Home Store Project Ideas Project Guide Ask An Expert Blog Careers Teachers Parents Students

Science Buddies Blog: April 2010 Archives

Oil Spill and Wildlife

Duck covered in oil from a 2007 spill. Image: Mila Zinkova, Wikipedia.

A massive oil spill off of the Gulf of Mexico has had environmentalists watching the winds in hopes that the oil wouldn't wash ashore. The weather, unfortunately, is failing to cooperate. Winds have sped the slick towards land, and predicted storms over the next several days will further hamper cleanup efforts. According to the New York Times, Louisiana has already declared a state of emergency.

The oil spill threatens the habitats and health of many coastal species, including birds and fish. This map details the area and highlights several species that are particularly at risk.

The following Science Buddies science project ideas can help students understand the damaging repercussions of an oil spill on local wildlife - and the logistical challenges of cleaning up:

Morning Music

I was on my way to the car one morning last week, and as I rounded the car to open the door, I noticed the repetitive trill of a bird. It was loud, persistent, and close. Stopping to listen, I swiveled around, searching the early morning street. There it was, a house finch perched atop a street light, its red throat catching the gleam of the sun breaking through the trees to the east.

There are other birds in my area I've stopped to listen to in recent years. Some of them have become familiar to me in the spaces I travel. There was a mockingbird, for example, that I knew I could stop and watch and listen to on the way to school at a certain time and on a certain street each day. There are Phoebes at one of the parks. There are hummingbirds that sit atop two different trees that I pass day to day. I know the cry of the Red-Shouldered Hawk when it is in the trees out my window. And twice this year, I was unexpectedly treated to the raucous sounds (and bright green flash) of a group of wild parrots passing overhead.

The house finch I spotted on my way to the car is one that normally sits in the back of my house atop a tree just beyond the line of our fence. During certain months of the year, I know it will be there, perched atop the highest branch. I hear its song through my window throughout the morning most days.

Learning to listen to and identify bird songs and bird calls can really open your ears to the world around you. But when you take what you hear outside your windows and compare it to pieces of classical music, you've got the makings of a fascinating music-based science project. As you listen, you'll discover that composers throughout history have integrated bird sounds in their music. And as you try and deconstruct what you are hearing and identify the difference between interpretation and imitation, you'll find yourself listening to classical music with new levels of appreciation.

Earth Day: Polar Caps

As you observe Earth Day 2010 today, it's the perfect time to talk with students of all ages about conservation, recycling, and the importance of being good caretakers for the Earth. The following newly released Science Buddies science project can help students understand the issues surrounding global warming and the ice caps. These caps may seem far away, but melting due to climate change may have significant impact on the size of oceans. The trickle-down problem is the increased risk of flooding for those living at sea-level in coastal regions.

In this project, students make simple models of the ice caps from clay. Add ice, and you've got a hands-on—and easy to monitor, measure, and observe—global experiment underway.

Ash Air

Eruptions this week of a volcano that sits beneath a glacier in Iceland forced the evacuation of local residents who were in the path of the meltwater run-off from the glacier as surface melting occurred in response to the energy and temperature underground. As reported by guardian.uk.co, the floods arrived shortly after the initial eruptions, and the plume of ash blotted out the sky.

Carried by winds, the ash wreaked havoc this week for international airports. British airports were completely shut down, and thousands of flights were canceled due to volcanic matter in the air.

Ash in the air isn't wholly a visibility issue, however, for the air transportation industry. Instead, the risk becomes one of mechanics. Ash that is sucked into an aircraft could cause engine damage or electrical problems.

CNN's coverage of air transportation delays caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull includes sideline highlights of several historical air emergencies caused by ash.

Volcanic Activity
The following science projects help contextualize volcanic activity and offer ways to relate eruptions to other geo-sciences.

Student Journal Spreads Science

Falconium boasts savvy design, engaging art, and a wide range of student-authored science articles.

A student-run journal being put out by students at Torrey Pines High School in Encinitas, CA is giving science students a rare opportunity—the chance to publish their work for a widespread peer audience. While literary journals are common fare in many schools, student science journals are less common. There's opportunity here for emerging scientists to share their research and ideas and to learn important lessons about the process of communicating scientific research to a community of readers. There's opportunity, in other words, to talk science but also to practice the art of conveying science to a general audience.

Student scientists in grades 9-12 are invited to submit their articles on a rolling basis for Falconium, typically published four times a year. Submissions are accepted in the following categories: original research, reviews, and op-eds. In addition to science material, Falconium invites the submission of student art, which is used throughout the journal.

According to Falconium president Alice Fang, Falconium is distributed in hard-copy in the San Diego area to local schools and libraries, but each issue is made available online in both HTML and PDF formats. Falconium also produced a teacher's guide to supplement each issue and to facilitate the use of Falconium materials in class. The Falconium staff hopes teachers will support the science journal by encouraging students to submit their work.

For Fang, working with Falconium has been a well-rounded and rewarding experience. "Falconium, I think, has really developed both my knowledge of science and my leadership skills," says Fang. She notes that the process of developing, researching, and writing for Falconium has both supported and extended her in-class education.

"It helps a lot in tying together the terms and concepts I learn in class, and it's quite fun because I'm learning about something I want to find out more about," says Fang.

To find out more about Falconium, to view the submission guidelines, and to browse the current and back issues, visit: http://www.falconium.org/.

Submissions are accepted year-round, but the cut-off date for submissions for the next issue is May 1, 2010.


Dim Light; Bright Science

David Johnson, a 7th grader from Windsor Charter Academy, went to the Colorado State Science Fair last week with a science project idea he found on the Science Buddies website.

Answering questions posed by the Science Buddies Topic Selection Wizard helped Johnson find a good match for his interest in circuits and electronics— and a novel use for a #2 lead pencil!

Congratulations to David!

Did you or one of your students do well in a local fair this year using a Science Buddies project idea? We'd love to hear about your success!

Local story: WindsorBeacon.com

Methane: Handle with Care

An explosion yesterday in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia is responsible for at least 25 deaths. Another four miners are still missing, but rescue missions have reportedly been called off due to dangerous levels of methane gas. Once the underground tunnels are ventilated, a process being assisted through the drilling of holes in the side of the mine to allow more oxygen to enter, rescue and recovery operations can continue.

The New York Times reported that officials hold out hope that the four missing miners may have reached a nearby safe house within the network of mines, a space where they could potentially survive for up to four days.

The cause of the explosion is as yet undetermined, but there is speculation that methane gas built up in a section of the mine that had been sealed off.

Methane: Good and Bad

A natural gas that appears both in nature and can be created through processes like composting, methane is used to provide heat and electricity. It also can be used to power some cars. However, as a "greenhouse gas," methane emissions may contribute to the problem of global warming and climate change.

On a smaller scale, an immediate danger is that in concentration, methane is flammable and explosive. While methane is non-toxic, it can be dangerous in an area without adequate ventilation because it can displace oxygen, causing asphyxiation. In other words, methane can take over the space it is in, diluting or pushing aside the available oxygen we need to breathe.

The Coal Connection

Coal mining produces methane, and so methane exists naturally within underground tunnels where mining occurs. Burning coal also emits methane gasses.

Biogas and Biomass

The following Science Buddies project ideas explore issues related to composting and biomass and touch upon issues related to methane production, harnessing, and ventilation. There is a reason that a landfill can't simply be turned into a compost pile, and it's directly related to the risks of methane.

To understand better what may have happened in the mine in West Virginia and to explore the ways in which methane comes up in current alternative and sustainable energy research, check out these project ideas:

For information on the mining disaster:

The New York Times: Rescue Suspended at Mine as Death Toll Reaches 25

The New York Times: Toll Mounts in West Virginia Coal Mine Explosion

Scientist's Pick: Minty-Fresh Chemistry

Last month, Staff Scientist Dave opened a Science Buddies meeting with a small can of breath spray, a gas grill igniter, a film-canister, a homemade wooden apparatus to "hold" the canister in place, and the question: "Is it okay if I set this off in here?"

A few minty sprays into the canister, a few clicks of the lighter, and the canister was propelled across the room with a noisy "bang."

In subsequent demonstrations, Dave showed other ways to expand upon the initial experiment, even taking advantage of tire gauges and balloons, all the while pointing out the chemistry (and equations) behind the experiment.

Project: Getting a Bang Out of Breath Spray: Studying the Chemistry and Physics of a Small Explosion
Scientist: David Whyte
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 8

I chose the topic for Getting a Bang Out of Breath Spray because it involves making a great toy, a "Binaca bomb" that can be used to explore the chemistry and physics of a small explosion. To make the device, a small amount of ethanol (from Binaca breath spray) is spritzed into a film canister. The top is quickly placed on the canister, and the ethanol is ignited with a spark.

If all goes well, there is a loud "pop," and the canister flies through the air!

I like this project's vivid demonstration of how energy can convert into various forms: chemical energy from the combustion of the ethanol is converted into thermal energy (the heat that makes the gases expand in the canister), which in turn is transferred to kinetic energy in the form of the flying canister.

I also like that the project offers plenty of opportunity to explore questions about what is actually taking place during the explosion. There is more than just a "bang" and a "projectile" happening here. Some of the questions that can be asked include:

  • What is the pressure in the canister at the moment before it separates from the top?
  • What is the volume change that occurs when the gas is ignited?
  • What is the kinetic energy of the canister?

The project contains the science to determine the answers to all of these!

The project also has a nice mix of measurement and calculation. For example, the approximate temperature of the hot gas is calculated based on measurements of the pressure and volume.

Oh, and did I mention the project involves explosions?

~ Dave

Mercury and Venus with the Naked Eye!

Whether you're an amateur astronomer or just one to look out the window at night from time to time and notice a particularly bright moon, it's been a year of big sightings in the night sky.

The year kicked of with a "Blue Moon" on New Year's Eve. Then last week there was a rare chance to see Mars near the moon—an opportunity that won't come again for another two years!

For the next few days, there's another evening sky opportunity you don't want to miss. If you've got clear skies and an unobstructed view to the West, you can see Mercury and Venus both in the hour right after sunset.

The image below shows the location of the two planets on April 4-8, an hour after sunset. For more information about how to locate the planets and how to pinpoint them on April 2-4, check this Sky and Telescope story.

Diagram of Mercury and Venus in twilight

Good luck! If you catch sight of them, let us know!

Image courtesy of Sky and Telescope magazine.


Kite Science

Kites are a great way to explore science at high—and low— altitudes!
A casual walk down a popular beach boardwalk or promenade often affords the chance to watch a kite master at work. While the familiar diamond kite may be the kite of your childhood, today's kites come in a near-dizzying array of shapes and sizes, many with a variety of tails that spin and twirl in the air, creating spirals of color and movement.

Watching a high-flying kite can be deceptive. It spins. It whizzes by. It arcs and circles and loop-the-loops. Maybe it looks easy. It's just a kite, after all. Right?

Harder than it Looks!

My last adventure with a kite was on the Oregon coast. It was harder than I expected to even get the kite airborne. Time after time, I tossed the kite into the air and tried to move against the wind enough to cause the kite to lift. Time after time, I found myself nursing hands in danger of getting cut by the thin standard-issue-weight twine that comes with a basic kite. The wind would play with the kite, pulling against my hands, but time after time the kite fell to the ground.

Once I did get the kite into the air, it was hard to hang on. My then 8-year-old took a spin at navigating, and then he passed the bridle over to his younger brother who was almost immediately lifted off the ground by the winds that wanted to carry the flight—and the brother—away. Photos of him on tiptoes, feet just touching the sand as he struggled to anchor the kite show the lift that was fighting against his body weight. (Okay, maybe I should have run to rescue him rather than stop to snap a photo, but it was an inexpensive kite... I didn't really think he could parasail far!)

As he let go, the kite sailed off, over the hotel and lodged in nearby electrical lines.

If you've flown a kite with kids or students, this scenario might sound familiar. If you've had to go, as I did, to the luxury kite store for replacement string, you might have found yourself faced with questions for which you didn't have answers... and found yourself staring in amazement at spools and spools of kite string in various diameters and materials.

Kite-flying can be serious business.

It can also be serious science!

Thoughts on Design

It's certainly easier to sit back and enjoy the kite masters on the beach than to fly your own, but if you've got ideas about design, structural engineering, or aerodynamics, a kite offers instant gratification and a high-flying step up from what you can test with a paper airplane!

A Kite-Studded History

Ben Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers all used kites as central vehicles for testing ideas, and it is thanks to the kite of 10-year-old Homan Walsh that construction of the bridge over Niagra Falls was started in 1847.

From exploring ways to alter the design of a kite to examining the forces that operate on a kite during flight, kites offer a variety of angles for creative science projects. The range of established kite designs, including familiar models like diamond, delta wing, and box, offer immediate room for adaptation and exploration. Which shape flies higher? What material works best for the struts that form the frame of support? What ratio of length to width is most effective? What material for the kite itself works best. (Franklin's kite was silk to help keep it up in the inclement weather that he needed for his testing.)

Room to Experiment

You can make a simple sled kite from a sheet of paper. But what happens if you take that same concept and make it from cotton? From silk? From nylon?

Thinking beyond the core construction, you can ask questions about the tail of the kite. How does the flight change if there is no tail or if there are two tails? What impact does the length of the tail have? What length of strength works best? How is the length of string related to the launch of the kite?

As you experiment with kites, you'll find yourself experiencing firsthand the forces that operate upon an airborne kite: lift, weight, tension and drag.

And, of course, you need to deal with and think about wind. What kind of kite flies best in low winds? What modifications can you make to a basic kite to help address changes in wind speed or to facilitate flight in low wind?

There's a lot of room for exploration! These projects can help get you started on a school or Saturday project:

  • Let's Go Fly a Kite! (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 2) This introductory project is perfect for younger students but also offers a good overview of kite dynamics for all ages and raises some important variables that can be explored in more advanced projects.
  • The Wright Stuff: Using Kites to Study Aerodynamics (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5-6)
    This project explores the affect of changing the bridle point—the spot where the string meets the frame. What happens to the angle of flight when the bridle point is altered?
  • How Low Can It Go? Design a Kite that Flies Best in Low Winds (Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5-8)
    This project involves testing three different kite styles to evaluate performance in low winds using an anemometer.

Have you conducted a kite-based study? We'd love to hear about your trials and your results!

« March 2010 | Main Index | Archives | May 2010 »
Science Buddies Science Activities

Support Science Buddies with Amazon Smile


Follow our Facebook page