Geodesic Dome activity in the Science Activities for All Ages! area contains the simple directions you need to build your own.

With a tub of candy corn-shaped gum drops, my kids each built a geodesic dome over the weekend. The project doesn't take long, and the steps are well-described and illustrated in the activity. The gum drop and toothpick approach is also very forgiving. Precision in placing the toothpicks and candies isn't required to succeed, which makes the building accessible to a wide range of kids and students.

Once their domes were finished, my kids each built a small box (cube) using the same approach. The objective was to see how the strength of each shape compares. Once the cubes were constructed, they tried setting a variety of objects on each shape to see what would happen and how each would hold up under varying amounts of weight.

Finished with our science activity, one of my kids went on to expand from the cube shape, turning the initial base structure into the foundation for a more freeform sculptural piece. From science to food art!

I don't know if this will get us out of carving pumpkins, but it certainly was a lot less messy!





Support for the Science Activities for All Ages! area at Science Buddies was provided, in part, by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

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Detective Science: Weekly Science Activity


Learn what blood stains reveal in a crime scene physics project / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a physics-focused science activity that helps families learn more about how forensic science can provide clues to solve crimes! Blood stains and spots at the scene of a crime can help detectives piece together what happened. In this activity, students use fake blood and investigate how blood stains change depending on the height from which the blood was dropped. It may sound gory, but there is interesting physics to explore!

You and your family can explore the science involved using one of these sets of directions for either an independent science project or a home or classroom science activity:




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An orange scrub brush gives a family science activity a boost of jack-o-lantern-inspired fun and leads to a great robotics exploration.

Brushbot hands-on Halloween robotics science activity

Ever since the new Brushbot family science activity launched at Science Buddies, with electronics components conveniently bundled in a multi-project kit from the Science Buddies Store, I have had it on my "must make" list for my kids.

Thinking it would be cool to couple trick-or-treat month and the robotics project, I decided we would make a Halloween-themed Brushbot. Intent on tying our bot into October's mix of pumpkins, ghosts, and ghouls, I dug around online until I (finally) turned up a small scrub brush that seemed just right in terms of color. (It is harder than you might expect to find an orange scrub brush! Plus, for this project, you need a scrub brush without a handle.)


A Simple but Successful Build

On a roadmap of robotics projects, the Brushbot is a stepping stone early in the path, right there with the friendly toothbrush head Bristlebots. Despite the googly eye charm of the sample shown in the Science Buddies activity, with its simple circuit and limited number of parts, I worried that it might be a bit too easy of a build (compared to working with a breadboard) to capture my student's interest.

I was wrong!


A Blueprint for Success

The steps of the Brushbot activity are very simple to follow. There are a limited number of pieces involved in hooking things together, and the activity does an excellent job of providing easy-to-follow directions (with photos).

In minutes, my son had the circuit complete and was wriggling the cork onto the motor. A few minutes after that, he was able to flip the brushbot on and see it go.

Unfortunately, after a few seconds of scuttling to one side, the brushbot fell over. He set it upright and let it loose again. It fell over. Time after time, the brushbot fell over almost immediately.

Rather than being a stumbling block or a "fail" in terms of the science activity, his brushbot's initial lack of stability was actually a wonderful fulcrum for exploration. He had positioned his cork the way the directions instruct, but he was seeing unexpected behavior from his brushbot.

He hypothesized why he thought it was falling over—and he started testing to see if he could improve and stabilize the movement of the bot.


A Robot in Hand

Contrary to the basic bristlebot and the light-tracking bristlebot, both of which we made last year, the brushbot is chunky. It is hand-sized. Its few and large parts are also easy to tinker with. The positioning and placement of the cork on the motor, for example, offers ample room for experimentation and testing that offers immediate, clear, and visible results for a young robotics engineer. How fast does it move? Does it move in one direction only? Does it stay upright? Does it move in a circle or in a line?

My student tried a number of positions for the cork, noting how the bot's movement changed each time. He also experimented with adding a good bit of extra electrical tape to secure the motor more firmly to the brush. (This did improve the balance and movement of his brushbot.)

Even after the initial "project" was over, throughout the day, he picked the brushbot up again several times, watched it scuttle around on the floor, and tinkered a bit more. He tried more than one cork (they vary in size and thickness), too, to see what difference those variables might make.


Great Introductory Robotics

Because the circuitry is less complicated than other bots we have built, there was less need to worry about the intricacies of the electronics components and the circuit. Instead of making the project too easy, this seems to have invited my student to spend more time tinkering with the brushbot and putting the engineering design process in action.

We didn't have googly eyes on hand. But we improvised some pumpkin-shaped eyes and mouth on pieces of duct tape that we attached to the front. (Admittedly, this was more important to me than to him. Your success with decorating your bot will vary based on your student!)

No matter how you decorate it or what color brush you use, the brushbot has potential to have a lot of personality and individual pizzazz, but it also offers a lot of hands on engineering satisfaction for students--and fast gratification.

There is not much that can "go wrong" with a robotics project like this one, which makes it a great entry point project for families and kids just beginning to experiment with robotics and electronics.


Extend the Fun

If your students enjoy making the Brushbot, be sure and check these other posts and projects:




Support for resources and Project Ideas in robotics is provided by Northrop Grumman, Symantec Corporation, and the Best Buy Foundation.

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Environmental conservation and energy science collide in a proposed solar power project that promises greener energy but threatens to disrupt a major migratory path for birds, including golden eagles, in the area. Students can explore similar issues for migratory birds and animals with a big data science project.

Palen Solar Electric Generating System
Photo: Illustration of the initial two-tower proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System.

A large California solar project, the Palen Solar Electric Generating System Project was recommended (in modified form) last month by a California Energy Commission (CEC) committee. Two weeks later, the project developers, BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar, withdrew their application. The large-scale solar project, similar to (but smaller than) the nearby Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, raised a great deal of environmental outcry related to resident birds and wildlife, including the Desert Tortoise, and migratory birds which travel the Pacific Flyway and either overfly or winter in California. According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the number of birds that use the flyway is in the millions and includes more than 350 species.

Concern over disruption of the major migratory path which extends from Alaska to South America, in addition to concern over direct threats to birds (ranging from flying into the towers to suffering from exposure to solar flux) ruffled environmentalist feathers and inspired heated debate over the merits and risks of the proposed alternative energy system.


From Two Towers to One

The original Palen Project outlined in 2009 called for the construction of two 750-foot-tall, 250-megawatt power towers. After almost five years, the CEC issued a "recommendation" for approval in September 2014. Their recommendation was for a modified implementation of the project, only one 750-tower instead of two. While the recommendation called for a major scale back of the project, the amended Palen Project is still a sizable proposition. Phase one of the Palen Project, as approved by the CEC committee, would reportedly involve 1,900 acres of land in Riverside County on which the 750-foot tower and 85,000 heliostat mirrors that move in response to the sun would sit.

As Brightsource Energy explains it, in the proposed system, the mirrors track the sun and reflect sunlight to a boiler atop a tower. The reflected sunlight will heat the water and create "superheated" steam that will be used in a turbine to create electricity.


Birds in the Area

The CEC committee gave their recommendation, but they did acknowledge that the Palen Project, both in its original and amended form, will have negative consequences for wildlife, what they refer to in the Revised Presiding Member's Proposed Decision (PMPD) as "significant unmitigated impact." Nevertheless, the committee argued that the "benefits" of the Palen Project outweigh the risks, and the lengthy environmental and biological impact discussion in the 1182-page document outlines ways in which stipulations of the recommendation lower projected risks.

These summary statements appear in the opening lines of the report.

Star Wars and Bird Migration

For a related story with an out-of-this world and big-screen vibe, see Lord of the Wings: When Hollywood and Birds Collide. The article posted on the Audubon Magazine site reports on outcry from birding organizations when Star Wars Episode VII was filmed on location on an Irish island during mating season for several local bird species.


"Birds are the most conspicuous vertebrate found in the California Deserts. Records exist for at least 425 species from 18 orders and 55 families. These approximately 350 species are characterized as Neotropical migrants who pass through the region during spring and fall migrations. These birds include various raptors including Swainson's Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and numerous passerines, some of which include least Bell's Vireo, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, many hummingbirds, and various warblers."

The report goes on to detail shorebirds and waterfowl that migrate through the area as well as species that over-fly the site or winter in the area. Loss of foraging and nesting habitat, as well as displacement during breeding, are also described. The report goes on to document factors related to the project that could further increase the mortality rate for birds (as well as bats and insects). These include collision with project objects, electrocution, disorientation, response to solar flux (radiated light energy), and more.


Making Real-world Science Project Connections

Students interested in birds (or other migratory animals) can learn more about migration patterns and the importance of taking into account migration, wintering, and over-flying behaviors and developing conservation planning strategies to ensure habitats are maintained.

In the following environmental and zoology science projects, students use big data from the Movebank.org site to conduct research projects related to bird movement:





Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources that help students explore Big Data are supported by EMC.

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Think baseball is all about runs, outs, balls, and strikes? What about physics, biomechanics, and statistics? Explore the science of baseball!

World series baseball science
Photo: Wikipedia

Baseball fever is raging at my house. The first order of business every morning is to find out if our favorite team won or lost the previous night's game. Equally important is checking to see if our team's closest rival won or lost. All of this baseball excitement will culminate in the 2014 World Series, which begins on October 21st.

These championship games, played between the winners of the American League and the National League, will showcase of some of the best baseball skills that Major League Baseball has to offer. To prepare, the players spend long hours practicing their skills, strengthening their bodies, and finding the right equipment for getting the job done. And, although baseball is a game, you can bet that it is serious business for the coaches and players involved.


Home Run Science

While trial and error can be part of honing sports skills, very often, there's also science behind finding the optimal way to do your best. For example, in baseball, coaches carefully track the results of a player's at-bats to help them improve their batting skills. Opposing coaches use the same information to create the best defense against that player. Similarly, coaches carefully study a pitcher's throwing form to help him find the fastest and most accurate method.

Are you batty for baseball? Whether you love to take your turn at the plate, or get all fired up about baseball statistics, Science Buddies has Sports Science Project Ideas to get you started on a home run science project:

  • Baseball Bat Debate: What's Better, Wood or Aluminum?: Hitting baseballs is science? Yep, so long as you keep track of the data! Head out to a field with two different types of bats to see if you can put an end to the wood vs. aluminum debate.
  • The Physics of Baseball and Hit Charts: What influences a baseball's trajectory off of a bat? Create a mini batting machine with a ping pong ball catapult and then, just like the big leaguers, examine your results on a scatter plot diagram. How do variables such as bat speed affect where the ball lands?
  • The Biomechanics of Pitching: What is the key to throwing a baseball fast and accurately? Grab some baseball buddies and explore what happens to pitch speed when you change the way you throw the ball.
  • How Do Baseball Stadium Dimensions Affect Batting Statistics?*: Does it matter which field you play on? Not all baseball fields are created equally. If you love math, delve into baseball batting statistics to explore the "ballpark effect."
  • The Physics of Cheating in Baseball: Momentum, a combination of speed and weight, is what makes a baseball fly. Experiment with solid wood and "corked" bats to see if you can find the best bat weight and swing speed for hitting a home run.

And just in case you are wondering, the 2015 season opener is on April 4. Not that anyone in my house will be counting the days. Mark your calendars, baseball fans, and see you at the park!



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


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We go DIY with molecular gastronomy and family science as we make our own popping boba using the Spherification Kit from the Science Buddies Store.

Spherification popping boba

When it is hot outside, my kids love to pit stop at the nearby frozen yogurt shop where they can swirl frozen yogurt into an oversized paper bowl and load it up with toppings of their choice. Favorite toppings vary, but one kid's heaping concoction always includes little slippery, fruit-flavored balls—popping boba.


Popping boba are similar to the boba found in bubble (or boba) tea, but the small spheres have a very thin exterior skin, are filled with juice (or something similar), and "pop" in your mouth when you squeeze or bite them. In my house, the fascination with popping boba is so strong, and the availability at the yogurt shop so variable, that we ended up ordering popping boba in bulk.

We now have close to thirty pounds of the little liquid-filled balls sitting in giant plastic containers at the house!


Cool Home Science

Just about the time I was unpacking all that boba, the Spherification kit became available in the Science Buddies Store. I knew the molecular gastronomy spherification process is used in a human biology project that lets students explore how blood clots. In that science project, students use spherification to simulate and explore the clotting process—and to better understand what happens when clotting doesn't work properly. But I hadn't realized when reviewing the project on hemophilia and clotting that the same process used in the Science Buddies project to help students better understand a core biological process is actually a technique more commonly used to make something edible—tasty treats referred to as "spherification caviar" that can be eaten alone, added to desserts, or even used in drinks.

From juice-filled spherification caviar to spheres of sauces, honey, and even solid foods, many cooks use spherification to add something flavor-filled and unexpected to their dishes.

As I read the product information describing the Spherification kit and took a look at the brand new Serving Spheres for Supper: Use Molecular Gastronomy to Change the Shape of Your Food project that involves spherification, I realized that what students make in the project is very, very similar to popping boba.


Making Boba

My fifth grade student was excited to try making boba at home. We didn't do the spherification project as a science fair experiment, so we were not running trials based on the amount of sodium citrate added to our liquid solution (our "filling"). Even so, we knew from talking about the spherification project and process that not all liquids respond to spherification the same, in part because of their pH. Since fresh squeezed orange juice is what my student wanted to try for our foray into boba making, pH was a definite concern. The typical pH of orange juice is low, around 3.5, which makes it fairly acidic. (Tip: research the pH of other juices and drinks with your kids to find out how they compare! You can learn more about the pH scale here.)

For the spherification process to work with orange juice, we knew that we might need to lower the acidity of the juice by adding small amounts of sodium citrate to the mixture and seeing how well the spheres formed. (We also knew that even if spheres didn't form, we could inject strings of solution into the calcium bath and fish out something similar to gummy worms! Nothing you drop into the calcium bath is really going to be wasted... it just may or may not make a sphere.)

With that in mind, we got out our ingredients, opened the Science Buddies project up on a tablet for reference, and got down to some serious boba-making business.


Sizing Boba

Our spherification attempts were lots of fun, and as is often the case with home science activities, we tried a number of things, observed what happened with each change we made, and branched out and tried some unexpected things as well. We were amazed to see that dropping a drop of juice from the syringe into the calcium bath almost instantly formed a sphere. Excited by our immediate spherical success, we dropped several in (one by one), waited the 60 seconds, fished them out, and put them to the taste test. Because we hadn't rinsed them, they were a bit saltier than we expected (but still totally safe to eat). But, they worked! They were very much like popping boba—and filled with fresh orange juice. Very cool!

They were tiny.

Seriously tiny.

But they were juice-filled spheres, and they did pop in our mouths.

Using the syringe, we made several bowls of homemade popping boba. We played around with our solution, experimenting to see what difference differing amounts of sodium citrate might make. We made some gummy worms.

And then we got creative. The biggest disappointment for us was the small size of the caviar spheres. How could we make them bigger? What would happen if we dropped our juice into the mix by something larger, like a very small measuring spoon? We experimented with several differently sized spoons and techniques, and, voila, we ended up with larger boba.

The process was a huge hit, and we will definitely try spherification again. We have other questions we want to answer, and using a different kind of juice or drink will let us see how the process changes based on what food or liquid we use to fill our spheres.


Try It at Home

If you have kids who love kitchen science or who are enamored with popping boba, spherification is definitely something to try at home. The kit from the Science Buddies Store contains enough materials to make quite a bit of boba (or other spherification caviar), so this is a project you can pull out on a rainy afternoon, with a group of kids after school, or any time. You will need some regular household supplies on hand, including bowls, access to a blender, spoons, and your filling (e.g., juice), but the process is fast, and cleanup is easy.

Here are a few tips and pointers, based on our experience, for home experimentation:

  • Your juice (or filling) should be refrigerator cold before you begin. Many spherification recipes also suggest refrigerating the sodium alginate solution for several hours (to remove air bubbles). If you encounter problems making your boba, keep this in mind as something to try.
  • Mixing up the juice with the sodium alginate took some doing. We tried a handheld milk frother rather than a blender, for convenience. It may not have been powerful enough, and the sodium alginate did want to clump in the liquid rather than mix. Keep at it! You want to get the solution as thoroughly mixed as you can. If you have an immersion blender, you may find it just the right tool for the task!
  • Fishing the spheres, especially the super tiny ones, from our calcium bath was not easy using a regular spoon. If you have a small strainer-type spoon, or a spoon with very small slots or holes, you may find it easier to fish the balls out.
  • Rinsing the balls before eating them helps remove the salty taste.
  • Experiment with the angle at which you hold the syringe and how quickly you release the solution into the bath (or how forcefully you push the plunger).
  • If you decide to try larger spheres, experiment with the speed at which you drop the solution into the bath.
  • Keep in mind that boba made this way should be eaten shortly after making them. They will continue to harden!

If your home trials lead your kids to ask further questions about boba and how companies make lots of boba, you may enjoy watching a video like this one, which shows a tool that can be used to create uniform spherification caviar in batches (see screenshot below). You may also want to look around online at some of the many cool and exciting recipe ideas you will find for spherification caviar. Juice is only the beginning!

Spherification caviar maker / screenshot from video


Reverse Spherification

In your research on spherification and molecular gastronomy, you will also see "reverse spherification" mentioned and noted in some recipes. This is a process used when trying to encapsulate foods that contain calcium. Stay tuned for a Science Buddies project on making "yogurt ravioli" using reverse spherification!


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The current Ebola crisis in West Africa has already topped charts for all Ebola outbreaks in history. Though there are potential medicines being tested, the path to an available antiviral treatment is one riddled with questions and precautions for biochemists. Medical biotechnology science projects let students gets hands-on with the kinds of real-world research and development scientists are doing, right now, as they face the ongoing Ebola health crisis.

Ebola virus virion; Cynthis Goldsmith, CDC
Ebola virus virion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library, Cynthia Goldsmith

While there are thousands of diseases out there that we hope our immune systems can fight off as we move from place to place, meal to meal, and situation to situation, there are a few keynote diseases and viruses that stand at the top of the pile in terms of the fear they inspire. SARS. Swine flu. Avian flu. Ebola.

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that appeared in spring 2014 and continues to spread is the first Ebola outbreak since late 2012-early 2013. The difference this time is that the final tally on recorded cases in 2013 was 413. Already more than 6,000 cases have been reported in West Africa this year, and a World Health Organization statement released on September 26, 2014, reports that more than 3,000 patients with Ebola have died.

The current Ebola crisis has already affected more than ten times the number of people who contracted Ebola in 1976, the year the virus first appeared and, until now, the worst outbreak on record. The number of cases continues to climb, which has led to alarming predictions about the escalation of the epidemic.

In a startling report last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1.4 million people may contract Ebola by January, 2015 in Liberia and Sierra Leone.


Where is the Medicine?

The exact cause of the Ebola outbreak has not yet been identified, but the mounting number of cases in West Africa has signaled alarm bells around the world because there is no proven preventative vaccine for Ebola or treatment for those who have Ebola. According to the CDC, "no specific vaccine or medicine (e.g., antiviral drug) has been proven to be effective against Ebola."

That doesn't mean researchers and doctors are not pushing boundaries in the race to find medical treatments. Researchers are looking for both a vaccine that may, in the future, help prevent someone from getting the Ebola virus and antiviral medicines that may help treat patients with the Ebola virus by reducing the duration of the illness, lessening symptoms, and decreasing the mortality rate associated with the virus. Antivirals are medicines used to treat a patient who already has the disease and work by blocking viruses from entering cells or replicating within cells.

For example, research is underway on ZMapp, a drug the CDC reports is being developed as a possible treatment for those infected with Ebola. The drug, "a combination of three different monoclonal antibodies that bind to the protein of the Ebola virus" is still in early stages of testing, however, and has, according to the CDC, not moved yet to testing in humans.

ZMapp may have potential as a future treatment for Ebola, but no Ebola-specific antiviral drug is available for immediate use to help doctors and patients who are battling the current Ebola epidemic. This reality has led some doctors to try existing antivirals (designed to treat other diseases) with Ebola patients.


A Real-world Science Project

A great deal of testing and research is necessary when developing new antivirals or exploring the possibility of using existing medications in the treatment of another disease. Students can explore the kinds of questions and challenges involved in the Hitting the Target: The Importance of Making Sure a Drug's Aim Is True medical biotechnology project.

In Hitting the Target, students use bioinformatics tools to explore questions related to research that has been done on Ebola and a potential antiviral that may be used to treat infected patients. A drug that binds to the NPC1 protein may work well as a successful Ebola antiviral, but what happens if the medication also binds with non-target proteins? This is the kind of question that biochemists and bioinformatics scientists must answer before a drug can be used to help treat patients.


What About Immunity?

While containment practices are critical in helping prevent the spread of Ebola in affected areas of West Africa, there are people who are immune to the disease, either because they have survived the virus, have possibly been in contact with small amounts of the virus before and not fallen ill, or possibly have some genetic immunity. Scientists do not yet know how many people may be immune and learning more about immunity and the antibodies present in those who are immune may help lead to the development of a vaccine. Students can learn more about how memory cells in the body help the body fight off repeat encounters with a virus in the Fighting the Flu: How Your Immune System Uses Its Memory science project.


What Triggered the Outbreak?

While reasons for the outbreak and the unparalleled spread of Ebola in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone are still being identified, the origin of the exposure may stem from bats, which are known to carry the disease and which are reportedly hunted (and eaten) in Guinea where the current epidemic may have started.

To read more about the possible relationship between bats and the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, see:

Science Buddies' Project Ideas in Medical Biotechnology are sponsored by the Amgen Foundation.

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An unusual caterpillar brings lots of "eeeews!" and one contribution to a citizen science project. Discover how anyone can collaborate on serious scientific research.

Acharia stimulea, larva -- Gerald J. Lenhard
Above: Acharia stimulea, larva, Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org


What do you picture when you think of a caterpillar? Green and hairless? Or perhaps black and fuzzy? Recently, I found a caterpillar on my car bumper, and its distinctive looks made me stop in my tracks. With crazy green and brown coloring, horns at both ends, and little spines everywhere, it looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss' book! I decided that this was definitely a look-but-don't-t ouch situation.

After taking a picture, I immediately went online to see if I could figure out what kind of caterpillar it might be. A little sleuthing helped me discover that it was most likely a saddleback caterpillar, or Acharia stimulea, that is native to where I live. Although this wild-looking creature will morph into a decidedly boring brown moth, I was right about not touching it—those spines secrete poison!


Citizen Science Lets Anyone Contribute to Our Knowledge of the World

I enjoyed sharing my photo with friends and family, and I later learned that I could go one step further and share my discovery on a "citizen science" web site called Butterflies and Moths of North America . By submitting my photo and information about where it was taken, I was contributing to the available knowledge about this particular species. How cool that information I collected may be used by scientists in their research!

Butterflies and Moths of North America is just one of many existing citizen science projects. Do a quick online search, and you'll find collaborative projects related to pollinators, astronomy, chemistry, the environment, and much more. These projects offer families and classrooms a simple but meaningful way to participate in scientific research. What a boost for kids to know that their efforts can have an impact outside of their home or school! You can find more detailed information and inspiration about animal-related citizen science that is fun for the whole family in Loree Griffin Burns's book, Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard. )


Science Right Outside Your Door

My caterpillar hung onto the car bumper for two days. Figuring that it would be happier living on a food source instead, we very carefully moved it to a plant in the yard. When we checked back later, there was a hole in the leaf, but the caterpillar was gone. Perhaps to start building its cocoon?

Do you have an interest in caterpillars, butterflies, or moths? If so, take a look at these Science Buddies Project Ideas:

  • Does Temperature Affect the Rate of Butterfly Development?: Using painted lady butterfly larvae, explore the relationship between temperature and the time it takes for pupae to complete metamorphosis. Why does it matter?
  • Build a Better Moth Trap: Will Different-colored Lights Affect How Many Moths You Catch?:
    Ever wonder why moths are attracted to artificial light? Learn more about the theories behind this phenomenon and discover which colors of light catch their attention best.
  • Butterfly Wings: Using Nature to Learn About Flight:
    How can delicate butterflies migrate thousands of miles? With a fan and a few other simple materials, create your own butterfly flight simulator to investigate the subtleties of wing position and smooth flight.
  • The Touch Response*: How do different animals use sensory structures, such as skin or antennae, to learn about their environment? Using gentle touches with a toothpick, compare the sensitivity of your skin on different areas of your body. Try the same experiment by gently touching each end of a (non-poisonous!) caterpillar with a toothpick.


Finding Science at Home
Next time you step outside, look and see what sort of "creepy crawly" life you can discover!

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Last week, we posted an overview of Code.org's Hour of Code activities (and their new Code Studio), along with some exciting Science Buddies Project Ideas for students who are ready to move beyond an Hour of Code and continue their exploration of computer programming.

In this very relevant video, UC Berkeley Professor Dan Garcia talks about the kind of "drag-and-drop," block-based, snap-together programming environments that are becoming increasingly de facto as a way to introduce students of all ages to code—environments like the ones that appear in Code.org tutorials, in Scratch, and in Tynker.

In the video, Professor Garcia does an excellent job explaining why this kind of approach may really work for students at all levels to provide an engaging and exciting learning space for first-time programmers. With computer coding syntax bugs taken off the table, students can focus, instead, on what they can do with computer-based thinking and logic.



After you watch the video, check out the following Science Buddies projects, resources, and articles:


Drag-and-drop App Creation

The new Can You Crowdsource a Better School Environment? computer science project is the second project at Science Buddies that uses MIT's App Inventor as a programming environment for app development. In the new crowdsourcing project, students use App Inventor to create an app to encourage members of a community (like a school) to all work together to accomplish something.

To explore App Inventor further, see the Staying Healthy with Personal Medicine Apps science project. The project guides students in programming a reminder app using MIT App Inventor.




Support for Computer Science Project Ideas is provided by Symantec Corporation.

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Computer Programming Basics: An Hour of Code


With more and more kids playing video games and using apps, the secret to introducing kids to computer programming may be in making a game of it. With a smorgasbord of fun, engaging, playful, and puzzling modules available as part of the Hour of Code initiative, kids can experiment with programming basics and sample Javascript, Python, Ruby, and more. For kids just getting started with computer programming concepts, a gamified approach may make all the difference in showing them that programming is both fun and something they can do.

MIT App Inventor

MIT App Inventor Helps Students Program Smart Apps
With MIT's App Inventor, students can set up apps that can help people remember important tasks—like taking their medicine. The new Staying Healthy with Personal Medicine Apps science project idea guides students in programming a reminder app using MIT App Inventor and an exploration of the ways in which such apps may make a difference in personal healthcare.

In the new Can You Crowdsource a Better School Environment? computer science project, students use MIT's App Inventor to create an app to encourage members of a community (like a school) to all work together to accomplish something.


Encouraging Kids to Program

In addition to the Hour of Code samples and the Science Buddies projects and resources mentioned, students, teachers, and parents can learn more about available programming languages, tools, and environments in the Kid-Friendly Programming Languages guide. This table of options can help you guide students who are ready to strike out on their own for more complicated computer programming projects.

See also: Playful Programming and Cool Code: From Tech User to Tech Creator.

Do your kids lose all track of time when it comes to video games? In what feels like a blink, minutes may morph into hours, hours of intense concentration and engagement. Can this level of engagement be used as a platform for education? Is playing a game as fun when it is educational? Can routine "practice" and skills introduction be embedded in game play in a way that can grab and hold student attention and interest?

The appeal of video games is strong for many kids, a fact that has drawn educators and developers to the gaming and gamification market. Check a parent's mobile device, and you may find an assortment of educational apps for students in a wide range of subjects. Many parents stock up on educational apps as a way to salvage wait time and turn typical game playing into a potentially brain boosting activity.

Math Ninja, for example, is one of scads of math-focused apps for elementary school kids. To protect the tree house in Math Ninja, players have to successfully solve more and more equations to earn the money necessary to better equip (and level up) their defenses. The attacking forces (led by an angry, oversized tomato) increase in strength, skill, specialty, and number, so the only way to survive is to amass enough money to buy better powers and to upgrade defenses. You have to solve the problems that appear during the interludes between attacks in order to gain necessary resources, which you can then spend on upgrades in preparation for the next wave of attacks.

A balance of the game involves solving equations as you move through the chapters of the story-driven game, the evil tomato getting more and more creative about trying to destroy the treehouse. As a player, solving the math facts, and doing so quickly, is the mechanism that gets you farther along in the game.

Games like Math Ninja mask or temper the rigors of practicing and refreshing core subject matter, a Mary Poppins spoonful of sugar with the medicine approach that puts learning into a fun and exciting gamified format and storyline, an approach that some kids will more readily swallow than sitting with a stack of traditional flash cards or a workbook.

Using the same "make it a game" approach, developers have readily jumped on the gamification bandwagon in hopes of getting more students interested in computer science. With people like MIT's Mitch Resnick, developer of Scratch, advocating the need for all students to be familiar with fundamentals of computer programming—the need for kids to transition from passive app users to active creators—developers have latched onto game play as a way to get more kids excited about code.

Gamification may be a back-door approach, but with games and challenges in which players pick up and practice core coding skills in order to win or move forward, educators, developers, corporate leaders, and organizations like Code.org hope to galvanize students by showing them that computer science is both fun and doable.


An Hour of Code

Getting kids excited about programming may sound like a good idea, but teachers may worry about fitting computer science into already crowded lesson plans. The good news for time-crunched teachers (or parents at home) is that introducing programming to students may be as simple as hooking them up with a free "hour of code" activity.

Through Code.org and Computer Science Education Week's (CSEdWeek) Hour of Code initiative, companies have put together bite-sized modules, tutorials, and games that let students explore programming basics as well as language-specific skills, including JavaScript, HTML, and Python. On the Code.org site, teachers can browse participating hour of code activities, lesson plans, and modules that, in an hour or less, give students a taste of what it means to "code" something. These nice, neat, and tidy, hour-long packages make it easier for teachers to bring computer science into the classroom. These Hour of Code modules can also be done by students at home, for fun, or as extra challenges.

To date, Code.org notes that more than 42 million users have tried an "hour of code."

A screenshot from Code.org's sample Hour of Code activity
Above: A screenshot from Code.org's sample Hour of Code activity.



More Than an Hour of Code

For teachers looking to extend their programming unit, Code.org has more extensive-options, including the newly launched Code Studio, three 20-lesson programming courses for K-5 elementary students. The Code Studio courses include a mix of videos, online activities, and "unplugged" activities (no computer required) and are designed to make it possible for even kindergarten students and pre-readers to begin learning about and using code-oriented thinking skills. In the earliest lessons of the first course, for example, students are guided through several activities that get them familiar with the drag-and-drop approach that will be used for the coding blocks. For teachers, a dashboard to track student progress is available, as are professional development workshops.

As shown in the screenshot above, Code Studio modules teach programming basics using a snap-together block system that looks very much like Scratch. With familiar characters like Rio's Angry Birds crew, these lessons have been developed to resonate with students and draw them in from the start. It looks like a game, but game play involves hooking together the right blocks of code.

In addition to the new Code Studio, the free K-8 Intro to Computer Science course is still available on the Code.org site. The K-8 Intro requires 15-25 hours for completion and takes students through 20 multi-activity stages covering multiple programming concepts. According to Code.org, the K-8 Intro course has been used in more than 25,000 classrooms.

Each module in the K-8 Intro is prefaced by a short video that explains the kind of computer programming element that will be used and then summarizes the challenge of the exercise. For example, Bill Gates (Microsoft) explains how If/Then statements work, and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) explains, with an example of wishing everyone on Facebook Happy Birthday, the value of using loops. These exercises also use familiar game characters like those from Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies and also use the snap together coding environment. Students can also build their own Flappy Bird-style game in the separate Flappy Bird Tutorial and, along the way, use and practice drag-and-drop programming.

Co-developed and subject-specific workshops and curriculum materials are also available at Code.org for middle and high school students and educators. For middle school students, Code.org and its partners have created interdisciplinary modules designed to be integrated with regular science and math classes. These curriculuma support Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core. In the science curriculum, students work through modules that include computer modeling and simulation, an Earth science module on water, a life science module on ecosystems, and a chemistry module on chemical reactions.


Four to Check at Home or in Class

The range of Hour of Code opportunities for students and teachers to explore is exciting, and there are numerous online environments, games, classes, books, and apps that further encourage students of all ages to learn and use programming-based logic and thinking. For students interested in programming, these games and challenges can be stacked, combined, or done as time allows.

Here are four coding stepping stones (and one extra game) to check out after whetting interest with an Hour of Code module or activity.

    Scratch
    Scratch, developed in the MIT Media Lab, is a foundational drag-and-drop, snap-together, block-oriented programming environment. Scratch does not offer a guided introduction to programming, but with a basic understanding of the drag-and-drop blocks, students can build and share their own games and applications using Scratch's free online environment. Students can also learn by modifying existing applications.

    Science Buddies has a number of projects that involve Scratch. For more information, see Science Fair Project Ideas Using Scratch, Playful Programming and Cool Code: From Tech User to Tech Creator, and A Trick of the Eye for Halloween.

    For a guided, project-based approach to familiarizing students with Scratch, check our review of Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program By Making Cool Games .

    Screenshot from Scratch
    Above: A screenshot from within the Scratch environment.


    Tynker
    Tynker is an online computer programming learning environment that offers a fee-based program for students. Students can sample the Tynker approach with its animated Hour of Code modules. These activities are friendly, story-driven, and earmarked for certain target age ranges.

    With Tynker's Hour of Code modules, students can dive in and start solving story-based challenges that begin with very basic tasks and get progressively more challenging. Using drag-and-drop programming blocks, students snap together programming elements to solve a specific task and then run the program to see if the solution works. As the program runs, the blocks are highlighted one by one, reinforcing that each element in the program plays a specific role (a key concept in later being able to troubleshoot where a program might be going wrong).

    A Tynker app is also available for iPad and Android. The app encourages game and app building and comes with nine game kits to get kids immediately started customizing their own games. The Tynker app also includes access to a library of sample coding projects and a host of built-in elements for kids to incorporate into their ideas, including sound, tilt, and touch. Additional add-ons are available as in-app purchases.

    Tynker hour of code screenshot
    Above: Tynker offers a number of Hour of Code activities for students, like Lost in Space, shown above.

    Lightbot
    Lightbot is a game for iOS or Android. You have to purchase Lightbot to explore the full set of levels, but an Hour of Code limited version can be played on a mobile device or via a Flash-enabled Web browser. (Editorial note: in our tests, we preferred the experience of the Hour of Code version on an iPad compared to the Web-based version.)

    Depending on the student, moving through the sample may not take a whole hour, but the game is fun and engaging and introduces students to basic programming elements. For each level, the player is challenged to move the bot to a specific square and light it up. To do so, the series of commands to "move" the bot correctly to the endpoint have to be "programmed" by the player. Sometimes, you need to make the lightbot jump, turn, or repeat a set of motions. In each major section (basics, procedures, and loops) there are multiple levels with increasing difficulty as new elements are introduced. There are two version of Lightbot available: Lightbot Junior (42 levels for ages 4-8) and Lightbot (50 levels for ages 9-11).

    Lightbot hour of code screenshot
    Above: A screenshot from the Lightbot Hour of Code activity.

    Kodable
    Kodable is a game for iOS and designed for students age 5 and up. Similar to Lightbot, students use blocks to help guide fuzzy creatures through a series of train track screens. Like Lightbot, Kodable takes what feels like a game-board approach in which you need to get the character from one spot to a specified end point. Lightbot uses a small grid, a grid that grows in depth as students tackle new challenges. Kodable, on the other hand, takes users through an imaginary landscape, what looks like a blue sidewalk on a lawn of grass and involves movement that brings Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders to mind. You need to get the fuzz from one side of the screen to the other, picking up the gold coins along the way. Audio prompts and sound effects help guide the player in knowing what to do, and players can choose from a variety of colorful fuzz creatures to use.

    One of the notable differences in Kodable's early levels, and a mark of its younger target audience, is that players need to specify the direction for the fuzzy creature to roll but not how many spaces need to be covered. If the fuzz is told to roll right, it will roll right until it hits an end point (or is told to stop). Though this approach seems to simplify the process, Kodable quickly introduces new skills, like changing direction based on the color of a block rather than rolling to an end wall (the equivalent of a "when" or "if" statement).

    As the fuzz rolls along when the code is executed, the directional blocks are highlighted so that the player sees each command in the context of how the fuzz moves as it rolls along, picks up gold coins, and moves to the end point. As the player works through the levels of the game, the maze or "track" gets bigger and more challenging to navigate. Plug in the right set of directions though, and the fuzz makes it across the screen. The free app contains 45 levels. Through in-app purchase, users can extend the game with three different challenge sets. Several documents for educators are available that show how Kodable aligns with Common Core standards.

    Kodable screenshot
    Above: A screenshot from within the Kodable learning environment.

    Cargo-Bot
    Designed for the iPad (and built using the Codea iPad development environment), Cargo-Bot is a fascinating and challenging puzzle-oriented game. Like many other programming games, users are challenged to move piles of colored bricks into specific locations by writing code using right, left, up, and down movements that can be embedded in routines and loops and even limited with color-based conditionals. The early levels of the tutorial are easy, but the difficulty quickly picks up, and even seasoned coders (and adults) may find Cargo-Bot a real challenge. As is true in most coding environments, there are often multiple ways to solve a challenge, and users can earn one to three stars for solving the puzzle, depending on how many code blocks are used in the solution.

    Cargo-Bot is not designed, necessarily, as an educational app for computer programming. Students with an interest in programming, however, or students who really enjoy the challenge of puzzles and this kind of logic may find it a great and mind bending game.

    Cargo-Bot screenshot
    Above: The Cargo-Bot game on iPad challenges gamers to solve puzzles by programming the right solution.


Getting kids excited about code is a first step. But at some point, they have to be able to look under the hood of drag-and-drop blocks and make the leap from game play and visual block-based coding environments to the real lines and strings and blocks of code used in programming—the text and syntax that the colorful blogs in drag-and-drop environments stand in for and hide.

How effectively and smoothly kids can transition from cool graphical coding and gamified challenges and playscapes to real-world coding is something educators and developers are watching and something that needs to be addressed to put a bridge in place that can help keep student enthusiasm high even when the gamification of coding tapers off as students advance beyond pre-set learning modules and challenges.


Science Buddies and Computer Programming for Students

Science Buddies offers a wide range of computer science projects for students interested in exploring computer programming and video game design. The following Project Ideas are recent additions to the Science Buddies library of more than 1,300 free projects for K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) exploration:


Stay Tuned!

Science Buddies is currently working on a fun new set of activities that will enable kids to use Scratch to interface with sensors and build their own interactive instruments, artwork, and other creations.



Support for Computer Science Project Ideas is provided by Symantec Corporation.

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What's in a Watermelon?


Are the seeds in your watermelon playing hide-and-seek? Can plants grow without soil? The plant world offers a cornucopia of mysteries that are ripe for investigation.

Watermelon seeds inspire science inquiry for students and families

On a hot summer day, cold, crisp, and juicy watermelon is one of my favorite treats. Delicious and healthy, watermelon is hard to beat, especially when you also consider the entertainment those big black seeds can provide. That's right, put one in your mouth and spit it as far as you can! Did you know that the current watermelon seed spitting world record is almost 70 feet?


Where Did All of the Seeds Go?

Before you organize a backyard seed-spitting contest, you may want to see if you can find a seeded watermelon. Years ago, every watermelon at the grocery store was full of black seeds, but now, in most U.S. stores, you have a harder time finding watermelons with seeds than without. How can this be? Don't you need seeds to grow more fruit?

That sounds like a great science question for students and families to explore!


Science on the Table and in the Garden

While the science of growing seedless watermelons might be difficult for younger children to understand, there are certainly lots of plant-related science questions that kids of all ages can explore. Whether you are snacking on a piece of fruit or caring for a houseplant, start a conversation about why and how things grow.

Below are a few Science Buddies Project Ideas to get you started.


Plant the Seeds for Future Interest in Science

From potatoes to moss, you'll find even more plant-related ideas in Science Buddies' Plant Biology section.

And if you find watermelons with seeds at your local market, you might see how your seed spitting skills compare with the current record!


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Now within twenty miles of its target comet, the Rosetta spacecraft may help provide information about the formation of the solar system and planet Earth. Students and classes can join scientists in the next year of Rosetta watching and, along the way, explore comets and space science through hands-on science projects.

A rendering of the Rosetta Satellite arriving at Comet 67P. ESA
Above: A rendering (not to scale) of the Rosetta Satellite arriving at Comet 67P. Photo: Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Comet image: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM.


When it comes to space science and astronomy science projects, things don't always move at light speed other than in the movies. Instead, some experiments, observations, and projects involving space take meticulous planning and possibly years of waiting and tracking before the end goal comes into sight or alignment.

Last month, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft finally arrived at its destination—a rendezvous with the Churyumov-Gerasimenko Comet (Comet 67P). Launched in 2004, the Rosetta craft traveled for ten years, two of which it spent in hibernation to conserve energy, before pulling up alongside Comet 67P. Already spanning a decade, the mission has been an exercise in advance planning and a feat that required countless calculations, trajectory plans, and even multiple slingshot maneuvers from Earth's gravitational field.

In its final few months of approach, the ESA reports that Rosetta went through a series of ten rendezvous maneuvers to tweak the craft's trajectory and speed. Every adjustment had to be right on target for the Rosetta to successfully intersect with Comet 67P.

In a statement released by the ESA on August 6, 2014, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the Director General of the ESA, announced, "After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here.'"

Reaching the comet and pulling up within range of its orbital path was a pivotal step for the Rosetta spacecraft mission—a make-or-break moment in the mission—but the Rosetta has still not completely locked itself into place. Flying a triangular shape near the comet, Rosetta will continue to get closer to Comet 67P until it is close enough to be pulled in by the gravitational force of Comet 67P, which sources say should happen when Rosetta reaches a distance of 6.2 miles from the comet.

As it hovers near Comet 67P, Rosetta will be mapping the comet's gravitational field and surface and scouting a location for dropping a lander onto the surface of the comet in November. Already, the Rosetta spacecraft has begun capturing close-up images of the comet, giving astronomers and scientists an unprecedented up-close look at the surface of a comet.


Closing In on New Answers

Comets, made up of ice and dust, are frozen vestiges of the formation of the solar system, and scientists are hoping that Rosetta will be able to help provide information and data to solve one of the oldest unanswered questions about the Earth—where did the water in the oceans on Earth come from? That comets are responsible for the oceans is one theory, and scientists are hoping Rosetta may be able to provide answers.

A decade after liftoff, Rosetta is finally in position and primed for the final and pivotal year of its mission. As Rosetta moves ever-closer to Comet 67P and, in November, drops its landing module, students and the science community alike will be eagerly watching to see what Rosetta discovers.

Student Space Science

Unlike members of the Rosetta team, students don't have ten years to plan and execute their science projects. For students interested in space science, the simple reality that space is "out there" can make it challenging to conduct a physical experiment.

Blake Bullock, Northrop Grumman

A Career in Space Science and Engineering

Students interested in space science and astrophysics can learn more about possible STEM career paths in this interview with Blake Bullock, Civil Air and Space Director for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Trained first as an astrophysicist, Blake says her job lets her spend time thinking "about the future of science, technology, and aerospace innovation."

Space is a long way away! As a result, when it comes to student space science, many projects are data-driven projects which let students delve into an astronomy question, form a hypothesis, and then analyze publicly-available data sets to draw conclusions. Examples of projects like this include: Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?, NASA Asteroid Database: What Can You Learn About Our Solar System?, Sunspot Cycles, Correlation of Coronal Mass Ejections with the Solar Sunspot Cycle, Finding the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy Using Globular Star Clusters, and The Milky Way and Beyond: Globular Clusters.

These kinds of data-driven investigations can be exciting for students and offer a taste of the kinds of real-world data analysis that many space scientists do. When possible, however, and especially for students in lower grades, hands-on projects that bring space science questions to life through everyday materials, models, and simulations may more effectively capture the attention of students with an emerging interest in space science.

Inspired by the school science project of Ashleigh (profiled in the Galactic Curiosity: Fifth Grade Student Charts a Science Course for the Stars story), the new Satellite Science: How Does Speed Affect Orbiting Altitude? astronomy project guides students in exploring, using cookie sheets and a variation of marble painting, the relationship between satellites and the gravitational pull of the object they orbit.

Tasked with the need for a tangible simulation to meet her school fair requirements, Ashleigh innovated an experiment to test questions she had about the Cassini satellite and Jupiter. In the new astronomy Science Buddies project based on Ashleigh's experiment, students set up and utilize a model to explore questions about the trajectory of satellites as they revolve around planets. With a homemade satellite launcher made from cardboard tubing, students put their model satellites into orbit and study the paint trails that mark different trajectories created by different simulations of gravitational pull.

Homemade satellite launcher used in the Satellite Science astronomy project
Above: the homemade satellite launcher used in the Satellite Science astronomy project.

Students can learn more about comets and satellites in the following Science Buddies Project Ideas:


Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in Astronomy are supported by Northrop Grumman.

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Tie-Dye Using Permanent Markers Chemistry Activity and DIY Project  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a chemistry-focused family science and craft activity that lets students explore the concept of solubility while using permanent markers to decorate a T-shirt (or piece of fabric). Permanent markers are designed to be lasting, so what happens when you add water? What happens when you add alcohol? Does the marker ink react the same to both water and alcohol? Put these questions to the test in a fun hands-on science experiment. At the end of the project, students will have designed a cool tie-dye piece, too. This is science you can wear!

Permanent marker-based tie-dye is a fun spin on traditional tie-dyeing and a lot less messy! (But do be careful, permanent markers are called permanent for a reason.)

Families can explore solubility and marker-based tie-dye in the following Science Buddies activity at Scientific American:

For additional science exploration related to markers, the dyes in markers, and tie-dye, see the following projects at Science Buddies:




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Brushbot from the Bristlebot robotics kit at Science Buddies
Above: The Brushbot is one of the three robots kids can build using the Bristlebot Kit from the Science Buddies Store.

A brand new Bristlebot Kit launched today in the Science Buddies Store. With this new kit, students can experiment with three styles of introductory robots and learn more about robotics engineering. The kit has been specially designed to make building the robots easier for students to do independently—and fun!

The new Bristlebot Kit contains components for use with several Science Buddies Project Ideas and activities, including:

For more information about introducing robotics engineering projects to K-12 students at school or at home, see the following:



Support for resources and Project Ideas in robotics is provided by Northrop Grumman, Symantec Corporation, and the Best Buy Foundation.

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Are you a picky eater? Maybe there is a scientific reason for your reluctance to eat certain foods even if you know they are good for you. If you are going to a casual family gathering this summer or have friends over, you might be able to have some tongue-dyeing taste-testing fun in the name of science!

Super taster science experiment
Above: With an easy and colorful science experiment, you can see if you are a super taster. Be sure to have a magnifying glass on hand!

Chartreuse pants and a flashy orange shirt? Your taste in clothing may say a lot about you and your personality. If you have a really quirky sense of style, you might even have heard the expression, "your taste is all in your mouth"! How about your taste in food? Will you eat anything, or do you gravitate toward certain kinds of foods and steer clear of others—even ones you know are good for you? Do you like things salty? Do you prefer sweet? Neither? What about sour? Do you like the taste of cinnamon? When you taste a cookie, can you isolate and identify lots of different ingredients? Or do you just taste "cookie"?

From the time kids first start eating solid foods, most parents try to introduce a wide range of healthy and colorful foods in addition to staples like oatmeal and rice. Despite the best airplane-in-the-air-coming-in-for-landing maneuvers, spooning pureed veggies to a toddler can be a very messy process, one involving a good bit of thrown and spat food. As kids grow, more and more veggies appear, as do a wide range of other foods, herbs, and spices.

Things may get less messy, but despite repeat attempts to make kids eat their veggies, some kids (and some adults) never do learn to stomach their broccoli. Some kids (and some adults) won't touch grapefruit. They may, in fact, always seem to be super picky compared to others who will seemingly eat just about anything. It may seem like they don't have "enough" taste, but the opposite may be the case. Picky eaters may, in fact, be picky because they have more rather than less sense of taste!


Tongue Science

The number of taste buds in the mouth varies from person to person. People with a larger number of taste buds are classified as supertasters. On the other end of the taste spectrum are non-tasters, and the rest of us average tasters fall in between.

Supertasters taste things with far more specificity and intensity than average tasters or non-tasters. They are especially sensitive to certain kinds of tastes like bitterness, and some foods, like broccoli and kale, are ones that supertasters can't stand. They don't just dislike green veggies, however. There are a wide range of foods, spices, and flavors that may trigger a supertaster's resistance, including things that are sweet or salty.

Scientifically speaking, a picky eater might, in fact, be a supertaster, and finding out is easy to do with a hands-on science project.

The Do You Love the Taste of Food? Find Out if You're a Supertaster! human biology science project outlines a simple experiment kids can do using food dye and office supply store paper reinforcement rings. Rather than just recording how things "taste," in this project, students quantifiably measure and compare people's taste buds. Color a ringed area of the tongue with a drop of food dye, and you can count the number of papillae in the area. Match that number up to a chart, and you can see where your taste sensitivity falls.

Maybe you are a supertaster! But what about the rest of your family? How do the numbers compare among age or gender groups? This is a fun science activity to do with friends and family. You will all end up with a colorful tongue spot for a while, too!


More Taste Buds Fun

You can continue taste-test science this summer with your friends and family with science projects and activities like these:


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Stay up late, or get up really, really early to catch nature's annual fireworks display. Students and families can extend Perseids fun with a hands-on science exploration of parallax. How far away are the things we see in the sky?

Stargazing parallax science activity / Hand-on STEM experiment


Each August, a much-anticipated nighttime show plays live in our skies: the Perseid meteor showers. This annual event offers you the year's best opportunity to see meteors streaking across the sky, so long as you are willing to be awake well after midnight!


Cosmic Collisions Make for Great Light Shows

Why does the Perseid meteor shower happen each August? Because that's the point in our orbit around the Sun when we are crossing the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Comet Swift-Tuttle travels through space, it leaves behind bits of rock and ice called meteoroids. Some of these fast-travelling meteoroids burn up when they hit Earth's atmosphere. The bright light that we see when this happens is called a meteor. You may have heard some people call these "shooting stars," but meteors aren't stars at all, just burning space debris!

While it is possible to see a meteor on any night, so long as you are looking in the right place at the right time, the Perseids are special because as Earth crosses through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, lots of meteors are likely to be visible in the sky, so many that it is called a "meteor shower."


Maximize Your Chances of Seeing a Meteor

Most years, scientists would recommend that you view the Perseids during the "peak" of the showers, which is the time when they expect the most meteors to be visible in the sky. However, this year the moon will be so bright during the expected peak days of August 12 and 13, that scientists are suggesting you head outside in early August.

Your best chance for seeing meteors is in the few hours before dawn, as far away from city lights as possible. Although a blanket or reclining chair will keep you comfortable, the only "tool" that's required is patience. Good things come to those who wait!


Sky Science Connections for Students

Students and families interested in the Perseids, in stargazing, or in astronomy in general can ask space science questions and experiment with Science Buddies astronomy science projects and family science activities.

For example, with a hands-on backyard setup using hula hoops, students (and families) can explore the relationship between the distance of an object and the perspective from which the object is viewed. The way an object appears to move or shift when you look at it from two different positions is known as parallax and is an important concept in understanding how astronomers determine how far away things are in the sky. Both a student science project (suitable for a science fair) and a shorter family science activity are available:

These family science experiments don't require the night sky or a telescope, but by exploring parallax, students can better understand how scientists measure how far away things are in the sky.

For more fun family science that connects with this month's Perseids, see Meteor Science: Weekly Science Project Idea and Home Science Activity Spotlight. For added inspiration for student astronomers and space enthusiasts, see the Galactic Curiosity: Fifth Grade Student Charts a Science Course for the Stars student science success story. The Satellite Science: How Does Speed Affect Orbiting Altitude? project idea based on the student's fifth grade astronomy experiment is now part of the Science Buddies directory of free project ideas!


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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.


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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.

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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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Explore surface tension with a small raft and soap science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a physics family science experiment that investigates the dynamics of surface tension. Surface tension may keep your soda from spilling over the cup when you fill it a bit too full, but can surface tension also be used to propel something? In this science activity, students build a small, lightweight raft and experiment to see how surface tension—and some dish soap—can help move it across the surface of water.


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Computer bugs and vulnerabilities like the Heartbleed bug provide frightening reminders of how important it is to set strong passwords online. Students can learn more about password practices and experiment with testing passwords by using and improving a password-guessing program written in Python.

Combination lock
How many possible passwords could be created from the lock above? How long would it take to crack a password on this lock? When you move to online passwords, you may have many more possible options for setting your password. How can you create passwords that are harder for a computer program to guess? Science projects at Science Buddies help students explore human behavior related to setting and remembering passwords—and let students learn more about computer science and programming by trying a password guessing program written in Python.
The Heartbleed bug detected a few months ago created a flurry of "change your password" warnings. The bug, a hole in popular opensource code that could let hackers grab chunks of server memory (including user login information) without leaving any trail, sat quietly for two years before it was discovered.

Heartbleed was a pervasive bug because many, many servers use OpenSSL, a tool used by sites, ironically, to help protect the transmission of sensitive information. Both the number of servers potentially affected by the bug and the fact that someone exploiting the bug (and stealing user information) could do so without being detected makes the bug particularly frightening.

Not every site and company was impacted by the Heartbleed bug, but many were. (According to some estimates, as much as 66% of the Internet was impacted by the Heartbleed security flaw.) Thankfully, news of the bug and checklists for sites for which users definitely needed to change their logins, traveled fast. Heartbleed was big news in both public and private circles. You may have even shared, retweeted, emailed, or texted warnings or public service announcements about Heartbleed to your own friends and family.

News of the Heartbleed bug immediately caused password and online security and privacy panic. While coders and server owners raced to patch the bug, users faced up to the fact that changing passwords was necessary. According to a recent Wired article, "Heartbleed triggered what was probably the single largest mass-password change in history: In response to the bug, some 86 million internet users in the U.S. alone changed at least one password or deleted an internet account."

After reviewing several charts of online sites that were affected by the Heartbleed bug, including many social media sites, I realized I didn't have a choice. To ignore the risk of the Heartbleed bug would be to bury my head in the sand. I needed to change passwords at least on some of the major sites I access frequently, sites that are part of my daily routine.

You may know that a simple password like "apple" is not a good idea. Neither is the name of your pet or your birth date. But what is a good password? How complicated does a password need to be to be safe from hackers? Is any password really unbreakable?

Taking a look at how passwords can be guessed can help answer that question. By experimenting with a password guessing program, students may better understand strategies to take to make sure passwords are as strong as possible.


Personal Password Protocol

Once upon a time, I used a single password for all of my logins. Gradually, a bit of paranoia crept into my approach as stories of identify theft began to rise and as the number of places requiring a login increased. Did I really want the same password at x gaming or shopping site as I use to access my bank? If someone hacks my email or my iTunes, to how many other accounts might they also gain access?

Along the way, I changed how I create my passwords, how many I use, and how I structure them.

Then there was Heartbleed.

Dealing with the Heartbleed bug was definitely not fun. Many of us have dozens and dozens of logins, possibly involving dozens and dozens of passwords. All those passwords add up!

In response to Heartbleed, I changed a handful of passwords in one afternoon. I jotted down a few of the changes on a slip of paper. (This probably wasn't the smartest choice.) I promptly lost the paper in moving between rooms and between computers. (More than a month later, I still have not caught sight again of that scrap of paper.)

When I next tried to use Facebook... bam. Trouble. I tried dozens of combinations and tweaks on my old password. Dozens of failed attempts. Lots of wasted time. I finally got in, and then repeated, amazingly, the same difficulty when I was prompted to log in again on another computer. And then again on my phone.

When I tried to log into one of several email accounts, my Instagram account, my Pinterest, I ran into password trouble at every turn. Because so many of my passwords differ, I repeatedly found myself at a loss trying to get logged back in, a process I had to repeat on every device I use.

Unfortunately, while I had trouble cracking my own passwords, even though I know the general parameters of how I set them and how I had tried to systematically change them, a hacker probably would not have nearly as much trouble breaking my passwords or yours.


Real-world Online Security

Password security is always something about which you want to be cautious, mindful, and protective.

In the movies, you often see people—on the well-intended side as well as on the criminal side—trying to figure out a password based on somewhat obvious details or identifying information about the person (like a child's name, a birth date, or a favorite rock band).

Off the big screen, guessing someone's password is not usually that easy. Most people are savvy enough about online security to use something less than obvious, to throw in some mix of capitalization, and to intermix numbers, letters, and symbols.

Guessing a friend or family member's password might be harder than you think, or even impossible—for you. But for someone applying technology to the process of stealing passwords, you might be surprised at how quickly a password can be broken by a bit of computer code.

A program isn't trying to "guess" the password the same way you might. Instead, a computer program may be coded to run systematically through all possible combinations to try and break your code.


Making Student Science Connections

Two science projects at Science Buddies tackle password security and guide students in an investigation of computer security behaviors and technologies.

  • Do People Use Different Passwords for Different Accounts? is a human behavior project in which students investigate password practices among groups of users. In this project, students survey people to better understand how different users think about, use, and create passwords for online sites and services. Do they use the same password everywhere? How many passwords do they have? What kinds of trends can be identified among users regarding password practices? (For more information about conducting survey-based science projects, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide. Don't overlook the ways in which your online connections and social media can be used to help broaden your survey pool!)

  • Password Security: How Easily Can Your Password Be Hacked? is a computer science project in which students take an inside look at how difficult (or not difficult) figuring out a password can be. By first thinking about a standard combination lock and doing the math to determine the number of combinations (and how much time it might take to test each one) and then moving on to thinking through the same process for more difficult kinds of locks, students look from the ground up at password construction and password cracking.

    Using an introductory exercise in reading and writing Python code, the project guides students in an exploration of how computer routines can try and guess passwords. You can't use this code to steal someone's information from somewhere else, but you can have fun experimenting with guessing a password a friend inputs in the program code or testing the code to guess your own strings and compare the time it takes the program to guess different kinds of passwords. What makes it harder for the program to guess a password? What kind of password takes longest? Can this simple program crack the passwords you normally use? Can you come up with a password the program can't guess? You can also test the password guessing code to see if you can figure out a few sample passwords from Science Buddies.

Note: the project above is not designed to encourage students to try and write code that might steal user information. Instead, the project gives students a better understanding of how passwords can be systematically tested and guessed by software (even if millions of possible combinations have to be checked). The project also gives students a fun, real-world scenario in which to experiment with Python computer programming. Learning to run, edit, and revise the provided code involves installing Python, learning to interpret the code, and familiarizing oneself with the syntax specific to Python, which is important for students who may already have experience with other coding languages.


Memorizing Passwords

Keeping track of multiple passwords can be complicated, and as the number of passwords you use increases, so does the challenge of remembering them all! One strategy people often talk about in setting a password is to use the first letter of each word in a title or phrase. This kind of password is called a passphrase.

When using a passphrase password, you are using a memorable (you hope) sentence as a way to help you remember your password. People use similar approaches to help remember other strings of information. Mnemonic devices help people remember information by attaching the information to something more easily remembered. A silly sentence made from the first letters of the names of the planets, for example, may make it easier to remember the order of the planets than just trying to memorize the planet names in order.

The Memory Mnemonics science project guides students in an exploration of mnemonic devices and how they may help improve someone's ability to remember information. For a simplified family science activity version of this project, see Memory Science.


Protect Yourself Online

For additional information regarding best practices for online safety and privacy, see the Internet Safety Guide.



Support for resources and Project Ideas related to cybersecurity is provided by Northrop Grumman.

Support for Computer Science Project Ideas and Internet Safety information at Science Buddies is provided by Symantec Corporation.

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3D printing has opened a cool new frontier of custom manufacturing that brings freedom to individuals interested in design, invention, or just in need of a rare or unusual part. With a hands-on modeling and design project using Autodesk 123D Make, students can design and assemble a layered 3D model for a better understanding of how 3D printing and additive manufacturing works.

3D printing is all the buzz. From replacement parts for household objects or toys that are broken to one-of-a-kind creations to a large-scale approach to manufacturing that may revolutionize the way products are made, 3D printing has changed how people think about "making" things that once required industrial machines and molds. In addition to giving individual inventors and designers new options for testing out ideas, 3D printing brings new possibility to many big industries, from automotive to healthcare. 3D printing is a game changer, and industry and DIY and maker communities alike are excited by what 3D print technologies enable, but the printer in your school computer lab or home office probably still prints out the same flat images and text as it always did.

What is 3D printing all about? What does it really mean for a printer to "print" a ready-made, fully-functional object, on demand, similar to the way you might request an item from a vending machine?


One-of-a-kind Designs

You may have read stories about "printed" objects ranging from artificial organs to cell phone accessories and other tchotchkes, things that someone wants to make but doesn't need a million of or even a hundred. Or maybe what you need is a specific little piece to replace something that is broken, a piece that is hard to find or no longer made. With 3D printing, you can make just one of any item you can imagine—as long as you can create a digital 3D model. There are no expensive molds and machines that have to be made, customized, or altered to handle each design or each change. Instead, using a digital design file as a blueprint, a 3D printer prints out the object, layer by layer.

With 3D printing, the z axis comes into play as the printer adds "depth" to the print. In order to create a file for 3D printing, designers use computer-aided software to create a 3D model of an object that can then be printed with a special 3D printer. Depending on the printer, 3D printed objects can be made from a variety of materials, including rubber, plastics, paper, and even metals. Using the digital blueprint, the printer (loaded with the chosen material) extrudes the material layer upon layer, similar to the way that a regular printer deposits ink as the printer head moves back and forth across the page—only dimensionally instead of just in flat, horizontal rows.


Creating Paper Models

The layer by layer approach central to 3D printing is an example of additive manufacturing. In traditional manufacturing, an object might be created by taking a block of material and removing (or subtracting) material to get to the desired shape. Sculpting something out of a block of soap or a block of wood, for example, involves a subtractive approach—you whittle away what you don't need to leave only the desired shape behind. With additive manufacturing, layers of material are added, one by one, to build the object to the desired shape and size. Only what is needed is used, so there is less waste.

That virtually any object imaginable, including artificial organs, can be constructed by printing "layers," may seem hard to believe. A novel software application from Autodesk helps remove the mystery of additive construction by giving users a hands-on way to create their own additive models.

Autodesk's 123D Make auto-converts 3D digital objects into 2D vector-cut patterns or templates. Using 123D Make, students can print out the individual layers needed to construct a 3D model (designed in another program) and then glue or tape the layers together to manually build the 3D object. Using paper (or cardboard) to construct a 3D object from layers lets students see, from the ground up, how a 3D printer creates a 3D object from layers. It's a great creative exercise, but using 123D Make is also a great way to take a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts look at how an object can be built from layers—and how computer-aided design and modeling is related to what a 3D printer will "do" when printing out the dimensional object.


Making a 3D Model

Using 123D Make, students can explore fundamental principles of 3D additive design by making their own 3D object from layers. Opening up one of the many gallery examples is a great way to get started. Choose a model like a "skull," "rocket," or "rhino," and you can immediately see how layers are used to create the item. With 123D Make, students can change the size of the item, change the direction of the "slices" (which plane is used for slicing?), and even view the same object as it could be assembled using various techniques, including stacking (layering) and paper folding.

Once a design has been finalized, it can be laser-cut (professionally) or, for an at-home look at the process, the design can be printed out on multiple sheets that contain all of the slices necessary to make the object, layer by layer. Trace and cut the shapes from cardboard, grab some glue, and you have the makings of a fascinating creative engineering activity. (Some versions of the 123D Make application animate the assembly steps, layer by layer, as shown in the screenshot below. All layers are numbered for DIY assembly.)

Screenshot from 123D Make Screenshot from 123D Make Screenshot from 123D Make
Above: Using 123D Make, students can see and print all of the layers needed to construct the 3D object.

123D Make is available as an iOS or Android app, a standalone software product, and a web application.


Next Steps

After experimenting with a cardboard-based, glue-it-together 3D model, students can continue to explore 3D modeling and 3D printing using one of a range of Autodesk tools. The Autodesk 123D site connects students with a number of free apps and tools, resources, and samples to help jump start exploration of 3D and computer-aided design.

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Above: Autodesk offers a full suite of 3D modeling and 3D printing tools.


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 try 123D Make, or any other tool on the 123D site, please let us know. We would love to see what you build, design, explore, or even print!




Science Buddies' resources for students, teachers, and parents remain free thanks to support from sponsors like Autodesk.

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Compare finger prints within families and fingerprint science  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a genetics and genomics family science experiment for Father's Day. Fingerprints are unique, but do family members share fingerprint characteristics? Are there patterns of inheritance that come into play when it comes to fingerprints? Put the question to the test with a visual examination of fingerprints among siblings and between different family members!



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From physics to statistics, science plays a big role in soccer. As the World Cup unfolds this summer, watch the games, cheer on your favorite teams, and see science in action!

Sports fans all over the world are gearing up for FIFA World Cup soccer, which begins on June 13 in Brazil. Over the course of a month, soccer devotees will celebrate victories and groan over defeats as teams from 32 nations play 64 matches in 12 different stadiums, culminating in the final game on July 13.

To make it into that final match, elite soccer players will leave everything on the field, giving their fans the chance to see awesome punts, exciting goals, and split-second reaction times. How can these players score from impossible angles? How do goalies block shots? Practice makes perfect, but scientific principles have something to do with it, too.


Making Connections

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas help students uncover and explore the science in soccer:

  • The Science of Spin: How Does Spin Affect the Trajectory of a Kicked Soccer Ball?: To "Bend It Like Beckham," you need to put the right amount of spin on the ball. Experiment with kicking different points of the ball to see how the flight path changes.
  • Under Pressure: Bouncing Ball Dynamics: What would soccer be without a bouncy ball? Does it matter how much the ball is inflated? In this quick and easy experiment, investigate the concept of air pressure.
  • How Far Can You Throw (or Kick) a Ball?: Grab some friends, head out to a field, and have fun going for the longest punt! Explore how the trajectory of the ball affects the distance that the ball travels.
  • Think Fast!: Lightning-fast reaction times are a must for top goalies. Try this project and discover how fast your reflexes are!
  • Geometry of Goal-Scoring: Ready to score one for the team? Test your accuracy when kicking from different angles to the goal, and then use your math and graphing skills to explain your success rate.

Science and Sports Go Hand-in-Hand

Sports science makes it easy to bring up scientific concepts in everyday life. Whether they are throwing, running, swimming, or kicking, asking the right questions can help kids see that science that isn't just for classrooms. Visit the Science Buddies Sports Science topic area to find more winning ideas!




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

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Make and explore the geodesic dome with one made from gumdrops and toothpicks science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a civil engineering family science experiment that guides students in building a simple geodesic dome from candies and toothpicks (or tubes made from newspaper) and then exploring the shape. How strong is a geodesic dome? How much weight can it hold? Where in nature and architecture can you find examples of dome shapes?


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Chemistry titration project (and science kit) to investigate and compare quantities of Vitamin C in juice.


To investigate the science question above regarding quantities of Vitamin C in different kinds of juices or drinks, see the following resources and projects:

For other Science Buddies Project Ideas involving titration, see:



(Note: The projects above can be done using the Orange Juice titration kit from the Science Buddies Store.)

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For this year's Pritzker Prize winner, cardboard and paper have proven to be key materials in designing disaster relief housing. Examples of Shigeru Ban's work force a reconsideration of design, materials science, and civil engineering. Can using recyclable materials make a cost-effective and sustainable difference in the way architecture is approached? With cardboard tubes, paper, straws, and other everyday materials, students can experiment with principles on a small scale that the award-winning architect uses in humanitarian structures around the world.

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Paper Nursery School, Ya'an City, Sichuan, China, 2014. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.

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Paper Nursery School, Ya'an City, Sichuan, China, 2014. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.

Architecture is a science and an art form, a field in which form and function meet at a point where materials are turned into buildings and structures that may be used for business, housing, or social gathering. Throughout history, there have been chains of evolution in architectural style and tradition, approaches to design that often mirror trends in society. But when you think about architecture today, you probably think about big buildings, skyscrapers, and towers that create skylines in some of the world's most well-known cities. You may also think of unusual examples of architecture, like the circular Guggenheim Museum in New York, Lloyds Building in London (often called the "Inside-Out Building"), Sydney Opera House in Australia (a series of interlocking shells), or a Frank Lloyd Wright building like Fallingwater, which appears to grow out of a hillside and sits atop a waterfall.


Unique examples of architecture may make headlines, and city skylines make postcards, but even when it comes to everyday construction—ordinary houses—buildings usually involve strong materials, materials designed for permanence. These materials are often costly, and construction may be time consuming.

But what exactly is a strong material? If a typhoon blows through, will the structure withstand the force? What happens to a "strong" material during an earthquake? If the material doesn't hold up, what options are there for fast, inexpensive solutions for residents displaced by disaster?

Paper Log House, Cebu, Philippines
Paper Log House, Cebu, Philippines. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


Strong as Paper?

Out of what materials is your own house built? Depending on where you live and what unique properties architects and civil engineers have to take into account in your area (like the risk of earthquake, climate, or the composition of the ground), your house might have a framework of wood, steel, or concrete. The structure and walls of your house are likely made from materials expected to stand up to environmental factors over time.

What about a house made out of cardboard?

The idea may sound surprising, but for Japanese architect Shigeru Ban cardboard is not only a viable building material but a material he has used in dozens of buildings designed to provide relief housing for victims of natural disaster.

Ban was recently awarded the 2014 Pritzker Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes given each year in architecture. Ban has a history in commercial architecture, but in recent years, he has donated his skills to helping design and build structures in disaster zones. Most notable about his volunteer work on behalf of disaster victims is that his buildings are made primarily using recyclable materials.

Cardboard may seem incongruous to building in an area where natural forces have destroyed permanent housing, but Ban has shown, around the world, that materials like shipping containers and paper can be used to create fast, low-cost temporary housing and social structures that are sound, protective, and can be erected quickly.

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Paper Log House, 2000, Turkey. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


A Paper-based Approach

It is hard not to be awed and inspired by images of Ban's designs (like the ones shown above). Repeatedly, his work shows ingenuity in design and materials that tackles a problem (the need for a certain structure) with a simple, recyclable solution.
After the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, Ban designed temporary classrooms, a "paper nursery school," that volunteers were able to quickly build from cardboard tubes. In Rwanda, in 1999, he designed paper refugee shelters. In Italy, after the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake, Ban designed a concert hall from a combination of materials, including cardboard, a social structure designed to pay tribute to the musical heritage of L'Aquila and to rekindle the spirit of residents. In both Turkey and Japan, Ban designed paper log housing. Ban's Japanese Pavilion (built for an Expo, not in the wake of disaster), was created from paper tubes. The structure took three weeks to build from thousands of paper tubes and spanned more than 236 feet across and 50 feet high.

In some cases, Ban's structures are designed to be able to be taken down and rebuilt, as needed. In other cases, Ban's designs become a lasting part of the community. The Cardboard Cathedral he designed after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, for example, was initially envisioned as a temporary replacement structure, but before construction began, plans changed. The beautiful cardboard, steel, and glass A-frame church is immediately recognizable as a place of worship, despite the fact that the roof is constructed from cardboard tubes.


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Cardboard Cathedral, 2013, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen Goodenough.



Unexpected Materials

So, why paper? And "how" paper?

In an interview with CNN after the Pritzker Prize was announced, reporter William Lee Adams asked Ban about his use of paper. "The strength and durability of a building has nothing to do with the material," Ban told Adams. "Even a building built in concrete can be destroyed very easily. There can be a permanent building made out of cardboard tubes."

Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Paper Emergency Shelter for Haiti, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Shigeru Ban Architects.


Beyond Card Houses

Students intrigued by Ban's work, by architecture, or by the ways in which Ban's design approach contributes to disaster relief solutions around the world can explore design and engineering concepts in civil engineering and materials science project ideas like these:


Paper Temporary Studio, 2004, Paris, France. Photo by Didier Boy dela Tour
Paper Temporary Studio, 2004, Paris, France. Photo by Didier Boy dela Tour.


To see more examples of Ban's architecture, visit: http://www.shigerubanarchitects.com/works.html

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A Super Science-filled Summer Break


Ready or not... into the summer break we go. With school (almost) out for the summer, take stock of some great science activities and challenges that are perfect to help keep kids engaged and actively learning during the break. Science may be even more fun when it is "just for fun"!

2014 Science Buddies Summer Science GuideThe long summer break can feel bittersweet for parents who worry about their students whiling away countless hours on the couch or in front of a screen and losing academic ground. Beyond the buzz of vacations and camps, and after the novelty of sleeping in and staying up late wears off, the summer sprawl can even begin to feel, at some point, a bit amorphous for students. There are a lot of hours to fill!

Luckily, there are loads of engaging science and engineering activities that can be done at home for fun or as independent summer projects and can tie in with other summer pastimes and hobbies.


Great Science on the Schedule

Every year, we pull together suggestions for summer science activities and experiments. Our roundup lists from the last two years contain many wonderful suggestions for projects kids can do during the summer and ways parents can inject a bit of science into summer planning.

This year, we will be unveiling a new area of Science Buddies in June that will be a great resource for family summer science—and family science all year long! But there are lots of projects at Science Buddies that students can enjoy even when they don't need to do a "science fair project" or complete a science project assignment.

As you look ahead to summer, remember, doing science doesn't have to be for school! You and your kids can earn an A++ this summer by exploring science and engineering at home.

Here are some of our picks for this summer:

2014 Summer Science Guide: Art Bot Robotics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rainbow Fire Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Putty Polymer Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Soft Robot Gripper Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Paper Dolls Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Electromagnet Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Grape Soda Chromatography 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bird Feet Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rock Candy Crystal Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Cabbage Grow Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Water Float on Water Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Ant Barrier Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Hydroponics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Electrolytes Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Hummingbird Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Ice Cream Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bristlebot Toothbrush Robots Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Carbonated Soda Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Bubble Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Biosphere Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Milk Carton Boats Science Project


More Great Choices for Science at Home

Don't miss these other roundup lists of great "what to do over the break" science, technology, engineering, and math projects as well:

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Use a pinwheel to explore wind turbine power and energy science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an energy-focused family science experiment that explores the relationship between the potential power of a wind turbine and the source and location of the wind. Using a pinwheel, students create their own horizontal-axis wind turbine and experiment to see how the pinwheel spins when the wind comes at it from different directions—and how this translates into how much weight the wind turbine can lift. A pinwheel is a simple example of a wind turbine, but with this hands-on experiment, students can see the affect of the wind direction in how many small items the pinwheel can lift.


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Joints give paper dolls added life and let little fingers manipulate characters as they play out their roles in an imaginative storyline. But joints also add potential hot spots for damage. A plastic toy figurine may lose its arm, head, or hair, but the life of a paper doll may be even more short-lived! A new hands-on science activity helps kids experiment with paper dolls by putting the durability of certain design and materials choices to the test. Once the best approach is scientifically determined, kids can make and decorate a paper doll with greater understanding of how the materials affect how well the doll will last.

Paper Doll Lisa from paper dolls materials science project Paper Doll Vincent from paper dolls materials science project
Above: Paper Doll Lisa and Paper Doll Vincent were made by students testing the new paper dolls materials science project.
Paper may not be the most durable of materials, but kids have been playing with—and making—paper toys and creations for generations. From paper sailboats to paper pirate hats to paper planes, paper gets used in all kinds of creative ways to let kids explore design and construction, experiment with science and math principles, and occupy little hands with active and imaginative low-cost play. Paper dolls are a great example of a paper-based toy that kids make, use, and enjoy. But paper dolls are also a good reminder of the ways in which a toy made from paper may or may not last well, stand up to repeated use, or survive rough play.


Choose Your Own Character

Paper dolls are a low-tech, inexpensive, and open-ended activity at home. With a bit of paper, some coloring tools, and imagination, kids can turn any character into a paper doll. You can find examples, templates, and inspiration online for all kinds of exciting paper dolls, from ninjas, robots, and fairies to dragons, pirates, and mermaids. The possibilities are endless, but not all paper dolls are constructed the same and, as the saying goes, not all paper dolls are made equal.


Choose Your Materials and Design

Some paper dolls are made from single pieces of paper. These dolls sometimes are designed to fit into a stand, and kids make costumes and wardrobes that can be attached using tabs, tape, buttons, or bits of Velcro. Other paper dolls kick construction up a notch and are articulated or jointed. These dolls may only have one set of clothing, but they contain moving parts like arms and legs. The number of moving parts may vary. You can certainly find paper doll creations with numerous jointed parts, but you can also make a basic articulated paper doll that only has movable arms and legs.

Articulated paper dolls offer more flexibility for positioning the doll during storytelling or play, but having multiple moving parts also makes the dolls subject to different kinds of wear and tear.

Paper doll materials science project template for articulated paper doll
Above: What method of attaching the arms to the paper doll body results in the most durable paper doll? Students put it to the test in a new science project at Science Buddies!


Testing Paper Doll Construction

In a new materials science project at Science Buddies, students (and families) can turn paper doll-making into a hands-on science project. There are a number of ways that the joints of an articulated paper doll may be assembled. Do the various approaches to constructing a paper doll affect how well the doll will last? How much wear and tear can the joints take? In addition to articulation, there are a number of other design options that may make a difference in how well a doll lasts or how durable it is.

The Get Crafty—Create Your Own Durable Paper Doll project focuses on the issue of articulated joints and explores two design options, the weight of the paper you use for the doll and what you use to attach the arms. The project guides students in doing a quantitative test of the various combinations to see which is strongest (or which can support the most weight before an arm is ripped off the doll). This quantitative approach helps students see the value in doing an assessment that can be measured rather than just doing a subjective assessment. After doing a scientific experiment with dolls made from two kinds of paper and with joints attached using two different methods, students will be able to see from their data which approach was most durable.


Making Connections

A hands-on project like this can be used to talk with kids about design, engineering, materials science, and the value of scientific product design and construction testing. Even when it comes to toys, science can be used to explore what works and what doesn't work and to come up with solutions and improvements that will lead to longer-lasting toys—and happier kids!

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Assembling a simple wooden train and track with cleverly placed magnetic strips lets kids experiment with a train that levitates off the track and zips effortlessly from one end to the other when pushed. What happens when you add a bit of weight? Put the science question to the test in this fun hands-on science activity and experiment.

maglev train experiment family science project

maglev train experiment family science project

The allure of a magic trick is something pretty cool to most kids. The quarter pulled from behind the ear. It's a classic sleight of hand passed down by generations. The finger that appears to be separated into two parts at the knuckle, able to be slid side to side. (That one has been used to gross out and entertain plenty of kids.) Card tricks. Bunnies from hats. People that vanish from a cube. Magic appeals to us on some level where suspension of disbelief wars with our intellect, our logic, and our puzzle-solving skills. Part of enjoying a trick may, in fact, be trying to figure out how it was done, how it is possible, what really accounts for what we saw, and how to do it ourselves!

That science is full of everyday things that seem magical is a cool twist on sleight of hand and illusion. The more you understand science, the more you can explain what is going on in a process that seems "magical."

In the Harry Potter books, the train that transported the kids to and from school each year involved walking right through a wall to reach the 9 3/4 platform at King's Cross Station. That's a special kind of magic—the fantasy kind. Science can't explain it. The train on the other side of the wall, the shiny red Hogwarts Express, appears to be fairly normal, a fast-moving steam locomotive on tracks.

But there are other real-world kinds of trains that may seem to have a bit of magic to them. Maglev trains are ones that seem to hover or float above a track rather than rolling across it. Maglev trains may look similar to monorail trains, but a maglev train specifically levitates and is powered by electromagnetic forces. Plus, a maglev train doesn't have wheels!

It may look like magic, but it isn't. A maglev train is lifted by the way magnetic fields positioned a certain way repel one another. As the fields push away from each other, the train lifts off of the track and floats above the rail. Because it floats, when the train moves, there is no friction of train wheels against train tracks, so a Maglev train can go faster than a traditional train that rolls on wheels. There are still air forces (like drag) to take into account, but some maglev trains are capable of speeds greater than 300 mph.


Bringing the Magic Home

Studying magnets and magnetism is often exciting for elementary students. The way magnetic fields can be oriented to repel or attract one another can provide lots of entertainment value as students explore magnetism and learn more about how magnets work. You can extend magnetism discussions with a wide range of hands-on science projects and activities that can be done at home or at school. From testing the strength of an electromagnet to building a simple motor, students can explore magnetism with projects that remove the "magic" but still have plenty of "wow" factor.

For a different spin on magnetism, building a simple Maglev train is a fun way to couple a creative project with a science activity. The Magic Bullet Train kit, available in the Science Buddies Store, is a great way to get kids talking about and actively exploring magnetism and the real-world application of magnetic fields in levitating trains. Two generic magnets on a table may push away from one another, but they probably don't move far. That the same principle can be used to lift a train is pretty cool science!

Using the do-it-yourself maglev train kit, students first make their own bullet train by sanding down and painting a wooden block that will be the "train" in the experiment. How far you go with this step is up to you and your kids. It isn't easy to sand the rectangular block into something that really looks like a bullet, but spending time sanding, shaping, and then painting, decorating, and personalizing the train is part of the fun of the project! Just be sure that you don't sand the "bottom" of the train. You want to leave the bottom edge untouched.


All Aboard for Magnetic Science!

When using the Magic Bullet Train kit as a family science activity, the "building" of the train is the bulk of the activity. The small directions booklet that comes with the train kit walks you step by step through assembling the wooden rail system, adding the magnetic strips, and attaching the girders to your painted wooden train. Be careful during assembly to line things up as shown, to adhere the magnetic strips on the proper sides of the wooden rails and train, and to attach the girders as low to the bottom of the train as you can to ensure the train hovers as high as possible above the wooden rail.

Unlike a real-world maglev train, the wooden train kit relies on the standard magnetic field between the magnetic strips. There is no electromagnetism adding to the field, so don't be surprised if the train doesn't hover as high as you expect—or does not seem to hover the first time. It can take some fiddling with the placement of the girders to ensure the train hovers properly. But once you get things set up properly, a simple push of the train sends it gliding smoothly across the track. Your kids will see and feel the lack of track friction as the train glides across!

It looks like magic!

Having built the system, your young engineers will be in on the trick and able to explain how the magnetic strips work hold the train off the track. You can talk, too, about the design of the train and what holds the train "on" the track and why certain aspects of the train's design are important so that it won't fall off—design factors that help prevent accidents.

Because of the small size of the experiment and the limited number of parts (just the train and the track, once assembled), this is a great science experiment to take to school and show off. Check with your teacher first, but chances are that a small demonstration of magnetism in the form of a maglev train will be welcome and can be squeezed in during some part of the day.

Building the train is a great hands-on experiment in and of itself, but if there is a science fair assignment on hand, a student can use the train kit as the basis for a full science investigation. The The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can a Maglev Train Hold? project at Science Buddies guides students in an exploration of the relationship between weight and a maglev train's ability to levitate. It makes sense that a floating train will have maximum weight limits. But what happens when those limits are exceeded? In the The Amazing Floating Train science project, students put it to the test with their own maglev train and plastic cups filled with varying amounts of water.

You might find other ways to vary the project, too. Could you experiment with stronger magnetic strips? What would happen if you did? The "Make It Your Own" tab also contains a challenge to student engineers—install a magnetic "brake" system at the end of the track!

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Make bath bombs and explore the chemistry science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a family science experiment that promises fizzy fun in the tub (or in a big bucket of hot water). Bath bombs are easy to make at home. You can mix up your own using your choice of additives with the core ingredients. But what makes a bath bomb "fizz" when it hits the water? In this science activity, students experiment with the recipe for making a bath bomb and investigate the role of corn starch and citric acid in the process. What is the chemical reaction that happens when the dried bath bomb touches the warm water? What ratio of ingredients makes the fizziest bath bomb? Mix up a few batches to find out! Once you have found your favorite formulation, you can make bath bombs to give as gifts—or just use them yourself!


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Sports Science project exploring basketball dribbling and energy / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a sports science that looks at the physics of what is going on when you dribble a basketball. After you push the ball to the floor, the ball meets the floor or court and then returns, but it doesn't necessarily return to the same height. What does the surface of the floor have to do with how a ball bounces when dribbled, how much effort a player has to use to keep the ball dribbling uniformly, and what is going on with the energy of the ball in motion? Put it to the test with a fun hands-on sports science project that lets you observe and measure how balls bounce differently as a result of what's on the ground.


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Food Science project exploring ice cream making / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a food science family science experiment and independent student science fair project that takes a deeper look at the chilly process of making ice cream. You can make your own ice cream using one of a variety of shaking or rolling processes, including using a baggy to hold the ingredients! How does adding salt to the ice mixture used to freeze the ingredients affect the process? Make your own ice cream to find out!


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DNA strawberry science experiment
Whether you explore strawberries, onions, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, or the ways in which certain physical traits are evident in your family, make time to talk about and experiment with DNA-related science. Students of all ages should know their A's, T's, G's, and C's. With a fun science kit from Bio-Rad Laboratories, they might even wear their own DNA around their neck!

The human genome contains more than 3 billion DNA base pairs. If you typed 360 letters a minute for eight hours a day, it would take you nearly 100 years to type all the letters. ~ Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, Educator's Guide for Teachers of Grades 7-12

That's a lot of DNA, a lot of letters, an almost incomprehensible amount of typing, and a lot of room for little mutations, changes, exceptions, similarities, and differences! This year, in celebration of National DNA Day (April 25, 2014), take time to talk with your students about DNA, genomes, and genomics.

Last year, for the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and the decennial marker of the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, we pulled together a short overview of the history of DNA, its key players, Photo 51, and great DNA-related science projects that students can do to explore DNA in Celebrating DNA and the History of the Double Helix.

A DNA history lesson or refresher is never a bad idea, but when you pair the information with a simple experiment or hands-on activity, you give your students the opportunity to see firsthand what it means to talk about DNA base pairs, how DNA differs from a genome, and how DNA is essential to all living things!



iDNAtity Audio app screen shot

Your DNA; Your Music

Your DNA may influence the kind of music you like, but with the iDNAtity Audio app for iOS, you can create a custom piece of music that represents your DNA using sound. After you fill in some information about your basic physical characteristics, like eye color, skin tone, and hair color, the app uses information about those phenotypes to determine your DNA profile.

With a bit of computing, the letters of your DNA are then converted to the notes of a musical piece, letting you "hear" your DNA. Nifty! Be prepared, your unique DNA-based sound may or may not be completely tuneful, but it will be you! Try out your custom sound with your choice of a variety of instruments, save the clip, share it, and compare your DNA music with your family and friends.

To best complete the phenotype profiling questions, you need to be familiar with certain kinds of traits, including detached (or not) ear lobes and widow's peak. An in-app glossary is provided, but the Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits Science Buddies Project Idea contains additional information and pictures that may prove helpful.

For more information on the science behind the app, see: idnatity.com/the-science-behind-idnatity/.

In celebration of DNA Day, the iDNAtity Audio app is free for download through Friday, April 25, 2014, courtesy of Bio-Rad Education.

Genomics Field Trip

For those in the Washington D.C. area, celebrate National DNA Day with a trip to the Smithsonian Institution! The Genome: Unlocking Life's Code exhibit (opened June 2013) is a great way to help students better understand DNA, the ways in which DNA is structured, sequenced, and analyzed by scientists, and the way DNA research helps scientists better understand the past, present, and future.

A collaboration between the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the 4,400-square foot Genome: Unlocking Life's Code exhibit introduces visitors to the human genome and the role of genomics, the ways in which the genomes of other species show both similarities and differences, the impact of genomics on studies related to human origins, and the use of genomics in the future, particularly in health care.

Visitors to the Smithsonian exhibit can also get hands-on in the National Museum of Natural History's interactive Genome Zone. The Genome Zone houses a rotating queue of activities where students can examine their own traits, do lab experiment, make bead bracelets that show the genetic sequence of a chimpanzee or turtle, watch videos, and more.


Sampling Your DNA

In the Genome Zone, visitors may have the chance to extract a sample of their own DNA using the Genes in a BottleTM kit from Bio-Rad Laboratories. After extracting DNA from a cheek sample, students can admire it and possibly even take it home as a keepsake! Thanks to support from Bio-Rad, approximately 300 student Genome Zone visitors a day are getting up close and personal with their own genetic material—spooling their own DNA.

Thanks to the Genes in a Bottle kit and the Discovering DNA: Do Your Cheek Cells & a Strawberry Both Have DNA? Project Idea, visualizing DNA can be a simple, fun, at-home or at-school activity. At the end of the science experiment, students using the kit can preserve their DNA sample as a cool, one-of-a-kind pendant.


Support for Educators

For those not in Washington D.C. area, or for teachers and parents planning to take students to the exhibit, Genome: Unlocking Life's Code Educator's Guide for Teachers of Grades 7-12 is an excellent PDF resource. The 36-page guide contains supplemental information for a field trip to the exhibit and also offers summary information, a number of classroom activities (including printable assignment sheets), information tying Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to the exhibit, a glossary, and a range of resources for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.


DNA Projects for K-12 Students

Students can also explore the world of DNA, genomes, and genomics in science projects from Science Buddies like these:



Science Buddies Project Ideas in Biotechnology Techniques are sponsored by support from Bio-Rad Laboratories and its Biotechnology Explorer program.


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Bunnies and chicks remind us that spring is here! No matter what sort of animals you have in your household, Science Buddies has a menagerie of Project Ideas for you to try.

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Learning from Your Pet
Your pet may be a big part of your family, and observing and caring for your pet can be a part of your science learning, too! How do you train pets? How do you feed them to ensure their nutrition? How does the time of the day impact their behavior or sleep patterns? There are all kinds of questions you can ask and science you can explore!

Hop into any gift store this time of year, and you are likely to see a clutch of chicks or a herd of rabbits. These cute and fluffy animals have become symbols of spring and the Easter season.

I've never kept chickens or rabbits, but I do have plenty of wild rabbits hopping around my back yard at certain times of the year. They eat all of the flower buds off of my creeping phlox, but it is hard to get mad at something so darn cute.


The Zoo in Your House

According to the American Humane Society, 62% of U.S. households have a pet, so caring for an animal is a rite of passage for many kids. Do you look after a pet at home? Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, and fish are popular choices for families. If you have lots of space, you may have something bigger, such as a horse or a flock of chickens.

Pets are a big responsibility, but they often reward us with love and companionship. They also can help us explore interesting science questions. Imagine caring for your pets and collecting data for your science project all at the same time. It is possible!

Take a look at these Science Buddies Project Ideas:


No Pets in the House?

If you don't have a pet, or if wild animals are where your interests lie, Science Buddies still has Project Ideas for you. Take a look at the animal-related student science projects below, or check out Science Buddies' Zoology area for more ideas.

As for my backyard rabbits, I didn't see them this winter. I am guessing that they moved on to yards with tastier foliage...or perhaps the local fox has had a feast. I guess I'll find out when my creeping phlox plants start to bud !

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The ping pong catapult is a great device for independent student science projects, but this is a tool you can use again and again—even as the basis for a fun afternoon or weekend family science activity. We put the rubber band catapult to use with a bag of plastic eggs for some high-flying family physics fun!

Ping Pong Catapult with Plastic Eggs experiment / family science activity

The Ping Pong Catapult has been used as the basis of a number of innovative science physics, math, and sports science projects at Science Buddies. If your student has an affinity for medieval lore, you can imagine using the device as catapults were once used—for siege—and explore the physics of trajectory through a hands-on simulation. In the Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult project, students aim for a simple container target (e.g., shoe box), but for fun, you could create a castle from blocks, LEGO® bricks, or random household items or recycled containers, and either aim to knock the structure down with your ping pong ball attack or aim to launch over the structure (e.g., village walls) and into a target container (e.g., the village square or main castle). (See Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls for a project like this!)

Is your student more sports-minded than medieval? With a makeshift footfall field goal in place, you can explore kicking science, or, turn the catapult on its side and do an experiment related to baseball swings instead.

There are plenty of math and physics questions to ask and investigate using the Ping Pong Catapult (available in the Science Buddies Store). With all of these projects, keeping track of the data for every launch, hit, or kick is an important part of the exploration. Teachers and parents can easily turn the results of even informal ping pong catapult launches into a way to talk about statistics, including creating a histogram to plot results.

Before or after the school science project, however, you can use the catapult as a great indoor or outdoor science toy. My kids couldn't wait to get it out of the box and start launching balls through the house. (Be careful that they don't end up "lost" in the living room before your project or science activity starts!)


Portable, No-mess Science Setup!

Unlike some science activities, there is virtually zero setup with the catapult. Remove the pin, unfold it, replace the pin, slip a rubber band through the holes, and clamp the catapult to the edge of a table or chair. We were not planning to experiment right away, but my students were really eager to see how the catapult worked. Immediately after opening the kit, we cleared a table edge, clamped the catapult in place, and played around with the wiffle and ping pong balls and got a feel for how the catapult works, how you change the launch angle and pull-back angle separately, and how the use of the rubber bands can affect the way the object flies.

With just a bit of hands-on exploration at the dining room table, we were all set for some serious egg-flying fun. Plastic eggs, that is. (Your mileage and mess with real eggs may vary!)


You Don't Have to Have an Assignment

The great thing about family science is that you don't have to follow all the rules, do dozens of trials, or write a report at the end. You can take your family science as far and as deep as you want and tailor the activity to fit your students' interests, the time of the year, the materials on hand, or other parameters.

Easter is this week, so we decided to use the catapult with plastic eggs—much as you would experiment with the ping pong ball in the Bombs Away project. We spruced up some of the eggs we have collected over the past dozen years with zany permanent-marker faces and got ready to let the eggs fly.

We first did our launch trials indoors. Instead of using a big table, we clamped the catapult to a small wooden chair. As they quickly realized, getting the egg into the target "basket" is harder than it looks! But tweaking the angles is all part of the exploration, and with each change you make, you can immediately see what impact the change makes (if any) on the flight, trajectory, and distance. After experimenting with pullback and launch angles, they started tweaking the number of rubber bands. This resulted in eggs being hurled full force into the wall (well beyond the basket). They thought that was funny, but it prompted us to consider taking the project outdoors the next day and experimenting in a bigger space.

We packed the small chair, a basket of eggs, and the catapult in the car and headed to a neighborhood park. There were birthday parties going on in the grassy area, but the basketball court was unused. We set up our catapult (still using the wooden chair) on the court, put the basket a distance away, and let loose. The dynamics of outdoor flight were definitely different, and the breezy day made controlling the flight difficult. But it was still super fun!

Your Own Ping Pong Catapult Experiment

To experiment with the catapult for a science project or informal science activity of your own, see the following projects and ideas:


We would love to see your catapult in action! Share your photos with blog@sciencebuddies.org.


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Materials Sciences project to test the strength of eggshells and arches / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a materials sciences family experiment and science fair project that asks you to rethink what you know about eggs. Are they fragile? Or are they strong? If you've ever accidentally stuck your finger through one in the kitchen, you may think you know the answer! But the shape of an egg can support a surprising amount of mass. It is a shape, in fact, that can be found in architecture. How much mass can eggshells hold? Put it to the test with a hands-on science experiment that lets you see how much mass you can stack on top of a set of eggs before they crack.


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Family Egg Science


Egg science comes over-easy this time of year. Whether you are boiling eggs, dyeing eggs, or both, there are easy questions you can ask with your kids to turn the activity into a hands-on science experiment that everyone will enjoy.

Egg Science / natural dyes
Egg Science / hard boiledEgg Science / soft-boiling eggsEgg Science / Strength of an Egg
Egg Science / natural dyesEgg Science / tie dye eggsEgg Science / family project

In the past few years, the process of preparing colorful, hard-boiled eggs has taken on new and very scientific significance for me as a parent. In turning the seemingly simple act of egg dyeing into a hands-on science endeavor with my kids, we have asked a variety of science questions (one at a time) and experimented with various steps in the process of boiling and dyeing.

If you will be boiling, dyeing, cracking, or hiding eggs this week with your kids at home or students at school, I hope you find science-minded inspiration and support for at-home science in the following family science posts from Easters past:

This year, I am not planning to run kid experiments with dyeing or boiling. Instead, we got hands-on, ahead of time, with a bag of plastic eggs and the ping pong catapult. Stay tuned for a photo recap of some serious egghead-launching fun!


Don't Miss This Egg Success Story

This story of a fourth grader's science project and his experience using silk ties to dye eggs is a great science project success story to share with your students. You can talk with them about pH and even try tie dyeing eggs as a group or home science activity!

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Ocean sciences density and salt water project to make an egg float / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an ocean sciences family experiment and science fair project. Some things float in water and some do not. Knowing the density of the object and the density of the water helps explain what is going on, and you can observe and talk about the buoyancy of an object. But adding salt can change what happens. Why? In this hands-on science experiment, you set up a series of dilutions to see at what point an egg goes from sinking to floating in salt water.


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There was no singular moment of Big Data Bang, but we are living in and heading towards a time of seemingly endless and exponential data explosion—and the race to create solutions and strategies to help tame, store, organize, and make sense of big data is on. But even before there was a moniker, there were large data sets being created and used in fields like the life sciences. Today, those data sets continue to grow and evolve. Working with publicly-available big data sets offers students a chance to get in on the forefront of the big data movement and start tackling big data questions and helping create big data solutions.

Circos data visualization / big data sample

What Big Data Looks Like
Many researchers and developers are working on tools that offer ways to visualize big data. When data is interpreted visually, the results are often beautiful, colorful renderings that underscore the richness of available data. These visualization tools may help researchers spot trends, connections, similarities, and patterns. The image shown above is from an opensource circular data visualization tool called Circos.

The phrase "big data" has made a correspondingly big splash in circles ranging from business to sports to school admissions boards. A few years ago, talk was about data mining. Today, no matter where you turn, you may run into discussions about big data.

With increasing amounts of data available and coming in from a variety of input points and multiplying over time, figuring out ways to best manage, organize, and manipulate data so that it can be analyzed to extract meaningful and useful information is a challenge that developers and researchers are racing to solve.


A Problem of Scale

The term big data highlights the fact that today's data is already vast, and it is ever-climbing upwards in size. The growth of data doesn't necessarily have an end point. Discussions of big data often talk about data sets that are in the terabytes, petabytes, or exabytes (a quintillion bytes). These are data sets that are too large to manage with ordinary tools, traditional spreadsheets, and manual number crunching, and the data sets are growing by the nanosecond.

Dealing with big data is sometimes labeled a "business" or "tech" problem, a reality for businesses that need, for example, to better understand their customers in order to best serve (and keep) them as loyal, satisfied, customers. Interpreting and acting upon gathered data can shine a light on problems, successes, and trends which may help a company make changes and decisions about future offerings, services, and products. The problem is that the data is, in many cases, so large that companies are struggling to figure out how to best use and analyze it.

Big Data is a business challenge—but it is bigger than that.


Bio Big Data

Science is no stranger to large data sets. Science, in fact, has been creating, gathering, and analyzing "large" data for years. What has changed and continues to change is that the amount of data continues to increase, and the tools available for extracting information from that data (or for processing the data) continue to evolve.

You can find examples of big data sets in many fields of science, including astronomy and meteorology, but for researchers in genetics, genomics, and biotechnology, dealing with big data is an important part of day-to-day projects. Luckily, there publicly available tools exist that allow researchers (including students) to plug in query information and extract results from big data sets. These tools make the data accessible. As the data continues to grow, scientists continue to develop new tools and projects that aim to better understand the data and that seek to find new answers and new approaches to analyzing big data.


The Human Genome Project

In the Life Sciences, the importance of big data and collective work toward central repositories of information can be seen in the Human Genome Project (HPG). A draft sequence was first published in 2000, and the completed sequence was released in 2003. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, the completed HGP "gave us the ability, for the first time, to read nature's complete genetic blueprint for building a human being."

The HGP was groundbreaking for life sciences, but more than a decade later, the data is still being mined and combined with additional data to draw new results and conclusions. The "What's Next? Turning Genomics Vision Into Reality" page on the NHGRI site describes several projects that build upon the HPG. For example, the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project seeks to use HPG data to identify "all of the protein-coding genes, non-protein-coding genes and other sequence-based, functional elements contained in the human DNA sequence."

Though life sciences scientists are increasingly immersed in big data, the future will hold much more big data, data of (literally) mind-boggling proportions. For example, both the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative NeurotechnologiesSM (BRAIN) Initiative and the Human Brain Project are bioinformatics-driven big data projects focused on mapping the brain, an organ which has an estimated 86 billion neurons, each of which makes multiple connections.

With the creation of data sets like these underway, now is a great time for students to start digging into how to work with data sets, learning how to use existing tools, and gaining an understanding of the problems, issues, and possibilities of working with bioinformatics tools and big data.


Making Connections

Students interested in life sciences, genetics, genomics, or the challenges of Big Data can get in on the action with bioinformatics science projects like these:


Talking Big Data with Students at the USASEF X-STEM

On April 24, the X-STEM Extreme Stem Symposium, sponsored by Northrop Grumman Foundation and MedImmune, will take place as part of this year's USA Science & Engineering Festival (USASEF) in Washington D.C. With dozens of speakers presenting on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, X-STEM promises to be an "extreme" and exciting science career-themed symposium for students.

At X-STEM, Melissa Rhoads, a biotechnology strategist at Lockheed Martin, will be talking to students about the "big" challenges and "big" opportunities of big data—and related career paths.

As a preview of her X-STEM talk, Science Buddies talked with Melissa about big data in general and, more specifically, in the life sciences. Her answers highlight the ways in which students are already immersed in big data and how the sciences will be more and more reliant on big data strategies in the future.

Science Buddies: The availability of public data sets in life sciences makes it possible for students to tackle exciting bioinformatics projects related to genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. How do you think tools like BLAST or the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Gene database have helped open things up for researchers, including students?


Melissa: Public data sets of life sciences are incredible resources for students and researchers alike. I liken these data sets to the open source software (OSS) that has been available for decades. OSS 'democratized' software development, providing the opportunity for students and small companies to develop code for personal use or sale. In recent years, for example, app development for smartphones has allowed students and professionals to develop capabilities for personal use or for sale.

Tool sets like BLAST and the NCBI databases are similarly democratizing life sciences. By making genetic data available to the public, independent researchers can build on previous work and, as you've mentioned, students can conduct their own research. With so much data available online, there are a host of opportunities for software development to help understand the data and for researchers to build on, rather than repeat, previous work.


Science Buddies: Today's students are coming onto the scene at a point when data sets are "already" big. What do you think is most important for students to understand about how big data is continuing to change—and what the challenges (or opportunities) are for life sciences moving forward?

Melissa: There is already an enormous amount of data, but not all data is created equal. I think students already have a reasonable grasp of the challenges and opportunities of big data, even if they don't realize it. From the flurry of updates, posts, pokes, and shares from social media to the thousands of results generated from online research, students must cull through masses of information and identify what is most important to them.

The amount of data will only continue to grow as more people contribute more information. The challenge and opportunity is first identifying truth, and then pulling the data you need and presenting this information in a way that suits your needs. There will be so many opportunities for students and professionals in a wide range of fields to help meet these needs of search, organization and presentation of data.


Science Buddies: What kinds of questions do you think scientists can continue to explore and better understand with the development of better bioinformatics tools for managing and visualizing big data?

Melissa: Better bioinformatics will help us answer questions from how to provide better healthcare to how to preserve species and understand climate change. Taking a very big picture view, our planet is full of living creatures that are complex in and of themselves and make up an even more complex network of relationships. By learning, capturing, and presenting information on the flora and fauna of the planet, we will be better able to feed, hydrate and care for humanity while maintaining or improving the environment.


Science Buddies: In the context of understanding biology what are the limitations of big data?

Melissa: Right now the computing power is really an issue when attempting to model biological processes. To really understand the mechanics of how our body works, there are so many parallel processes that even the fastest and most powerful computers are struggling, and as we learn more information, the computing power will need to increase exponentially.


Science Buddies: What kind of student will love big data and the world of bioinformatics?

Melissa: I believe the most exciting part of bioinformatics is that so many different fields are contributing to the field. Students interested in biology, chemistry, physics, computers, math, problem solving, or just being challenged will be able to contribute to the field. There are so many data sets that need analysis, and so much more that needs to be learned, that there are endless possibilities.


Science Career Profiles

Many STEM careers will involve working with big data, but students can learn more about a few specific careers that offer opportunities with big data in the following career profiles:



Special thanks to Melissa Rhoads. Melissa will be presenting at the USASEF X-STEM Extreme STEM Symposium on April 24 in Washington D.C.

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Take a sneak peak at an exciting pair of hands-on science and engineering activities that Science Buddies has planned for USASEF visitors and get inspired to make your own robots this week in celebration of National Robotics Week—or experiment with your own catapult project!

Bristlebots at USASEF in Science Buddies booth / hands-on robotics engineering


From National Robotics Week to This Month's USASEF Expo!

This week is National Robotics Week, a week dedicated to showcasing robotics engineering and "robo-technology." With the cartoon character Bleeker the rechargeable dog as mascot for the week and a set of free robotics trading cards that students can download and print, National Robotics Week is primed to engage and excite K-12 students about robotics.

Bleeker National Robotics Week Mascot
Above: Bleeker the rechargeable dog is the mascot for National Robotics Week.

Trying Toothbrush Robotics
To get started with toothbrush-head robots with your students at school or at home, see the following Science Buddies Project Ideas and posts:

The Science Buddies popular Robotics area continues to grow, and our scientists have been busy preparing a small army of toothbrush-based robots (AKA bristlebots) for hands-on fun at this month's USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF) Expo in Washington D.C. More than 3000 hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) demonstrations will be on display at the USASEF Expo, April 26 and 27, 2014. Attendance to the Expo is free, but you can pre-register to be entered to win prizes. For full details, Expo map and program guides, and more, see http://www.usasciencefestival.org/.

Look for Science Buddies in Hall C, the Earth Sciences Pavilion, Booth 3722. Mark your map—or your app!


Robotics for Everyone!

As a stepping-stone project in student robotics, bristlebot robots let students start out with something super basic—a toothbrush head, a single coin cell battery, and a vibrating motor—and expand the project to integrate additional electronics learning, including more sophisticated breadboard circuitry, light sensors, solar cells, photoresistors, multiple motors, on-off switches, and more.

At USASEF, visitors to the Science Buddies booth will get a chance to explore and race light-following robots through a fun maze that our scientists have built. Pairs of USASEF participants will race their bots against each other using small flashlights to try and guide their bots to the finish line first.

If you will be at USASEF next month, make sure you plan to stop by and give one of the light-following bristlebots a try. You can also make your own bristlebots at home using the procedure at Science Buddies in the Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter project. (See sidebar for additional information.)


Ping Pong Balls Away!

USASEF attendees who stop by the Science Buddies Booth will also be able to test their launch skills by trying out the ping pong catapult. Getting the ball to the target takes a combination of physics and engineering. Students will explore concepts of trajectory, launch angle, and pullback strength as they test their aim and then record the outcome of each shot (their data) on a composite data map that tracks the hit statistics for all Expo attendees as a histogram. With three target zones ahead, can you set up the catapult to launch the ball in the middle zone to score accuracy points?

The ping pong catapult kit (available in the Science Buddies Store) can be used with the following fun hands-on Science Buddies science projects:




Science Buddies is a proud partner of the USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF).
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Soft Robots: Alternative Robot Design


Robotics engineers are experimenting with soft robots and robots modeled after biological organisms. With a squishy project at Science Buddies, students can get in on the action and test their own soft, air-powered, robot.

A recent story in MIT News shows off a cool robotic fish and highlights the softer side of robotics. This new wave of robotics research explores the benefits and possibilities of robots that sport softer, less angular exteriors, designs often inspired by biological systems and organisms.

Designers of soft robots, like the robotic fish developed by the Distributed Robotics Laboratory, take a different approach to constructing the robot's exoskeleton and thinking about how the robot will move and interact with its environment. For example, a soft robotic fish, modeled after a real fish, can bump into things in its environment differently than a more traditional hard and angular robot. A soft robot may also be able to navigate areas that a more rigid-bodied robot cannot, and a soft robot that runs into something may cause less harm and suffer less damage.


Making Connections

Students curious about robot design and about soft robots can get started exploring principles of soft robotics by making their own gripper robot. In the Squishy Robots: Build an Air-Powered Soft Robotic Gripper robotics engineering project, students use a 3D printed mold and liquid silicone rubber in the construction of a gripper that can curl around and "grip" an object. What advantages does this soft-bodied construction have over other kinds of robotic grippers?

procedural photos from soft robotics student engineering project
In the Squishy Robots robotics engineering project idea, students use a 3D printed mold to make a silicone robot that they then power by air to use as a gripper.

For a look at creating a more humanistic robotic hand, see the Grasping with Straws: Make a Robot Hand Using Drinking Straws project. Using straws, students are challenged to design and construct a robotic hand, with bendable appendages, that works using a system of threaded joints. How many "fingers" does a robotic hand need? At how many points does it need to bend? What mechanism will cause the hand to bend, move, and grip?

Understanding and identifying the need or task for a robot is important in making robot design decisions. What does the robot need to pick up? How small are the items? How heavy are they? What does it need to do with them once it has grabbed them? Other questions to ask involve where the robot will be used. A robot being used in an underwater environment, for example, will have very different design requirements.

These are questions and issues engineers must consider as part of the engineering process when designing a robot. Will the best solution be hard or soft? Experimenting to better understand how varying approaches work is a first step for students getting started with robotics.


Additional information:


April 5-13, 2014 is National Robotics Week!

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Robotics are supported by Symantec.

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Microbiology yeasty beasties science project / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a microbiology-themed family science experiment and science fair project. What conditions cause yeasts to be most active during fermentation? You and your students can find out by growing yeasts in different conditions and then using balloons to trap the gas released by the yeasts during fermentation so that you can measure it.


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Music science experiment - turn straws into an instrument / Hand-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a music-themed family science experiment and science fair project. With a set of ordinary drinking straws, you can create a group straw "oboes." Can you play them? Sure! By blowing air through them, similar to the way you play a reed instrument, you can produce musical notes. At the end of the activity, you should have a set of straws, each of which will play a different note on a musical scale. What is the secret to changing the note each one plays? In this music science experiment, your students will get a chance to explore (and hear) the physics behind the production of sound!


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Improvements in the Science Buddies Crystal Radio Kit make building a crystal radio a science project students may enjoy for the school science fair or just as an independent electronics experiment—no batteries required! Our scientists have worked to improve the kit and procedure for the best student science experience.

Crystal Radio Science Project Photos
Above: photos taken during a student crystal radio project experiment using the Build a Crystal Radio kit from the Science Buddies Store.

The crystal radio project was one of our first electronics projects beyond the color-coded snap-together circuits that crop up in many households when kids are little. My oldest student did the pencil resistors project as his very first school science fair project. He followed that up the next year with the Build Your Own Crystal Radio experiment. (Note: Both of these projects are ones he selected because they appeared in the list of recommendations after he used the Topic Selection Wizard.)


A Classic Experiment

The crystal radio project is frequently among the most popular electronics explorations at Science Buddies. It is, after all, a classic introductory electronics project. Plus, this is a hands-on science exploration that gets bonus points for novelty and wow-factor. A radio you can listen to without a battery? And, these days you might add, without a solar panel?

That's pretty nifty electronics for many kids, and after going through the steps of building something hands-on, you get to put it to the test and see what stations you can tune in. Any confusion over why this radio is called a "crystal" radio is quickly cleared up during background research. (Hint: "crystal" is related to the fact that a crystal diode, often a germanium diode, is at the heart of the circuit. Learn more about the history of crystal radio sets in this interview.)

There are many, many ways to assemble a crystal radio. The year my son did the project, the kit at Science Buddies was much different than the kit now sold in the Science Buddies Store. The project, too, was older and did not contain the abundance of photos to help guide the build the way the updated Project Idea does.


A New and Improved Kit and Scientist-guided Procedure

This year, the Crystal Radio Kit sold in the Science Buddies Store was updated to address some common stumbling blocks and user feedback from students and families who had built crystal radios using the earlier kit, materials they gathered independently, or other novelty or toy-store science kits. Along with the changes to the kit materials, the corresponding Project Idea and step-by-step procedure got a snazzy face lift. As the new kit made its way into the Science Buddies Store, we put a few of the procedural steps in action to see how the new kit and the old kit compare.

When my student built his crystal radio for the science fair, he ran into a bit of trouble making "taps," a fairly common approach in building a crystal radio. (After making a series of "taps" along the coil, you clip alligator clips to the taps to see what stations you can hear.) Unfortunately, to make those taps, you have to strip the coating from looped sections of wire after every so many wraps around the coil—while keeping the coil nice, tight, and in place. Depending on your materials, this procedure can work, but we had trouble.

My student ended up using a hodgepodge approach and breaking the wire at the loops, stripping the ends, and twisting them to form the taps—no loops in sight. It was an important learning step for my student because we had to troubleshoot to find a way, with the materials we had, to do what we needed to do. In trying to sort out how to rig another portion of the circuit, he learned a lot, too, about where the current goes and whether or not it matters if things are clipped together—or just touching.

In the end, his crystal radio worked. He dropped a ground wire out the bathroom window, tied it to a pole next to the house, and strung antenna throughout the house at ceiling level. Then he sat in the hallway, ceramic ear piece in his ear, and he tried out his taps to see what stations he could hear. The stations he picked up with his indoor antenna are not ones that will replace a stash of MP3s, but the experiment was a success—and a winner at the school science fair, too.

The old crystal radio kit worked, and he had a great time with the project. But building the crystal radio using the new kit was even easier!


A Classic Project Made Even Better

The entire project has been rewritten to use a new set of supplies that remove the hurdles and headaches that many students (and sometimes their parents) run into when trying a crystal radio project. In the new kit, there are no taps. Instead, the kit uses a thinner gauge wire, and once the coil is wrapped, students use a brass tuning rod to search for stations. Very cool!

Say goodbye to the ear piece, too. While an ear piece currently still comes in the Crystal Radio kit, the new kit contains a speaker/amplifier element that lets students hear stations much more easily.

Not only are the materials in the updated kit better, and higher quality than the ones you may find in the kinds of crystal radio kits in toy stores, but the revised procedure is loaded with awesome close-up photos that show the build, step by step. This is a great, easy-to-follow, electronics project, and the kit makes the process straightforward and hassle-free. (As a parent, I speak from experience! I took a printout of the original procedure to a local electronics store to pick up an extra spool of wire, got assistance from a clerk, and still came home with exactly the wrong kind of wire. Having the right materials in the box may make a big difference in how smoothly a student science project goes!)

If your student is looking for a fun science project or a great at-home project for spring break or summer building, consider the Crystal Radio. It's a great stepping stone into the next level of electronics!


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Science Buddies has great ideas to keep your students engaged during spring break with cool science experiments they can do at home. Tweak our full science fair Project Ideas to challenge your kids to scientific spring break fun!


Ready or not... Spring Break is here again! Whether you are able to take time to be hands-on with your kids during the days off of school or need ideas for keeping them busy and engaged, Science Buddies has great science kits and fun project ideas and science activities that can help.

Each year, we single out a few new (or favorite) science projects and activities that make super family science or solo student experiments. This year, these new projects in the Science Buddies library stand out as great choices for spring break:

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Theremin music project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Baseball swing with catapult project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- centripetal force with marbles project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Make your own marshmallows project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LED wearable e-textiles electronics project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Build a simple motor Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- carnival games physics science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- candy waterfall physics

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- make and test a homemade respirometer science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- hovercraft Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LEGO tumbler physics project



More Great Science Activities

In addition to the ideas above, these posts on the Science Buddies Blog contain a wealth of great suggestions that can help parents plan Spring Break (or any other break) science activities and experiences for kids of all ages:

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This student's school science fair project yielded a few dozen eggs sporting the prints of various recycled ties salvaged from closets and secondhand stores. These eggs are not ones to eat, but for this young scientist, egg dyeing brought the pH scale to life and has given him new chemistry questions to explore as well as a solid introduction to the scientific method!

Student tie dye eggs chemistry science project / Jeffery

Above: Jeffery, wearing an awesome and very appropriate "egg" tie at the science fair. "Isn't my egg tie cool? I found it at the Goodwill when I was looking for ties to use," says Jeffery. "It has been my good luck tie. I'm wearing it to the state competition too!!"

Many families dye eggs each year for Easter, and whether they use packaged dye kits from the grocery store or try their luck with a variety of natural dyes, chances are good their dyeing method calls for the addition of some ratio of vinegar to water. General folk wisdom (and countless PAAS dye boxes) suggests that the pH of vinegar will help you obtain the most vibrant dye colors when using food color tablets to dye eggs.

According to the box, if you don't add vinegar to your soaking solution, you may end up with pale eggs, not the brightly colored ones shown on the box. This may be true when using boxed tablets, but according to Jeffery Austin, a fourth grade student in North Carolina, adding an acid to the recipe may not be a good thing if you are dyeing eggs with the fancy, upcycle, silk tie approach that has made the home and garden, parenting, and even Science Buddies rounds in recent years.


Dyed and Deviled

Jeffery and his family are tried and true egg dyers. He and his four siblings dye eggs each year, and then his mom makes deviled eggs. "It's a family tradition," Jeffery says. "Deviled eggs are my favorite," he adds.

This year, their egg dyeing tradition is getting a bit of a new-age twist. In addition to their regular dyed eggs, the ones they will later eat deviled, Jeffery's family will also be silk tie dyeing eggs, partly because it is very cool to take an old silk tie and transfer the pattern to a hard-boiled egg, and partly because Jeffery has spent a lot of time this year investigating the chemistry behind the process!


A New Wave of Egg Dyeing

The Dye Eggs Using Silk Ties for Egg-cellent Colors science project was a new addition to the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas last year, one that turns a popular trend in egg dyeing into a hands-on chemistry experiment for students. At the heart of the project is a simple question: does heat make a difference in how the process works?

Jeffery discovered the chemistry project while looking for a topic for his 4th grade science fair, and thought it looked cool. The pH scale hasn't been covered yet in his science class, but he said it appears in a few of the books he has, and he was particularly intrigued by the discussion of acid dyes in the project.

Jeffery ran through the basic project procedure quickly. He even put the question of heat in the process of using silk ties to tie dye eggs to the test in other ways out of curiosity as he tried to isolate and examine different variables at work in transferring tie designs to the eggs. He quickly made determinations about what worked and what didn't in terms of heat, but what really caught his interest was a line in the project about the use of vinegar in the dyeing process.

"When using acid dyes, acids are needed for the silk ties to be dyed, and acids are needed for the eggs to be dyed. So the eggs are soaked with vinegar during the dyeing process in order to help the acid dyes transfer their color from the silk ties to the eggshells."

Based on the information about acid dyes, the role of vinegar as an aid to the chemical reaction that occurs during the dyeing, and the reality that there are many other acids that fall in different places on the pH scale, Jeffery veered off on his own and designed a new variation on the experiment. If the pH of vinegar is good for acid dyeing eggs, is an even more acidic solution even better?

Jeffery pulled together his science fair project, testing different agents, including vinegar, to see how different acids affect the way silk tie patterns transfer to eggs. The hardest part of the project, says Jeffery, was waiting for the results of each egg dyeing experiment. It took a lot of patience, says Jeffery. "It was hard to wait 20 minutes to cook each egg. What was behind the cloth? There were so many possibilities and thoughts in my head as to whether the egg would be darker or lighter. I was so excited to see what the result was."


A Cracked Science Project

After all the waiting, Jeffery's eggs did not turn out the way he expected. Puzzled, he did a second round of egg dyeing, which yielded the same results. It was a scientific setback.

"I was so upset," recalls Jeffery of his disappointment with the outcome of his testing. The eggs had all taken on some patterning from the ties, but the ones that ended up darkest were not the ones he had predicted.

"I didn't even want to enter my project into the science fair!"

Thankfully, Jeffery's parents had excellent (or egg-cellent, in this case) advice for him. "My parents told me that things like that happen to scientists all of the time and that sometimes being wrong was just as important as being right."

samples from tie dye eggs chemistry science experiment

Important Lesson for Student Scientists

Students do not always find that their hypothesis is supported by their testing, and this is okay! The goal of doing a hands-on experiment is not, in fact, to prove a hypothesis to be correct. Instead, the goal is to learn something by following the steps of the scientific method (or engineering design process), experimenting, gathering data, analyzing the data, and then drawing conclusions. Discoveries are often made when something doesn't work out as expected!

Jeffery entered and won his school science fair. He then moved on to earn a bronze prize at the district fair, a third place award at the regional fair, and the chance to present his project at this year's North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair.


New Questions to Explore

Jeffery's hypothesis about the role of an acid in tie dyeing eggs didn't pan out, but his experiment opened up new questions for him--and for Science Buddies! Jeffery was especially disappointed with his results because he based his experiment on information in the Science Buddies project. The Science Buddies procedure focuses on the variable of heat. But Jeffery's experience with acids in the process raises interesting questions about other variables.

Not tired of egg dyeing yet, Jeffery is working with Science Buddies to do some additional testing and a new, controlled experiment focused on acid dyeing to put his findings to a next level of testing.

This year, when his family dyes eggs, there will be a few that are truly "tie" dyed. "We are definitely going to dye eggs using ties this year, but my mom says we can only use one tie each," says Jeffery. After a science season of Jeffery's ongoing egg dyeing experiments, his mom is opting in favor of the family's favorite deviled eggs. "You can't eat the eggs afterward because the acid dye from the ties can make you sick if you eat them," explains Jeffery.

The special tie dyed eggs are for looks only, but the whole experience has given Jeffery a chance to dabble in chemistry well beyond the science his fourth grade class has been exploring.

When not dyeing eggs, Jeffery enjoys Cub Scouts, participating on the NC Science Olympiad team, and playing Minecraft. He hopes to someday be a neurologist. "I just learned that Alzheimer's is the third leading cause of death in NC and the 6th in the nation," says Jeffery. "Why is it higher here in NC? I would like to find out!"

We can't wait to hear about his science experiment next year!

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As college basketball's spring championship gets underway, student fans can apply math and physics in hands-on science experiments that help highlight secrets to hoops success.

Basketball sports science bank shot experiment / Science Project

Student Sports Science

Great hands-on sports science projects help students explore science, physics, and math principles at work in the sports they love to play and watch. The image above is from the Basketball: Will You Bank the Shot? science project. The homemade simulation lets students experiment to see how bank shots perform from different spots on the court. When should you bank to increase the odds of scoring?

Football season is over. Baseball season hasn't seen its first pitch. Winter Olympics gold has been awarded. Triple Crown racing is still a few months off. For sports enthusiasts, this all adds up to one thing: March Madness!

March Madness is a single-elimination tournament for NCAA Division I basketball teams. Sixty-eight teams, thirty-two of which are division winners, and the balance of which are "at large" teams named to the tournament on Selection Sunday, will go head to head on the courts, whittling the two regional brackets down, game by game, to the Sweet Sixteen and then again to the Final Four, before the final game.

True to its name, this year's March Madness, which began on March 20, 2014, is kicking into fevered pitch with basketball fans trying to predict perfect brackets (predicting who will win each game to make it to the final two). On Twitter, fans are following and tweeting using the #MarchMadness hashtag, but diehard spectators and hoops enthusiasts may be tracking dozens of hashtags devoted to the multi-week championship and playoffs. For a look at some of the social media streams fans and sportscasters are using to follow their March Madness favorites, see "100 Twitter Hashtags to Follow During March Madness" on the Huffington Post.


Court Science

Students who love basketball can take time in between games to experiment with some science related to top court action. The following hands-on science project ideas encourage students to dig into the science of basketball:

  • Basketball: Will You Bank the Shot?: in this super cool experiment, students create a simulation from ordinary materials (like a cardboard tube) and use a mini ball to explore how the chance of scoring a bank shot changes depending on where the shot originates on the court.
  • Basketball Physics: Where Does a Bouncing Ball's Energy Go?: when a player dribbles, what happens to the energy of the ball? In this sports science investigation, students experiment to find out if there is a relationship between dribbling and heat energy.
  • Bouncing Basketballs: How Much Energy Does Dribbling Take?: dribbling on the sidewalk or at the local park court may feel very different than dribbling in an indoor gymnasium. In this hands-on science project, students experiment to find out how different surfaces affect how a ball bounces. Does it take more force to dribble on certain surfaces than others to keep the ball under control?
  • Nothing But Net: The Science of Shooting Hoops: where should you begin a shot for the best chance of making it? In this science project, students test to see if starting the ball from chest height, chin height, or over the head makes a difference in the percentage of successful shots.
  • Basketball: The Geometry of Banking a Basket: in this science project, students apply math and geometry to predict the chances of making a bank shot from various spots on the court. After doing this project and coming up with a set of "best chance" shot locations for a bank shot, students can keep tracking during March Madness games and see how their predictions match up to actual shots made (or missed).

Basketball science sports dribbling energy / Science projectBasketball science sports bank shot angles  / Science project

Basketball science sports bank shot math / Science projectBasketball science sports dribbling bounce energy and heat / Science project




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

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Zoology science experiment on habitats and environments for pillbug or sowbug / Hand-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a zoology family science experiment and science fair project that encourages families and students to observe pillbugs or sowbugs up close by creating cozy but different microenvironments and seeing which the bugs prefer. Although they are frequently found in the soil, pillbugs and sowbugs are not insects; instead, these bugs are crustaceans and breathe with gills.Will this have an affect on which microenvironment they choose? Put it to the test in this easy indoor science experiment that encourages observation skills as students watch to see how the bugs respond to the different microenvironments they create and perform their own bug counts at regular intervals.


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Kate Lande hasn't ever run into a skunk, but thanks to her 6th grade science project, she knows all about the role of oxidation in combatting stinky smells.

Kate / Student Science Success Story / Chemistry of Skunk Smell

Student Science in the Real World

As a 6th grade student, Kate Lande (pictured above) put an old folk remedy for getting rid of skunk spray smell to the test. She later discovered that her science research came in handy when her dog rolled in a decaying octopus!

Kate / Student Science Success Story / Project Display Board

Sharing the Results

A Project Display Board, like Kate's shown above, is an important part of the school science fair project. Find tips for presenting your data and constructing your board in the Science Fair Project Display Boards resource, sponsored by Elmer's® Products, Inc.


At Science Buddies, we know that the idea for a great student science project can come from anywhere. Something a student sees on TV may spark a question. A favorite hobby may inspire an experiment. A family health challenge may guide student inquiry. Science projects can be constructed around and about anything, even something that totally stinks!

After watching episodes of MythBusters and Fetch! (PBS KIDS GO) about treating and removing skunk smell, Kate Lande, then a 6th grade student in Washington, got inspired to tackle her own smelly science chemistry experiment.

"It looked like a pretty crazy project," recalls Kate, "but I decided to try it anyway."

Inspired by the challenge of getting rid of skunk smell, a smell notorious for its noxious, lasting power, Kate crafted her experiment for her required 6th grade science fair project. Tomato juice is a well-known folk remedy for skunk spray smell. We've all seen sitcoms where a family pet—or family member—ends up soaking in a tub of tomato juice after an unfortunate run-in with a black and white striped bandit. But does this remedy really work? Is tomato juice really an effective approach to remove the smell from something that has been skunk sprayed? And, is it the best way to get rid of skunk odor?

That there are no skunks where she lives didn't stop Kate from digging into the chemistry of the smelly problem. "I've never seen a real skunk, but I've smelled skunk spray on some of the road trips I've taken with my family," says Kate. After working with imitation skunk spray for her project, the scent is firmly rooted in Kate's head. "To me, it smells like an awful mix of burned rubber, rotten eggs, and skunk cabbage (a type of plant that grows in swampy areas—it really does smell like skunk, and there's lots of it [in my area]! In wild areas, bears love to eat it.)."

Anxious to put folk wisdom about tomato juice to the test—and to pit it against other potential remedies—Kate got started. Her background research on thiols and oxidation gave her a strong sense of what she thought would happen and how her test remedies would perform. She set up her hypothesis, designed her experiment, and called upon some volunteer noses.

What was the hardest part about experimenting with methods of skunk odor removal? "It was definitely a challenge to work with the skunk spray liquid," says Kate, "both to keep it off of myself and to tolerate the terrible smell!" She did it, and when she was finished, she contacted Science Buddies to share her project.


Smelly Science at Science Buddies

Inspired by Kate's stinky science project, Science Buddies staff scientists used Kate's investigation during the development of a new Project Idea at Science Buddies. Today, students interested in wildlife, chemistry, or just smelly science, may undertake the Skunk Attack! Test Different Remedies to Remove Skunk Odor science project and get hands-on with different ways to neutralize (or oxidize) thiols, the class of chemical compounds into which skunk spray smell falls.

Kate is excited that an adaptation of her science project idea is now available at Science Buddies for other students. "It feels pretty cool," she says. "I'm proud that my project idea was an original and that I did it well enough to be listed on an actual science website."

For students who decide to investigate skunk spray, she cautions, "This is definitely an outdoor project. We live on a big farm, so we picked an area well away from our house to do the experiment."

Kate also says to keep in mind that skunk spray may be just the beginning! She found that the odor remover she tried also works in other smelly situations. "Like the time our Labrador rolled in a dead octopus," says Kate. "We were walking on one of Vashon Island's beaches, and she found the octopus and rolled in it before we could stop her. She smelled horrible!"

After checking with the local veterinarian, Kate got instructions for using the odor remover safely on her dog, and it worked. "The solution also works on horse and sheep manure. Since we live on a farm, there's plenty of manure, and sometimes our dog rolls in it (but not very often, thankfully!)."

What odor remover did Kate test and discover to be effective at removing a range of stinky smells? You will have to conduct your own chemistry experiment to find out. In the Skunk Attack! Test Different Remedies to Remove Skunk Odor science project, you and your volunteers can do a sniff test to see which of four different possible remedies is most effective—and why. The nose knows best, but when it comes to skunk smell, chemistry holds the key to successfully "destink" the situation!

This year, Kate's 8th grade science project involved measuring the amount of sugar in soda. If you want to explore the science of that sweet subject, see the How Sweet It Is—How Much Sugar Is Really in That Soda? project.

In her spare time, Kate loves to read, write, draw, and make videos with friends and family. She also enjoys being outdoors, exploring nature, camping, and hiking. One of her goals is to climb Mount Rainier.

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St. Patrick's Day Rainbow with milk, soap, and color science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a family science experiment that lets you and your children make a rainbow in keeping with St. Patrick's Day! What happens when you put drops of food coloring in milk? What happens when you add a bit of dishwashing liquid? Put it to the test in this science activity for a fun, colorful look at the role of a surfactant and how it changes the surface tension of a liquid.


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Serving up Some Pi Pie for Pi Day


March 14 is Pi Day, so grab a slice, and your best memorization skills. How much Pi can you remember—which is not quite the same as how much pie can you eat!

Pi Pie by Kat M - great tribute to Pi day with number-topped pie

Celebrating Pi Day with Pie

A Google search or a Pi-focused look at Pinterest turns up all kinds of great Pi pie. The pie above, with the opening numbers of Pi cookie-cut and used as the top crust is a wonderful tribute to Pi! Image: Kat M.

Pi. Pie. When it comes to students of a certain age, there is often a very fine line between the two, and celebrating Pi Day often involves real pie as both a treat and a demonstration. Pi. And pie. There are a bazillion digits (and counting) in one and eight conservative or four generous slices in the other, but there is clear overlap beyond the fact that they both use a "p" and an "i" and are, grammatically speaking, homophones. They sound the same, but they also share an affinity for circles. Pi (π) represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and pie, typically, is presented in the form of a circle.

No matter how you slice it, you can use pie to observe Pi in action, which makes things handy when it comes to dishing up some tasty math. Speaking of pie, if you know the formula for finding the area of a circle, then you will understand this math joke "Pies are not square, they are round." (Confused? The formula for determining the area of a circle is A = πr2. Read it out loud to "hear" how it sounds. Then entertain your kids in class, in the car, or at dinner with your pithy math humor.)


Celebrating Pi

Today is Pi Day, and when I went looking to see what I said last year about Pi Day and the interminable decimal places of venerable Pi, the sequence that both enthralls and haunts many mathematicians, I discovered that no blog post exists at Science Buddies on Pi. 3.14159 what?

How can this be? I know the Golden Ratio has come up. I know Fibonacci has made an appearance. I know I've regaled the virtues of histograms and data collection and even the sorting and counting of M&Ms—for fun or for an exploration of survival and camouflage. I've shared a tale of a few hundred straws, hexagons, and a geodesic dome that almost didn't fit through the door. But no coverage of Pi Day?

It is completely irrational.

As is Pi!

For mathematicians, Pi Day is a day to pay homage to a serious number, a number that isn't really all that big when you think about the fact that 3 is smaller than 4. But Pi is a number that stands the test of time and a number that mathematicians have spent countless hours studying, memorizing, computing, and exploring. Like the Golden Ratio, Pi is an irrational number, a number that cannot be expressed as a simple fraction, a numbers whose decimal place digits continue endlessly without repeating. (According to the Mathisfun website, "People have calculated Pi to over a quadrillion decimal places and still there is no pattern.") Want to take a look at the first million digits? You can see them on the Pi Day site.

So how many digits of Pi do you know? We shorten Pi, all the time, to 3.14. When we multiply something by Pi (like r2 when solving for the area of a circle), we multiply by 3.14. But, really, with more than a quadrillion decimal places known, there is a whole lot more to Pi than just 3.14! There are competitions even to see how many digits of Pi people can recite. The Guinness World Records holder set the current record in 2005 by reciting 67,890 digits of Pi, a verbal feat that took more than 24 hours.


Making Connections

What's the longest number you know? A 9-digital identification number? A 10-digit phone number? A 16-digit credit card number? What's the max number of digits you can commit to memory and why?

Memorizing Pi to thousands of places doesn't necessarily have a purpose, but it is an interesting test of memorization technique and skill. Students can explore variables that may influence numeric recall in the How Many Numbers Can You Remember? project. This project can be great for an independent student project, fun as a class activity, or just good for family dinner conversation. You can use any numbers in the project, including randomly generated number strings, but this is a great experiment to do with the digits of Pi—even while eating pie on Pi Day!

If memorizing more than a few digits of Pi seems complicated to you, what happens if you explore the use of mnemonic devices? We often think of mnemonic devices as a way to help remember items in a sequence (like the planets) or a list of things, but people do come up with mnemonic devices to help with the recall of number strings, too.

To find out more about mnemonic devices and to put a few to the test, see the full Memory Mnemonics science project or check out our family-friendly activity version, part of Scientific American's Bring Science Home.

Have a great Pi Day 2014, and if there is pie, let it be circular and sweet.

Pi Day Pi Pie Screenshot from Google search
In looking at material for this blog post, a simple search of "Pi Pie" at Google let to an amazing array of Pi pie. The screenshot captures a few of the images that came up from all over the Internet. Clearly, there are lots of people inspired by Pi and happy to celebrate anything that involves pie!


More Family and Classroom Math

For suggestions on ways to integrate math into your everyday classroom or family activities, see Making Room for Math.

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Renewable energy is hiding in places you might not think to look! For a glimpse into the future of power generation, experiment with a microbial fuel cell.

By Kim Mullin

Microbial fuel cell hacker board / Energy science kit

Microbial Fuel Cells—Building Your Own Alternative Energy Experiment

After assembling your microbial fuel cell using a kit (available in the Science Buddies Store), connect the fuel cell's hacker board, shown above. Within 3-10 days, the hacker board should begin blinking, though you will start taking measurements right away!

In addition to the microbial fuel cell projects listed, students interested in alternative energy projects might explore:

Ask anyone about sources of renewable energy, and they are likely to mention solar power, wind power, or perhaps even geothermal power. Hydro (or water) power, too, may come up, but when you talk about water as a renewable energy source, you probably are talking about energy harnessed from falling or running water.

But what about the dirty water running through our underground sewage pipes? What if a wastewater treatment plant could power itself with the very water that it is supposed to clean?


Beyond Sun and Wind

The idea of producing energy from dirty water isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Thanks to something called a microbial fuel cell, extracting energy from microbes such as bacteria is possible. Why? Because some types of bacteria produce electrons when they feed on the nutrients found in places such as dirty water or soil—both of which are easy to find! In a microbial fuel cell, these electrons can be captured by electrodes and used as a power source.

You may be wondering what sorts of "nutrients" can be found in dirty water and soil. After all, humans depend on fresh fruits, vegetables, and proteins for the vitamins and minerals that help us thrive. However, some types of bacteria can live on compounds that our bodies treat as waste. For example, the urine that we flush down the toilet is full of nitrogen, and nitrogen is part of a healthy diet for some types of bacteria.


Harnessing the Power of Bacteria

Scientists discovered electricity-producing bacteria in the early 1900s, but recent interest in renewable energy has increased research in this area. To make microbial fuel cells a viable renewable power source, one important question that scientists must answer is how to best maximize the amount of electricity that they can produce.

With the Science Buddies Project Ideas below, you can be a renewable energy scientist. Try any of these projects to get started:


Powering the Future

While you shouldn't expect to be recharging your cell phone with a microbial fuel cell next year, it is possible that one day this technology will be as common as solar panels. Will you be among the scientists who explore innovative ways to keep up with our energy needs?


Microbial fuel cell alternative energy kit from Science Buddies Store




Support for this Project Idea was provided, in part, by PG&E



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Carnival Games science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a mechanical engineering experiment and family science activity that takes a scientific look at why a popular carnival game may look easy to win but may, in fact, be really difficult. How does the distribution of mass in the way milk bottles (or plastic bottles of colored water!) are stacked affect how hard or easy it is to knock the bottles over? Put the question to the test with your own home version of a classic carnival game!



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Baking Up a Science Project


A batch of homemade muffins can easily turn into a great hands-on student science project. Grab some bowls and choose your variable!

By Kim Mullin

Student doing kitchen science experiment with muffins
Image: My son headed to the kitchen for a recent science project and found that using the scientific method, making muffins can yield tasty science.


Pumpkin muffins are a mainstay of our family's snack repertoire. I love that they are full of vitamin A, and the kids love that they have chocolate chips in them. My 12-year-old started making them by himself this year, and he's a very practical person, so it didn't surprise me when he decided to make muffins for his science experiment. "Mom, I can do my homework and make a snack at the same time."


Finding the Science in the Everyday

So how can making muffins be a science experiment? All you have to do to turn the process into hands-on science is try controlled variations (changing only one variable at a time) on the recipe or directions. For example, what happens if you bake batches at different temperatures? What happens if you change, substitute, omit, or add ingredients? My son chose to bake batches using different amounts of baking powder to see how the change in quantity would affect the height of the resulting muffins.


The Scientific Method in Action

For his school science assignment, he needed a control group and three different test groups. Rather than bake four whole batches, which would have given us 96 muffins, he chose to make four half batches. Happily, the recipe was easy to divide in two.

After gathering all of his ingredients together, he pulled four bowls out of the cupboard and labeled each one with the amount of baking powder it should contain. His control batch contained the regular amount of baking powder called for by his recipe, and the test batches contained 1) no baking powder, 2) half the normal amount of baking powder, and 3) double the normal amount of baking powder.

Throughout his experiment, he was careful to keep all other variables the same. Because he couldn't bake 48 muffins all at once, he chose to measure only the dry ingredients into each of the four bowls. He added the egg, vanilla, and other "wet" ingredients only when he was ready to put a batch in the oven. Of course, the oven was set to the same temperature for each batch, and he used a timer to make sure they all spent the same amount of time in the oven.


The Proof is in the Muffin

Once the batches were cooked and cooled, it was time to test his hypothesis about how changing the amount of baking powder in a recipe would affect muffin height. He cut each muffin at its highest point, measured it, and entered the data into a spreadsheet. Before taking the average height of each batch, he opted to throw out the shortest and tallest muffin in each batch—the outliers. What do you think his results were? I'm not letting on, except to say that they were awfully tasty!


Science Doesn't Have to Involve Lab Coats

Was this experiment "hard"? No. But it was a straightforward way to solidify the concepts of hypothesis, variable, control, data analysis, and conclusion in his mind. And, because his dad is a statistics geek, they were able to have interesting conversations about mean, median, range, and statistical significance—while enjoying a muffin and a glass of milk!

So many of the things we do everyday involve scientific principles. Help your kids make the connection!


Your Own Kitchen Science
If you and your kids are inspired to do a muffin-making (or cookie-baking) project similar to the one my son did, the Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? food science project contains a full procedure to get you started. For additional ways to "mix up" the experiment, be sure to check the Make it Your Own tab. If you are looking for a simplified version of this experiment, perfect for family together-time, see our family-friendly adapation for Scientific America's Bring Science Home.

For other food science experiments and family science activities for the kitchen, you might try one of the following:


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Giant metal traffic control robots installed on busy streets in Africa remind students that robotics engineering tackles projects and issues that may require very big OR very small solutions.


Robot Cop for Traffic Control
Image: "Now, Robocop helps manage traffic in Kinshasa," India Today Online.

Recent robotics engineering projects at Science Buddies have shot my perspective on robotics with a shrinking serum, something that's taken my preconceived ideas about robots, drawn largely from growing up with the Jetsons on television and C-3PO and R2-D2 on the big screen, and tossed them down a long Alice and Wonderland-styled tunnel where they have emerged miniaturized and decidedly non-humanoid. Think of the skittering crew of cookie robots in Despicable Me (2010). Small. Fast. Stealthy. Focused. Hungry. Bots on a mission.

This is a new class of bots, a far cry from bots like The Iron Giant (1999), Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (1986), and Wall-E (2008). Whereas those bots won us over with their human-like qualities and similarities, not all bots are built at that scale. Both on- and off-screen, the bots that have been crossing my radar lately have been small, and smaller, and then even smaller, reaching coin-sized proportions most recently in my interview with Dani Ithier, a student in Harvard's Microrobotics Lab, where they are working on bug-inspired bots.

Smaller and smaller, a tale of shrinking robots, until a CNN story and images of the "Robo Cops" installed in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, crossed my desk.

Two towering aluminum bots have been installed in the middle of congested highways to help alleviate traffic flow problems. Those two bots, eight feet tall and bearing familiar human facial features, remind me, visually, of bots from old-school science fiction. These traffic cops look like the kind of (non-functional) bots kids construct out of cast-off parts from the garage and cardboard boxes salvaged from the recycling bin, but these bots represent sophisticated engineering. The traffic robots are reportedly powered by solar panels, have on-board surveillance cameras, and can talk. This is high-tech, robotic traffic control being conducted by robots that "come sporting sunglasses like real cops," reports India Today Online. From up high (eight feet plus the pedestals on which they stand), these robots are taking on the combined roles of traffic cop, streetlight, and pedestrian walk signal, all in an effort at reigning in a mounting traffic problem.


An Infinite Number of Designs—and Functions

The story (and image) of Kinshasa's robo cops is an excellent reminder about the breadth of functionality and design for robotics engineers. Smaller is not always better and it not always the solution. Many robots are designed to do a very specific task. They may or may not need to have a full set of "humanoid" body parts and appendages. A robotic hand, for example, may be developed to do a single, focused task, and the parameters of that task—What needs to be picked up? How heavy is the item? How far does it need to be moved?—may guide the design. Specifying the requirements of a solution is an important step in the engineering design process. Students can explore this kind of design and the engineering issues that arise in projects like Grasping with Straws: Make a Robot Hand Using Drinking Straws and Squishy Robots: Build an Air-Powered Soft Robotic Gripper.


Robots for Safety

Looking at the Kinshasa robo cops also highlights the use of robotics in ensuring safety, through prevention, through ongoing presence and monitoring, and through disaster relief. Students can explore safety-related robotics engineering and design in hands-on science projects like these:

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Suspension Bridge science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an civil engineering project that lets students and families experiment with bridge design. You may be familiar with famous suspension bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but how does a suspension bridge really work? How do the cables work to support the weight on the bridge? Can a suspension bridge carry a greater load than a beam bridge? With common household materials, you can put your own straw-based bridges to the test. How many pennies can your suspension bridge hold compared to a bridge without cables?



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Science fair projects let students learn, use, and demonstrate important science and reasoning steps, and the benefits of hands-on and active exploration compared to more passive modes of learning or rote memorization are well-documented. So why do so many parents scowl at the science fair project assignment? What makes the science project a stressor for many families rather than an anticipated and positive learning experience? Is it simply a matter of perspective or an incomplete understanding of what a science fair project is and should be? There are many steps teachers can take to help transform the science fair project experience, but what does it take, at home, to transform the science project assignment from something parents dread into something parents celebrate as a critical and invaluable step in their student's learning?


Turning Turmoil into Terrific / Science Fair Project Display Board for parents

Better Understanding the Science Fair Project: Helpful Resources for Parents

The following resources and articles may help parents reconceptualize the importance, value, and process of a student's science fair project assignment:

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Social Media Lashes Out at the "Science Fair Project"

Have you seen it? The GoldieBlox Super Bowl ad, yes. The LEGO® Movie, yes. The tongue-in-cheek project display board bemoaning the science fair project process and citing a more than 75% dissatisfaction rate among students and parents, as measured by the number of students who cry and the number of parents who yell during the process? Probably.

You may have seen the project display board crop up on your favorite social media site. You may have been surprised to see it pop into your stream from distant corners of the country or globe, from parents and grandparents alike. You may have been surprised to see it crop up in the stream of a parent or friend who you know has a very engineering- or science- or technology- or math-oriented kid, a parent you know spends countless hours encouraging, lauding, and supporting her student's hands-on science and engineering projects—and proudly sharing those same projects with her friends and followers.

It happened to me. I first saw the "science project turmoil" project display board shared by the parent I would least expect to spare it a second glance, much less share it. The next morning, I saw the photo shared by someone else in a completely different part of the country, someone who doesn't even have school-age children. As friends of those friends weighed in with a comment or a thumbs-up on the post, notifications kept popping up (accompanied by a 'beep' on my system) letting me know how much "support" the photo was getting from other people who saw the photo and agreed enough to click 'Like,' or leave a comment, or share the photo on their own stream. I didn't see anyone rebutting the image or standing up on behalf of the virtues and values of hands-on science education—at least not in those two shares of the photo. Even from teachers, I saw "likes."

Puzzled by the near-instant wave of people latching onto the image and issue, I went to the source—the original photo posted in March 2011.

It is both fascinating and frightening to read through the comments on the original photo. There are, thankfully, some people who weighed in noting the positive nature of hands-on or active science education. There is, in fact, a comment by the board creator where it seems that, in part, her complaint is really aimed at the way science fair is presented in elementary school—at the fact that the "competition" aspect of science fair may overshadow the point of hands-on science and turn the science fair into something else, something that invites and encourages far too much parent involvement. Her comment (#48) is there, but as the turmoil board picked up steam anew last week, it appears that by and large, people saw the "turmoil board" and were compelled to join the wave of "why do a science project" comments, a tidal wave of anti-science education sentiment that took on new life with each new like.


Why Do a Science Project?

What gave the "turmoil board" steam when it resurfaced? What prompted people from all corners to share, reshare, like, and comment? If many of those people are people who actually support, encourage, and even enjoy hands-on science and engineering activities with their kids, you have to dig deeper to see what's really at issue here.

Take the science (or engineering) out of it, and the "project" stands alone, with the assumed "assigned" or "fair" being the silent partner in crime, the elephant in the room. The board creator even suggests that without a competitive fair, science projects could be approached differently for elementary school children, done more as family projects and explorations. In other words, it is specifically the school science fair project that is being projected as the cause of family turmoil.

The board, with its googly eyes overlooking the hand-drawn results diagram, goes on to explain why.

The photo got under my skin, maybe because it was shared (and liked) by people that I didn't expect to share (and like) it. It was shared and liked by people who I know value science education, people who I know are proactive and publicly involved in the education systems in their areas.

So why the widespread jump on the anti-science fair project bandwagon? What buttons did the "turmoil board" press?


Kids Doing Science

At Science Buddies, I am one of the non-scientists. I am exactly the kind of parent that might seem to fall into the "science projects cause family turmoil" camp simply because "science fair" isn't my forte—science fair puts me well out of my comfort zone.

Before Science Buddies, maybe I would have been drinking the science-causes-turmoil Kool-Aid. It is hard to know how I might have approached a science fair assignment before Science Buddies. I can't go backwards and manipulate the variables or set up a control to see how my family would have weathered science fair season without the benefit of knowing about the project ideas and resources available at Science Buddies.

Thankfully, there is Science Buddies.

As a parent of elementary and middle school children, I have, over the last few years, done and witnessed a wide range of science and engineering projects with my kids, ones that have been completed for science fairs and ones that we have done together as family activities.

My lack of engineering and electronics experience didn't stop us from tackling toothbrush robots, light-following Bristlebots, a crystal radio, pencil dimmer switches, play dough electronics, and more. That doesn't mean I didn't wonder with each project if I knew enough to guide the activity or help troubleshoot problems that might come up with the independent (science fair) projects. But, all in all, science fair projects in my house have gone smoothly and been positive experiences all around.

So, where was the turmoil?

There was much more angst with the "build a mission" project, a California History assignment in the 4th grade and a clay roof that took hours with a hair dryer to try and harden. There was plenty of angst any time an assignment to "dress up as your historical subject" came home. (We didn't happen to have Ben Franklin-suitable attire on hand.) Making a half dozen artifacts to go along with a history research project certainly took as much time as the science fair project. Indeed, there have been flurries and scurries with a wide range of creative and "craft"-oriented exercises and assignments.

So what's the problem with the science fair? And, more importantly, what does it take to turn a standard science fair assignment into a positive, successful learning experience for students and a positive parenting experience for the grown-ups?


Helping Students (and Parents) Enjoy the Science Fair Project

As I watched the fervor over science fair mount, triggered by a marker-drawn project display board, I wanted to pass out Science Buddies stickers to every person who clicked "like" or "share" or wrote a comment commiserating with the horrors of science fair.

I wanted to grab some markers and make my own Project Display Board of all the things I know that Science Buddies offers that can help remedy the problem, all the tools and guidance that can transform the science project into something students and parents look forward to as a fun way to get really hands-on with a cool science question.

If only all of those parents knew about Science Buddies, I kept thinking. Of course, I work for Science Buddies. So I have an inside view. I know that more than fifteen million other people, including students, teachers, and parents also know about Science Buddies and count the non-profit and its free, online resources as a trusted source. I know they visit the site each year when science fair rolls around.

I can only assume that the "turmoil board" creator may not know about Science Buddies and may not know about the Topic Selection Wizard.

We need Science Buddies stickers. We need a badge kids can sew on to a troop uniform. We need to go viral in the same way that the "turmoil board" went viral.


Science Buddies and the Student Science Fair Project

Science Buddies has a whole set of keys that can help transform the science fair "turmoil" into a successful experience for students and parents. In part, parents have to get beyond their own fear of science and their own assumptions about science fair. You don't have to be a science expert to help an elementary student do a school science project. But you do have to have the right idea about what a science project is, what it can be, and how to approach it to maximize the learning experience—and enjoyment—for your student. You also have the right to expect that a science fair project isn't simply a homework assignment, something sent home with a due date several weeks in the future and not integrated at all in the day-to-day classroom.

For science fair projects to be successful, teachers have to ensure that projects are integrated into the classroom learning and monitored with clear schedules and check-ins that help students stay on track and also teach students how to break a big project down into doable parts. Science fair projects should not be done the night before they are due. Ever.

There are a number of ways in which teachers can (and should) help smooth the science fair project experience. But in responding to the "turmoil board," the following reminders for parents and students can make a big difference in how the process goes at home:

  1. Plan ahead. This is a big stumbling block for many students and parents. Waiting until two days before the project is due to select a project or buy supplies is a guaranteed recipe for disaster (and family stress). Plus, waiting too late in the process limits what kind of project your student can do. The project your student might be most excited by might take weeks to complete. That doesn't necessarily mean it is a more difficult project, but projects in certain areas of science may take more time—plant biology projects, for example, or setting up and testing a microbial fuel cell for an environmental science project.
    Note: proper scheduling of the project and assessing a student's progress throughout the project window is a teacher's responsibility and can really help alleviate science project stress, procrastination, and confusion. When properly scheduled and managed with in-class due dates and timelines, parents should not suddenly learn from a panicked student that the science fair project is "due tomorrow" and has not been started. (See the Science Fair Scheduler Worksheet in the Teacher Resources area.) Parents can help students set up calendars and put time to work on various parts of the project on a schedule to help reinforce the time management and planning skills students are learning and using.
  2. Pick a great project idea. A half-baked project idea should not be the cause of science fair angst. At Science Buddies, there are more than 1,200 scientist-authored project ideas in more than 30 areas of science. Most of these project ideas offer background information to help kickstart a student's research and a full experimental procedure that has been tested and reviewed by a team of scientists.
  3. Hook into student interests. A student who does a project that fits in with an existing area of interest is far more likely to enjoy the science project process than a student who picks a project because it fits a parent's area of expertise or somehow fits what a parent thinks a science project "should be." This doesn't mean that your student needs to know if she is interested in biotechnology or aerodynamics. If she knows that, great. But if she doesn't, what are her hobbies? What does she like to do in her spare time? Are there issues she cares about?

    Finding a science project related to an interest may immediately set the stage for a more exciting and engaging science fair project. Not sure where to look? The Topic Selection Wizard at Science Buddies helps match students to projects they may really enjoy—even in areas of science they might not have initially considered. Respond to a few simple statements that help the Wizard better understand your interests, and the Wizard will show you a set of projects that you might like. From video gaming to sports to robotics and zoology, there are great student projects in every area of science.

  4. Think beyond the box about what qualifies as a science fair project. Your student is not limited to doing the same project everyone else does, the same project an afterschool program demonstrated, or the same project you remember from your own science class. There are an infinite number of possible questions your student might ask and around which a science project may be built. Students are not limited to exploding volcanoes or seeing whether plants grow better with this liquid or that one. Here are a few examples of great science projects that might not sound like what you expect:

    Those are just a few of the many, many projects that students might choose, projects that sound like a whole lot of fun!

  5. Pick a project that fits with the student's grade level/experience. Not every science fair project will results in a Nobel Prize-worthy conclusion or data set. School science projects are not supposed to be equivalent to what adult scientists are doing in the field or in research labs. Instead, a student's science project gives the student the chance to enact the scientific or engineering method and answer a science question. What is learned or observed by the student may be something small, but the student will have learned by doing, by putting the question to the test and gathering and analyzing data. Picking a project that is too hard is certain to cause problems, and choosing a project that is too simplistic for your student will not challenge her to really dig in and get involved in the process and project.
  6. Understand the role of the parent and the role of the student in the science project process. Your student's science project should not be your own project. Depending on your student's grade and age, you may need to be more or less involved in helping your student facilitate the experiment. But if an appropriate project is selected, your student should be able to work through the steps on her own. Your student needs to come up with the hypothesis (her words, not yours). Your student needs to decide what the project display board looks like and how the information gets presented. Your role may be that of driver (to the library) or buyer (materials, glue, and a project display board). Or maybe your role is to help your student talk out loud about what is happening in the project so that she is better able to understand and articulate what she observes, what problems she encounters, what questions she has, how her variables are related, or what else she may need to do in developing her procedure or analyzing her data. (For more information, see How to Help Your Science Student.)
  7. Review the basic steps of the scientific method or engineering design process yourself. Your student should be learning and reviewing these steps in class, but refreshing your memory about what is involved will help you feel more confident about the step-wise approach that most projects follow. Bookmark the Science Buddies Project Guide. It is your friend.
  8. Remember that being "right" is not the goal. A science project may not turn out the way your student expects. A hypothesis may not turn out to be supported by the experiment. It may seem like exactly the opposite of what your student thought was going to happen happened. This doesn't mean the project failed. If your student worked through the appropriate steps and learned something by doing the experiment, then the project may, in fact, have been a success. Teachers look to see that students have used and understood the scientific steps, understand what they were testing and why, and understand what the data showed—even if it is different than what the hypothesis predicted. Do not think your student has failed if the project takes an unexpected turn!
  9. Go to the science fair. Make an effort to go to the science fair to see your student's project on display, one project display board among all the others, and to celebrate the hard work and learning that went on as part of the project. Everyone who completes a science fair project deserves recognition for participation!


Here's to Science Fair Project Success in Your House!

Share Science Buddies with your student's parents, with your friends, colleagues, and family. Science Buddies can make a difference in how students and families perceive the science fair project.

While your students finish preparing their science fair projects for this year, I may work on a few project display boards of my own. As the "turmoil board" shows, you can certainly make a statement and communicate information about a project or a process using a project display board! That students learn to share their project results in this way is a great exercise at the end of the science project process!

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A Google hangout this week gives students and teachers a chance to find out more about space exploration and to talk with astronauts and leaders from Virgin Galactic about some of the many, many reasons "why" space science matters.


Milky Way photo; Golden State Star Party; 2010
Photo: Kenneth Hess, Golden State Star Party, 2010.

Do you look up at the night sky and see, simply, the stars, the imaginary outlines that link stars to form constellations, the blinking lights of planes as they pass, bright speck of Venus, the shifting clouds on the moon making the face in the moon that appears in children's stories? Do you look up, and see the brave new frontier heralded, traveled, explored, and inhabited in popular television series like "Star Trek," "Dr. Who," and "Firefly"? Or maybe you look up and see something in between.

Maybe you hope to be an astronaut, or maybe you are just curious about what potential exists beyond our atmosphere. Maybe when you look at a photo from the Hubble Space Telescope, you realize that every one of the dots you see, really, is a galaxy or a cluster of galaxies. Maybe you contemplate that reality, and your head spins, just a bit, and you think, too, of the Milky Way and that, in fact, our spinning-armed galaxy is just a dot in the vastness of space. Maybe you are fascinated by photos from the International Space Station that show astronauts looking back at Earth, a completely different perspective on our planet.

In a TEDx talk in January, Will Pomerantz, a graduate of the International Space University and Vice President of Special Projects for Virgin Galactic, talked about space and the "why" of space exploration. "From Yuri Gagarin in April 1961 until today, 542 human beings have been in outer space," said Will. "And I can guarantee you that every one of those 542, plus all of the hard working men and women who have helped put them up there, all the people who work on the great robots like Mars Curiosity, like the Hubble Space Telescope, every single one of them has been asked at some point by a friend or by a loved one—'Why? Why is it worth it? Why do we go to outer space?'"

Maybe you have similar questions, questions about the time and money involved in space exploration, questions about what we can learn, as a society and as a planet, by exploring space, questions about how space exploration can make a difference in life on Earth.


Space Education, Hangout Style

Virgin Galactic, a sponsor of the 2014 Google Science Fair, is all set to answer questions about space exploration in an out-of-this-world Google hangout this week titled "Why Go to Space." Gavin Ovsak, a former Google Science Fair finalist, will lead the hangout and pass along questions submitted by the audience to Sam Branson and Will Pomerantz. Sam, already known for his adventures in the Arctic, and son of Virgin founder Richard Branson, is training to be part of Virgin Galactic's first commercial spaceflight scheduled for later this year. Together, Will and Sam will join forces at the hangout to answer questions about space travel and give you their perspective on "why" we should consider going to space—why we should consider continued space exploration important.

As Will puts it, there are an infinite number of possible answers to the question. "I don't think you can give the top 10 reasons why we go to space, because, after all, there are 7 billion of us" and who "knows how many planets and stars and reasons out there."

Drop by this week's hangout to hear what questions others have about space, to ask your own questions, to hear Sam and Will as they talk about some of the reasons "why," and to think about your own answer to the question: "Why go to space?"

The hangout will take place on February 28, 2014 at 18:00-18:30 GMT (1PM EST/10AM PST). To join the hangout, visit http://goo.gl/6ZpZMG.

Read more about this week's Virgin Galactic hangout in this article on the Virgin Galactic site.


Making Connections

Students interested in space exploration can explore relevant ideas and concepts in engaging astronomy science projects like these:

  • Dirty Snowballs: How a Comet's Size Affects How Fast It Melts: Comets are big lumps of rocks, ice, and frozen gases that orbit the Sun. The glowing tail behind a comet's nucleus is the visible sign that a comet is melting. Do big comets melt faster than small ones? In this science project, students model comets using ice forms and a hair dryer to explore the relationship between a comet's size and the rate of melting.
  • Catching Stardust: Astronomers design and build satellites to orbit a planet, moon, or comet and collect space particles, or "stardust." How many space particles are collected this way, and what variables increase or decrease a satellite's effectiveness in gathering stardust? In this science project, students build their own mini satellite and use it to collect pretend stellar debris. What difference does the orbit distance of the satellite from the object being observed make in terms of what is collected?
  • The Milky Way and Beyond: Globular Clusters: The color of a globular cluster gives clues about both the age and the contents of the cluster. When you look at the colors of the globular clusters in our galaxy and compare them to the colors of clusters in another galaxy, what kinds of conclusions might you draw?
  • Craters and Meteorites: The craters on the surface of the moon may resemble the holes in Swiss cheese, but what accounts for the differences in crater size? In this science project, even the youngest of students get hands-on exploring how impact craters are formed and why some are deep, some are shallow, and some are bigger than others. Does the size of a crater depend upon the size of the meteorite?
  • Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space?: Could asteroid mining be the space equivalent of gold or coal mining? In this science project, students analyze data from the NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Small-Body Database to develop their own business plan for a hypothetical asteroid mining company. Which asteroids should you target for an early asteroid mining mission?

  • NASA Asteroid Database: What Can You Learn About Our Solar System?: In addition to the well-known planets, moon, and sun, our solar system is filled with millions of asteroids. Agencies like NASA track asteroids, partly because of the risk of an asteroid collision with Earth. But asteroid data may also provide information about the history of our solar system and our future in space. In this science project, students explore NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Small-Body Database and learn to work with "big data" as well as investigate what this data can tell us about our solar system.
  • The Measure of Mercury: Analyzing Impact Craters on the Innermost Planet: NASA spacecraft gather data that scientists then use to further explore and understand space. In this science project, students use data collected from NASA's MESSENGER mission to learn more about impact craters on Mercury. Using NASA data, students investigate the relationship between the depth and diameter of Mercury's impact craters.


Zero-G training for space flight
Above: Science Buddies President and Founder, Ken Hess (third from right) during a Zero-G training session in preparation for a future Virgin Galactic space flight.

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Seasons science / Earth Axis Science Experiment

In this week's spotlight: an astronomy project that lets students and families use a simple homemade setup to better understand the way the tilt of the Earth's axis causes seasons. When a surface is titled, how does the light reaching it change? With a flashlight, a cardboard box, and some ordinary paper, you can get hands-on and experiment!


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With open source software and guided directions from Science Buddies, students can explore the ways in which robotics engineers test designs before choosing which designs to prototype. This student put her own robots to the test—on her computer—and walked away with a blue ribbon at a local fair.

Student VoxCAD success story / 3D robotics student science

Students Exploring 3D Engineering

With computer-aided design and simulation software, students can begin exploring virtual design and engineering as early as elementary school.Have you experimented with 3D software for your science project, as part of your robotics team, or just for fun? We would love to hear and share your story! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org to let us know how you have started exploring 3D design and engineering!

With many schools offering extracurricular or after-school robotics clubs and programs, more and more students are exploring robotics engineering. Hands-on projects like building an ArtBot or BristleBot make it easy for families to tackle a robotics building activity at home with fairly easy-to-come-by supplies like toothbrush heads, coin cell batteries, and plastic cups.

While making a cute bot that shuttles about on toothbrush bristles can be empowering and rewarding for kids, designing effective robots involves more than just the mechanics of assembly. Being able to test different approaches to a robot design or its materials before investing time and money in building offers many advantages for engineers. If the goal is to create a robot creature that can move quickly from Point A to Point B, which design will work best?

Building three different working models, each with different approaches to mobility, is not always a practical approach given issues of time, materials, and money. If, instead, an engineer can do some preliminary testing and gauge the benefits or drawbacks of various design options, she may be able to save time and money and invest energy working on the design that shows the most promise for a given challenge or need. One approach to evaluating designs involves using computer software, like VoxCAD, to simulate various designs and conditions. VoxCAD is an open source, cross-platform physics simulation tool originally developed by Jonathan Hiller in the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University.

In the field, using simulation software can be an important pre-build and testing step for robotics engineers. In the classroom, simulation software allows students to explore robotics without prior engineering experience. With a suite of VoxCAD Project Ideas at Science Buddies, students can experiment with robotics engineering at the virtual level, no circuits, batteries, or soldering required.

"The neat thing about VoxCAD is that kids can jump straight in to the deep end," says Dr. Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist at Science Buddies. "It takes a lot of mechanical engineering, electronics, and even programming know-how to create robots with different mobility strategies, but using VoxCAD, a student whose curiosity is sparked can start designing those robots in just a few minutes without all the time it takes to develop those skills."

With robotics simulation, exploring robotics and comparing designs doesn't require building multiple robots. Instead, students can get started right at their computers. After mocking up, visualizing, and testing their three dimensional ideas using VoxCAD, students who want to learn more about hands-on robotics engineering can explore circuit-based robot building projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies and move from virtual to real-world robotics design, building, and engineering.


Thinking 3D: Student Robotics

Laura was in 4th grade when her mom showed her a new VoxCAD project at Science Buddies. Laura, who wants to be a website developer in the future, was fascinated by the idea of designing three-dimensional robots and decided to give the introductory "Robot Race! Use a Computer to Design, Simulate, & Race Robots with VoxCAD" project a try.

"My mom showed me a VoxCAD video, and I became attached," says Laura. "I liked the way the creatures moved. I thought that was very interesting that the computer was able to bring them to life. And I wanted to learn how to do that."

When her mom told her about VoxCAD, Laura didn't have a science project assignment due. She chose to experiment with VoxCAD on her own. "I just thought it looked fun and wanted to try it," says the budding engineer, noting that robotics engineering wasn't an area of science she was already interested in or had explored before.

Laura enjoyed working with VoxCAD and trying different robot designs. In a video she created to accompany her project, Laura describes the movement of each design as the three-dimensional block-based robots move around on screen. She refers to the three models she created and tested as the "fastman snail," the "shimmier," and the "sidewinder," and her testing shows clear differences in the effectiveness of each. Using VoxCAD, she was able to bring the three robot designs to life on the screen and put them in motion to see how they would move and which would move farthest.

Voxcad Screenshot
Above: a screenshot from Laura's VoxCAD project that shows her three robot designs after time has elapsed.


The best part of the experience, says Laura, was watching her creations move in the VoxCAD Physics Sandbox. "I learned to think in 3D," she adds. After finishing her project, Laura entered it in the science division of the Alameda County Fair where she won a first prize blue ribbon.

Congratulations to Laura!


Further Exploration

To learn more about VoxCAD and to experiment with your own three-dimensional robot design and testing, see the following Project Ideas:

For suggestions about family robotics projects and activities and ways to engage your students with introductory robotics exploration, see: Bot Building for Kids and Their Parents: Celebrating Student Robotics, Create a Carnival of Robot Critters this Summer, Robot Engineering: Tapping the Artist within the Bot, and Family Robotics: Toothbrush Bots that Follow the Light.


Today, February 20, 2014 is Girl Day, part of Engineers Week. Don't miss the chance to make a difference in a student's life and future by taking the opportunity to introduce students to the world of engineering today and every day.

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LEGO Movie Makes Engineering Awesome


The LEGO® Movie puts engineering on the big screen in the hands of an assortment of plastic master builders and superheroes from various time periods and realms who come together to challenge Lord Business and the superior threat of Kragle. What they engineer in their quest to stop the Kragle will inspire students, teachers, and parents. If you aren't singing the awesome virtues of engineering yet, you should be!

LEGO Movie downloadable social media cover from official site
Note: You can find out more about the movie and watch video trailers on the official LEGO Movie site or on the LEGO site.


If you've seen the LEGO® Movie, then you know, "Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team." And, maybe... everything is awesome when you trust yourself, build what you want, imagine what isn't already written in a manual, and see yourself as special.

With Engineers Week this week, the timing for the smash LEGO Movie feels pretty, well, awesome. The importance of strengthening and encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for K-12 students is an important topic of discussion, and on the heels of the great GoldieBlox ad during last month's Super Bowl game, a movie devoted to highlighting what is possible when you celebrate and combine ingenuity, innovation, and the spirit of engineering has all the makings of a blockbuster.

No matter what angle you approach it from, there is something to like in the LEGO Movie, even if a toddler seated behind you stands up the entire movie with his face wedged on the back edge of your seat and babbles throughout. There is something to like even if you think you have a toe a bit too far into teenhood to still play with LEGO. This is a feel-good movie that budding engineers, creative types, parents, kids, vehicle enthusiasts, and all fans of pink unicorn kitties are sure to enjoy.

Maybe you really love the fact that the first master builder who whirls into quick-as-a-flash building view is Wyldstyle, aka Lucy, a perfect big screen moment for inspiring and applauding girls interested in STEM. Maybe you love Batman's wry persona and his comment about building only in black, and sometimes a very, very dark grey. Maybe you like Emmet's morning routines, all by the instruction manual, including some pretty fierce jumping jacks. Maybe you really liked the appearance of a floating, dangling, glowing-eyed, Ghost Vitruvious. Maybe you really liked Benny the astronaut who can snap together a space ship out of whatever parts are on hand. Depending on where you live (or in which realm), maybe you chuckled over the overpriced coffee.

Or maybe you liked the aha moment when you finally realized what the "piece of resistance" really is in the context of the story.

The movie is full of great moments that may strike a chord with viewers of all ages in ways both obvious and subtle. As a parent, I liked the movie on many levels. We have zillions of bricks in the house from years gone by, and I fondly remember our days of "instruction manual" building as well as our days of free-form building. I loved the way master builders in the movie looked around at piles of bricks and pieces and saw, instantly, the different kinds of elements they needed, complete with the LEGO part ID numbers.

Watching the master builders in the movie quickly assess the problem, the moment, the dire necessity, and whip up something amazing from salvaged and reclaimed bricks was very cool. But Emmet's solution for the broken wheel axle during an early wagon escape scene was also right on track for the way engineers think on their feet (or with their heads) as they create and innovate needed solutions. His double-decker couch may have inspired some laughter, but in the end, it helped Emmet and a core group of characters escape, its real functionality emerging as an accidental discovery—something that happens in science and engineering all the time!

Ultimately, throughout the movie, viewers see the engineering design process in action. Things are built and rebuilt over and over and over again—with or without a manual. Engineering is fun and awesome.


Making Connections

If the movie inspired you and your kids and made you think about the buckets, bins, and baskets of LEGO bricks that have wound their way into the basement or storage or a closet, pull them out again and see what happens when you encourage your kids to take a fresh look and think and build beyond the instruction booklet.

The following science project ideas can be turned on their heads to give students new building experiences and challenges:

  • Building the Tallest Tower: this one is a vertical exploration, but what happens if you change the orientation? Or, by all means, build up! What do you need to do to keep climbing higher?
  • Mixing Mystery: Why Does Tumbling Sometimes Separate Mixtures?: use LEGO to build a science tool that can help sort out a mixture. If you love the kinds of ideas you find in a Lego Crazy Action Contraptions-style book, this one might be right up your alley!
  • Gears-Go-Round!: working with gears and understanding the relationship between the number of teeth and a gear's functionality will help students refine their building skills and strengthen their "how will this connect with that" know-how. What are all the ways you can reuse the collection of gears you have?

If your older kids are using LEGO Mindstorms, don't miss the great array of Mindstorms projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies.

Follow these, as written, or use the ideas as starting points for launching your own building projects and engineering or robotics investigations:

(These projects work with older Mindstorms kits or the new EV3 model.)

What you build will be awesome—because you build it!


Science on the Dark Side

Did the Kragle in the movie make your brain buzz? Did you spot the scene at the end where the humans are un-gluing structures that had been super-glued in perfect place? Did you cringe at the sad moment when Good Cop, Bad Cop's good face was wiped clean?

These moments invite all kinds of science questions about glues, adhesives, and solvents. Get started!

LEGO Movie - What will you create, build, engineer, innovate? Get started with Science Buddies

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What can engineers learn from studying the ways in which bugs and insects move? A great deal! Robotics labs like the Harvard Microrobotics Lab are using bio-inspired research and observation to design and test new approaches to designing and building small robots. Meet a female engineer working in the lab. She may not be keen on bees, but when it comes to coin-sized bots, she is excited by the challenge of taking what insects already do well and creating better, faster, and more efficient microrobots.

Dani Robotics Engineer
Above: Dani Ithier, Harvard student and engineer in the Harvard Microrobotics Lab

Flying Smart with Butterfly Wings

Dani's lab is using bio-inspired research to further robotics design and engineering, but other fields, too, study bio-systems to help improve existing systems, technologies, and understanding.

In the "Butterfly Wings: Using Nature to Learn About Flight" aerodynamics project, students make model butterflies to explore how changes in the angle of a butterfly's wing, relative to the wind, changes the lift force of the wing. Insect-inspired research may inform robotics design, but as this project shows, this research can also help address science questions and improve designs in other areas!

Like many kids, Dani Ithier grew up interested in building things. Popular engineering-inspired building and construction systems like LEGO are often a child's first introduction to the world of engineering. These systems provide an accessible, colorful, fun, and extensible platform that invites kids to explore engineering design and encourages troubleshooting and a step-by-step approach—for fun.

Kids who grow up building and tinkering grow up loosely using and enacting principles of the engineering design process. While these systems play a key role in facilitating childhood creativity and innovation, many kids outgrow their interest, snap-together building blocks and circuit kits being replaced by other activities and hobbies. For girls, the drop-off rate in interest in engineering toys may be even more dramatic.

Luckily, there are female engineers like Dani whose interest never wanes. She started out building, and she hasn't stopped yet.


Supporting Student Engineers

Thanks to support from her family, Dani's childhood passion was nurtured and encouraged. Today, she is applying, exploring, and expanding her interest as part of her undergraduate studies at Harvard where she works in the Harvard Microrobotics Lab, an electronics and robotics lab that specializes in research related to microrobots inspired by real-world bugs and insects.

"Growing up, support from family, friends, and teachers really helped me get more involved and excited about engineering and math and science in general," says Dani. "I had always been interested in building things, and my family encouraged me to do so despite the fact that they had no engineering or technical knowledge. They would buy kits for me where I would get to build model engines or play with magnets and circuits, and my uncle would hang out with me on weekends and teach me how to use power tools." In addition to lots of great engineering projects and kits at home, Dani participated in summer programs that let her continue to explore engineering and robotics.

At school, Dani says her teachers helped encourage and feed her interests by giving her extra challenges to work on, by helping as mentors in the after-school robotics program, and by making her aware of opportunities like the BAE System's Women in Technology Program. Dani was fortunate to have strong support, support that extended beyond the boundaries of in-class curriculum. "These opportunities helped compensate for what I saw as a lack of hands-on [science and engineering] activities in classes at school," she recalls. "We had lab periods in school and did several projects, but not nearly the amount I would have hoped for. I think it was really important for me to work on projects out of class to help me learn."


Making Room for Girls in Robotics

Programs and clubs like FIRST® robotics are often integral for students like Dani and help support the engineering spirit during middle and high school years. Dani recalls doing summer programs devoted to LEGO® Mindstorms, but she cites her participation in FIRST robotics as a powerful force in her development as a young engineer. As a young woman, however, her four years in robotics club also highlighted the disproportionate number of girls pursuing engineering by the time high school rolls around.

"There were very few girls on the robotics team I participated on in high school," admits Dani. "Over my four years on the team, only a handful of us actually participated in designing and building the robot." Though she categorizes the gender imbalance as discouraging, her team was fortunate to have a female mentor, which gave her and other teammates a role model and source of inspiration. Even so, "I do wish more women were encouraged to be involved in the sciences and join teams like robotics teams," says Dani.

The relationship between gender and engineering that Dani saw play out in robotics club is something she has continued to see in her college studies. "By looking at the demographics of the classes I'm in, the professors I've had, and the make-up of the engineering-related extracurriculars I'm involved in, I do feel like robotics and mechanical engineering are male-dominated fields. Often, I am one of the few women and people of color in these spaces."

Dani working in HAMR robotics lab
Above: Dani at work filming robotics testing in the lab—under very bright light conditions!

Microrobots to the Rescue

The miniature robots being built and tested in the lab may be used in a range of current and future applications. Search and rescue and exploration of environments unsafe for humans are areas Dani notes are particularly relevant to her lab's research.

"Many lives could be saved in the future," says Dani by way of example, "if, instead of sending humans into dangerous places, such as toxic areas or debris-ridden buildings after natural disasters, robotic bugs were sent instead!"

Students can explore robotics with a search-and-rescue mission in the "Robots to the Rescue! Build & Test a Search-and-Rescue Robot" Project Idea. The robot in the project involves a toy radio-controlled car, so it is many times larger than Dani's robots in the Microrobotics Lab, but the Project Idea lets students get started thinking about and testing important issues related to using robots in this way.

Given the numbers, finding female mentors and teachers becomes even more important for young female engineers. "I have found numerous amazing mentors I identify with who have advised me and made my experiences much more positive," says Dani. She also says she feels like she is seeing a change, an upward trend in the number of girls who are interested in engineering fields. This may be due to increased attention to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and, specifically, the desire to engage more girls in STEM.

"While things are getting better, I think these fields have a long way to come in terms of gender, racial, and class balance and that awareness of this and outreach are important steps to start changing this."


Inspired by Insects

Dani isn't a fan of cockroaches or bees and says she really would not want to work on projects that involve handling or close observation of either. But, in fact, Dani's work at Harvard centers on the design and development of robotic insects, robots inspired by the biology of other creatures. "Our lab models much of our work off of organisms and structures that already exist in nature. Why try to recreate the wheel when you can look at something that works amazingly (which so many things in nature already do) and mimic it to obtain good results," Dani explains. "Plus, it's fun to work with bugs and try to learn from them!"

Taking their cue from nature, Dani explains that research teams in the lab are working on both flapping-wing and ambulatory microrobots—bugs that fly and bugs that crawl. Both approaches to mobilizing a robot have different challenges. "Because both types are on extremely small scales (about the size of a quarter or smaller), mass is a huge issue," says Dani.

"Ambulatory robots need to remain light so that their transmissions are able to provide enough force for the robot's legs to lift the body's mass," explains Dani. "Flapping-wing robots need to remain even lighter so that they are still able to fly. This makes it difficult to put power supplies on board (batteries are heavy!)." Flapping-wing robots also present challenges for navigation and orientation systems, notes Dani. Flying bots have "lots of complicated control and sensor challenges because the robot needs to know its orientation in air so that it can continue flying under control."

Though cockroaches are not her thing, Dani has been working on a current version of the Harvard Ambulatory MicroRobot (HAMR) that models the design of a cockroach and is about the size of a quarter. Having worked on both ambulatory and flapping-wing robotics projects, Dani says she especially enjoys exploring the kinds of design issues and questions raised by ambulatory robots.

"I think I prefer ambulatory robots because I'm not particularly interested in fluid dynamics or control, which is what a lot of the work on flapping robots is. Rather, I like thinking about the dynamics and locomotion of ambulatory robots. For example, how does the leg gait affect how the robot moves, what kind of leg designs will allow the robot to climb walls, will changing leg materials increase speed?"

In addition to tackling challenges related to the physics and engineering of ambulatory microrobots, Dani says size is always an added variable and consideration. "It is hard to put things in the right place at that scale!"

The size may make building these robots a challenge, but it also makes things interesting when it comes to keeping track of them. With robots the size of a coin, it seems inevitable that they might wander or scuttle away, out of sight, or under something, never to be found again. But Dani says it hasn't happened. "Fortunately we have not lost any bots so far! It can be difficult though," she admits. But what do engineers do when things are difficult? They find solutions!

"With the ambulatory robots I'm currently working on, we put up little 'guard-rails' on the table that it walks on for experiments to make sure that it doesn't run off," explains Dani. "We also are pretty careful about keeping track of the robots when we are done using them and putting them in the drawer we keep them in."

To further help them keep track, Dani says the engineers give the robots names. "Currently we have Elle, Manny, and Actin."

Once they have a name, they are less likely to get overlooked during a daily robot roll call!

HAMR Micro Robots
Above: samples from HAMR research and development. Image: Courtesy, Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory. To see HAMR robots in action, watch this video.


Supporting Student Interest in Engineering, Robotics, and Computer Science

February 16-24, 2014 is Engineers Week, and February 20 is Girl Day (formerly "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day").

Help excite your students—male and female—about engineering and introduce them to what engineering means and what engineers do. Students like Dani are quick to credit the support of teachers, family, and programs that help enable student exploration. The following resources contain ideas, projects, and links that can help kickstart student interest and exploration—you don't have to be an engineer, a programmer, or a robot designer to help your students pursue their own interest!



Science Buddies Project Ideas in Robotics are supported by Symantec.

Motorola Solutions Foundation, a sponsor of Engineers Week, is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.

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February brings us both Valentine's Day and heart awareness month. That's two great reasons to take a closer look at the hard-working muscle thump-thump-thumping in your chest!

Heart Science Valentines Science

A Day in the Life of Your Heart

Your heart is constantly thump, thump, thumping away, working hard to keep oxygenated blood pumping through your system. But your heart patterns change throughout the day, speeding up and slowing down in response to your activities, moods, and routines.

In the "A Day in the Life" hands-on science project, students track their own pulse throughout the day, getting a visual look at how heart rate varies at different times of the day. Over a span of days, what trends might you spot and what conclusions can you draw about the way your heart works?

Here's a subject that will really get your blood pumping: the human heart. Did you know that an electric current generated by your body causes your heart to contract over and over again—2.5 billion times during the average life span? This contracting motion keeps your oxygen-rich blood circulating to every corner of your body.


Matters of the Heart

While Valentine's Day might have you thinking about hearts of the sweet variety, there are many interesting reasons to learn about the science of your own heart. We've gathered a few ideas below to get you started.

Ending on a Sweet Note

Because chocolate and Valentine's Day go hand-in-hand, here are two projects related to the science of sweets:


Show Your Heart Some Love

Your heart is an amazing part of your body, so keep it healthy by exercising, eating right, and not smoking. It will pay off in spades!

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Heart science / Valentines Day Science

In this week's spotlight: a human biology and health project that puts an important question to the test: if you exercise regularly, does your heart recover from exertion more quickly than if you don't exercise often? The heart pumps faster during exercise, which helps to keep the heart healthy. It is good to exercise frequently and to raise your heart rate into its target heart rate zone during exercise, but how long does it take for the heart to return to its normal rate after you are done and cooling down from a workout? How does this recovery time differ between athletes and non-athletes? Put these health questions to the test with family and friends to find out!


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A car museum turned into a tragic no parking zone this week when a sinkhole opened up, wiping out a fleet of prized automobiles. Sinkholes apparently have no regard for the caliber of car or building that may be sitting on the surface, but what happens below the surface to account for sudden and catastrophic openings? With hands-on science projects sponsored by Chevron, students can experiment to learn more.

2014 Sinkhole at Corvette Museum
Above: A set of corvettes in KY disappeared this week in a sinkhole that left a massive 40-foot opening in the floor of a museum. Image: Courtesy of National Corvette Museum.

If you are a car aficionado, headline news today about the fate of eight cars in the National Corvette Museum in KY might make you cringe. A sinkhole appeared in part of the museum, reportedly swallowing a set of corvettes whole. Among the cars lost when the floor disappeared: a 1993 ZR-1 Spyder and a 1962 Black Corvette.

Whether you mourn the loss of the cars or not, sinkholes are scary. They are scary because they seemingly appear out of nowhere. The sinkhole that created an instant no-parking area at the museum is reportedly 40 feet wide and approximately 25 to 30 feet deep. What causes a section of ground cavernous enough to simply eat whatever was sitting on top of it to suddenly open up?


Sinkhole Geology

Sinkholes can be triggered by a number of different geologic processes, movements and reactions that are often unpredictable, unavoidable, invisible, and disastrous. In some cases, the reactions take years of time; in other cases, extreme conditions can create rapid change. As this video explains, earthquakes can trigger seemingly instantaneous sinkholes by causing temporary liquefaction of water-logged loose soil.

Liquefaction is one way a sinkhole may form, but other geologic processes contribute to and are responsible for sinkhole phenomena.

In the case of the missing corvettes, limestone may have something to do with what happened to the ground floor of the museum.


The Power of Water

Over time, the pH of water that runs over rocks can destabilize the structure of an area. We know that rocks are gradually eroded by many natural processes, but under certain conditions—and in the presence of specific kinds of liquids—some rocks actually dissolve and, ultimately, disappear. It may seem hard to believe that rocks that are big and hard can be conquered by simple, flowing liquids, but in the case of certain sedimentary rocks, that is exactly what happens.

Over time, or in the case of prolonged or extreme precipitation and flooding, water can build up in soil systems. In other cases, rocks are located in a place that receives frequent or periodic water. If the water is acidic, it may begin to destabilize the structure of rocks that contain carbonate compounds, rocks like limestone. The dissolution of rocks due to the pH of water can cause changes in the topography of an area, including sinkholes. (These changes are referred to as karst topography.)

Sinkholes may take years to silently form, or, they may appear suddenly, swallowing buildings, houses, trees—or even corvettes.

Note: Sinkholes propelled by pressure and resulting liquefaction may solidify again, cementing structures in the ground where they've been half-swallowed. Sinkholes created by erosion or dissolution of rock, on the other hand, won't suddenly seal back up as if the hole never happened. The hole becomes a new part of the topography of the landscape.


Making Connections

The corvette museum in Bowling Green, KY, is about thirty miles from the opening of Mammoth Cave, a system of more than 300 miles of mapped underground cave passages—caves full of limestone. The area surrounding Mammoth Cave is littered with visible sinkhole depressions and is referred to as the Sinkhole plain.

Students curious about sinkholes can experiment on a small-scale basis using the "Now You See It, Now You Don't! How Acidic Waters Make Rocks Disappear" Project Idea. In the project, students learn more about the ways in which acidic water conditions may appear and conduct a hands-on test to observe the impact of vinegar on limestone over time.

Students can explore related science in the "Factors that Affect the Transfer of Force through Saturated Soil" project.




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

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The Science of Winning Olympic Gold


Later this week, amazing athletes from around the world will converge on Sochi, Russia for the 22nd Olympic Winter Games. Beyond practice and determination, what affects a gold-medalist's performance? The answer is simple—lots and lots of science.

By Kim Mullin

2014-blog-winter-olymics-skiier.png
Image: Bode Miller, 2013 U.S. Ski Team training at Coronet Peak, New Zealand; Morgan McFie/Coronet Peak

Science at the Winter Games

No matter which Olympic sports are your favorite, there are science angles to explore. See what you can learn about your favorite sports when you ask questions about how the science behind the sport works.

What comes to mind when you think of the Winter Olympics? The sparkling skill of figure skaters, or perhaps the terrifying speed of downhill skiers? While skating and skiing get lots of attention, the Winter Olympics include more than a dozen different sports. Bobsledding, hockey, snowboarding, ski jumping, and yes, curling, are among the events that will be on display during the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, February 7-23.

Olympic athletes dedicate countless hours to perfecting their skills and building their strength. By the time they make it to the Olympic games, you might say that they've got their craft down to a science! The truth is, scientific principles are behind all of the jumping, spinning, shooting, and sliding that they do.


Competition on Ice and Snow = Speed

As you watch the Olympics, expect to see hockey pucks flying over the ice at close to 100 mph, downhill skiers travelling 80+ mph, and bobsledders flying down their icy tracks much faster than we are allowed to drive on the freeway! Where does all of this speed come from? In part, it is due to the loss of friction we experience when we find ourselves on ice, or on snow with the right equipment. If you have ever slipped on a patch of ice (ouch!) or tried out a sled (wheeee!), you have experienced this loss of friction firsthand.


Spinning and Sliding and Jumping, Oh My!

But there is more to the Olympics than speed. The various games involve balance, aerodynamics, gravity, and many other ideas that you might hear about in a science classroom. While we can't all be Olympic athletes, we certainly can explore some of the forces that affect an athlete's performance. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Where Science and Athletics Intersect

The Olympics offer a fun opportunity to cheer on amazing athletes. And as you enjoy the games, remember that from the physics of athletic performance to the materials science involved in creating and improving helmets, sleds, and aerodynamic suits, science is everywhere at the Olympics!




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

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If you were watching the Super Bowl on Sunday with an eye especially tuned to the ads, you were not alone. Super Bowl Sunday is big business for advertisers. Chips. Beverages. Condiments. Cars. More cars. You might see ads for all of these in 30-90 second spots between turnovers. But this year, you also saw the promise and potential of a future generation of girl engineers.

Above: GoldieBlox's 2014 Super Bowl Sunday ad.

As a result of the "Small Business Big Game" contest sponsored by Intuit, GoldieBlox won an all-paid ticket this year to Super Bowl advertising history. The fledgling, Kickstarter-backed company scored big on Sunday as the first small business to have airtime during the Super Bowl. With a hefty price tag for a few seconds of face time with the millions of eyeballs glued to the set throughout the game and during the half-time show, Super Bowl Sunday tends to be an all-pro game. Like the Goldilocks character the company's name brings to mind, GoldieBlox got a chance yesterday to try out the big field and maybe make a game-changing play for girls and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

"Construction toys get kids interested in math and science and help develop spatial skills," says Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. "We don't have a national shortage of princesses," she continues, countering that "only 11% of engineers in the U.S. are women, and this is a problem." To tackle this shortage and the gender imbalance in STEM fields, and to make engineering something that isn't automatically perceived as a boy's club, GoldieBlox is setting out to show that girls are "more" than just princess material—and that princesses can, absolutely, be engineers.


Making the Play

Helping feed and enable girls' interest in engineering, the GoldieBlox line of integrated engineering and storytelling products aims to inject the princess aisle in the toy store with a much-needed boost of STEM. But GoldieBlox's Super Bowl ad didn't really focus on their product. The girls in the ad are not sitting around after having a miniature tea party with a bunch of stuffed animals and building pastel-colored dioramas or dollhouse furniture. Instead, to the beat of a Quiet Riot parody, the girls build a rocket and blast a bunch of their "girly" toys (including a bunch of stuffed animals) to space (or at least "out of the park").

The thirty-second ad is largely conceptual, but the engineering is there, as are the GoldieBlox components. To get a toy rocking horse out of an upstairs window, a few girls use an ingenious pulley system. Take a closer look. Pause the video at about three seconds. What do you see? The girls have rigged a purple bicycle as part of their system. Next up, girls attach a skateboard to a bike to help them move an oversized dollhouse as they run and ride to the rendezvous point with masses of other girls (all with their own toys) singing "Come on ditch your toys. Girls make some noise. More than pink, pink, pink, we want to think."

In the final seconds of the ad, the rocket is blasted into space by a girl who, from a safe distance away (smart!), uses a plunger-style mechanism built from GoldieBlox elements to initiate liftoff. It's a great, if fleeting, integration of the product in the commercial.

What's going on between the lines of the ad? The girls' parody of Quiet Riot's lyrics help spell it out, but you don't have to look far into the commercial to realize there are no adults on hand helping pull off this goodbye party, rocket building, and launch. You don't have to dig too deep to see what they are putting on that rocket and casting aside. These girls combined mechanical and engineering skills with innovation and creativity to make a bold statement about what they are being "given" and what they "want."


Another Classic GoldieBlox Video

A GoldieBlox video last year used a parody of a Beastie Boys song as backtrack for a group of girls who, bored with the TV lineup and a room of pink toys, design, build, and activate an amazing Rube Goldberg contraption. The video has since been edited to remove the backtrack, but even without a modern spin on the Beastie Boys' "Girls," the video is a compelling look at the issue of toys and entertainment marketed to girls, and the ways in which engineering is presented (or not) for girls starting at a young age.



Above: a previous GoldieBlox video that made the rounds on the Internet.


Engineering for Fun

A Rube Goldberg machine is a machine that is designed to do a simple task, but it does so through a series of complicated, interrelated, and interdependent movements and exchanges between ordinary objects. The classic Mouse Trap game is a familiar example of a very simple (and contained) Rube Goldberg-style machine. This Wikipedia description of the "mouse trap" in the game walks through the steps of the chain reaction. If all goes as planned,

"the player turns the crank, which rotates a vertical gear, connected to a horizontal gear. As that gear turns, it pushes an elastic-loaded lever until it snaps back in place, hitting a swinging boot. This causes the boot to kick over a bucket, sending a marble down a zig-zagging incline (the "rickety stairs") which feeds into a chute. This leads the marble to hit a vertical pole, at the top of which is an open hand, palm-up, which is supporting [another marble]. The movement of the pole knocks the ball free to fall through a hole in its platform into a bathtub, and then through a hole in the tub onto one end of a seesaw. This launches a diver on the other end into a tub which is on the same base as the barbed pole supporting the mouse cage. The movement of the tub shakes the cage free from the top of the pole and allows it to fall."

If everything works correctly, if the contraption is set right and operates without any unexpected hiccups or misfires, the mouse is trapped in the cage, and the player who triggered the "mouse trap" machine wins. In the GoldieBlox video, the girls start out staring at a swathe of pink programming on TV. Frustrated, they get out their tools, and they take care of business. They create a machine to turn off the TV. They don't just get up, walk the few feet to the TV, and press the knob. Instead, they turn their "need" into an opportunity to innovate, engineer, build, and have fun.


Put it in Action

If you saw Sunday's GoldieBlox ad—with or without your kids—and you got inspired about girls and engineering, then it's time to get creative! As the earlier video shows, there is a lot of brilliant engineering at play in a fun and unexpected Rube Goldberg machine built from ordinary materials. Build a machine with your kids? Or suggest that they design one? Exactly!

A Rube Goldberg design can be amazingly complex in design, timing, and detail, but it is a simple machine made of many individual parts. Watching one play out can be inspiring and exciting, but can you and your kids make one? You and your students? You? Yes!

To learn more about the engineering and science involved in a Rube Goldberg design, check the following projects:


The above projects won't walk you through setting up a specific Rube Goldberg machine, but they do, taken together, offer insight into the toolbox of engineering and science principles needed to design a successful, jaw-dropping, high-five-worthy chain reaction. The more you know about simple machines, gears, torque, trajectory, force, potential and kinetic energy, gravity, pull-back and launch angles, velocity, and motion, the better you will be able to design, troubleshoot, and engineer your contraption.

Engineer and Innovator's Tools, Toolbox, and Principles of Mechanical Engineering and Science


To get started, figure out what you want to accomplish, and then start scavenging materials from around the house (be sure to check the toy box and the junk drawer). Pool together as many items as you can that might help you move your chain reaction from start to end point. Then start hooking them together in a series of reactions.

We would love to see what you come up with!


More Girls and STEM from the Science Buddies Blog


Stay tuned! Introduce a Girl to Engineering day is coming up, February 20, 2014, part of DiscoverE's Engineers Week.




Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.


Motorola Solutions Foundation

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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!

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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.
Time Warner Cable

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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.

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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!

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