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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).
2014USASEF-logo.jpg


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

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

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

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


The Engineering Design Process

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

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

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

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

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


Getting Involved

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

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


Real People, Real STEM Inspiration

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


More Information

To learn more about Mary Barra, see:

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

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

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


Creating a Home-size Model of Key Lab Equipment

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Cellphones do a great job of helping us capture funny and memorable moments that we can share through our favorite social media sites, text messages, and email. That same imaging technology can be used as a tool for medical and scientific field work—or just for fun at home or in the classroom with a stack of science slides. A homemade cellphone microscope brings small things into new focus! (Plus, it's super cool to say you turned a phone into a functional microscope!)

One more week of winter break? Is it feeling long? Have you tried out all the new video games, ripped all your new music, and found that your new headphones are comfortable 24/7? Being out of school may be fun, but the sprawl of days can start to lose its shine in the lag time before the big ball drops on New Year's Eve. What's next? What should you do?

There are an endless number of possible answers to the question. (See our suggestions for Winter Break list.) But here's a thought if you are tinker-inspired, medically-minded, globally-aware, or just like the idea of a project that will let you hack an electronic device without doing any long-term damage.

Did anyone in the house get a new phone for the holidays or in recent months? If so, is there an old phone lying around that you can co-opt in the name of science? (Hint: Check the spare parts and catch-all drawer in the kitchen, basement, or wherever it appears in your house. Old phones often migrate there.) Found one? Why not uplevel an old phone and turn it into a DIY piece of science equipment?


Making Medical Diagnostic Tools

Portable medical diagnostic tools have the potential to help improve health care around the world. If doctors and scientists can analyze specimens or samples in the field using something as ubiquitous as a cell phone, the chances of making critical evaluations and diagnoses increases. Remote and portable diagnostic tools may save lives and advance science.

Cellscope example, Eva Schmid

A Berkeley Lab and Cellscope Development

A research team at the Fletcher Lab at the University of California, Berkeley designed the original cellscope and has continued to expand development and prototyping to include new cellphone-based and portable tools that can do such targeted tasks as view the inner ear and look into the human eye. Learn more about the team's lineup of tools and their K-12 Explorer imaging iOS app on the CellScope site. On the CellScope site, you can also glimpse the LEGOScope, a LEGO-based version that integrates building blocks and still offers cellphone-based functionality.

(Image credit: Eva Schmid, CellScope site. Can you guess what is pictured?)

There are clear global implications for portable diagnostic tool research and development, and you can explore this area of engineering by turning an available cell phone into a cellscope, a microscope that takes advantage of your phone's imaging features and capabilities.

In the "Picture This: Building a Cell Phone Microscope" photography science project, students take what they know about how a compound microscope works and apply it to the construction of a cellphone-based microscope using a 1 millimeter (mm) glass ball lens as the "objective lens" and a paper towel roll cardboard tube as the basis for the stand. (Note: The lens for this project is a specialty item that may need to be ordered. See below for thoughts on how you might experiment with the materials.)

The build for this cellphone microscope is pretty straightforward. The challenge then is figuring out how to use it or how to improve it!


Enacting the Engineering Design Process

A basic cellphone microscope offers real-world functionality. But how can it be improved? In the Science Buddies procedure, you will need to order a specialty item for the lens. Are there alternatives to the glass ball that would make constructing a cellscope even easier and more affordable? This is the kind of questions researchers and engineers ask and explore during development, prototyping, and testing. To learn more about the Engineering Design Process, see this outline of the steps of the Engineering Method.


Putting a Cellphone Microscope to Use

Cholera and malaria are two examples of diseases portable microscopes can help scientists and doctors diagnose and identify in the field. What can you use your "cellscope" to zoom in on? With the information provided in the project and related resources, you can make your own slide sets to examine with your cellphone microscope.


Family Fun: Make a Game of It

Turn identifying a set of homemade slides into a puzzle for your family and friends. You create the mystery slides, and see if they can guess what they are looking at through your cellphone microscope! They will all be impressed with your microscope, and everyone may want to get in on the action creating slides, so be sure to have a few blanks on hand.

See Part 2 of our "Science-hack Your Phone" student science series!


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Food science kitchen chemistry cornbread baking Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a food science project and family activity that explores the role of baking powder in baking. In this pair of projects, experiment to see the affect of baking powder on corn bread muffins for a clear visual look at what happens when you use more or less in your recipe. Does a light and airy muffin indicate one with or without baking powder? How does the density or weight of a muffin change in relation to the amount of baking powder used? What happens if you use too much? Or not enough?

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As you prepare for winter break and lots of indoor time with your kids, consider scheduling some time for family science. We have suggestions for fun hands-on science and engineering activities you can do with your kids that might feel a lot like playing or crafting even though there is plenty of science at hand!


By this point in the year, you have hopefully nailed down any upcoming gift-giving moments and are ready to kick back with your kids, friends, and family and enjoy the final days of the calendar year. There are those who procrastinate, of course, and there are those who are still looking because they strive to find the most different, most educational, or most unexpected gift. To help those last-minute and discerning gift-givers, our staff has made lists in year's past of gifts they would like to receive from the Science Buddies Store and great "to do" gift ideas that are fun as a hands-on activity and as a science project. From tie-dye to a little light-sensitive grasshopper robot, there are all kinds of great science project materials and kits that you can feel good about giving.

Many of the kits in the Science Buddies Store would make an awesome gift for a young scientist or engineer!


Planning "To Do" Time

Last-minute gift buying and wrapping aside, many families are done with the flurry of holiday preparations and are looking ahead at the pending school break. There are a number of days to fill, and in many areas, cold weather may force everyone indoors for large chunks of time. What can you do to stave off kid cabin fever, keep everyone entertained, and have fun exploring something hands-on with your kids?

Winter break is a great time for family science and engineering. With the right projects and activities, you and your family can have a great time building, experimenting, and testing science questions together!

Consider these science- and engineering-based suggestions:

Passing Family Time with Simple Experiments that Use Everyday Materials

For easy-to-prepare and family-ready science experiments you can do with items around the house, consider these fun and creative options from our weekly family science activity spotlight:

We hope you have a great winter break with your kids—and plenty of time to explore something new together, to tinker, to play, to make, and to ask questions and seek answers through hands-on science!

Buying for a Specialist?

One of our staff scientists compiled a list of gift suggestions for biology enthusiasts. Check out her bio-inspired gift ideas in her "What to Buy the Burgeoning Biologist?" post on the Biology Bytes website.

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 Human Behavior Memory Mnemonics Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a human behavior science project and family activity that explores memory and how using a mnemonic device can help you remember a string of words or the items in a list. Have you ever used the HOMES acronym to help you remember the names of the Great Lakes or ROYGBIV (or Roy G. Biv) to remember the order of the seven colors in a rainbow? In this science project, you conduct a controlled experiment to see whether or not a mnemonic device makes a difference in how well your friends, family members, and other volunteers can remember the list you provide. Does a mnemonic aid work? What kind of mnemonic aid works best?

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Making it to the end zone on a last-second Hail Mary pass is one way to score in football, but when it's 4th and 30, a well-executed field goal for three points can be the game-tipping, winning play. What's the secret to a successful field goal? Thanks to support from Time Warner Cable, students can put the science and math involved in one aspect of field goal kicking to the test in a new Science Buddies sports science project that places a rubber-band catapult on the field as the team's football kicker. After seeing how your kicker does at varying distances, you can draw conclusions about when to call the kick team to the field.

Football catapult field goal experiment with Science Buddies Store catapult kit

Catapult Your Way to Better Football Strategy

With the brand new "Field Goal! The Science Behind a Perfect Football Kick" science project from the Sports Science Project Ideas area at Science Buddies, students can dig into the science of football kicking using an indoor rubber-band powered catapult in the role of kicker.

With the controlled setup, students can kick multiple times from varying distances to find out if distance is related to the percentage of field goals made. This is a great science project for a football enthusiast, but it is also a super science activity for casual home or after-school exploration!

The catapult kit for this project is available in the Science Buddies Store.

(Note: the catapult kit can be used for a number of other Science Buddies Project Ideas as well!)

Have you ever whiled away time with a triangular folded paper football that you and a friend shuffle with your fingertips back and forth, from edge to edge, across a table? When the football crosses the boundary of the edge without falling off the table, you score a touchdown and get to kick a field goal by resting the football on its point and flicking it through the air, across the table, and through the opposing team's finger goal posts.

Paper football is a classic, but perfecting the art of flicking a paper football with your thumb and forefinger won't necessarily translate to a better understanding of field football and how game-winning field goal kicking may depend on a number of scientific variables, including the trajectory of the kick, the way gravity plays upon the ball as it travels through the air, and how far away the kicker is from the goal posts.

Are the odds of making a field goal kick better if the kicker is closer to the end zone or farther away?

This is exactly the kind of question Time Warner Cable encourages students (and families) to explore through the Connect a Million Minds STEM in Sports area. Time Warner Cable has teamed up with Science Buddies to develop new science project ideas that help students turn interest in sports into exciting hands-on science projects.


An Indoor Football Sports Science Experiment

Paper football may not boost your football skills, but a fun hands-on science project might. Combine a rubber band-powered catapult kit from the Science Buddies Store with a homemade goal post and a few football-shaped party favors, and you have the makings of an end zone dance-worthy science project!

The new "Field Goal! The Science Behind a Perfect Football Kick" project from Science Buddies' Sports Science Project Ideas area guides students in an exciting sports science exploration that takes indoor paper football to the next level. Students will have a great time launching mini footballs through the air as they gather data for their science project. Once the official data is collected, it may be game on for students and a group of friends or family members with the catapult and goal setup!


Making Connections

After exploring the relationship between distance and kicking in the "Field Goal! The Science Behind a Perfect Football Kick" sports science project, you may approach your next game with a completely new perspective on when to kick and when to go for the first down on the ground. Whether you play football or just enjoy watching, math and science can help you narrow in on smart game strategies. Will your favorite team follow a strategy that lines up with the data from your science experiment? Keep track all season long and see how the numbers (and successful kicks) play out!


More Football Science

For more great football science projects, see these Science Buddies Project Ideas:

For additional information about the science behind football and other sports, visit the STEM in Sports section of Time Warner Cable's Connect a Million Minds site. Students, teachers, and families will find videos from favorite professional sports players like Victor Kruz and Magic Johnson, sport-specific learning guides, and more sports science resources.



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

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Building light-tracking robots as a family activity lets you and your kids take next steps in electronics and circuitry!

Family Light-tracking robotics engineering project with toothbrush robots

My kids and I had a great time over the summer whetting our teeth on basic robotics and electronics by transforming toothbrushes into cute little Bristlebot robots that look and work very much like commercially-available nano or hex bugs. The basic Bristlebots robotics engineering project is a fun hands-on activity and one that works for a wide range of ages. You can read up on our experience and our nitty-gritty tips and insights after doing this family science activity (like using garden shears to snap of toothbrush heads) in the "Building Bristlebots: Basic Toothbrush Robotics" post.

For us, the basic Bristlebots were just a toe in the water. My plan, all along, was to build the much more sophisticated light-tracking bots with my kids, but I liked the fact that we could do the projects in sequence, thus building our skills and understanding of the principles involved. More sophisticated, of course, often translates to more complicated, and, indeed, the light-tracking bots project was a more challenging project. But, without a doubt it was also a more satisfying family project. We like a challenge!

Breadboard diagram for electronics engineering project

Meet Your Bread Board

The project at Science Buddies uses very clear and helpful diagrams like the one shown above to help guide students in placing their parts correctly.

Our red, green, and blue mini bread boards were super cute and cheerful, but only two of them had any numbers and letters printed on them, and one of them had the numbers and letters completely reversed from the diagrams in the project. The procedure at Science Buddies has since been updated to mention that breadboard layouts and on-board descriptors may vary, but it gave us something to talk about as we read through the directions and got ready to follow the steps of the procedure. Did it matter? Did we need to reverse the circuit diagrams on the one board? Tip: If your breadboard doesn't have the same (or any) numbers or letters, just follow the diagrams at Science Buddies so that your circuit visually matches the one shown in terms of placement for each element.

The basic Bristlebots are super cute, super easy, and fun to make, but with slightly older kids in the family science setting, the light-tracking bots proved an excellent choice for us. They take longer to build. They involve a circuit beyond just a battery and a motor. They have cool functionality that lets kids put their own or a parent's phone flashlight app to use. They can be used as the foundation for extending the project and learning opportunity by challenging kids to alter (or reverse) the functionality. And, maybe best of all, they sport a very handy on-off switch! Plus, they are very cute and have a lot of personality even in their barebones wires and parts. (Revving up the design once you get the bots working is not required but can add to the creative fun for kids who want to customize and personalize their bots.)


Cool Parts

I had never used a bread board when I ordered all my supplies for this project and then gathered the kids around the table a few days after we made our original Bristlebots. Doling out the required materials for three kids to work on building these little robots was exciting. There were lots and lots of resistors, three awesome kits of colorful jumper wires, photoresistors, MOSFETs, battery packs, switches, pancake batteries, and more. There was a lot going on, and we were excited to get started.

While I recommend doing this build start to finish, family science sometimes follows the stop-and-go patterns of daily life. We split our build into two sessions, working around an important game of laser tag. Before we got started, everyone read the full procedure, and then we were ready to get hands-on. We knew we were not going to finish in one sitting, but the kids worked through the first several steps of the procedure, enough to give me a sense of how well the kids were going to do with following the diagrams and pushing the small pieces into place. Tip: If you have to start, stop, and come back to finish, be sure you stop with everyone having completed the same step!

When we came back later, we picked back up where we left off.


Excellent Diagram-led Build

The procedure at Science Buddies for this project is excellent. The team did a great job guiding students through the steps and providing helpful diagrams and photos to show the circuit as it develops on the bread board. (See the sample bread board diagram in the sidebar at the right.) Going into the build, I didn't have any prior knowledge of drains and gains, and my own understanding of how the rows and columns of the breadboard were related to the drain and gain didn't form immediately. Even so, if you follow the steps, putting the elements in place on the circuit step-by-step, as directed, you can do (or lead) this robotics project! (Note: Students who are working on the project as an independent project for the science fair or for a school project will want to really dig into the meaty information in the introduction, but families and science moms can approach these bots just as a fun hands-on building activity. You and your kids will be learning along the way, but don't worry up front about whether or not the circuit diagrams make sense to you!)


Follow the Directions

While doing this project, your kids will need good fine-motor skills and close attention to detail to make sure they get things inserted in the proper slots and inserted firmly. Be prepared to help with some tiny parts and to help check and double-check that pieces are in the right spots. If, like us, you are not soldering but relying on twisting battery wires to jumper cables, be prepared for a process that may feel like micro surgery with the very tiny battery wires. (Note: An adult will probably need to do this, but twisting does work.) If everyone follows the diagrams closely, building these bots can feel a lot like building a LEGO® project!

Even when you are careful, however, things sometimes go wrong. It's good to keep that in mind going into any family science activity. Things happen! Learning to deal with problems that arise in a science or engineering project is part of the process, and when something goes wrong in an electronics project, there is ample room for tinkering and emphasizing troubleshooting and testing steps.


A Bit of Resistance

Resistors can look alike / be careful to choose the correct value!

Look Closely

We initially selected the wrong resistors from the multipack, and it took us a while to realize our mistake. Be sure to look carefully to make sure you get the right value resistor!

We ran into a few trouble spots in the process of building our bots, one of which almost completely derailed us. As a result, we got a lot of practice troubleshooting, and we learned a great deal from the mistakes we made. The "help" information in the project was a great source of assistance when things didn't work out with our bots. When one of our bots got super hot (even though it wasn't moving), for example, we got a crash course in the importance of ensuring none of the bare wires are accidentally touching. And when none of our bots "worked" after we finished our circuits, we spent a lot of time backtracking through the diagrams and double-checking to ensure we had every single thing exactly as shown in the circuit.

There was some frustration, mine included, when we could not pinpoint what was wrong. Our circuits looked fine, but we had three cute little bots and bedecked circuit boards that didn't work. Finally, we discovered our error. It was a simple error, but it was a critical error.

The kids were ready to give up and move on, their excitement a bit burnished, when we discovered the problem.

Because we were making several bots, I ordered the large multipack of resistors listed as an option in the project's list of materials. The pack of 500 includes resistors in varying values. Unfortunately, even though we thought we had carefully matched up and interpreted the band-coding used to identify the values and to pull out the one we needed, our inexperience with resistors threw us a wrench. It took us a very long time to determine that we had accidentally selected 47 kΩ resistors instead of the required 4.7 kΩ ones.

As you can imagine, with the wrong resistors, there was far too much resistance, and nothing was making it through the circuit. For a seasoned electronics project parent, it sounds like a silly error. But in the moment, and with no experience with resistors other than when a science kit (like the Crystal Radio Kit) comes with only and exactly the one you need, I had no idea I had misinterpreted the packaging of the resistors and values. (I had not even noticed that there was another very similar-looking value in the set.)

Once we swapped out the too-strong resistors for the right ones, we were in light-tracking toothbrush bot business.


Light-tracking Success!

Once we had everything on track, the light-following bots worked great and were super fun to lead around with cell phone flash lights or other lights. The kids were very excited to see the bots come to live once we swapped out the resistors, and they immediately grabbed a cardboard box lid, turned out all the lights, and started guiding the bots around with cell phone lights. There were some races and then some impromptu videos made of the robots they had made, bots that, really, look pretty impressive when finished and definitely warranted being shown off to friends and family.

This is a project I highly recommend you consider with your kids over the long winter break or for weekend fun. Don't be afraid of the "advanced" rating on the project in terms of difficulty. If your goal is simply to build the bots and not take a crash course in understanding circuit diagrams, you can do and succeed with this robotics project with your kids—without any prior electronics or robotics experience. You know your kids best, but I was successful doing this project with kids in the range of 8-13 years.

If you have a family tradition of giving things "to do" during the holidays or for other celebrations, consider boxing up the supplies for the "Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter" project for a special kid who likes to tinker!


Make Family Time Robotics Time

If you are interested in trying a robotics project with your kids, here are a trio of robotics engineering projects, from beginner to advanced, to consider:

The following blog posts and resources may also be helpful and inspiring for families interested in exploring robotics:


Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.


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Tastebuds Human Health Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a human biology and health science project and family activity that encourages you and your family to investigate the science of taste! Do your taste buds differ from those of your friends, siblings, or other family members? Probably! In this project, you conduct a scientific experiment to explore your taste threshold for things that are salty, sweet, or sour. Once you've analyzed your own taste buds, see how other family members and friends compare!

[Image: Wikipedia]

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Cranberry Sauce Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a food science project and family activity perfect for the holiday kitchen! Are cranberries a part of your holiday menu? Does your family like a wiggly, solid cranberry roll, or do you make a looser cranberry sauce. What causes the difference in consistency? In these hands-on science projects, you and your family can experiment to see how cooking time affects the natural pectin in cranberries.

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During the holiday season, pies are front-and-center on the dessert menu. Become the pie-baking champion in your family with this tasty experiment.


2013-blog-pie-crust.png

Turning Family Baking into Family Science

In the "Perfecting Pastries" kitchen science project, students explore the role of fats in piecrust making. Different fats (and fats at different temperatures) can make a big difference in the texture of the crust. But what about gluten? If your family festivities involve gluten-free cooking, thinking about concepts in the "Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most?" science project can be a great addition to your piecrust testing. If you keep the fats the same and vary your flours to make a gluten-free version, what kinds of differences will you see in your crusts?

Pumpkin, strawberry, or all-American apple—do you have a favorite kind of pie? While pie consumers tend to think about the delicious variety of fillings there are to eat, many pie bakers spend a lot of time perfecting their crusts. Some people are so intimidated by the idea of making a tasty crust from scratch that they prefer to buy them, but with a bit of hands-on experimentation in the kitchen, you may find your own perfect technique for great homemade crust.

Getting to Golden Perfection

The ideal piecrust is light and flaky, rather than tough and chewy. But what is the best way to create a perfectly light and flaky crust? Usually, piecrusts are made with just flour, fat, salt, and a little bit of water. You mix the fat into the flour first, which coats the flour particles. Then, when you add the water, the resulting dough is slightly crumbly, rather than stretchy like pizza dough.

With so few ingredients, how can piecrusts vary in texture? For starters, you can use different types of fat—butter, vegetable shortening, or even lard. Different fats yield different results. Another variable is the temperature of the ingredients. Should the fat be room temperature when you mix it in, or should it be ice-cold? Chances are, the pie baker in your family has an opinion!


Grab Your Chef Hat and Lab Coat

In the "Perfecting Pastries: The Role of Fats in Making a Delicious Pastry" Project Idea, you take the lead in your own piecrust test kitchen! In this project, you will experiment with the type and temperature of the fats used in your piecrust recipe. Following the experimental procedure in the project, you you will make four different crusts, being careful to keep your bake time and oven temperature constant for all of the crusts so that you can really see the difference the variables you are testing make in how the crusts come out.

When your crusts are ready, gather friends and family to see how the crust crumbles! Which recipe creates a crust with the best texture and flavor? Everyone will have the chance to see and taste your crusts and voice their opinions.


Put Your Results to Good Use!

Once you have your winning recipe, you can prepare one last piecrust and fill it with something delicious! Success has never been sweeter!

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Get Your Spud On with Potato Science


Potatoes make a great side dish, but they also make great subjects for hands-on science! Food chemistry, plant biology, and even basic electronics are all on the menu when you experiment with potatoes.

What is your favorite food on the Thanksgiving table? Turkey with cool cranberry sauce? Pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream? For me, it is creamy, smooth mashed potatoes, piping hot and dripping with extra butter!



Potato Science
A South American Treasure

South American cultures had been eating potatoes for thousands of years before Spanish explorers brought them to Europe in the late 1500s. Despite their high nutritional value, it took about 200 years for potatoes to begin appearing regularly on European dinner tables. Until then, they were mostly used to feed animals. Now, however, potatoes are a staple in cultures all over the world, baked, boiled, steamed, mashed, and especially fried.


What Can You Learn from a Potato?

Some people say that fish is brain food. Try one of these Science Buddies Project Ideas, and you may decide that potatoes are brain food too!

  • Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!: Our bodies use food for energy, but is it possible to power a light bulb with a potato? Yes! This fun Project Idea leads young scientists through the basics of batteries and circuits. A convenient science kit is available from the Science Buddies Store!
  • Do Potatoes Regulate the Formation of New Sprouts?: Why does a potato have eyes? All the better to grow with! When placed in a dark location, potatoes can grow new stems from their eyes and eventually produce new potatoes. Do all of the eyes grow new stems? Investigate whether there's a limit to the number of sprouts that can grow from a single potato.
  • How Greasy is Your Potato Chip?: Traditional potato chips are fried in oil to give them a nice crunch. Newer recipes call for different cooking methods to make them more healthful. With a rolling pin and graph paper, see for yourself how much fat different varieties of potato chips contain.
  • Smashing for the Mash: The Science of Making Memorable Mashed Potatoes: Be the mashed potato hero in your home! In this hands-on experiment, you'll try a variety of cooking and mashing methods to discover how to create the most delicious potatoes for your dinner table.
  • Hey, Do You C My Potatoes?*: "Eat your veggies!" Grown-ups know that fruits and vegetables provide us with essential vitamins, but do cooking methods change the amount of vitamins that end up on our plates? Discover the best way to get the most vitamin C from your potatoes.

Plan Ahead for the Holidays

Thanksgiving and winter breaks are right around the corner. Skip the screen time and try some hands-on scientific exploration instead!

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In this week's spotlight: a food science project or family activity that adds a dash of salt to questions about health and nutrition. The salt in your family's table shaker may be iodized because iodine is an important micronutrient that not everyone gets naturally in the foods they eat. To help prevent iodine deficiency, many salts contain added iodine (in the form of iodide). Not all salts are iodized, however. In this pair of projects, families experiment to see which salts contain iodide. The label should tell you if the salt contains iodide, but these projects let families use a visual test to observe the chemical reaction that occurs if iodide is present. Does what you see match what the label tells you?

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight /  Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a sports science project that invites students and families to examine the relationship between walking pace and height. Do you have to walk faster or slower to keep up with a friend or family member? How is that related to how tall each of you is, and why? Can you estimate how tall someone is by how many steps they take to cover a certain distance? Put this question to the test with a simple hands-on science experiment and learn more about special ratios that can be used to talk about the human body.

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In honor of World Diabetes Day, we review a compelling autobiography by Phil Southerland, founder of Team Novo Nordisk. Phil didn't start out to change the world's view of diabetes or inspire others with diabetes, but his path on one bike after another led him to exactly that. Today, Phil and his team are making a difference around the world, raising awareness about Type 1 diabetes, and providing important role models for people with Type 1 Diabetes of all ages. Not Dead Yet, his story of how he got there, is an amazing read.

World Diabetes Day blue circle

Shining a Light on Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month (#NDAM) and today, November 14, is World Diabetes Day. Throughout the month of November, Science Buddies has been making daily updates at Twitter to highlight hands-on student science angles for students hoping to experiment with subjects related to diabetes.

Thanks to support from Novo Nordisk, Science Buddies has numerous Project Ideas that specifically deal with diabetes. In addition, many other projects and resources may also be relevant for a student who wants to undertake a diabetes-related science investigation. Understanding diabetes, its symptoms, treatments, and risks is something important for all individuals—not just those with diabetes.

A few of our tweets from NDAM appear below:

  • @JackAndraka developed pancreatic cancer test at 15. What might a student #science project discover for #diabetes? #NDAM #T1day @NovoNordisk
  • Sucrose, Glucose, Fructose, Oh My!: not all foods turn to glucose at same rate #science @NovoNordisk #diabetes http://ow.ly/qkSiW #NDAM
  • How Sweet It Is!: investigate fruit/juice glucose concentration. Student #science @NovoNordisk #diabetes http://ow.ly/qkRRd #NDAM #STEM
  • Student #science idea: video game playing count as exercise? Tweak to investigate blood sugar changes #diabetes http://ow.ly/qkSqd #NDAM
  • "How Many Sugars are in Your Smoothie?" - student #science project #diabetes @NovoNordisk http://ow.ly/qkSLO #NDAM
  • Student #science "Modeling the Chances of Getting an Autoimmune Disease" with candies and dice. #STEM #NDAM #diabetes http://ow.ly/qAkIU
  • Student #science: Visualize the sugar in non-diet soda using a hydrometer. http://ow.ly/qkT5G #STEM #NDAM
  • Does the ripeness of the fruit change the carb count? Student #science #diabetes http://ow.ly/qkT9k #NDAM
  • Hands-on student #science: Analyze blood sugar data with range, variance, and standard deviation. #NDAM http://ow.ly/qMHEJ #diabetes

To follow all of our updates, please join us at Twitter.


Hands-on Science Project for Students Interested in Diabetes and Health

Students wanting to learn more about diabetes—or wanting to explore aspects of their own diabetes with a hands-on science project—can get started by considering one of these Science Buddies Projects Ideas:

I don't know much about cycling. Other than the big names that probably everyone has heard of in the context either of sports victory, health-related comeback, or, unfortunately, circuit scandal, I am pretty clueless about the world of professional cycling. Other than the really big circuit races, I don't know one Tour de from another. And, a year ago, like many, many others, I didn't know Type 1 diabetes (T1D) from Type 2.

When I wrote about Team Novo Nordisk over the summer, I found myself unexpectedly caught up with the all-Type-1 cycling team, with what they stand for, with what it must be like to ride at that level and successfully manage T1D, and with the positive message they send to everyone they roll past on their bikes—diabetes doesn't have to stop you.

After reading the team's story and learning more about its grass-roots origins, I picked up a copy of Phil Southerland's Not Dead Yet: My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance. From online reviews and the book jacket, I expected the book to be about the trials and tribulations of managing T1D and being a professional athlete at the same time. I expected the book to be about diabetes, about winning against the poor odds doled out by doctors when he was first diagnosed with T1D as a child thirty years ago.

Not Dead Yet surprised me.

As I read Not Dead Yet, I learned about levels and intricacies of professional cycling (and of road racing versus mountain racing). I read, and I recognized in Phil qualities familiar to anyone who has lived in the "south." I read, and I found myself charmed, surprised, inspired, and amazed, time and time again by Phil, by the story, by the incredible amount of detail he recalls about countless races in the last two decades, by his persistently positive perspective on his diabetes, and by his transformation from an adolescent riding with buddies in his hometown to the founder and CEO of what has evolved into Team Novo Nordisk, a global sports organization.

As I read, I got glimpses of T1D, but not in the way I expected. Instead, surprisingly, though Phil was conscientious, always, about managing his diabetes, his diabetes runs almost as an undercurrent or side-story to his development as an athlete. There is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he ate from another student's lunch in kindergarten when he was low. There is a cupcake moment he recounts this way: "At six years old, I became the CEO of my body." There is the fear of blindness, a common complication of uncontrolled diabetes, that underwrites his story and his acute attention, always, to his A1C number. There are slivers of diabetes throughout, but the bulk of Phil's story focuses on the growth and development of a kid looking for a father figure, a kid capable of incredible focus and determination, and, oh yeah, a kid with Type 1 diabetes.

That Phil's mom galvanized and educated an entire community of friends and neighbors when faced with the realities of Type 1 diabetes should not go un-noted, and Phil is quick to credit with his mom for how she handled his diagnosis and the management of his diabetes when he was young. In many ways, her approach to his diabetes seems to have set the stage for the story to come because, no matter what the sport or challenge, Phil didn't grow up thinking that diabetes should stop him. Early in his story, he writes: "At this point you might also be thinking that my childhood was a horror. Puking, injections, seizures, suppositories, divorce, and sibling guilt. A real barrel of laughs. Well, here's the other side of that story. These and a few other episodes stand out in my mind vividly, in part because they were the exceptions, not the rule. While some people find this hard to believe when I tell them, most of my childhood was... well, it was great." (47)

Recalling his early elementary school years, Phil writes: "I guess I was determined: determined to prove anyone wrong who thought I was not capable of doing what any other kid could do, and maybe doing it better. Determined not to let the diabetes rule my life.... Determined to excel, to succeed (although at what, I wasn't sure). Determined to get on with life and to do what had to be done. Above all, though, determined to be a kid—albeit perhaps a slightly more mature one. (52)

By chapter 3, 11-year old Phil has us following along as he spends time on the racquetball courts, determined to develop the skills and techniques needed to win against another boy about his age. With racquetball, Phil first begins a training regimen and pattern of determination that will recur again and again in his story, even as the sporting focus changes. On the way to developing his racquetball skills, he was told by a mentor to practice 50 shots a day of each of seven common racquetball shots. A couple of hours, every day, day after day. Phil was on his way and, with each shot and each new match, he was seeing in action a lesson that stuck with him: "hard work produces results."


Growing Up on a Bike

Although Phil recalls always riding something, it is when he was about 12 that he remembers things changing. With a new mountain bike, he and his friends would ride and ride and ride. And sometimes the ride would end with a Snickers bar, all that exercise allowing an insulin-free indulgence. The next new mountain bike put him in touch with a group of older riders at a local bike shop, Revolutions.

Slowly, first through mountain biking and then, later, through a transition to road racing, we see the development of Phil as an athlete, and as an adolescent approaching adulthood. There is a wonderful freshness to Phil's story. As an autobiographical account of growing up in the 90's, there are moments of teenage angst, moments of adolescent exploration, examples that stand out as tally marks on the quest for identity. When Phil goes to watch his first Twilight Criterium, he shaves his hair into a Mohawk, dyes it red and green, and pours Elmer's glue over it—"so that my single hedgerow of hairs stood up like bristled in a brush."

Candid and unexpected moments like these jump out and grab a reader time and time again in Phil's story. And as Phil's development as an athlete continues, there are moments when you might be tempted to forget that diabetes is the understory and insulin his lifeline. Mentions of a high blood sugar reading or, more frequently, the need to bolster a low blood sugar, dot the landscape of Phil's ride from one race to another. There are a few frightening tales of extreme lows, stories that reinforce the importance of friends being well-informed about diabetes and what to do if a problem arises. But racing, not diabetes, was Phil's platform as he began his years at the University of Georgia.

Then Phil meets Joe Eldridge, another cyclist with Type 1 diabetes. As he and Joe become friends, Phil realizes that not everyone with diabetes is as diligent about managing the disease as he is. He challenges Joe to a series of blood sugar checks, with the loser paying the tab for burritos. As Joe's approach to his diabetes changes, Phil realizes that he has something to offer—and realizes that he wants to connect with other diabetics and to help ensure others realize that diabetes is not easy, "but once you figure it out, everything else in your life becomes easier." (185)

Phil's story continues, and readers learn both of the injury that sets him back as a rider and of the kindness of a stranger at a coffee shop that helps him take a business idea from paper to reality. Team Type 1 is born, and Phil, who had practiced making conversation with people while working in a grocery store as a kid, begins dividing his time between pitching and growing Team Type 1 and his own training. There are corporate sponsorships which helped pave the way in the early days, and there are people and supporters who made the first Race Across America (RAAM) (and the second) possible. There are changes, challenges, hypoglycemic lows, nutritional experiments (and mistakes), logistics planning (and oversights), and successes and setbacks.

In Not Dead Yet, Phil takes readers along for the exciting ride.


It is a ride that continues to evolve, a ride that Phil and other members of Team Novo Nordisk, formerly Team Type 1, continue to chart as they manage their own diabetes and help show others with Type 1 Diabetes that taking control of diabetes is imperative and, once you do, you can do anything.


Note for Parents: Not Dead Yet: My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance is an amazing, real-world coming-of-age story, one that readers with an interest in sports or an interest in diabetes may especially enjoy. The book does include themes and subjects typical of many adolescent stories, so use parental guidance with your readers.



Novo Nordisk
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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With its broad spectrum of free scientist-authored projects for K-12 students, Science Buddies wants ALL students to have a great science project experience—girls and boys. For teachers and parents looking for ways to engage girls in science, Science Buddies has plenty of suggestions. Finding a great project that taps an area of interest is one of the most important things to keep in mind when helping students select projects.

Girls and STEM: Better Understanding the 'Leaky Pipeline'

With support from Motorola Solutions Foundation, TrueChild is digging into issues related to STEM, gender, race, and ethnicity. See their STEM white paper report "Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls' STEM Attitudes & Participation?" for a summary of what's at stake, what's happening, and what TrueChild is learning from focus group studies they are conducting. According to TrueChild's research, girls may feel they have to choose between "femininity and STEM." See TrueChild's "Femininity & Science, Technology, Engineering, Math" section for links to other relevant studies and reports.

How to engage, excite, and retain girls' interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is an ongoing challenge and area of concern for educators and parents. Plenty of studies demonstrate that while many girls show enthusiasm for STEM subjects, and may voice STEM-related career goals, during early elementary years, there is a marked drop-off in interest in STEM that begins as early as grade 4 or 5 and continues to taper off through middle and high school. (Similar decline in interest in STEM subjects can also be seen in students in other demographics.)

Understanding "why" girls lose interest in areas of science and changing the dynamic has become a top priority for many who are involved in science education and, ultimately, ensuring a healthy pipeline between formative school years and the emerging job force.


Why Not Science?

The problem of "girls bailing on science" is not one with immediate and concrete answers as the convergence of a number of factors has likely contributed to what has become a broad-spectrum problem. There are no easy answers, but there are myriad steps that may help encourage and recoup female student interest. Increasing the visibility of female role models in science and in fields like robotics, engineering, and computer science, fields often associated with males, is certainly important. Girls looking to those fields need to find plenty of examples of female scientists to help them better envision both the field and their own potential place in such a field of work and study. Ensuring girls have access to (and encouragement for) a wide range of science-related opportunities both in school and through extracurricular and after-school activities is also important. Making clear to all students, through presentation, through teaching, through example, and through at-home discussion, that there are no "boy" and "girl" fields of science is a must. The stereotypes that surround certain fields of science, and the ways in which developing students respond to those stereotypes, may have much to do with the kinds of projects girls choose for their science class and science fair assignments.

These are all important steps, but they are only individual strands that feed into a complicated and multi-headed problem. No single approach can realign girls' perception of science, and change won't happen overnight. Rebalancing STEM so that girls see these fields as interesting, exciting, and viable, as relevant and possible for them, may take the proverbial village, but it also is going to take a lot of diligent and hard work on the part of teachers, parents, community members, and volunteers who are all committed to getting girls excited about science and to helping girls see that they, too, can be scientists and that there are many, many different areas of science to explore.


Finding a Science Project

So how do you get a girl student engaged in a hands-on science assignment, project, or activity? What project should you encourage? What project should she pick? The answer may be more simple than you think. She should pick a project that interests her or that taps into an area of interest.

At Science Buddies, we believe that all students, male or female, can perform any of the Project Ideas in our library of more than 1,200 free science projects when the project is appropriate for the student in terms of difficulty and available time. This is especially true if the project is one in which a student is interested.


A Project She will Love

This focus on the importance of student interest is the foundation on which Science Buddies' Topic Selection Wizard operates. After a student responds to statements about his or her interests in the Wizard's survey, projects that best fit the student's existing interests rise to the top as recommendations for projects the student may most enjoy. This does not mean there are not other projects that the student might find satisfying, challenging, and exciting. But students who use the Topic Selection Wizard are more likely to uncover and discover projects that really mesh with their interests—even in areas of science they may not have considered but that fit in, nicely, with an interest or hobby. We always encourage students to try the Topic Selection Wizard as a first step in locating a science project.

Some girls, of course, will gravitate to Project Ideas that center around subjects and topics that may typically be associated with girls. That's fine! Science Buddies offers a broad range of projects and experiments that meet that need. But many female students, based on their individual areas of interest, will find exciting and challenging projects that may capitalize upon their interests and skills and may open up areas of science, technology, engineering, or math that are unexpected or new to them but that they will really enjoy.


A Handy List of Girl-friendly Science Projects

We could post a list of projects that we know from experience are especially easy for girls to see and choose, but we feel strongly that in order to help change the dynamic, we want, always, to support the fact that the awesome new projects we are developing at Science Buddies are put together by our team of scientists to encourage an amazing science experience for a student—regardless of whether the student is male or female. Here are a few of our recently released Project Ideas that we think are super fun, exciting, creative, and have the potential to empower both girls and boys to further explore science and engineering.

Girls STEM explore blood clotting Girls STEM art bot robotics Girls STEM separating mixtures

Girls STEM candy chromatography Girls STEM grape soda dye Girls STEM electric play-dough

Girls STEM candy waterfall flow Girls STEM snow globe centrifuge Girls STEM milk plastic polymers

Girls STEM butterfly flight Girls STEM dance glove Girls STEM hula hoop physics



The Project Ideas shown above are just a tiny sampling of the wide range of projects students will find at Science Buddies (more than 1,200 projects in more than 30 areas of science). We encourage teachers and parents to have students first try the Topic Selection Wizard. (Sit with your student and look through the results together!) If a student is still uncertain about which project to choose, spend time looking though the library of Project Ideas, starting first with an area of science in which the student seems interested.


Supporting the Process

Parents and teachers play a critical role in how girls perceive and respond to science. Making science a part of the daily car ride or family dinner is an easy but important way to show girls that science matters and is relevant to them. We suggest parents and educators review the following resources, success stories, science history notes, and book reviews for additional encouragement and support in helping engage girls of all ages in science:


Keep in mind, too, that how parents talk about and respond to issues of science, technology, engineering, and math has an impact on students. There are many, many ways you can do hands-on science with your kids at home, after school, or on the weekends even if you are not a scientist. Family science should be fun! We highlight a family-friendly science activity every Thursday on the Science Buddies Blog. But we also frequently post stories of families who have tackled various kinds of science projects, including math, electronics, and robotics—with no prior experience!




Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.


Motorola Solutions Foundation

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight /  Zoology Camouflage Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of zoology science projects that let students and families explore how some animals use camouflage so they can better blend in with their surroundings. Does camouflage really make a difference when it comes to the relationship between predators and their prey? Give it a try in fun hands-on science activity using M&M® and Skittles® candies. If you are a hungry predator trying to grab a specific color of M&M, how hard will it be to find your prey if the prey blends in with its Skittles surroundings? Experiment to find out!



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This Experiment is Totally Sweet


November is a great time to experiment with a kitchen science project. A cheesecake smackdown explores how subtle variations in cooking methods can create very different results!

By Kim Mullin

Cheesecake food science project

Make Cheesecake a Scienctific Part of Your Next Family Gathering!

Volunteer to make dessert for your next family event, and you can combine making a tasty contribution for after dinner with a kitchen science exploration! (Image: Wikipedia)

When is a cake not a cake? When it is a cheesecake! Creamy, sweet, and delicious, cheesecake is definitely a dessert, but it is a rich and dense custard instead of a spongy and light birthday-style cake. Mmm...cheeeeeesecaaaake....

Variations on the Cheesecake Theme

Traditional cheesecake recipes only call for eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a milk product such as sour cream, heavy cream, or cream cheese. This kind of basic recipe lends itself to creativity, so nowadays, you can find cheesecakes in all sorts of mouth-watering flavors: chocolate chip cookie dough, pumpkin pecan, and lemon raspberry, to name just a few. Yum! Search for cheesecake recipes online, and you'll find that anything goes.

When you head to the kitchen to make your own cheesecake for a family gathering or a weekend treat, all you need to do is mix up all of this sweet and creamy deliciousness and throw it in the oven for an hour, right? Not so fast!


Recipe Variations Equal Varied Results

When it comes to baking, there is a science to getting the results that you want. Professional bakers pay careful attention to measuring ingredients, controlling temperatures, and mixing at the right speeds. They know that the wrong variations can mean the difference between a baked good that's perfectly light and delicious, and one that's overly tough and chewy.

Cheesecake bakers want a nicely risen filling and a smooth, crack-free top, but there are three different recommended baking methods. Which one is best? The way to find out is to put it to the test!

The "Choice Cheesecakes: Which Baking Method is Best?" food science Project Idea lets you be the head chef in a delicious experiment! Always using the same cheesecake recipe of ingredients, you'll test all three of the recommended baking methods and then count cracks and measure the rise to see which approach gives you the best results. When looking at your data, think about why the different baking methods change the outcomes. Which method would you recommend?


Sweet Success

This is one science experiment that you are definitely allowed to eat, so when all of the baking is done, it's time to dig in! You'll end up with lots of cheesecake, so invite friends and family to enjoy the results of your cheesecake smackdown. You might even take an un-scientific poll to see which method makes the best-tasting cheesecake. You'll have everyone saying that science is sweet!

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In this week's spotlight: a pair of physics science projects that invite students and families to explore the granularity of materials. Can you pour candy in a way that is similar to pouring water? What determines whether or not a material can "flow" in this way? Which variables affect how smoothly the material flows? With your Halloween candy bag at hand, you can put it to the test with your own "candy waterfall" in these hands-on science project and family science activities.

For other Halloween-related science suggestions, see: Time for Spooky Halloween Science.

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Slime, Catapults, and Halloween Science


Inspire hands-on learning by getting creative. You can easily turn chemistry and physics science experiments into Halloween-inspired activities that your students will enjoy!

Ping pong balls for  Halloween catapult science fun

Setting Siege for Halloween Fun

A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can transform ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween fun. A dozen eyeballs anyone? Get creative! Mummies, ghosts, Frankenstein, pumpkins, bats, witches... decorate a set of ping pong balls with your kids and then have fun launching them into the trick-or-treat candy basket with the Ping Pong Catapult. Your kids will have fun experimenting with science and the physics behind successfully getting the balls to the target! [Image: Booturtle]

Halloween is tomorrow. Hopefully you've found, stitched, glued, or otherwise assembled all necessary gear for the big night of knocking door to door for fun treats. To keep you in the mood, we've got two more hands-on science suggestions, both of which are fun ways to tie science into the festivities, even after the fact!


Slime

To hook some kids, it's that simple. You need slime. For the rest of us, despite the gross factor, the science of slime, when you get right down to it as it oozes through your fingers, is chock full of squishy but fascinating chemistry! Mixing up a stretchy putty or experimenting with Oobleck, Ooze, or some other non-Newtonian fluid is classic, hands-on, tactile fare for the younger set. They love to get really hands on with their chemistry, because it feels good, or cold, or slippery, or bouncy, or some other wonderful adjective that a toddler or early elementary student might toss out to describe how a new mixture feels. But these substances offer excellent hands-on learning moments for older students, too!


Colloids and Polymers, Anyone?

Slime, especially glowing, green, the color-of-some-unearthly-snot slime, fits right in with the fun but eerie side of Halloween. So why not make your own, but turn the "making" into a fun science activity—one with a clear take-away, slime you can dig your hands into or bounce around.

In order to keep things shrouded in mystery, we don't want to tell you exactly which formula to use or how to modify one recipe or the other to achieve the best and slimiest consistency. Instead, we want you to experiment!

These two Project Ideas have the goods you need to know, including background information that will let you and your kids talk about polymers and colloids and better understand the properties of each mixture you try.

  • Bouncy Polymer Chemistry: use Elmer's school glue and Borax to mix up something like the classic Silly Putty. By experimenting with the ratio of your ingredients, can you make this slime-like? Or does it only want to be a rubbery, bouncy, putty? To make your polymer exploration extra spooky, use a colored Elmer's glue or try Elmer's School Glue Gel. (It's blue!)
  • Making Mixtures: How Do Colloids Size Up?: experiment with corn starch and water to mix up some Oobleck or Ooze. Colloids have interesting properties because sometimes they seem like a liquid and sometimes they seem like a solid. What kind of slime factor can you concoct?

You could mix up a batch of both mixtures, a putty and a colloid. Or, pick one or the other. Both are fun to make with kids. If you have some glow-worthy paint you can mix into the batch (try a small quantity), you might be able to turn a bit of family or after-school science into an awesome trick or treat moment!


Catapult

Catapults have a long history of launching things, including fiery things, into enemy territory. Brought into the realm of hands-on science, a catapult is a super way to experiment with physics principles and the math that goes along with correctly launching something so that it goes where you want it to go.

Science Buddies has a suite of Project Ideas that use the Ping Pong Catapult kit, available in the Science Buddies Store: Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult, Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls, Bet You Can't Hit Me! The Science of Catapult Statistics, and Launch Time: The Physics of Catapult Projectile Motion.

These projects are all great explorations individually, but the suite allows students to use a single kit and experiment with multiple angles (literally!) related to similar physics-based scenarios and questions. How can you tie the catapult in with Halloween science?

No, not launching pumpkins! But what else might you try? How many individually wrapped small candy bars will come home Halloween night? Is there a game you and your students might make up to launch candies into a Halloween bucket, box, or bag? What might you explore about the difference in flight pattern and trajectory of different candies based on variables like size or shape?

Or, if you want to stick with ping pong balls because they are light, will only fly a certain distance, and won't be a concern if they wind up lost under the couch, grab a permanent marker and turn them into jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween creatures for added catapult fun—without the mess of pumpkin guts! (A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can uplevel ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween. A dozen eyeballs anyone?)

Warning: when using the ping pong catapult, especially if you are launching objects other than ping pong balls, be sure you have plenty of space and don't launch towards windows, screens, or other breakable things. This may be a science activity to take outside the weekend after Halloween and have some candy-launching fun at a local park!



Elmer's Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor of Science Buddies. For a full range of display boards and adhesives that can help as students get ready to showcase their science projects, visit Elmer's!


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Time for Spooky Halloween Science


As trick-or-treat night approaches, we have plenty of suggestions for hands-on science you can fit in with Halloween festivities and discussions!

Halloween hands-on science

Meet your kids where they are—in the Halloween mindset! Science Buddies has great ideas for giving Halloween a boost of hands-on science.

Every year we highlight projects at Science Buddies that, when carved or backlit this way or that, can easily be adapted for Halloween and trick-or-treat fun with students in the classroom or at home. If you are looking for activities you can do with your students, for science-minded conversation starters for the car ride home, or for homeroom discussions before and after Halloween, consider the science activities and science connections highlighted in these posts on the Science Buddies Blog:


A Ghoulish Tradition on the Blog

This year, we've added a few new Halloween-inspired posts to our collection to highlight new hands-on science projects from our library of Project Ideas. If you missed these posts in recent weeks, be sure and add them to your reading list for great Halloween-infused science suggestions:

Have a great Halloween week!

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With a new group of electronics Project Ideas and a cool kit from the Science Buddies Store, you can turn ordinary play dough modeling into a great hands-on electronics activity with your kids.

Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Since the trio of "electric play dough" projects launched at Science Buddies, I have wanted to give these hands-on science projects a try as a weekend science activity with my kids. The idea of rigging up an electronics-friendly batch of dough to some LEDs has undeniable allure. It just sounds cool, and the sample photos in the projects are very compelling.

Whether you love the tactile angle of working with a squishy dough, just like when the kids were little, or like the idea of an easy light-up electronics project, the "squishy circuits" approach invites users of all ages and backgrounds. The premise is simple—by making and using conductive and insulating dough, you can create your own light-up 2D and 3D sculptures. To get there, you follow the step-by-step, progressive, directions, and make some simple dough samples that will help you learn about open and closed circuits, series and parallel circuits, and short circuits.


Halloween Circuits

All of the samples for this project seem to be green, but with Halloween coming, we thought we would experiment with some ghost- and pumpkin-themed squishy circuitry. Our orange conductive dough came out nice. Basic color mixing theory with our red and yellow food dye worked as expected. My kids wanted to make our insulating dough black. I did caution that with the food coloring we had on hand, we might get brown, but even I didn't quite expect what we got. As you can see from the photos, our insulating dough came out a really gnarly, nasty, icky brown. Yuck! (Tip: the directions do not talk about adding coloring to the insulating dough. We decided this may be because the insulating dough is much drier in the bowl since you add the distilled water last. The coloring worked and did mix in, but you may find it best to add it after you've added most of the water needed to reach the desired consistency.)

We were not thrilled with our brown dough, but that's what we had, brown and orange. So, with ghosts, goblins, and jack-o'-lanterns in mind, we got started.


Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Read the Procedure

Especially because we were doing this as an informal activity, I knew the kids would not be following the experimental procedures verbatim. We didn't need to record data. We didn't need to turn anything in. We simply wanted to play around with the dough and LEDs. Before I let them loose with the dough, though, we pulled up the directions and each read through the background information for Electric Play Dough 1 and Electric Play Dough 2.

And then they were off!

They worked through the examples first and had great luck with series and parallel circuits. Then they started making their own sculptures. Both did more elaborate parallel circuit examples and then attempted 3D models.

Not everything worked. We had some misfires, some miswires, and even some dough structures that looked like they should work and never did. But we had a great time, and there was lots of hands-on learning going on—and lots of troubleshooting. Watching them process how to step back (or backtrack) and test at each stage of a circuit to find out where the trouble began when a more complicated design was not conducting electricity the way they expected was wonderful—and important.

It was a hot day, and our dough seemed to get a bit weepy in the warmth, starting to feel (and look) tacky and damp as we continued debugging our final projects. The two kinds of dough also tend to want to stick together, which led to some interesting discussions about what happens if, in fact, you mix them. Having done the "Sliding Light: How to Make a Dimmer Switch" project in the past, one of my kids immediately had a theory about how a mixed dough might perform. (It's an idea to put to the test sometime, especially with some of your used dough!)


Afterthoughts

I have no doubt that the kids now understand the concept of series and parallel circuits in a way that they didn't before starting. Me, too! I wish we had ended up with a great pumpkin to share, but when you do projects as a family, things often take an unexpected path. That's okay!

When a 3D project went awry, one of my kids decided to go for a play dough burger instead. It is 3D, though arguably it's really just a larger example of a parallel circuit. (I think it looks like a space thing.) With the disco burger in the works on one side of the table, my other son co-opted most of the remaining dough for his own pumpkin-eque project. While they worked, I played around with some of the scrap dough that was left. (There wasn't much!)

My 3D pumpkin proved to be a great electronics puzzle and gave me lots of time to experiment through trial and error as I tried to combine what we'd been doing into one conceptual example. In the warmth, and with the small amount of dough I had, my pumpkin kept collapsing. The more times I stuck the probes in it trying to troubleshoot and test the circuit, the more it collapsed. Finally, I left it flat. In the end, it's a pretty scary looking something. (The photo of it here shows it after I'd removed a number of LEDs during my testing.) Admittedly, I was the last one sitting at the table—and the one left to clean up.

Squishy circuits electric play dough pumpkin family science

We plan to experiment with the squishy dough again in the future, working through some of the challenges we ran into and conquering some of the design issues we had—and emerging victorious with something 3D. Maybe this time we'll aim for a slightly less tacky dough, too. I think drier dough would have helped us a lot.

This is definitely an electronics and engineering experiment worth repeating. Once you have a squishy circuits kit (available from the Science Buddies Store), you can reuse the components over and over with new batches of dough.

What will you create?


You and Your Kids Can Do Electronics!

Afraid to tackle an electronics project with your kids? Don't be!

The first two electric play dough projects are written as introductory electronics projects, projects suitable for even the youngest of elementary students. This makes them great for independent science projects, but it also makes them excellent for family science or even classroom science. No matter what your expertise, familiarity, or comfort level with electronics, chances are good that you can read through the background information for each project and come away with a solid understanding of the core concepts.

After that, you and your kids can start experimenting. What should you make? We recommend working through the first examples (e.g., lighting up a single light bulb), so that you see how the circuits work. As you continue to experiment and add more bulbs, you will build upon your knowledge of circuits and see the information about series and parallel circuits play out in the dough in front of you.

To get started, you really just need to be able to roll up three wads of dough—two conductive and one insulating. If you keep the two conductive ones separate, you don't even need the insulating dough to start, just stick the legs of an LED in the two balls and hook up the battery pack. The LED should light up. If it doesn't, check to make sure your long LED leg is on the same side as the red wire and try again. (You will have learned something important by doing that!) Once you've successfully lit up a single LED, try the same process with a couple of LEDs and watch the brightness of the LEDs start to fade in a series. Then roll out two dough snakes and experiment with parallel circuits. You will be learning more and more about circuits with each sample you make!

What next? Your imagination is the limit to what you can do with dough, but you will need to apply what you learned about circuits to make sure your LEDs light up. It can be a trial and error process, but it is lots of fun!


Where to Go

The projects:

The kit:


Science Buddies Project Ideas in Electricity & Electronics are sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation.


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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / afterimages Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a trio of human biology and health science projects that invite teachers, families, and students to explore the way the human eye works. What happens when you stare at something for a period of time and then look away? You might continue to see the image, what is called an afterimage. We have versions of this exploration for an independent student project, a family activity, or a classroom activity!
2013-blog-scratch-visual-afterimages-trio_small.png



Science Connections for Halloween

For another look at afterimages and thoughts on tying this hands-on science to Halloween and to nudging your students to experiment with Scratch to make a simple computer program to demonstrate afterimages, see: "A Trick of the Eye for Halloween."

Scratch is a great way to get kids started exploring computer logic as they create fun games or applications. (See the post for additional links to resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies!)


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If you are still thinking about what to wear this Halloween, you might find you can combine a science project and your costume needs to good, possibly ghoulish, effect!

My favorite Halloween idea this year is low-tech. I saw a "stick man" figure homemade costume, and I can't get it out of my head for its sheer simplicity—black electrical tape on a white shirt and pants. It is an unusual and fun twist on the classic DIY white tape skeleton costume and perfect for someone who loves to draw.

There are always a few kids at Halloween who explode out of the box with unexpected, cool, and definitely not-off-the-shelf, costumes. These are the ones I remember each year after the school costume parade. My favorite may be the girl who came as a salt shaker. I think another year she was a #2 pencil. In reality, though, these kinds of creative bursts are seemingly few and far between at Halloween, overshadowed by scads and scores of black capes, scream faces, blood-spurting masks, princess dresses, and character costumes from TV and the movies. (How many Harry Potter or Dorothy trick or treaters have you seen?)

If a roll of electrical tape falls in my lap, I may end up with a stick-figure shirt this year. But for you and your students, I want to suggest something much cooler... a science-project turned costume.

2013-fb-LED-etextiles-halloween.png
Combine your science know-how and your creativity to create an exciting costume this Halloween! The science involved in this LED glove can be applied to other parts of a costume. What will you make and wear?

A Science Project/Halloween Costume Combo

Really, when you think about it, this idea can be chalked up as a two-for-one special. The supplies you buy for the science project will also be used for the Halloween costume. It's a win-win. When you factor in the hands-on science learning that your student (or family) will gain from the science experiment, it's a win-win with interest!

Here are two suggestions for science projects from the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas that can be easily turned into a fun at-home activity that then becomes part of a cool and creative trick-or-treat costume.

  • LED Dance Glove: This brand new project at Science Buddies is an awesome way for kids to explore a cool new breed of electronics—wearable ones, also called electronic textiles or e-textiles. In the project, students learn how to use conductive thread and insulating fabric paint to turn a set of small LEDs into an awesome light-up glove. An LED glove is perfect for a party, true. But imagine using this idea as part of a costume! You could do gloves, or you could use the technology and wearable circuitry-knowhow to sew up some other light-up costume idea that is completely your own. Think about the possibilities! Forget carrying a regular glow-stick that will fade in a few hours. This Halloween you can make and wear your own glow!

  • How to Make the Boldest, Brightest Tie-Dye!: Tie-dye may be a classic summer camp or weekend family project, but the process of dyeing different kinds of fibers and exploring how fibers react to dye is a great science activity—one with wearable results. This science experiment can be perfect for a DIY Halloween costume! Whether you are making a groovy costume with 60s flair, prepping your own zombie or mummy rags, or making a groovy fan shirt for a favorite sports team, you can put your science tie-dye tests to use. Make part of the costume from one fiber (like muslin), and part from another (like a polyester-cotton blend), and have fun with the dyeing!

How Creepy is Too Creepy?

Whatever costume you pull together, you probably want to stay out of the "uncanny valley"—or maybe that is exactly where you want to be! Learn more about the uncanny valley and how it plays into how we respond to the characters we see in movies, or maybe the ones we run into on Halloween night, in the "That's Creepy! Exploring the Uncanny Valley" science Project Idea.

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In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental science projects that help guide families in an investigation of different biodegradable and compostable items. Do all environmentally-friendly items decompose at the same rate or as completely? With a homemade indoor composter, you and your students can run your own experiment and see what happens.

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A Trick of the Eye for Halloween


Exhaust your eye cones in just the right way, and you can enjoy the spookiness of seeing something that isn't really there!

Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program

The screenshots above are from a project a student created using Scratch to demonstrate afterimages.

Seeing something that isn't there can be spooky, right? That's what I thought one morning this month when I got out of the car after dropping my kids at school and saw a giant "phantom" in the basement window of the house next store to mine. After doing a momentary double-take, I realized that the creepy robed reaper wearing a face reminiscent of Edvard Munch's "Scream" had appeared overnight as part of my neighbors' Halloween decorations.

Spooky.

But I wasn't imagining it.

It was there, looking through the window at me and at several oversized pumpkins that must weigh a hundred or so pounds each.

Something you don't expect to see and suddenly do can be eerie. But when it comes to how your eyes work (and how your eyes and brain work together), what you see, at times, might actually be a neurological response—and not really there.

The science of visual perception can be fascinating, and you can have a lot of fun with your kids, students, and friends by exploring (or creating) visual illusions. (How many faces do you see in the tree? That's one that has been going around these days.) But an easy way to learn more about how the eyes work, and how "fatigued" different cones in the eyes may become when staring at something, is to set up a really simple test where you stare at a certain image for a period of time (like 30 seconds) and then glance over at a blank piece of paper. If you really focused your eyes on the initial image for the whole thirty seconds, you should see a version of the image reflected on the blank page—an image that isn't really there. Your eyes seem to be still seeing what they were initially looking at, just in a different color.

Maybe you have tried this with a giant colored circle—or even a small one?


Simple Science at Home

With Halloween coming, I made a mental note to corral the kids into helping with a ghostly version of the "Are Your Eyes Playing Tricks on You? Discover the Science Behind Afterimages!" project so that I could share a Halloween-infused version of the visual perception activity here on the Science Buddies blog. With younger kids, having them draw (or cut out) a large ghost or pumpkin and experiment with afterimages makes sense. My kids are a bit older, and as I thought about testing this with them for the blog, I realized that the directions for the activity (and the sample circle you stare at) at Science Buddies are online... this visual test works both with a digital images or with a sheet of paper in front of you. Given that, I started thinking that maybe I didn't need to force my middle schooler to draw a ghost.

I quickly spiraled down a path of having my student instead set up a digital simulation using Scratch as a way to show how afterimages work and as a way to encourage a bit of Scratch manipulation. Challenged to set up a simple program to demonstrate after-effects using a ghost image and a bit of computer logic to facilitate timing and the automatic changing of screens and display of information to the user, my student created a Scratch program and then took it a step farther, adding in the option for the user to choose an initial background color. This is a cool enhancement and lets you compare what colors you see as an afterimage depending on what colors are in the initial image. Note: in our Scratch version, you are staring at a white ghost, so you don't see a complementary color when you flip to a blank screen. So what do you see? And why? Questions for you to explore!

You and your students can certainly take the Scratch idea even further. You might have the user change the color of the ghost instead of the background. Or, you might add in different levels of color selection to really explore the complementary aspect of afterimages. Or, you could add a storytelling angle to the project: put a backdrop in place on the screen that appears after the user stares at an image, and you will create an interesting animation of sorts—one that partly isn't really there!

We had fun talking about afterimages, putting together the simple Scratch program, and testing it out. I hope you and your students are inspired to give afterimages a try and either experiment with your own Scratch program or make some construction paper ghosts, pumpkins, or bats.

For more information about visual perception, see:

For more information about using Scratch and encouraging kids to explore computer logic with a tool like Scratch, see:


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Saved by the Clot


How does the human body "turn off" bleeding from an injury? Why do some people bleed too much? This October, a cool experiment lets you investigate blood coagulation!

By Kim Mullin

Explore blood clotting and coagulation / blender

Don't Drink the Science

What you mix up doesn't have to be green, but this green combo (it's not a smoothie!) fits in great with Halloween spookiness. The mixture shown in the blender is part of the procedure from the "Blood Clotting to the Rescue: How to Stop Too Much Blood from Flowing" science project. Depending on what you add next, you might end up with little semisolid (gelatinous) balls. Pretty cool science, and a great way to explore coagulation!

Got Blood?

What's the perfect accessory for a frightful Halloween? Fake blood, and plenty of it! Dripping, oozing, spurting—from vampires to gory masks, blood plays a starring role in the scarier side of Halloween. That makes October the right time to get kids interested in a sticky topic—blood coagulation!


Blood Coagulation Keeps Us Safe

We've all had minor cuts and scrapes that bleed, or even a bloody nose. Although it can seem like the bleeding lasts a long time, it does eventually stop. Why? Because it is unhealthy to lose a lot of blood, so as soon as we are injured, our bodies rush into action to form a clot.

Clots are made up of four components: platelets, clotting factors, fibrin, and blood cells. One after the other, these items stick together around the wound to plug it and stop the bleeding. This process is called coagulation. Most people's bodies coagulate blood naturally, but some people have a genetic disorder called hemophilia, and their blood does not coagulate easily. Because the flow of blood may not stop quickly, even minor injuries can be very dangerous for someone with hemophilia.


Coagulation Simulation

If you fell off a skateboard and skinned your knee, you would feel the pain and see blood flow from the scrape. Ouch! But it is tricky to really see blood coagulation in action because the components are so small. When that's the case, scientists sometimes make models to simulate what is happening.

You can make your own blood coagulation model at home! The "Blood Clotting to the Rescue: How to Stop Too Much Blood from Flowing" Project Idea shows you how to do it step-by-step. You'll use an eyedropper to introduce one liquid into another, and you'll end up with tiny little gelatinous spheres! You'll also see what happens when you introduce an anticoagulant into the mix. (Some people take anticoagulant medicine because their blood clots too much.)

As you experiment with your model, think about questions like these: What result would work best for plugging a hole in a blood vessel? What could scientists do to help someone who has a blood disorder like hemophilia?

Vampire or not, our blood is a fascinating topic!



Science Buddies Project Ideas to help students learn more about learn more about diabetes and hemophilia are sponsored by Novo Nordisk.


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An Apple for the Science Fair


Apples are perennial favorites for pies, but how about for science experiments? Absolutely! From chemistry to food science and beyond, apples are the perfect vehicles for scientific exploration.

apples science projects / photo of apple

With fall apples weighing down local trees, the timing is just right for apple-based hands-on science! Gather a few apples and sit down with your students for some hands-on fruit science. (Image: Wikipedia)

Crunchy fresh apples, apple pie, apple cider... can't you just smell these delicious reminders of fall? Over the last two weeks, friends and family from California to Virginia have been telling me about their apple-picking adventures in local orchards. That must mean it is the perfect time for... apple-related science experiments!

Here are a few apple-oriented hands-on science project ideas, ripe for the picking:

  • A Juicy Project: Extracting Apple Juice with Pectinase: Discover the power of enzymes with this simple experiment. How much does the addition of an enzyme speed up the release of juice from apples? Do different types or ages of apples react differently? Why? Budding scientists can easily expand this project to include other fruits or enzymes.
  • Yuck, What Happened to My Apple? How Food Wrappings Affect Spoilage: Want to save half your apple for later? How you store it can make a big difference in how fresh it looks a few hours later! In this project, students investigate which type of wrapping will keep sliced apples placed in the fridge the freshest and least spoiled.
  • One Bad Apple Spoils the Whole Bunch: An Experiment on the Plant Hormone Ethylene: Do you know what causes fruits to ripen? What exactly does "ripen" mean? Here's a hint: we often know a fruit isn't ripe because our mouths involuntarily pucker up! Explore the chemistry behind the ripening process with this Project Idea.
  • Polymer Permeability: Which Plastic Wrap Prevents Oxidation Best?: A cut apple quickly turns brown, which means that they are perfect for testing the gas permeability of plastic wrap. Test different types of plastic wrap (they aren't all the same!) and even try stretching plastic wrap thinner. What allows the most or least oxygen to pass through and why is that important?
  • Gone With the Wind: An Experiment on Seed and Fruit Dispersal:
    In this hands-on project, you observe the seeds of various plants, build your own models, and then use a fan to simulate how the wind carries seeds. What shapes travel the best? What does this mean for the survival of a plant species?


Fall into Science

Any time of the year is a great time for scientific exploration, but fall certainly offers some fun opportunities. Ask kids about changing leaf colors, cooling weather, or "pumpkin guts." And don't forget the apples!


Making Connections

For a more advanced look at science questions and science news related to pests that continue to cause problems for the apple (and oranges) industry, see: "Citrus Science Crisis: From Fruitful to Fruitfall."

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / bird feed adaptations zoology Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of zoology science projects that encourage families and students to use their observation skills to learn more about birds. What can you deduce about a bird's lifestyle or habitat by looking at its feet? More than you might think! Both the independent science project and the family science version guide students in an engaging bird feet scavenger hunt. The closer you look, the better, so pack a picnic lunch and head to a nearby park or pond for some bird watching! How many different types of bird feet will you spot?

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A deck of cards provides a concrete look at probability and chance in a hands-on math activity that easily scales up and down in difficulty to match the experience of your students.

Family math probability card science


A Deck of Cards

Four suits. Thirteen cards in each suit. Twelve face cards. Four aces. Twenty-six red cards. Twenty-six black cards.

Using these simple facts about a deck of cards, many math questions and scenarios rise to the surface!

How likely is it that you will draw an ace from a full deck of cards? Depending on your age, this is simple math. But it is also simple probability. What are the odds that you will draw a face card? How about a two? One-eyed jack?

The interesting thing about probability is that it is exactly that, a measurement of what is "likely" based on the math of the situation. It is not, however, an absolute. Just because your odds of drawing a red jack are 1 in x, it doesn't mean that if you draw x cards you are guaranteed to draw a red jack. But, based on the math, it is probable, or likely, that you will.


Family Math

Over the summer, I set a few kids of varying ages up with a deck of cards each and put them to the task of "testing" what they know about probability in relation to a deck of cards to see how well the "chance" of drawing a certain kind of card holds up.

Because the goal was a short family math activity, we used the "Pick a Card, Any Card" project as a guide and foundation. The Science Buddies Project Idea is one with a low level of difficulty, a project geared toward younger students. There is also a family-friendly adaptation of the project at Scientific American in the Bring Science Home area.

Because of the age range of the kids I had on hand, and their differing levels of interest in, and comfort with, math, we talked first about what we already "knew" about the odds of drawing different types of cards (or specific card numbers), and they each marked their data charts with the odds of drawing each different number or type of card based on the pure math at hand. With a younger group of students, your approach might be different, and the entire activity might be revelatory rather than a proving ground.

For these kids, fairly well versed in games like gin rummy, spades, and hearts, the activity was a way of putting the math to the test. They knew that the odds of drawing an even-numbered card are 1 in 2 (if you count the face cards as odd or even based on their "number" in the sequence from 1-13), but does it really work out that way? Does it work out that way enough of the time to make probability make sense?

After each did their trials, we figured up the percentages and compared them to the mathematical odds we'd already deduced at the outset. It was a simple but fun hands-on activity and a nice foundational activity for talking more about statistics.

Looking for other hands-on math you can do with your students as a way of getting extra hands-on math into their days and into your family time? Check out the following Project Ideas or browse the full math area at Science Buddies:

What did your family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos you snapped while doing family science, we would love to see! Send one in, and we might showcase your family math, science, or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.




Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Winogradsky biosphere column Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental science and geology projects that let families and students investigate a biogeochemical cycle, a kind of reuse and recycling process that helps support an ecosystem. In either the independent science project or the family science version, students create and cultivate a miniature biosphere, called a Winogradsky column, to explore the relationship between available nutrients and the microorganisms that grow in a sample of soil.

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Cooking Caramel: Family Science Spotlight


As this family discovered in their kitchen science activity, making caramel doesn't require much in the way of ingredients, but recipes vary, and timing and temperature matter!

Family Kitchen Science: Making Caramel Sauce
"My younger son wanted to make caramel sauce," reports the mom who sent in these photos. Sometimes a perfect science moment begins just like that!

When the mom told her son that they only needed sugar and water to make caramel sauce, he was surprised and intrigued. Only two ingredients? As he and his mom browsed online recipes, the student kitchen scientist began to wonder: if you only use sugar and water, what gives caramel its color?

At Science Buddies, the mom found "The Sweet Beginnings of Caramelization *," a hands-on science project that gave them a framework for a fun and tasty cooking and food science experiment. They tried more than one recipe, exploring the affect of different ratios of water and sugar on the consistency of the resulting caramel sauce. Like a classic fairy tale, they found one recipe they tried to be too thick, and one to be too thin, but as they experimented, they created taste test spoons at varying stages of the cooking process.

How does the color of caramel correlate with the taste? This family observed a clear relationship between the two—with many taste test spoons to prove it!

Cook up your own batch of caramel sauce and see what you and your students discover.

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project
What did your recent family science experiment or school science project look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send your photos in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook, Google+, and Twitter! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Rooftop Gardens Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental engineering science projects for a hands-on look at the benefits of taking a rooftop approach to going and growing green. Can rooftop gardens help you keep your house cooler and lower your energy bill? Explore with a student science Project Idea or a hands-on family science activity:

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As this mom discovered, with a bag of toothbrushes and some basic electronics supplies, you can give a group of kids a fun introductory robotics experience—no prior robotics expertise necessary!

BristleBot family robotics / multiple images

Since the BristleBots robotics project first appeared at Science Buddies, I have wanted to try these little toothbrush-head bots with my kids. The light-tracking robot project appeared shortly after the more ubiquitous brush bot. The light-tracking bot is more complicated, but I marked it, pinned it, and put it on my to-do list of hands-on science projects for my kids.

The regular BristleBots were first up.


Hacking for Parts

Initially, I thought I might be able to scrounge up motors from old phones for the BristleBots, giving our robotics exploration a healthy dose of recycling, upcycling, and reuse mentality. I was especially keen to do that when I realized the required motor wasn't readily available. (Note: Science Buddies is working to put in place a reliable source for these motors to make acquiring the parts easier.)

With the best of green intentions, I fished an old phone from the kitchen junk drawer to see if I could salvage a motor. Getting my old clamshell apart was far more complicated than I expected. As I started dismantling, I quickly realized I don't have the all-important Torx (star) tool! Given that, my methods were substantially more crude, but layer by layer, I got the phone apart. I finally unearthed the vibrating motor only to discover it had no wires. I needed wires, and I don't have a soldering iron (and wasn't planning to use one for the project with the kids).

After a surprising amount of brute force to break my old phone, I was back to square one with the motors and glad I had tackled the phone well in advance as I sorted out what I needed to order for our summer science.

I compiled a list of parts needed for the two robotics projects, ordered what I could, and stopped in at a local Radio Shack to pick up one final electronics piece (x3).


Shopping for Tootbrushes

Finding the toothbrushes ended up being almost as complicated as gathering the electronics supplies. I spent a lot of time scouring online sites and comments on blog posts to try and figure out what kind of angled brush heads were commonly used. For a full independent student science project, a student might explore the effectiveness of different types of heads and bristles. But as a parent coordinating two separate toothbrush-dependent, hands-on robotics activities for three kids, I needed nine toothbrushes. I was on a budget, and I wanted to try and get toothbrushes that would "work" so that the focus of our activity was on the electronics and basic wiring rather than on evaluating brush heads. I didn't want the type of brush to be an experimental variable. I went with slanted bristles.

If you plan to make toothbrush bots with a bunch of kids, make sure you note ahead of time that angled brush heads are not the cheap ones! Angled brushes may run, on average, several dollars a piece, so while BristleBots can be fun for a sleepover or a birthday party, you may need to buy in bulk, or else experiment with other brush heads before you buy for a crowd. Will a straight head work well or well enough for your purpose? (If you look carefully at the photos above, you will see the slanted bristles and the row of rubber tips on the outer edge of our bots—pretty common BristleBot fare!)


Home Robotics 101

Parts in hand, we settled in to make BristleBots. Having read the Project Idea several times, written about it several times, and watched the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories video, I fully expected this to be a project the kids would whiz through in about five minutes. Part of me was worried that it might be anticlimactic precisely because of the low-level of difficulty, but I wanted to do these BristleBot explorations back to back, the easiest one as a stepping stone into the more sophisticated light-tracking one.

I am not sure now what happened when I was ordering... but as we sat down to make the BristleBots, and I sorted out the supplies, I realized we had a pack of pancake motors but none of the oblong ones that the procedure specifies. This was definitely a parental "oops" moment on the supplies front, but working on a project like this with kids requires flexibility.

We plowed ahead.

Less than an hour later, we had three BristleBots that worked, on and off. We had to continually fidget with them to get them to stay on or come on. I was doing more of the tweaking than they were, but it gave us a chance to talk about what the problem was (not enough constant pressure on the battery with the wire on each side) and brainstorm ways to address it. We tried tape. We tried more tape. We tried pressing harder. We found that sometimes very light pressure worked best. These bots were a bit finicky. There was a lot of trial an error. We would get one working, let it loose on the table, and the next one would stop!

We finally tried something that worked wonders—a twist tie from a plastic bag. This helped us maintain consistent pressure on the contacts. Other solutions could also work, and finding your own is part of the challenge and the fun of a robotics or engineering project!

About the time we got our twisty ties solution in place, the first battery died. And then the second. Two brand new batteries died in under a half hour. Chalk that up as one less than happy parent with a bulk battery purchase!

But, the bots worked. The kids had fun. And, in the end, I was far more appreciative of the off-the-shelf bugs these bots simulate. I always thought they were overpriced, but there is a reality to the fact that when flipped on, they run!

Even so, making our own BristleBots was an awesome first-time, non-kit robotics experience with kids of differing ages and with varying levels of hands-on tinkering and electronics experience.


Tips for Your Own Robotics Activity

Here are a few pointers gleaned from our BristleBot building:

  • Big scissors. Snipping off toothbrush heads isn't easy! We ended up using some rather giant hedge shears. Plan ahead. Be fearless.
  • Trim with care. Be careful trimming your bristles. (Say this over and over to your young engineers, especially eager ones.) While some trimming can change the way your bot moves, you can trim too much and cause your bot to not be able to stand up.
  • Get hands on. Experiment before taping anything in place to see how the vibrating motor works. This is the basic electronics lesson of your activity! Put one wire on each side and press. It should vibrate. Don't worry, it won't hurt or shock you! Feeling how the wires get pressed to the battery to make the motor work will help your students better understand what to tinker with to make the right "contact" when the battery is on the bot.
  • Tinker. Test. Tinker again. If you are having trouble getting the motor to work on the bot, experiment with the placement of the wires on each side of the battery. You can tape and re-tape them as many times as you need to. You might also try securing them differently or more tightly. Just remember, to turn the bot "off," you will need to be able to "undo" the connection easily.
  • Keep the conversation going. Talk about what the bot does as it moves around and why. This is a pretty low-key and not overly-smart bot. But when it runs into something, it does gradually adjust and work its way to a clear path. Talking about what you observe helps your students practice articulating what they see and encourages them to think about and apply what they know.
  • Create a race path. How smart and how fast are your toothbrush-head bots? After the building is over, have the kids build a maze or race course to test and race the bots. Cardboard, recycled tubes taped together, wooden sticks, straws, even LEGO® can all be used to develop a cool pathway for the bots to navigate. As you and your students watch the bots move, you will find you have new things to talk about!
  • Personalize and customize! Once your bot works, it is easy to personalize it and make it your own. Add eyes! Add antennae! Add this or that to give your BristleBot your own style.

Have fun!


Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Chemical Reaction and Temperature Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a trio of chemistry science projects for fizzy, science fun. When you drop an Alka-Seltzer® tablet into water, a chemical reaction begins. What influences the rate of this reaction? Explore the role of temperature on the reaction with the student science Project Idea, a hands-on family science activity, or a classroom activity:

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Full Moon Illusion Science Project for School or Family Science
(Moon rise image credit: Thomas Fietzek, Wikimedia Commons)

In this week's spotlight: a pair of human biology and health science projects to help students and families better understand the way our eyes perceive the full moon rising. If you have noticed that a full moon sometimes seems very big and then smaller as it rises, you have seen the full moon illusion in action. Learn more about Emmert's Law and experiment to find out why and how our perception of the moon's size changes based on where it is in the sky:


Take It Further

By the way, this week's full moon (on Tuesday, August 20) was also, technically, a Blue Moon, a label which has nothing to do with the color and a lot to do with the old adage we often hear and use of something happening "once in a blue moon"! Find out more about the history and science of the Blue Moon in this article at Space.com. See also: "When the Moon Is Full (Or Seems to Be)" and "Visual Illusions: When What You See Is... Not What's There?" on the Science Buddies Blog.

This cool video by photographer Mark Gee gives a great look at a few minutes of a stunning moon rise in Wellington, New Zealand. Will the moon look so big once it is fully risen? Did it actually change? That's what this week's science activity highlight is all about!

Full moon Mark Gee Video Screenshot

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Recent reports of laboratory-created rat kidneys provide hope for the future of bioengineered kidneys for those with kidney disease. Students can get involved in this hot area of biomedical technology and research with their own bioinformatics projects.

Bioengineered

Cutting Edge Science Projects: Putting Medical Biotechnology in the Hands of Students

For students interested in medical biotechnology, the desire to explore, tinker, and experiment may pose an obvious hurdle—how can students get hands-on without the availability of a research lab? Your local science fair probably will not include a urine-producing sample of a homegrown kidney (like the one pictured above), and students interested in medical therapies and treatments may not be conducting experiments on pharmaceuticals.

Thanks to support from sponsors like the Amgen Foundation, Science Buddies is making sure that medical biotechnology is not off limits to students. The Medical Biotechnology interest area at Science Buddies helps connect K-12 students with scientist-authored Project Ideas for hands-on exploration that tie in with real-world problems and challenges.

The recently released "The Skinny on Moisturizers: Which Works Best to Keep Skin Moist?" Project Idea is a great example of a hands-on science project that gives students the chance to explore medical biotechnology. In this project, students investigate the correlation between the ingredients in various moisturizers and the effectiveness of the moisturizer. Do all moisturizers that promise to target dry skin really help? Which ingredients are most common and which ones really work?

While a student could conduct a test surveying respondents' impressions of an array of moisturizers, students looking for a more analytical project need a way to test and evaluate how the moisturizers really work—not just how someone perceives each one to work. Testing with "skin" isn't a viable approach for a student biotechnology project, so what is a student to do?

In developing this project, Science Buddies staff scientists worked to devise a way for students to simulate skin (using gelatin) in order to objectively and analytically test, observe, and evaluate the performance of skin lotions over time. The project lets students use and practice lab techniques, including careful record keeping and observation of the various testing dishes. The intermediate project may take several weeks to complete, but at the end of the project, students are able to draw conclusions about the effects of certain ingredients, conclusions that may stimulate further or additional testing.

What moisturizers should you buy if you really want to moisturize your skin? Have a student put it to the test. You might be surprised how your favorite lotion performs!

Many medical conditions involve treatment and therapy that have life-altering consequences, but for patients in renal failure, a condition in which the kidneys stop functioning, the feeling of being tied down has very literal significance. Patients with end-stage kidney disease often spend many hours, multiple times a week, hooked up to dialysis machines that do what their kidneys are no longer able to do—filter waste, salt, and extra water from the body. Dialysis also helps keep certain chemicals in the body in balance and works to keep a patient's blood pressure stable.

Though the treatment involves being tethered to giant machines for hours on end, for patients in renal failure, dialysis may be the only thing the keeping them alive. Many of these patients are waiting for a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, organ availability is far lower than the number of patients in need of a kidney.

"There are currently 118,617 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the U.S. Of these, 96,645 await kidney transplants." (National Kidney Foundation, June 2013)


Supply and Demand

Thousands of patients die each year while awaiting kidney transplants, and with the number of people with kidney disease climbing at a rate of approximately 5 percent per year, the reality of organ shortage is a mounting problem. According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), more than 26 million adults in the U.S. have chronic kidney disease (CKD). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correlates this to 1 in 10 Americans having some form of CKD, and statistics suggest that more than 350,000 Americans are on dialysis in a clinical setting.*

As with many diseases, there are stages to CKD, and treatment can help slow the progression of the disease. At the far end of the spectrum is end-stage renal disease (ESRD), also known as kidney failure. For a patient with end-stage renal disease, a kidney transplant is the only possible cure. More than 90,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and the number of kidneys available each year in the U.S. hovers around 18,000. In 2012, there were 16,812 kidney transplants in the U.S., according to the NFK.

When it comes to kidney transplants, there is a clear supply and demand issue.

For patients on the list, waiting becomes the name of the game, and dialysis is the key to waiting. Without dialysis, these patients will die. So they file in two or three times a week for multi-hour dialysis sessions, and they wait.

While they wait, researchers are racing to find, develop, and even grow alternatives.


Building and Bioengineering Solutions

Taken together, the growing number of patients, the limited supply of organs, and the high cost of kidney failure treatment create a staggering problem in the healthcare industry, and the race is on for new and improved technologies and approaches that may someday change the face of kidney disease.

The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) recently released reports of research on a new dialysis machine that may become a game-changer. The device they have developed is small—very small in comparison to clinical machines, machines that are often the size of a refrigerator. Not only does the device shrink the size requirement for dialysis filtering, but it is implantable. The device UCSF researchers have built, and which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put on a fast-track for testing and approval, is, essentially, an artificial kidney and could dramatically change the reality of dialysis for patients in the future.

While an artificial kidney is one high-tech approach to improving the quality of life and treatment for patients with kidney disease, growing new kidneys for transplantation is another, and recent news from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA suggests lab-grown kidneys are not only possible but may be available sooner than you think.


Growing Kidneys

In April, the New York Times reported that functional rat kidneys had been successfully bioengineered by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital. Kidneys are complicated organs, and growing a kidney, from scratch, poses many challenges. Kidneys require more than one type of cell, for example. So the news from Massachusetts General is exciting.

Rather than attempting to grow new organs from ground zero, the lab-created kidneys in Boston involve decellularization, taking existing kidneys and separating them from their original cells. In this process, scientists create and use a "scaffolding," basically a skeleton of an organ's connective tissue from a patient that has been stripped of cells and onto which cells from another source or donor are encouraged to grow. The advantage of a decellularized kidney is that it contains a network of collagen, blood vessels, and other structural components necessary for sustaining kidney cell growth while maintaining the native shape and architecture of a normal kidney.

In the lab, cells derived from human umbilical cord tissue and newborn rat kidneys were then placed onto the scaffolding. After a few days, the cells regenerated new kidney tissue on top of the original kidney structure. After transplantation into rats, the kidneys successfully produced urine—a mark of a functioning kidney.

The scaffolding approach moves away from research involving using stem cells to grow complete kidneys and may have advantages when it comes to future implant success rates. In transplantation, the risk of rejection by the body is always an issue. With the scaffolding approach, researchers may be able to create organs that will be easier for the body to accept—they already look like kidneys because, in part, they came from kidneys and, potentially, from the patient's body. "By creating a skeleton or 'shell' of the organ to be produced and then re-populating this skeleton with kidney cells from another individual, it would not be necessary to use drugs that suppress the immune system," notes Leslie Spry, spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation, in a recent article.

In concept, the scaffolding approach changes the direction for biomedical research on kidney creation. "If you put the organs side by side, it would be hard to tell which is the bioengineered organ and which is the real organ," said Dr. Joren Madsen, director of the Massachusetts General Transplant Center in a report published in The Boston Globe. According to the news story, Madsen plans to be part of the team that works on the next round of testing, possibly scaling the procedure up for use with bioengineered pig kidneys. Though the lab-grown kidney looks like a kidney, Madsen cautions that the functionality of the kidney still has a long way to go.


A Step Towards a Cure

The research on lab-grown kidneys is still in its beginning stages, and the availability of a such a kidney for humans may still be many years away. While the kidneys grown in these laboratory experiments do produce urine, they do not yet do all of the sophisticated tasks kidneys need to do. For example, the rat kidneys do not function as effectively as normal kidneys in reabsorbing nutrients from the blood. Based on the performance of the laboratory-grown rat kidneys, researchers have ideas for future experimentation using different types of cells, including stem cells.

Despite the challenges, the success of the bioengineered kidney has medical researchers and biotechnologists excited about the possibilities for growing kidneys to treat human disease.


Making Connections

Although researchers have been able to create functioning rat kidneys in the laboratory, the current process yields kidneys that are not as efficient as natural kidneys. There is still much room for improvement in terms of perfecting the art of bioengineering kidneys to ensure that patient-specific kidneys can be generated on demand and can perform at levels closer to natural kidneys. Understanding what proteins and factors are necessary for normal kidney growth may aid researchers in the race to improve the bioengineering of kidneys for use in future patient transplants.

Students who are interested in learning more about the power of stem cells in engineering organs can explore the molecular and biochemical factors that determine kidney synthesis in the following advanced hands-on science Project Idea:




* A smaller number of patients use a form of home dialysis.



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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Meteors, Craters, and Astronomy Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of astronomy science projects perfectly timed for this year's peak Perseids meteor shower activity. Most meteors that pass through the Earth's atmosphere burn up before they hit the ground. But what happens when a meteorite hits? In this pair of hands-on science activities, students and families experiment to find out how the size of a meteorite is related to the size of the resulting crater.

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The Science Behind Sun Protection


If you knew more about sunscreen and UV rays, would you change your sun protection habits?

2013-blog-sunscreen-FDA.png

Understanding Differences in Sunscreens

With hands-on science projects, students can investigate differences in sunscreens and how different ingredients and different levels of SPF work to protect the skin and block UV rays. See the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for additional information on labeling requirements in the U.S. (Image: FDA)

"Don't forget the sunscreen!"

How often do you hear that over the summer? It's an important reminder because UV rays from the sun can damage our skin, causing uncomfortable burns, or, over time, skin cancer. Although sunscreen is a good idea any time of the year, we tend to think about it more in the warmer months when we are likely to be spending more time outdoors or in the water.

Next time you slather on a protective coat of sunscreen, take a look at the bottle. Does it say that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays? (UVB radiation causes skin to burn, but both UVA and UVB can contribute to skin cancer.) And what kind of ingredients does it have? If the main ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it is physically protecting your skin, which means that most UV rays (both UVA and UVB) are reflected away from your skin. Other active ingredients absorb UV rays, chemically converting them to heat before they damage your skin.


How Well Are You Protected?

Thanks to improved labeling, you can choose sunscreen based on Sun Protection Factor (SPF) and the spectrum of UV it protects against. A sunscreen labeled as "broad spectrum" protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Reading labels and really understanding how sunscreen works are two different things though. What is the difference between SPF 15 and SPF 50?

With the Testing Sunscreen Effectiveness Project Idea, you use a UV monitor to put your sunscreen to the test. How much UV do different sunscreens block and how does this relate to the SPF rating? Do all active ingredients offer the same protection?


When is the Best Time to be Outdoors?

We can protect our skin with sunscreen or by covering up with clothes, but we can also reduce our chances for skin damage by being outside at the right time. Why does the time of day matter? Because the level of UV light changes throughout the day.

A noon picnic and playtime at the beach sounds fun, but would breakfast bagels be better? Or late afternoon snacks? Students can experiment to find out in the Don't Get Burned—Measure the UV Index at Different Times of the Day science Project Idea. Using a UV monitor to take readings of UV levels throughout the day, students can chart how the amount of UV light varies at different points in the day. What about cloudy versus sunny days? Are you safer when the skies are gray?


Safe Fun in the Sun

Our sun offers us many benefits—we literally couldn't live without it! However, our sensitive skin requires us to take commonsense precautions when we are outside. Learning more about sunscreen and UV rays will help you make better decisions about staying safe in the sun.


Science Buddies Project Ideas in Human Biology & Health are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.

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This summer, top cycling teams from around the world tackled extreme terrain and intense competition in the centennial Tour de France. The race, one of the most well-known in the sport, is a goal for many professional cycling teams—including an international team of cyclists who all have Type 1 Diabetes. Meet Team Novo Nordisk. As the team trains for a future Tour de France, they are spreading awareness about Type 1 Diabetes with every ride they take.


Team Novo Nordisk riders training for the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in Spain
Members of Team Novo Nordisk training for the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in Spain earlier this year. Photo: courtesy Team Novo Nordisk.


Riding for a Cause

Team Novo Nordisk, the first all-diabetic professional cycling team, has been making a splash on this year's cycling circuit, spreading awareness about Type 1 diabetes (T1D) with every mile they pedal. After a change of riders and a move to an "all Type 1 diabetes" team lineup with the start of the 2013 season, the team has been cycling a competitive schedule in recent months, including the Tour de Beauce, the Tour de Korea, the Air Force Association Cycling Classic, the Philly Cycling Classic, the Tour of the Gila, the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey, the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, the Bayern-Rudnfahrt, and Post Danmark Rundt.

Building Momentum

Team Novo Nordisk, formerly Team Type 1, was founded by Phil Southerland in 2005. Southerland, CEO of Team Novo Nordisk, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes as an infant. At thirty, Southerland has outlived the prognosis that came with his diagnosis and has turned his passion for professional cycling into a powerful and inspiring platform for diabetes education and awareness.


Southerland's book, Not Dead Yet: My Race Against Disease: From Diagnosis to Dominance, tells the story of his life with diabetes and his journey as a professional cyclist. With his team's new partnership with Novo Nordisk, a global healthcare company headquartered in Denmark, Southerland is on a mission, a mission that started as a grassroots initiative and has grown into something much larger and more far-reaching.


Team Novo Nordisk has evolved into a global sports organization that includes a women's cycling team, a development team for up-and-coming cyclists, and a triathlon team. Riding at the front of the organization as they chart a course for future Tour de France participation, the men's cycling team is changing the face of diabetes, one bike race at a time. With each mile pedaled, they are providing inspiration to thousands by doing what they love, doing it well, and not allowing diabetes to be a limiting factor.


To follow Team Novo Nordisk's progress on the cycling circuit, and to be inspired, day in and day out by what they are accomplishing and the role models they are providing, visit the Team Novo Nordisk website or join them at Facebook.

Followers of Team Novo Nordisk's progress through their social media streams are treated to awesome in-action, on-the-bike, rounding-the-curve or cresting-an-incline photos (like the one above) showing their progress this season. Fans know that these riders are constantly on their bikes, but with each location they visit and each race they ride, the Team, who wear "Changing Diabetes" jerseys, is spreading the word about diabetes, raising awareness, and changing public understanding of the disease.

While Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong and serious disease, these riders are showing, day by day, that with proper management, nothing is impossible for someone with Type 1 diabetes—even being a professional athlete. For young people with Type 1 diabetes and parents of children with Type 1 diabetes, the Team's presence on the professional cycling circuit is inspiring and full of hope. These riders all have diabetes, and yet they are healthy, active, and doing what they love. They also list things like "loving lasagna" in their Team bios.

These riders, ranging in age, cycling experience, and years since their diagnosis, have come together as a unified force. Together, they aim to pose a serious challenge to other cycling teams and make a difference in diabetes education, awareness, and care around the world.


Demystifying Type 1 Diabetes

Why create a team of racers who all have Type 1 diabetes?

When you scroll through the biographies of the Team Novo Nordisk riders, you see typical statistics, age, height, weight, country of birth, and, in every case, "age of diagnosis." This team isn't simply spreading the word about diabetes. They are living (and riding) with Type 1 diabetes, and as the team says in one of their public awareness campaigns, they are living "on their terms" as they join together with sponsor companies like Novo Nordisk to increase public awareness of diabetes and foster new understanding of what it really to have Type 1 diabetes.

Many people are not familiar with the signs of diabetes, misunderstand what it means to have diabetes, and do not know the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Misinformation about diabetes is widespread, even among some health professionals. Ask a family who has had a child diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and received a crash course in diabetes education in a period of hours about what they knew going in, what they learned, and how many times they have since had to explain the basics of Type 1 diabetes to friends, family, and other outsiders. People who have Type 1 diabetes, or have an immediate family member with Type 1 diabetes, take on a neverending role of public education in addition to management of the disease.

With the rise of Type 2 diabetes in recent years, the conflation of information about diabetes in the popular consciousness has multiplied. Many people know "something" about Type 2 diabetes but know much less about Type 1 diabetes or, worse, assume all diabetes is basically the same. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are related to the pancreas and insulin, but in many ways, the two types are very different.

One misconception is an over-simplification of diabetes as "a diabetic can't have sugar" or, even worse, "diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar." Neither statement is completely true, and each statement has different levels of significance, depending on the type of diabetes. People with Type 1 diabetes can eat almost anything. That doesn't mean there are not some foods that are better choices than others, but dessert is not off the menu. Neither is pizza. Or lasagna. Or brownies. The difference is that no matter what someone with Type 1 diabetes eats, they need insulin for their body to properly process and use the food.

Stopping sugar intake doesn't solve Type 1 diabetes, and there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes.

But having Type 1 diabetes doesn't mean you can't get out and do what you love.


Team Novo Nordisk in their blue and white Changing Diabetes jerseys
Sporting blue and white "Changing Diabetes" jerseys, Team Novo Nordisk is a constant public reminder of the team's mission—and a positive public example of people with Type 1 diabetes who are living healthy, active lives. Photo: courtesy Team Novo Nordisk.


A Lifelong and Growing Disease

Type 1 diabetes (Diabetes mellitus) is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. The body needs insulin to break down glucose as it comes into the blood stream from the foods we eat and as it is released by cells where it has been stored as energy. Some glucose comes from simple sugars, like those found in a piece of cake. But all carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose. Everyone, even people with diabetes, needs carbohydrates.

Because the body doesn't produce insulin, someone with Type 1 diabetes has to inject insulin throughout the day to handle the process a healthy pancreas does naturally. (In Type 2 diabetes, the body does not use insulin effectively, or is insulin resistant, but the pancreas does produce insulin.)

According to Novo Nordisk, there are more than 371 million people, worldwide, who have been diagnosed with diabetes (of either type). That number is predicted to rise to more than 550 million by 2030. Because Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed during childhood or adolescence, it used to be called juvenile onset diabetes. A person can, however, get Type 1 diabetes at any age. (Of the 17 members on the current Team Novo Nordisk cycling team, nine were diagnosed at age 16 or older.) The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) notes that "as many as three million Americans may have T1D," and each year "more than 15,000 children and 15,000 adults—approximately 80 people per day—are diagnosed with T1D in the U.S."


Living with Diabetes

Managing Type 1 diabetes requires constant monitoring of blood glucose levels and the injection of insulin to balance foods that are eaten. Without naturally-produced insulin to regular blood glucose, a person with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin to control glucose levels. This is not as simple as taking a single dose a day or even a set amount. People who take insulin count carbohydrates and take insulin in a prescribed ratio to help keep their blood glucose within certain levels. Every individual's body chemistry is different, so insulin routines are different for each person with Type 1 diabetes. Glucose levels go up and down, all day long, every day.

Treating diabetes is complicated because both high and low sugar levels can be dangerous. If blood glucose levels run consistently high, patients are at increased risk for a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, vision problems, and neuropathy. Treating low blood sugar involves giving the body a rapid supply of glucose to help balance the blood sugar. If glucose levels remain too low, a person with Type 1 diabetes can end up in a coma and die.

Because glucose levels are constantly in flux as your body goes through the day (even during the night), successfully managing Type 1 diabetes requires constant vigilance, numerous glucose (or "blood sugar") checks each day, insulin at meals and as a corrective measure in the event of high blood glucose readings, and attention to what the person is "doing" at all times that may change how the body uses and processes energy. Exercise, for example, can make a big difference in how the body uses energy and in how much insulin is needed to handle certain foods.

But, as Team Novo Nordisk shows, Type 1 diabetes can be managed successfully, and people with Type 1 diabetes can do anything—even get on a bike, day in and day out, ride hard all day long, and win.


Making Connections

What foods are good when someone needs a glucose boost? What foods convert to glucose faster than others? Which foods have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels and what does that tell you about the relationship between carbohydrates and other nutritional ingredients? What foods might a professional athlete eat to help boost energy without skyrocketing blood sugar levels during a race?

Students with or without diabetes can learn more about the way the body uses and processes sugar, and better understand the role of insulin, in hands-on science projects like these:

  • "Sucrose & Glucose & Fructose, Oh My! Uncovering Hidden Sugar in Your Food": not all foods are converted to glucose in the same amount of time. For someone with diabetes, knowing how the body will deal with and react to fruit juice compared to a slice of pizza, for example, is important. Using the invertase enzyme, students can investigate glucose concentration levels in different kinds of foods. How does the hands-on testing correlate to the information available on the nutritional label on a food's package?
  • "How Sweet It Is! Measuring Glucose in Your Food": how do different fruits and juices compare when it comes to glucose? Is eating a piece of fruit the same as drinking a cup of juice in terms of the body's reaction to the sugars? Are some fruits or juices better choices than others when you need glucose to raise blood sugar? In this project, students investigate the glucose concentration in various fruits and juices.



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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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Bugs and Insect Biodiversity Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects for buggy, backyard exploration. What does it mean for an area to be have a lot of biodiversity? Why is this important to the health of an ecosystem? How do scientists measure biodiversity? You can explore by doing a study of the biodiversity of insects in your own backyard using a homemade bug collector. This week's hands-on science project and activity guide either an independent project or a family investigation. How many types of insects will you suck into your bug collector?

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A move is on in the worlds of tech and education, a push to show students that learning to code is important, fun, and maybe not as hard as they think! Exploring code is easier today than ever, and even students who may not be thinking yet about career paths stand to gain valuable thinking and reasoning skills from learning, practicing, and using fundamental programming skills.


Getting Started with Scratch
Interested in exploring what is means to create a computer program? Scratch makes it easy to get started. See our review of Super Scratch Programming Adventure! in "Super Scratch Succeeds in Scratching the Surface of Code with Cartoon Fun."


Thinking Like a Coder

According to Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, kids gain valuable skills from learning to "write" with new technologies rather than just use (or "read") them. They learn more than nuts and bolts, variables and logic, says Resnick. They are "learning about the process of design—how to start with the glimmer of an idea and turn it into a fully fledged, functioning project." This ability to take an idea and set up the steps necessary to make it work, block by block or line by line, testing and troubleshooting along the way, is important in all engineering design projects, including computer science projects. Through coding projects, students also learn how to take complex ideas and simplify them, breaking them down into smaller parts that can be tackled, one by one, as a whole is being built.

Mitch Resnick TEDx talk / Scratch/ Learning to Code

"How is it that young people spend most of their time using new technologies? There's no doubt that young people are very comfortable and familiar browsing, chatting and texting, and gaming. But that doesn't really make you fluent." ~Mitch Resnick, creator of Scratch

Blip. Beep. Left turn. Pen down. Move forward ten steps. Repeat if x is true and then turn ninety degrees and move twenty-five steps forward. Blip. Beep.

You want your sprite to use a pink marker?

No problem.

Prefer a quacking duck sound instead of a beep?

Sure thing.

Rather draw triangles instead of squares?

Change the angles.

You want to keep score?

Absolutely!

When you know how to tweak the code, you are at the helm of the program and, with a bit of trial and error, a dash of creativity, and a splash of innovation, you can build a program to do exactly what you want it to do, whether that means creating a video game, making an animated flip-book story, exploring fractals, making a digital animal dance to songs on your favorite playlist, or sending a "just because" interactive postcard to a friend.

As more and more kinds of technology and devices become a part of our daily lives, knowing how to code threatens to become a marker of the haves and have nots—those who "have" the ability to code and those who do not.

Luckily, learning to code is easier today than ever before. There are plenty of tools and a wide range of challenges designed to spark interest. But are students getting the encouragement they need to shift them from play to program mode? What is at stake if today's youth continue to take in more and more technology, passively absorbing new games, features, and apps, but never explore what makes those games, features, and apps work?


Teaching Kids to Write (Code)

In his "Let's Teach Kids to Code" TEDx talk last November (2012), Mitch Resnick, developer of Scratch (a project of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab), talked about the critical importance of teaching kids to code. By virtue of kids who had used the Scratch programming environment to build apps with a Mother's Day theme, Resnick forwarded on a tribute to his own mom, saying "Look Mom... look what I did... what I enabled" as a way of acknowledging her on Mother's Day.

Further fueling the growing teach kids to program fire, Code.org released a video titled "What most schools don't teach" earlier this year. The video features heavy hitters in the world of code, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Drew Houston (Dropbox), Vanessa Hurst (Developers for Good), and others, joined by pop culture icons like will.i.am (Black Eyed Peas) and NBA star Chris Bosch (Miami Heat), all talking about the importance of learning to code. Though primarily a talking-head video, the five-minute short is engaging, fast-moving, speaks directly to kids, and stresses, with plenty of big smiles, that coding is fun, easy, and at the heart of (or underneath) pretty much everything in today's increasingly high-tech world. Throw in the words "free food" and shots of hip working environments, complete with hip employees zipping around on scooters between cubicles, and the video gives programming definite allure, a bit of glamour, and a level of intrigue.

Coding might not be what you think, implies the video.

Coding might not be as hard as you think.

Coding might be fun.

Coding might be worth... a look.

Coding might be... for you.

A look at the "quotes" page of Code.org shows dozens of other thought leaders and educators chiming in with similar encouragement and advice for kids interested in computers and programming. Whether they come at the issue from personal history, concern for the future, or hope that more students will pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers that involve computers, the message coalesces into a unified mantra: code is cool, and students need more opportunities and support to learn to program.


Demystifying Code

"Addition, subtraction... that's probably about it," says Gates. Tony Hsieh (Zappos) follows with, "You should probably know your multiplication tables." The message: it isn't as hard as you think.

"It started off because I wanted to do this one thing. I wanted to make something that was fun for myself and my sisters," says Zuckerberg. The message: don't get overwhelmed by thinking of programming as a whole. Think of making just one thing happen on the screen—and go from there.

"Whether you are trying to make a lot of money or whether you just want to change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn," says Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org.

Tic-tac-toe. A favorite color quiz. Making a green circle show up on a red square. The classic, "Hello, world." These are some of the coding projects the people in the video remember as their first, the "a ha" or "wow" moment when they realized they could enter a simple string of commands and cause something specific to happen on the screen. With code, they could control what happened on the screen. In each case, the starting project was simple and accomplished something trivial, easy, or purely whimsical.

That is where you begin, at the beginning.


Tech Users and Tech Creators

We know that kids are growing up as tech-savvy users and consumers, devices in hand, thumbs at the ready, and hooked into a spider web of social networks. Yes, kids are tech users. But what Resnick and others are pushing is the move from user to creator, from player to developer, from passive to active, from consumer to builder.

When it comes to technology, Resnick likens the current student landscape to one of being able to read but not write.

Young people have "lots of experience with interacting with new technologies, but less so with creating with new technologies and expressing themselves with new technologies. It's almost as if they can read but not write with new technologies," said Resnick in his TEDx talk.


Code Literacy

How do parents and educators help students flip the switch and support students making the move from player to creator? Understanding what's available is an important part of the equation. While programmers a generation ago may have cut their teeth with typing in lines of code to generate "Hello, world" on the screen, today's young coder may never even see a "Hello, world" example.

Many of today's coders are learning to code within a graphical user interface (GUI) that masks the code behind a colorful, friendly, often block-oriented and drag-and-drop environment. Many of these environments and languages are inspired by Scratch, and with these tools, designing a program can be as easy as moving blocks around on a screen like puzzle pieces, locking them into place in units, wrapping sections in other sections, setting values for variables and controls within the blocks, and creating logical relationships and steps to "run" the program all from a top-level view. The message: You don't have to "write" the code, just put all the blocks in place in the right order.

What next?

Press the "go" button, green flag, "run," or "start," and see what happens.


Doesn't work right away?

Try and pinpoint what isn't working, and then look at the blocks to figure out what may be missing or misconfigured. What else do you need to tell the program so that the behavior matches what you had in mind?


Debugging in a visual environment is much less about spotting a missing semicolon or a typo than it once was. An error on line 935? Maybe, but the budding programmer won't necessarily see that. In block-based building environments, student coders won't scan thousands of lines of code to locate and tweak a problem. Instead, a student coder faced with a program that is not working focuses on thinking through the logic of the program. What isn't working and why? What can I do about it? Which block isn't working? The environment helps make sure pesky typo-oriented bugs are kept out of the way so coders can focus on the functionality—the fun stuff.

Making changes can be as unfettered as dragging in a new block or changing the value of a variable on an existing block and then "running" the program again. With today's environments, the iterative loop for testing and development is streamlined and pretty unintimidating, which may lower the bar for getting kids interested in giving programming a try. Results are immediate. You can stop and run through the program or game at any time to see how things are going. And, maybe, little successes spur students on to add other levels and layers of embellishment, interactivity, and functionality.

Step by step, block by block, small programs can morph into bigger ones.


Coding Science Projects

Whether you or your student wants to explore programming or video game design for fun or as the basis of a science fair project, Science Buddies has plenty of resources and Project Ideas to help guide a hands-on, independent at-home activity or to serve as the foundation for a school project.

2013-blog-scratch-sample-cat-circle.png

The sample Scratch application shown in the screenshot above uses a math equation to tell the cat sprite to walk in a circle. This sample program was created by Jurand Nogiec, a volunteer from Motorola Solutions, Inc.

Block by Block

Scratch is based on Logo, a block programming language developed at MIT in the 1960s by Seymour Papert and others. Today, there are many environments based on Logo and/or inspired by Scratch, including Tynker, a new web-based environment that aims to support student programming.

Figuring out where to start may be half the challenge! The Web? Mobile apps? Video games? Computer apps? JavaScript? HTML 5? Sampling some of the possible avenues may be in order as you consider where to focus your energies, but in many cases, the kinds of logic and thinking you will use when working with one program or language will carry over and be useful as you try another program or language. Sampling won't hurt you!

The following Science Buddies Project Ideas involve Scratch, GameMaker, or JavaScript, a few of the ways students can get started learning more about programming:

In addition to the projects above, see the following Science Buddies resources and user guides for students interested in computer programming, app development, and video game design:

For additional suggestions, click the "Learn" tab on the Code.org site for a list of apps, tools, and languages, including apps designed to help students explore coding for mobile platforms like iOS and Android. GameSalad is a popular coding environment for iOS development (for coders age 13 and older). Others to explore include App Inventor (for Android) and Codea (an iPad app for iOS development). For younger developers, Hopscotch is an iPad app that lets kids age 8-12 create short animations and games.


If you experiment with Scratch, GameMaker, or JavaScript using a Science Buddies Project Idea, we want to hear how it goes and see your game or screenshots of your work! To share with us, email blog@sciencebuddies.org. We would love to spotlight your work here at Science Buddies!


(Note: not all of the programs and apps mentioned in this article are free. Demo downloads or limited-play installs may be available; prices vary. Scratch and GameMaker Lite, both of which are used in Science Buddies Project Ideas, are free. Scratch 2.0 is now an online environment; Science Buddies materials were written for Scratch 1.4. The downloadable 1.4 version is still available, but you can use Scratch 2.0 with the Project Ideas as well.)


Science Buddies Project Ideas in computer science are sponsored by Symantec Corporation.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Fruit and Gelatin Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects from the kitchen. Is a gelatin-based fruit salad in your recipe book of family favorites? What fruit do you add? Will any fruit work? Put it to the test with this week's hands-on science exploration and investigate what the enzymes in certain fruits have to do with whether or not a gelatin will solidify properly when a fruit is added.

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Video games and comic books team up against the Dark Wizard in this hands-on how to book for kids. As the main characters tackle fun quests, kids learn programming fundamentals—and have fun making their own video games.


Sparking Interest in Programming

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! introduces kids to Scratch's drag-and-drop building block environment with a combination of fun comic narration and thorough step-by-step instruction.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program By Making Cool Games
By The LEAD Project (Learning through Engineering, Art and Design)

Months ago, when I originally pulled this book for review, Scratch 2.0 hadn't yet been released. I flipped through the book, was very impressed, and put it aside for a more intensive read-through and highlight during the long summer weeks when many kids, like my own, have plenty of downtime that, with a nudge, may be converted from game and app playing to game and app building.

Between then and now, Scratch got a fairly major overhaul. Super Scratch Programming Adventure! was written for version 1.4, a downloadable application. The fresh new Scratch 2.0 is an online development environment. For Scratch developers, this change offers portability and convenience. No matter what computer you sit down at, you can log into the Scratch website from a browser and work on your project. Scratch 2.0 also introduces exciting new functionality, like a sound editor, video sensing, and custom (procedure) blocks

Despite the changes in Scratch and the difference in versioning numbers, Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is still a Scratch book to be reckoned with and is still the Scratch book being used in my house, right now, for some deep-down, dive-right-in, Scratch immersion this summer. Bottom line: A new version of Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is scheduled for release later this fall, but if you have a student ready to learn Scratch now, Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a great choice.


Cartoon Quests and Hands-on How To

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! takes a fun approach, turning the core hands-on tutorial into an engaging learning adventure. Each chapter contains a fun programming challenge that is framed with a short comic book-style introduction at the beginning of the chapter. There is an overarching storyline, but the mini-story and challenge in each chapter differs. The characters remains the same, so kids follow along as Mitch, Scratchy (the cat), and a crew of "Cosmic Defenders" face up against the Dark Wizard and the Dark Minions in quests like Defend Hong Kong's Technocore (Chapter 4) and The Secret Treasure of Giza (Chapter 9).

Mitch and Scratchy meet up in Chapter 1 after a solar flare lands Scratchy (from cyberspace) in the home of Mitch (a programming student). There is little time to spend pondering Scratchy's sudden appearance though because their legs are inexplicably and instantly immobilized. They are then handed a "secret manual" with instructions to follow the instructions before the black tornado swallows them.

With this introduction, they—and a programmer of any age following along—are off!

2013-scratch-screenshot-student-game-450px.png
The screenshot above is from a game created by a twelve-year-old student using the Super Scratch Programming Adventure! book. Following the quest directions in Chapter 4, the coder built a game that has a classic Super Breakout feel to it. (Note: this creator, working in Scratch 2.0, used a different background and created his own sprites rather than uploading assets referenced in the book.)


Clear Instruction

The authors of Super Scratch Programming Adventure! have done a great job creating fun and engaging challenges that will interest kids of varying ages. The cartoon introductions are followed by excellent step-by-step directions for working with Scratch's block-style programming elements. The layout of the book is, fittingly, block-like, and the style is bright, easy to follow, and clearly annotated. Each chapter notes in a set of call-out boxes the "focus" of the chapter (what skills will be covered) and the "game" that will be created. The chapters are actually labeled as "stages," keeping the game mentality intact. Both worded instructions and screenshots of the logic blocks, as well as annotated screenshots of the program being developed, make the book easy to follow. All the information needed to create the program is there, but there is also room to grow. At the end of each chapter, there is a challenge that gives kids something to modify or customize on their own, or an idea that may spark a new program.

With each chapter inSuper Scratch Programming Adventure!, kids learn to incorporate specific kinds of information or logic into a program and build a standalone game. Finish one chapter, and you have the satisfaction of having completed a video game.


Progressive Programming

The skill-building in Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is cumulative, and in the final chapter, everything comes together and the student is challenged to use everything she knows about Scratch to tackle "The Final Fight ... In Dark Space." Requiring multiple characters, each with unique fight moves, custom health counters, and more, the final project lets students show off what they have learned. In the end, they realize they now know enough programming building blocks in Scratch to create almost any game they can imagine!

For a full rundown of the chapters inSuper Scratch Programming Adventure!, see the information page on the No Starch Press site.


What About 2.0

Any time a new version of a piece of software is released, existing instructional material suffer, at least a bit. In this case, the controls in Scratch 2.0 remain, by and large, the same as in Scratch 1.4. This overview of Scratch 2.0 describes the new features. (More information about Scratch versions is available on the Scratch Wiki.) One difference students using a book like Super Scratch Programming Adventure! will run into involves assets—the backgrounds, music, and sprites that go along with the examples. These will need to be uploaded individually to the Scratch 2.0 environment when working on the projects from the book. (Alternately, kids using either 1.4 or 2.0 can make their own new assets as they work through the materials or use other assets already available in the Scratch 2.0 environment. Chapter 2 teaches kids how to make their own graphics using Scratch's built-in editor.)


Making Connections

Students interested in learning to program with Scratch can find Project Ideas at Science Buddies that range from introductory-level explorations (teach a sprite to draw a shape) to robust interactive projects that use real-world feedback (like a drum set or a spinning pinwheel). See Science Fair Project Ideas Using Scratch and the Scratch User Guide: Introduction to get started.

See our "Playful Programming and Cool Code: From Tech User to Tech Creator" post for a look at the current push to get more kids excited about and inspired by programming and coding and for a list of Science Buddies resources for Scratch-based projects.


Note: Super Scratch Programming Adventure! (Covers Scratch 2.0): Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is scheduled for release in late September (2013).

Note: The standalone Scratch 1.4 is still available for download. Programs created in Scratch 1.4 can be imported to Scratch 2.0; programs created in Scratch 2.0 can not be opened in Scratch 1.4.

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Science Project / Suspension Bridge from straws - multiple images
How does the Golden Gate Bridge or another suspension bridge work? Does the suspension design help it support more weight than other types of bridges? In the "Keeping You in Suspens(ion)" science project, students put these questions to the test. With ordinary materials—straws, tape, string, paper clips, and a small cup—students can quickly model a suspension bridge and test its weight-bearing capacity compared to a simple beam bridge made from the same materials. How many pennies can each bridge support? Comparing weight-bearing capacity using different kinds of string (cables) or across different widths adds to the science fun!


See "Building Bridges" for a roundup of Science Buddies' bridge-related hands-on science Project Ideas.




What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the one above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

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A team from Canada captures a longstanding prize with their human-powered helicopter. You won't be parking yours any time soon, but the story is an inspiring example of engineering design, innovation, and perseverance.

News of a last month's human-powered helicopter flight "win" by a Canadian engineering team brought the movie Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) immediately to mind. Kiki has always been a favorite of the Hayao Miyazaki movies in my house, but the character obsessed with getting his bicycle to serve as a means of flight hasn't ever been a focus for us. The title character, after all, flies by broom! But as I read a news story from the Ottawa Citizen this morning, an image of that character, Tombo, furiously pedaling his bike through the seaside town in the movie, immediately came to mind.

His bicycle had two wheels though.


A Winning Flight

Just last week, the Kickstarter-backed AeroVelo team from Toronto officially won the AHS Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition. The competition was established in 1980 to challenge engineers to push the limits of what is possible, and for more than thirty years, teams have been chasing the prize and a dream of human-powered flight.

More than a year's worth of engineering—and pedaling—paid off for the AeroVelo team after they successfully pedaled their human-powered helicopter, Atlas, for a sustained flight of just seconds more than the one minute requirement and just above the necessary three meters off the ground and walked away with the $250,000 prize. (The winning flight took place in June 2013. It took almost a month for analysis and verification of the data by the American Helicopter Society before the win was confirmed.)

Before you start reshaping your vision of the future as one traversed by flying bicycles, you will want to watch the team's video to take in the sheer size and intricacy of their design. Be sure and note, too, the discussion in this video interview of how easily things can "go wrong" even in mid-air. The team apparently suffered two serious crashes during the year of testing. Beyond maintenance requirements—and the risk of the helicopter falling apart unexpectedly—there is a reality to the physical energy and stamina needed to sustain flight. This is certainly transport for only the fittest of travelers!

Even so, the story of Atlas is impressive and inspiring. It is hard, in fact, to watch the video and view photos of their testing and design and not think about Da Vinci's notebooks and drawings. With Atlas, the AeroVelo team has given proof of concept to something many believed impossible.


In Pursuit of Innovation

How would you start tackling a challenge like human-powered flight? The Engineering Design Process offers a set of steps that can help you start with an idea, track through the stages of thinking and problem-solving to come up with a design to test, and then prototype, test, and tweak, as many times as needed, as you work toward an end product that meets the need or goal.

In their own coverage of the award-winning flight, the AeroVelo team writes, "The Atlas as flown on June 13th behaved very differently from the aircraft we first flew some 9 months ago, a result of many incremental improvements and changes."

Incremental is a key word there. In engineering design, improvement is often achieved additively, in small steps, sometimes one at a time. This approach lets engineers target specific problems or weaknesses, making design changes to improve certain aspects of the prototype and then verifying the effects of those changes through testing.

In a Popular Mechanics story about the Atlas' path to victory, Jeff Wise summarizes the team's year of testing: "Time and again they crashed and rebuilt. Time and again they waited on tenterhooks while Gamera came agonizingly close to winning, or set up the machine, tuned it, and got it running, only to have to break it down again so that amateur soccer teams could use the playing field. They kept adjusting and modifying the airframe for greater stiffness, stability, and performance. Finally, incredibly, it all came together."

That... is the engineering design process in action.

You can find out more about the project and their vision in the "Ingredients for Innovation" TEDx talk (April 2013) by AeroVelo founders Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson.


Making Connections

For students interested in, and excited by, the story of the Atlas human-powered helicopter, the following Science Buddies Project Ideas shed light on some of the aerodynamics design and engineering principles that may factor into the process:


More Than One Approach

The Atlas design is only one way to approach the human-powered helicopter challenge. The Gamera, engineered by students at the University of Maryland, looks very different, though pedaling is still at the core of the system. See this article from last year for an overview of Gamera's development.

What approach would you take?

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Thanks to the Asian citrus psyllids, your breakfast cup of orange juice is at risk. Learn more about citrus greening, the threat to the citrus industry, and ways students can develop related hands-on science investigations.


Citrus leaves pest / USDAGOV

A Fruity Problem

Apple and orange growers, both, are fighting for the survival of their crops. The enemy—pests. The image above from the USDA shows leaves covered by Asian citrus psyllids in various stages of their life cycle.


Related Reading

Teresa Weir's memoir, The Orchard: A Memoir, is the story of a young woman, an outsider, who ends up married to an apple farmer. The Orchard is gritty in terms of human relationships, but those relationships, hazy as if captured on old film, are set against the backdrop of a family apple orchard, one permeated with the smell, fog, and taste of round after round of pesticide. Weir witnesses one apple farm's pesticide-laden battles against the codling moths, sees the larvae infiltrate a year's crop, despite constant spraying, and watches two generations of farmers die of cancer. For adult readers.

Rachel Carson's date of birth (May 27, 1907) passed a few weeks ago, and as her book, Silent Spring, rose to the foreground in memory of her pivotal work in marine biology, conservation, and environmental science, stories of oranges and apples also rose, strands of the present mingling with specters of the past. There are proverbial warnings, of course, against the usefulness of comparing apples to oranges. What happens when you throw coffee beans into the mix? What commonality do they share?

Oranges, apples, and coffee beans are all being threatened by pests and pathogens, ones that are seemingly impervious to currently available pesticides and ones that threaten to bring down staple agricultural industries around the world.


Rotten at the Core

The codling moth (Cydia pomonella) and the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana). These are just two of a list of herbivorous pests from the lepidopteran family Tortricidae. Both have proven to have a destructive and pervasive impact on apple orchards and other fruit-bearing trees. Although there are non-chemical alternatives, pests like these are often treated, not always effectively, by wave after wave of pesticides.

The Pacific Northwest Management handbook lists twenty-eight different pests that specifically threaten or target apples. The codling moth is one of these. On the codling moth information page, there is a list of pesticides and treatments used to target the persistent and destructive pest. Treatments vary by time of year, but during summer months, there are sixteen different chemical applications listed for commercial use, some ovicidal, some larvicidal. Growers are also fighting the moth microbially using the codling moth granulosis virus, a virus that contains a "selective biological insecticide that must be ingested (by the pest) in order to be effective."

So there's the proverbial "worm"—the codling moth larva—at the center of the apple, but where do the oranges, with their thicker skins and lack of a core, come into this story?

Florida.


A Pending OJ Crisis?

Recent stories in both Scientific American and the New York Times have chronicled an alarming tale of invasion and a growing threat to the citrus industry.

The bacterial threat, referred to as citrus greening, Huanglongbing, Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, or yellow dragon disease, arrives with the Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri. Asian citrus psyllids feed upon their host plants, but their hunger is less destructive than the damage they do as carriers of the bacteria that causes citrus greening, bacteria for which scientists have found no effective treatment.

You won't pick up an orange and find a larva inside, but trees infected with citrus greening yield smaller, harder, and more bitter-tasting fruit—fruit that never fully ripens to its classic color, hence the "citrus greening" moniker. By sight alone, the effects of the disease are visible in the stunted crop. There is no cure, and once infected, plants typically die within a few years.

The danger to the citrus industry, and the challenge of eliminating the spread of the disease, led to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) imposing a quarantine in 2010. Under the quarantine, the transfer of certain plant materials and products between states was disallowed, an attempt to stop the transport of the disease out of states where citrus greening had (then) been detected: Florida, Georgia, the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, two parishes in Louisiana and two counties in South Carolina.

Citrus greening was first identified in Florida in 2005. Eight years later, citrus greening continues to work its way through the roots (and fruits) of the citrus industry. Recent stories about citrus greening have focused primarily on the growing impact of the disease in Florida, and in its coverage, the New York Times reports a stealthy migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida. Noting that the state's citrus industry has been in decline for the last 15 years, the New York Times story cites a 2012 report from University of Florida agricultural analysts that estimate that "citrus greening cost Florida's economy $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs" between 2006 and 2012.

This year, the damage to citrus crops and the citrus industry is reportedly stacking up to be the most significant yet.


A Moving Target

Though Florida may be the poster child of the orange juice business in the U.S.—and possibly the unfortunate "face" of citrus greening—Florida is not alone in its struggle with the Asian citrus psyllid.

Save Our Citrus App

The USDA's free Save Our Citrus iOS app makes it easy for growers report and diagnose citrus problems. Not every failed crop signals invasion of the Asian citrus psyllid. There are other culprits, including citrus canker, citrus black spot, and sweet orange scab. The Save Our Citrus app encourages people to report symptoms and upload photos for evaluation from citrus experts.

Georgia, too, along with isolated parts of Louisiana and South Carolina, was included in the USDA's 2005 quarantine. But the creeping citrus blight has been on the move. Both Texas and California are implicated in the New York Times article, and a Google search on citrus pests immediately brings up the website for the California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee (CCPDPC), a committee of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. California isn't simply being proactive. California citrus, too, is at risk:

"The committee was created to advise the Secretary and the agricultural industry about efforts to combat serious pests and diseases that threaten the State's citrus crop. Most recently, for example, California's citrus growers are confronting the arrival of the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny pest that can spread the fatal citrus disease huanglongbing. Multiple detections of the pest have been confirmed in southern California."

When it comes to citrus greening, it seems that citrus is citrus, and the Asian citrus psyllid isn't particular about its geography. The Asian psyllid is hungry and diplomatic in its trail of destruction. If it can find the grove, it will. And if one grove is treated, the pests may just move to a neighboring grove, a reality that makes the pest that much harder to eradicate. Individual growers, alone, cannot get rid of the Asian psyllid.


A Jolt of Caffeine

Apples. Oranges. And coffee?

Coffee fits into this story because what has happened with apples, and what is happening with citrus, parallels ongoing battles around the world with pests that target the coffee plant. The black coffee twig borer has long threatened coffee crops in Africa, and Hawaii's coffee industry is currently battling another pest, the coffee cherry borer.


Fighting Pests in the Fields

For farmers and growers, the race against species-specific pests—and the threat of pests finding a way to their crops—is an immediate challenge, a battle being waged every day, often with new rounds of pesticides in an attempt to salvage current crops, even when current treatments will not wipe out the source of the disease.

Students interested in agricultural and environmental science can jump into the mix of apples, oranges, coffee beans, and other pest-threatened crops with hands-on research projects that analyze what has happened, what is happening right now, and, ultimately, what can be done or tried next to deal with each specific pest in an effective but environmentally safe way.


Making Hands-on Student Science Connections

The following science projects offer inroads for student science investigations at all levels, from introductory explorations of natural alternatives to target specific pests and insects to plant biology and environmental projects related to pesticides and genomics projects that encourage advanced students to design custom research projects:


Further Reading
See Anna Kuchment's "No More OJ? An Invasive Insect Threatens the Citrus Industry" in Scientific American, March 2013 issue.

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Basketball Science on the Court


Have a sports-oriented kid? Playing basketball can engage muscle power and brain power! For summertime fun, hit the courts to explore the science behind shooting hoops.

By Kim Mullin

Basketball Science

Better Basketball?

Can science help you improve your skills on the court? It might! Sports science projects let you explore the science and physics behind a favorite pastime. Shoot some hoops; score some science points.

Basketball season may be officially over, but it's a safe bet that lots of kids are shooting hoops this summer. With just a ball and a net, kids can engage their muscles, cardio-vascular systems, hand-eye coordination, and agility, all at the same time. Throw in a few friends, and you 'add teamwork and sportsmanship to the equation. Talk about a powerhouse!

Next time the kids head out to practice their shots, consider this: there are scientific principles involved in every shot! Trajectory, force, gravity, energy, motion, air pressure, percentage—injecting a little bit of science into summertime fun can be as simple as asking the right questions when you are out on the court and then putting a few of those ideas into action. Below you will find some Science Buddies sports science Project Ideas to help you and your kids explore the science behind the game.

  • Nothing But Net—The Science of Shooting Hoops: Doesn't every kid want to improve her shooting percentage? This Project Idea takes the scientific approach to the question of where your hands should be when taking a shot. Kids can apply the same ideas to other aspects of the game, such as whether or not to use backspin, or which is the best trajectory for the ball.
  • Under Pressure—Bouncing Ball Dynamics: If you drop a ball, how high will it bounce? What happens to the height of the bounce if you release some air from the ball? What about using different types of balls? This Project Idea offers a quick and easy way to explore the concept of air pressure.
  • How High Can You Throw a Baseball? A Tennis Ball? A Football?: Want to know how high you can throw a ball? There is a mathematical equation for that! Grab a friend and a stopwatch to test your throwing ability...and have some fun with physics!


Keep Your Brain and Muscles Fit This Summer

Whether you and your kids are on the court, in the swimming pool, or out in nature, summertime is a great time to remember that science is everywhere! Help kids explore new concepts, or let them show you how much they already know about how science fits into the equation. You all might just score an impressive three pointer! '

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Hula Hoop Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects perfect for burning off some energy and getting your "spin" on. What is the secret to a good hula hoop? Experiment with the weight and size of different homemade hoops to see how each affects your ability to keep a hoop in motion. What's the best combination? Can you hula hoop longer with a lighter or heavier hoop? Why?

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Student Physics / Student with accelerometer
For his 8th grade science project, Jonathan Stewart gave the "The Chills and Thrills of Roller Coaster Hills" Project Idea a new, bouncy, twist. When it was time for his science project, the local amusement park was already closed for the year, so after building his accelerometer (the device he is holding in the photo), Jonathan put it to the test on a trampoline for a great physics project exploration of g-force!

What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the one above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Film Canister Rockets with Chemical Reaction Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that fit right in with U.S. 4th of July celebrations and let you get hands-on with "rocket" science at any time of the year. What happens when you combine vinegar and baking soda? A chemical reaction! If you contain the reaction in a small space like a film canister, you can get a high-flying blast from the combination—your own mini rocket. But how much of each ingredient do you need? Experiment with the ratio of vinegar and baking soda to find the perfect mix for the highest-flying fun as you and your family explore Newton's third law of motion, combustion, and chemical reactions.

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Are there energy vampires in your house? There are probably more things sucking on your household energy than you realize! This summer, band together with your students to analyze your family's power usage—and to see what steps you can take to make a difference in your family energy usage footprint. From stereos to gaming systems to chargers for all of your devices, you might be surprised at how many things are plugged in—and how much energy each uses, even when it is just sitting around and waiting for your attention.



Energy Meter / Family Energy Usage Investigation

Power Usage You See and Don't See

How many things are plugged in around the house? How many of them still suck on power even when you are not using them? Many devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, even when you are not using them. If you add up all that phantom energy usage, is the amount significant in terms of your household energy bill?

Are there steps you and your family can take to improve your family's energy-efficiency and energy awareness? Set up a plan to target vampire power usage, and see if it makes a difference!

"When you aren't in the room, turn off the lights!"

"You all have to start turning off the lights!"

"It's sunny out, turn off the light."

"The lights are on in every room of the house again!"

"You don't need to turn every light in the bathroom on every time you walk in!"


Does the on and off of lights form a similar refrain in your house as you try and make your kids more aware of energy issues and trim corners on rising energy bills? The singsong of lights on and lights off is a buzz you will find in houses and buildings of all sizes. When we think of cutting down on the always-on energy, many people immediately think of lights. Have you been in an elementary or middle school and been surprised to find lights in classrooms off as the students work by daylight? Have you dutifully changed out light bulbs to more energy-efficient choices in hopes of saving an accumulation of pennies over time?


Lighting the Way

Attention to overhead and tabletop lighting may have some impact on your energy footprint at home, but the impact of your lights may be minimal in the context of the overall size of the print. Lights may be the most obvious culprit for a family's wasted electricity, but lights are likely only a drop in the energy bucket.

What else is running?

Some night when it is dark in the house, take a walk through the house and notice how many little lights you see, little green or orange or red or blue lights, signs that something is on, running, ticking, waiting for notifications, and otherwise sucking away at your power. Do you use a fancy single-cup coffee brewer that keeps water heated and ready to make an on-demand cup of coffee or hot chocolate? Do you use a digital video recorder to make sure you never miss a favorite show? These, and many other, devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, while they are sitting around and "waiting" for use. While many of the things plugged in may only use a trickle of energy when they are not actively being used by you, if you add up all the passive energy usage, you might be surprised! This kind of energy usage is sometimes called vampire or phantom power.

You may know when you glance at your computer that a blue light signals it is still on, and not in a suspended, hibernated, or "sleep" state even if it appears to be off. In another room, another computer may glow red for the same reason. Your gaming device may mean something different when the device light is red, green, or yellow. Devices and appliances with indicator lights are the ones you probably notice most often, but the lights you see probably only reflect a portion of the devices and appliances that are plugged in and possibly still running even when you are not using them.

Some devices give themselves away because they make more than their share of noise and/or because they kick in and out of activity, triggering lights and noise. The ever present hum of a digital video recorder or cable box, for example, may be a sound you notice when the house is quiet, a reminder that the TV is still active even when no one is watching. Gaming consoles, too, often whir in the background even when they are not being played. Even when flipped off, you may find that some devices seem to never "really" go off and may even kick back on when least expected, the disc insert slot lighting up at odd times as the system checks for and installs updates. It can be disconcerting when your kids are in bed, and suddenly the gaming system fires up and, with a whirring sound, starts spinning to life and drawing on the household power. But even the devices you don't think about, the subtle ones, may be hanging out waiting, and munching on a steady stream of energy.

How many devices have a digital clock face that is always on?


Summer Energy Investigation

With kids home for the summer, why not set up a student-led investigation into your family's power usage. With summer temperatures pushing some systems into cooling overdrive during summer months, energy bills may be on the rise, but with some detective work, some monitoring of energy usage, and some record keeping and basic applied math, you and your students can pinpoint engery-draining pitfalls and culprits—problems you may be able to tackle by changing how you and your family approach turning devices on and off.

Get the kids involved and see what a difference you can make!

The following Project Ideas offer a blueprint for carrying out specific kinds of energy usage analysis.


Bringing Energy Usage Issues Home

Consider these projects as a framework around which you can develop a family science activity. You will need to invest in at least one energy monitoring device, like the Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. (Investing in more than one would allow you to gather data about appliances and devices in multiple rooms at the same time, but you can track your energy with a single device over time.)

The Kill-A-Watt device helps you see how much power a device plugged into it uses. You plug an appliance into the Kill-A-Watt device, and then plug the device into the wall. With the electricity usage monitor in between your appliance and the power source, you can track how much energy specific appliances use. As shown in the " Killing 'Vampires'" project idea, you can use a multiple-outlet strip to measure the usage of a series of devices.

As you and your family get used to how the Kill-A-Watt device works, and what the numbers look like, you will have a better sense of what you want to test in your own home—and what times of day you want to take readings. (Someone may need to set a middle-of-the-night alarm a few times to get some important data about what always-on systems are doing while you sleep!)


A Whole-family Science Project

Your energy investigation will be specific to your family, your home, and your lifestyle. But here are some general tips for getting started:

  1. Get the last few energy bills out and show the kids how much power was used—and how much it cost.
  2. Take a field trip to the basement, garage, or exterior house location to show them the electricity meter and explain how the power company collects the data.
  3. Talk about vampire power consumption. This kind of continual power drain is also called phantom power or leaking electricity. What does it mean?
  4. Make a list together, as a family, of all the devices that are plugged in around the house. How many plugged-in things are there?
  5. Identify which devices are rarely, if ever, turned "off" (e.g., coffee makers with a heating device or clock, cable box, router system, etc.). Are there any devices plugged in that really don't need to be (e.g., a radio that is never used, a freezer in the basement that no longer works, etc.)?
  6. Work together to make predictions about which devices use the most energy.
  7. Set up a plan for what devices to measure. Let one of the kids be the record keeper for the project, or have each kid keep the data in a notebook so that everyone can "do the math" and see the data throughout the project.
  8. After making a list of which appliances and devices to test, first monitor usage of each appliance or device without making any changes. (Be sure and note your start and end usage on your household meter.)
  9. Be sure and run tests for active use as well as for phantom or vampire use on devices you think may be powering on, actively processing or making connections to a network, or otherwise staying "alert" even when not being immediately used.
  10. Run tests to see what difference there is between putting a computer to "sleep" and fully shutting it down. One may seem more convenient, but how do they compare in terms of energy usage?
  11. After gathering power consumption data about the various devices in the house, identify ones that could or should be completely turned off more routinely.
  12. Come up with a "green" plan for your house and family. Implement the changes you've identified. (Be sure to note the starting number on your household electric meter.)
  13. After a set amount of time, compare your results pre- and post-change. Did your changes make a difference in overall household usage? If you time your investigation to monitor usage for one month without changes and then one month after changes, you may be able to compare the bill, too!


Are there changes your family can make, long-term, that will make a big difference in the power you use? We would love to hear about your family's "green" investigation. If you wish to share how it went and what you discovered, email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of energy and power are supported by SAIC.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Where's Waldo Visual Exploration Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that investigate the science behind visual search. When you are looking for a specific car in a crowded parking lot, what makes it easier or more difficult to spot the car? What if you are looking for your keys, someone in a crowd, or something specific on the shelves at the grocery? Do you enjoy puzzles and seek-and-find style books and games that make a game or visual brain teaser out of "finding" something that is hidden in plain sight. like Where's Waldo or I Spy?


What makes some objects harder to find than others or some I Spy books more challenging than others? Explore the science behind visual search by making your own puzzles, either using an online tool or by making hands-on, cut-it-out and glue-it-down (or draw it with markers) puzzles that you and your family can enjoy! From the number of distracters to the colors and size of them, there are plenty of angles to explore. This is a great summer science activity for the whole family!

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Birds, frogs, ladybugs, and butterflies—these are a few examples of species in which growing waves of scientists are helping contribute to a global knowledge base. You and your family can, too!


2013-blog-ladybugs.png
Image: University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science describes ongoing research projects that invite collaboration, often around the world, between networks of professional scientists and interested members of the general public. These projects often rely upon the contribution of firsthand observation or findings from participants that enables widespread collection of global data on the topic. Citizen science projects may emerge in any field of science, and while nature-, environmental-, and zoology-oriented projects are common, citizen science is not limited to the outdoors. FoldIt, for example, is a game-based citizen science project where players are helping solve "puzzles" related to protein folding.


Get Involved in Science

Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard is full of photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources designed to encourage kids (and their parents) to become active participants in ongoing field research. Citizen Scientists is an inspiring and engaging choice, one families will enjoy and, hopefully, be motivated by. When you send in your first ladybug photos, let Science Buddies know! And next winter, if you participate in a bird count, share your totals with us, too. We would love to hear your stories.


Searching for Ladybugs

In Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard, ladybug hunting is highlighted as a summer seek-find-and-identify activity (although where you live will determine which activities are possible and at what time of the year). If ladybugs are common in your area, consider getting involved! The Lost Ladybug Project website contains many helpful resources for ladybug hunters, including a printable field guide (2 pages) that describes some of the most common ladybugs you might find in North America.

For more information about citizen science, see Citizen Science at Scientific American.

Have you or your kids spotted a ladybug recently? You may have watched your student observe the ladybug as it crawled around in her hand. Maybe there was even a small observational habitat created, for a half hour or so to see if the ladybug might eat a leaf (albeit a leaf a hundred or more times its size). When no gargantuan bites appeared in the leaf, maybe the ladybug was gently released and sent on its way. But what kind of ladybug was it? Did you know that there are more than five hundred species of ladybugs in North America and more than 4,500 species of ladybugs in the world? So what kind of ladybug did you see? Maybe it was one of a handful of species considered rare and once feared "lost" in the U.S. Don't you wish you had stopped to take a photo, make a drawing, and spend just a bit more time with the ladybug?

Spending that extra time immersed in searching for, observing, identifying, tracking or tagging, and chronicling the appearance of different species is exactly what Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard aims to inspire—in even the youngest of scientists, your children.


Ready, Set, Seek, and Find!

Some kids are fascinated, from the start, with insects, birds, frogs, lizards, and other creatures that turn up underneath a rock, in the trees, or after a hard rain. But even those who shy away from certain kinds of animals or insects benefit from hands-on activities and projects that reveal the rich diversity and wonder of the natural world. Citizen Scientists takes things one step further and shows that kids are already in position to help scientists and be scientists themselves!

This large-format book is a treasure trove of inspiring stories, ideas, facts, and motivation for young naturalists and their families. Written by Loree Griffin Burns and illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz, Citizen Scientists does an amazing job drawing in readers of all ages. Burns' writing is clear, engaging, and accessible, and her enthusiasm about the fact that even kids can get involved and take an active, hands-on role in global field science—from home—is palpable.

Citizen Scientists covers four different citizen science activities. Because the prime time for each of these activities differs and varies throughout the year, the book is organized by season: Fall Butterflying, Winter Birding, Spring Frogging, and Summer Ladybugging. In other words, you can't pick up Citizen Scientists and expect to immediately run out and begin tagging Monarch butterflies simply because the book gets you and your kids jazzed about the possibility of catching, examining, and labeling butterflies in hopes someone else finds them at the other end of their annual migration. Your ability to dive in with one of the covered species depends on where you live, what time of year it is, and what species are common in your area. You might not live somewhere, for example, where frogs are all that common!

Don't let this dissuade you from Citizen Scientists, however, and the mission and possibility of citizen science. Citizen Scientists may be a source of get-off-the-couch and out-of-the-house inspiration at any time of the year. Each section of the book is introduced with a wonderfully-crafted first-hand account that puts you, the reader, right in the middle of the action, standing in the cold on the morning of a bird count, sitting in the dark at night listening for frogs, or barely breathing as you wait for a butterfly to land so that you do not startle it away. Once you are part of the story and hooked, Burns offers more detail about how tracking is being done and why, about how the different species move or migrate, and about how people, including kids, around the world are pitching in to help scientists learn more.

The book is full of great photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources to help kids find out more and get involved. Readers (and listeners and lookers) will enjoy the time spent with the book, and the book may catalyze family or student interest in either joining a large-scale project (like FrogWatch) or in creating your own small-scale nature-based investigation—just because.

No matter what species your family decides is of most interest, there is likely a great deal to learn. Starting at the wrong time of year, in fact, might be a good thing! With frogs, for instance, learning to decipher the different calls can be a huge challenge for citizen scientists, and there are resources you and your family can use to start familiarizing yourself with those calls, just as you might practice another language!

Encouraging budding naturalists to begin keeping notes, recording their observations, questions, and hypotheses, and even sketching what they see—either in the backyard or as they peruse field guides and reference material—is a great way to catapult kids into the role of active observers of the natural world and participants in global science.

After reading Citizen Scientists, you and your kids may, rightly, feel that you not only have a place in the world of science but have a mission and a responsibility to take a closer look at what is around you. Grab your gear, make some lists, and get started!


Making More Science Connections

If you enjoy Citizen Scientists with your students, you may also enjoy some of these outdoor and zoology-inspired science projects and activities this summer. Making a bug catcher is a great way to get started and see exactly what's out there in terms of backyard insects, but young birders will also find many ways to turn newfound or renewed enthusiasm for birds and other animals into hands-on science investigations, too:

  • Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity: how many different species will you suck up in your homemade collector?
  • What Seeds Do Birds Prefer to Eat?: different birds prefer different types of seeds and even different types of feeders. This project can guide and inspire a family's backyard science experiment even if you don't build a feeder from scratch.
  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences.: hummingbirds seek out the sweetest flowers as food sources. Do they see the color of a flower as a clue about the sweetness? Put it to the test by making and offering different colors of hummingbird nectar in this zoology science fair project, perfect for a backyard where hummingbirds are frequently spotted.
  • Can You Predict a Bird's Lifestyle Based on Its Feet?: get in the habit of close observation and recordkeeping by doing a survey of bird feet in your area. Whether you are watching in the backyard or at a local park or pond, see how many "feet" styles you can spot, identify the birds using a bird guide, and talk about what the feet tell you about the birds.
  • The Swimming Secrets of Duck Feet: different kinds of feet help different species of water birds perform different tasks related to their lifestyle and habitat. Your kids may not put simulated duck feet to the test as a family project, but after reviewing a bit about the different ways water birds use their feet, you might look at ducks at the pond differently next time and with greater appreciation of what their feet tell you about them!

Related blog posts that support science parenting and naturalist family science projects and enthusiasm:


More Science-themed Titles for the Read Aloud Crew

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas, written by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Jos. A. Smith, is a beautifully told and rendered story of the life of Gregor Mendel. This book chronicles Mendel's years of study and his becoming a friar, a move that enabled him to further his studies and to engage in scientific discussions of the time, including the quest for understanding patterns of heredity. As the book turns to his now-famous experiments with peas, Bardoe goes into detail explaining both Mendel's preparation for his cross-breeding experiments and the results, over several years, of his observation of subsequent generations. She does a nice job, too, of couching her summarization of Mendel's pea plant investigations firmly within the scientific method. Though accompanied by plentiful full-color illustration, this account of Mendel's experiment, procedures, and findings will engage older elementary and middle school readers and listeners as well with its story of a scientist who, in the first year of creating hybrids, pollinated close to three hundred pea flowers by hand and went on to grow more than 28,000 pea plants! Sadly, Mendel's achievements were not recognized during his lifetime, but this book does a nice job presenting his story and work—and some introductory genetics—for a young audience.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis, tells the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a naturalist and artist in the late 17th century. That, alone, marks Maria as unusual, but the context of scientific belief in 17th century adds to the mix. Maria was fascinated with insects and butterflies (some of which were then called "summer birds") at a time when insects, moths, and butterflies were thought to spontaneously generate from mud. Maria's careful observation and drawings helped reveal the pattern of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Summer Birds is a short read, but will certainly encourage lively discussion!


See also: "Sparking Interest in Science and Science History for the Read Aloud Crowd" and "A Picture Book Look at the Engineering Spirit."

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Shaking Butter Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that investigate the science of butter-making, a process you might even call butter-shaking! In these hands-on food science projects and activities, students make their own butter and investigate to find out what role (if any) temperature plays in the process. You and your family can shake up some butter to use with tomorrow's breakfast, but will you have better luck using cold or room-temperature cream? Get shaking to find out!

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Boost your summer break with hands-on science the whole family can enjoy. From activities you can do with the kids in an afternoon, to projects you can set up as challenges for the kids to work on throughout the summer, summer science can help keep the summer doldrums—and summer brain drain—at bay.


Summer Science Ideas, Projects, and Activities for Home and Family Exploration
With its medley of lazy mornings, pool parties, crickets, and lemonade, summer break is here again. The hallmarks of summer break differ for every family, a recipe that gets tweaked year to year, a bit more or less of this, a splash of that, and a twist here and there. But one thing stays true for many of us—summer break means school is out for the summer.

Finding a balance of activities to keep students occupied during long summer days can be a challenge, but the summer break may also be a treasure trove of opportunity. Without school deadlines, school exams, and the trudge to and from school each day, students have more time to spend on areas of personal interest—and time to explore, pursue, and be exposed to potential new areas of interest as well. Of course, there is also plenty of time for the things they already love, whether that means shooting hoops at the corner park, playing video games, or perfecting skateboarding tricks.

It's all a matter of balance. But if left to their own devices (figuratively and literally), summer can be a slippery slope. You might look back and few months from now and see that the break melted away in a blur of screen time—a blur that brings with it the risk of brain drain, a measurable loss of academic learning, especially in areas of math and literacy.


Encouraging Summer Science

The good news is that finding ways to nudge, encourage, and empower them to do projects and activities that are both fun and enriching is easier than you might think. Giving a dash of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to some of your summer plans is a great way to occupy the kids with learning experiences and challenges that you can all feel good about. Plus, you might spark long-lasting interest that will carry them into the next school year—and maybe beyond!

The following posts are full of ideas for summer science activities and projects that make great choices for summer science, for the kids or for the whole family:

Summer hands-on science suggestion

Summer hands-on science suggestion / robots

Summer hands-on science suggestion / books

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hula hoop

Summer hands-on science suggestion / dinner table science talk

Summer hands-on science suggestion / make a collection

Summer hands-on science suggestion / m & m math

Summer hands-on science suggestion / towers

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hovercraft

Summer hands-on science suggestion / polymer putty

Summer hands-on science suggestion / marble run

Summer hands-on science suggestion / geodesic dome

Summer hands-on science suggestion / flower pigment

Summer hands-on science suggestion / capillary function

Summer hands-on science suggestion / grow crystals

Summer hands-on science suggestion / math


Elmer's® Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies. Many of our summer science activities and projects involve Elmer's products!

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With a bit of planning, you can stock up on materials your students can use to create a cadre of cool robotic animals, bugs, and creatures this summer. Upcycled vibrating motors may be your best friend for inspiring hands-on engineering with your kids, but there are plenty of ways to turn off-the-shelf bots and the Mindstorms® kit you may already own into a foundation for fun summer science with a friendly "critter" twist.

Bot style / critters and cute robots for introductory robotics engineering
With school out, there are even more free hours in the day for young engineers to tinker, to make, to wonder with their hands, and to innovate. Robotics enthusiasm has been brewing in my house in recent weeks, a hybridization of interest in RC helicopters, recycled art, Iron Man, and robots in general. We have always had an undercurrent of robotics interest, but recently I have watched the youngest sit at the computer and pull up videos of various kinds of robot projects, sifting through what's out there and synthesizing what he is seeing into a better grasp of what is possible. At nine, he's got big ideas!


Planning Summer Science

As I iron out plans for hands-on summer science activities and projects to both engage and occupy my kids during long summer days, I have been watching the stream of new and exciting Project Ideas being added to the Science Buddies robotics area. Bristlebots are a must-make for us this summer. It's a logical starting point, and it turns the familiar hex- and nano-bug concept we already know into a DIY activity. We can make them.


Jumping in with Bristlebots

Bristlebots are a great way to start kids off on a simple robotics engineering project—one you can pretty much guarantee will succeed. There is minimal wiring, a minimal number of parts, and for parents who worry about not having expertise to guide a robotics project, there are minimal steps where you (or the kids) might get off track. When it boils down to it, make sure you have one wire from the motor touching the top and one wire touching the bottom of the battery, and you are all set. If you decide to get industrious and salvage vibrating motors from the junk electronics drawer in your house, you up the challenge a notch (you might have to attach the wires), but the level of difficulty is still minimal—and the fun and sense of general robotics accomplishment pretty big.

Bristlebots, first introduced by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are a great launching point. A Bristlebot doesn't take long to make, and once made and set loose on a table, these little bots will take off on their bristly legs and be bounced around and redirected by hands or makeshift habitat walls.

But once those bots are scuttling around, chances are that you—or, more to the point, your kids—are going to want more.

You can extend the life of your bristlebot exploration by experimenting with different brush heads (as our Project Idea suggests), or by constructing ramps, mazes, and tunnels. But older elementary kids will surely want to kick things up a notch. They are going to have ideas about solar panels, about adding more brushes, about giving the bot more power, and about enabling remote control. Encouraging their thinking and innovation is important, and having some additional related projects up your sleeve to satiate and encourage their curiosity and desire to tinker, build, and make may find you and your kids breezing through a robot-inspired summer.


Robot Critters

Bugs, critters, pets, pals... call them what you will, but many student robotics projects generate small bots that skitter around, much like an insect.

Artbot from a plastic cup gets added personality with googly eyes!
Some builders will prefer the nuts and bolts look of a bot, admiring the visible circuits, the tiny breadboard, or the familiar look of a LEGO® Mindstorms® creature. Others prefer to spruce things up a bit, creatively masking a bot's hardwired construction with costuming that softens the edges and makes it "cute" or "friendly" in appearance.

How you and your kids customize a robot is completely up to you. If one day your daughter really wants a bristlebot that looks like a ladybug, it's doable. The same bot can be re-dressed another day to look entirely different. What's going on beneath the costume is where most of the exciting hands-on construction happens. But customizing a bot to make it "just right for its creator" is a step that brings hands-on engineering full circle for some creative-minded kids.

Here are a few robotics projects you can adapt to do with your students this summer as hands-on science and engineering activities at home:

  • Art Bot: Build a Wobbly Robot Friend That Creates Art: this bot is built from a plastic cup. Adding googly eyes to give the artist robot personality may be just the beginning! The full project has students explore how to guide the movements of the bot by adjusting the weights on top of the bot's head. For summer family fun, a basic art bot might be enough to kick start interest. (Grades K-3)
  • Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!: an introductory exploration of bristlebots, this project walks you through the basics and sets the stage for future bristle-based bot experiments. Masking the bot's toothbrush origins isn't covered in the project, but that doesn't mean you can't turn yours into something uniquely your own! (Grades K-3)
  • The Frightened Grasshopper: Explore Electronics & Solar Energy with a Solar-Powered Robot Bug: this exploration uses a ready-made bot, but it gives students the opportunity to investigate solar energy—and whether or not artificial light works for solar-powered critters and devices. With what your student learns in this project, she might have ideas for taking another basic bot in a new, sun-friendly, direction. (Grades 4-5)
  • Take a Hike: Train Your Robot Dog to Walk with a Virtual Leash: this project involves building a LEGO® Mindstorms® robot and programming the bot's sensors to respond to light so that you can "walk" your pet by controlling a light source, like a flashlight. If you already have the Mindstorms system, this is a great programming-based challenge for your builder. (Grades 6-8)
  • Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter: transform a regular bristlebot robot into a bot that you can guide around with a flashlight. This robot uses two toothbrush heads, two motors, and two light sensors and involves a more sophisticated circuit using a small breadboard. Bring on the tinkerers! (Grades 9-12)

The projects above are arranged in order of difficulty because when it comes to engineering, electronics, and robotics, your students will often learn in a stepwise manner, building upon skills introduced and used in one project when they move on to the next, slightly more difficult, project. All kids differ, but the general grade range for these projects are noted. Tinker-savvy kids can still enjoy the less difficult projects, and with adult involvement, younger students can certainly join in on projects pegged as appropriate for independent science fair engineering projects for older students.

Why not try them all!


Show Off Your Bots!

We would love to see the bots you and your students create this summer. Send us a photo, and we might share your bots on the blog or one of our other community spots!



Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering are supported, in part, by Symantec Corporation.

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Family Pedigree Traits Genetics Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects in honor of Father's Day and the science of family traits. In these hands-on genetics projects and activities, students investigate a family pedigree to see if they can determine whether traits are dominant or recessive. Do you and some (or all) of your family members share certain physical traits? Is a widow's peak passed down from generation to generation? Find out!


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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / M&M math and statistics Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that put statistics in the palm of your hands. In these hands-on math projects and activities, students investigate to find out how often each color of M&M appears in a bag or group of bags. Have a guess as to which color appears most often? Put your guess to the test! What is the likelihood of pulling a yellow M&M from a brand new bag? After this activity, your student will be able to give you the odds—with some statistics to back them up!



Tip: These math-based activities can make for great summer break fun! Extend the exploration with other kinds of candies or compare data from small samples and larger samples. Just be sure no one eats the samples before the counting is done!

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Hot Dog Mummification Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that bring the science behind Egyptian mummification into the kitchen or classroom. In these hands-on human biology projects and activities, students (and families!) simulate the process of mummification with a hot dog and baking soda. What does a mummified hot dog look like after seven days? After fourteen? Better yet, how does it smell! Experiment to find out what's really going on when something is mummified.



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Lazy River? No Such Thing!


Grand Canyon hermits rest / Wikimedia Commons: chensiyuan
Create a riverbed at home science-projectPhotos: Wikimedia Commons (top); Science Buddies (bottom).

Bringing a River Down to Size

What does the Grand Canyon photo (top) have to do with the jug and sand set-up shown in the second photo? Modeling a river at home is a great way for students to explore, hands-on, how a river shapes surrounding land.

Scientists tell us that rivers have formed some of our most fantastic landscapes—think Grand Canyon! Explore the power of rivers to shape surrounding terrain with this fun hands-on science experiment.

By Kim Mullin


Water can be a powerful force. We hear about floods and tidal waves in the news because they cause massive destruction in a very short time. But even an ordinary river can have a major influence on the land it passes through. Have you ever considered how the normal flow of a river can affect its environment over hundreds or even millions of years?

Up close, a river may look smooth and serene or dramatic and dangerous. What rivers do you know about? Is there a river near you or running through your city or state? Is the water crystal clear or brown with silt? Is it slow-moving or fast? What would the river look like if you could get a bird's-eye view? Is it curvy like a slithering snake? Is it "braided," with many sections separating and rejoining again?


Changing Rivers

Chances are, a river that you are familiar with looked different thousands of years ago. Rivers change in appearance over time because water erodes, or wears down, the soil and rock that forms their banks and bottoms. Through the power of erosion over millions of years, rivers can even create canyons that are thousands of feet deep!


Create Your Own Small-scale River

You certainly don't have millions of years to spend on a science experiment, no matter how much fun it is! However, using lightweight materials such as sand and cornmeal, you can be a hydrologist (water scientist) for a day. The "Go with the Flow: Model Rivers with Cornmeal, Sand, & Water" geology Project Idea shows you step-by-step how to create your own riverbed to imitate and observe the powerful force of erosion.

Consider these questions as your river flows: how does the speed of the water flow affect the erosion? Where do the eroded materials go? How do objects partially obstructing the flow of water change the erosion? What happens to the riverbed where there is a waterfall? What other questions can your students think of that setting up a model river and bank might help you explore?

You know it's going to be fun to create a river...what are you waiting for?


The Flow of Summer Science

Parents—this is a great, wet, opportunity for hands-on science with your students during the long hot summer!




Science Buddies Project Ideas in geology are sponsored by Chevron.

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Hands-on engineering doesn't always require high-tech materials. Armed with a stack of paper and the steps to folding a basic dart airplane, a volunteer leads a paper airplane station at a local science exposition and realizes, with surprise, that folding planes isn't something all kids know how to do! With guidance, paper airplane folding can lead to some far-flying—and fun—aerodynamics exploration.

paper airplane hands-on science / Mary Raven demonstrates basic dart folding at science fair
paper airplane hands-on science / student compares plane styles
Above top: Mary Raven demonstrates folding a basic dart paper airplane at a local Girls Inc. science fair. Bottom: Mary's daughter prepares to launch and test a different plane. How will it fly compared to a dart—and why?


Hands-on Science at Home, School, or After School!

Folding paper airplanes is a great way for students to experiment with core concepts like lift, drag, and thrust. The following science Project Ideas bundle hands-on aerodynamics exploration with paper airplane fun:

Along with origami fortune tellers and, these days, origami Star Wars finger puppets, paper airplanes are a seemingly eternal and archetypal pastime, a folding activity with a tangible outcome—a plane you can throw across the room or, accidentally, at a sibling. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.


When Dr. Mary Raven, Microscopy Facility Director at the Neuroscience Research Institute and Neuroscience Research Institute & department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, volunteered at her daughter's after-school program's annual science fair, she set up a paper airplane station so that the girls could experiment with the aerodynamics and physics of different plane designs. To get the most out of a hands-on comparative plane folding experiment, the kids folding the planes need to be comfortable with basic folding steps. Mary assumed most of the girls would have some history with paper airplanes. To her surprise, she discovered that folding paper airplanes was not something with which all the girls had experience. In the end, the girls that visited Mary's station at the Girls Inc. science fair got a crash course in basic folding, a fun dose of engineering, a nifty takeaway (paper airplane), and a great hands-on science experience.


Science After School

Mary's daughter, now in fourth grade, has been attending a local Girls Inc. after-school program since kindergarten, and Mary has been volunteering, each year, to lead a hands-on exploration with the girls at the science fair. According to Mary, science is typically part of the program schedule at Girls Inc., and when students request their top choice classes, engaging science-themed options like a Mad Scientist club are part of the available offering. But science really heats up with the yearly science expo when the girls get hands-on with a wide range of science and engineering activities.

"When you think science fair, you might think girls calmly presenting their projects" says Mary. "But the Girls Inc. science fair is more of a hands-on science show. Imagine 150 excited girls aged 5-12 running from station to station, and you have our Girls Inc. science fair."

At the science fair, various exploratory stations are set up for the girls to cycle through. This year, Mary says the stations included a math station, one focused on earthquakes, one on rocket launchers, one on hand washing (and visualizing germs with Glo Germ), a microscope-based station, and one featuring an iguana. The diverse offerings give the girls the chance to experience a number of different areas of science—who knows what might catch a young girl's imagination and spark lifelong interest—but as Mary can attest, 150 participants cycling through a hands-on science activity can be a challenge!

"I don't work with children for a living, and having one girl at home in no way prepares you for the experience of 150 excited girls asking every question imaginable," admits Mary. "I've tried several projects with the girls (prism optics, sun-prints, brain dissections), and I'm usually disappointed in my ability to share anything meaningful with a mass of swarming girls."

This year, Mary spotted a project at Science Buddies and thought it might be perfect for the science fair. "When I saw the experiment How Far Will It Fly? Build & Test Paper Planes with Different Drag posted on Science Buddies, I thought, 'hey, that looks like it might adapt to the wild of the Girls Inc. science fair.'"


Preparing for Hands-on Science with Kids

Having selected her activity for the fair, Mary spent time determining how best to convert the science "project" (something written with a single student performing a science experiment in mind) into a short-term hands-on activity that girls could do on the spot. When converting a full-scale project to an immediate and short-term activity, understanding both the audience and the main science concepts you want to get across is important. You want to craft the activity in such a way that the students are engaged and that there is a clear scientific takeaway.

Knowing in advance that girls would cycle through at varying times and that those at her station would all be in various stages of the activity at the same time, Mary planned ahead. She first made a poster that showed the basic steps for folding a simple dart plane. "I have learned the girls don't stop to read words," says Mary, "but I thought the examples might help."

She then gathered supplies: a stack of paper, a ruler, tape, scissors, and a clipboard for recording results. "I marked off the gym in 5 foot increments," says Mary, "and then with my poster board set up and papers at the ready, I waited for the girls to appear." Mary was ready, but she hadn't counted on the fact that not all of the girls had folded planes before. Even with the steps for folding a dart plane on the poster, folding the plane proved a challenge for some of the girls. "The first few girls trickled into the gym, and I quickly learned I was going to be walking the girls through folding the planes."

On the spot, Mary had to adapt and refocus her hands-on engineering activity. Testing multiple plane designs might not be possible; certainly, building three different planes with each girl was out of the question, says Mary. "I was a little surprised at how unfamiliar the girls were at folding paper. I was also a little disturbed to learn they called lengthwise folds 'hot dog' and widthwise folds 'hamburger,'" recalls Mary. Still, Mary and the girls stuck with it. "Some of the girls wanted me to fold [the plane] for them, but I think folding is a great 3D spatial skill, and using their own hands was important."

Despite the rocky start, "all the girls were able to fold a plane with help," says Mary. Not only were they able to fold a plane, but they were excited when they finished their planes. The immediate satisfaction of the project was evident for the girls who struggled through plane folding at Mary's station. "They were thrilled at how well the dart flew once it was complete."


Putting the Science in the Air

Rather than building multiple planes each, each girl flew her plane three times, and they took measurements and determined the average. Mary then guided the girls in modifying their original plane. "We added flaps in the back, and I asked the girls what they thought the flaps would do to the plane. None of the girls were certain what would happen, but when they tested the plane, they quickly realized the plane didn't fly well at all," says Mary. "They were able to deduce that the flaps were somehow blocking the airflow, and some girls realized that unfolding the flaps restored the plane's flying capability. I thought that was a great result!"

"I think making the planes was empowering for the girls," says Mary. "It gave them a tool to experiment with. They were excited to try flying it and to determine the best way to launch it. As much as I like the data collection and analysis part of the experiment, my favorite part was how the girls seemed to understand the manipulation. The concept of drag wasn't something they had heard of, and it isn't something they were likely to pick-up from a diagram. Still, after a couple of plane flights, they had a mental image."

And that's what it's all about, seeing the science in action, the cause and effect, the principles of science, like drag, and realizing that changing just one variable can make a dramatic difference. For Mary, this year's event was eye-opening, but she is happy with how it turned out and happy with the project she used as the basis for her activity. "I liked the aerodynamics (activity) because it is mostly hands-on interactive time, and the girls had something they could keep (the plane). Waiting is a killer in this format, and they love having something to take home."

"Overall, I'm very happy with the results although I still haven't achieved my vision of somehow ordering the disorder at my science fair table. If I had 4 volunteers, maybe?"


The Importance of a Single Volunteer and Role Model

We can't wait to see what Mary tries at next year's science fair, but we are sure that the girls who passed through her station this year benefited from having an interested adult take time to demonstrate, explain, guide, and encourage them to explore, question, and hypothesize.

"I think it is really important that the girls have contact with female scientist and engineers (or any scientist/engineer)," notes Mary. "Girls are very influenced by the female role models in their life. If you ask them why they are considering the career choice they are exploring, it is usually a female role model or relative that leads them to consider the option."


Note: After the fair, Mary suggested to the after-school program that enrichment programs in origami or in plane folding might be a great addition to the offerings. Do your kids and students fold paper airplanes now and again? If not, or if you are not sure, open up the basic dart instructions and grab a stack of paper. There are planes to be folded!

Interested in supporting and encouraging girls in science and engineering at home, in the classroom, or at a local school? See also: "Girls Explore Engineering with Marble Run Challenge" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers."




Science Buddies Project Ideas in aerodynamics & hydrodynamics are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.

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