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Science Buddies Blog: May 2017 Archives

The Color Code - Improving Agriculture with Color-smart Technology

As the world's population continues to grow, finding smarter and more sustainable ways to feed everyone is a global challenge. New solutions in agricultural technology may help. In two new agricultural technology projects, students explore color-based technologies that help students think about ways in which technology can be successfully applied to farming.

The Color Code - Improving Agriculture with Color-smart Technology

Billions to feed

With some growth projections suggesting there could be more than 9 billion mouths to feed by 2100, finding ways to ensure the availability of food for the world's population is a global imperative. To meet the growing need, farmers are racing to find new and sustainable ways to increase production, better and more effective ways to maximize yield. Historically, farming has relied on manual labor and processes, farmers riding farm equipment to prepare and tend fields and monitoring, sampling, and harvesting crops by hand. Today, farmers are adopting management styles that take advantage of technology solutions being designed for and applied to the unique needs and challenges of agriculture. In other words, today's agricultural landscape is increasingly high-tech.

Seeding technology solutions

Agricultural technology offers innovative ways to use computer systems to gather, analyze, and report on field and crop data, to help automate tasks, and to give farmers better information about individual crops. Many farmers are replacing traditional low-tech farming methods with high-tech, smart systems. These new tools apply computer science, robotics, and electronics to farm management tasks and have the potential to significantly impact a farmer's success.

Science Buddies is committed to helping students explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with real-world implications. Students interested in agriculture can get hands-on with projects that examine emerging technologies and can test, innovate, and evaluate ways that technology may be used to help address the world's food needs and improve agricultural processes and management. Two new high school student science project ideas encourage students to experiment with agricultural technology. In both of these projects, color plays a key role in a tech solution that may help farmers more efficiently tend and harvest fields and crops.

Is it ripe?

A new plant biology project idea from Science Buddies guides students in an exploration of electronics that could be used to help farmers assess fields or crops. In the Is It Ripe Yet? Build a Circuit to Detect Ripe Produce project, students build a circuit that can differentiate between the colors red and green. This kind of sensor-based circuit could have many agricultural uses. For example, farm equipment could be programmed to automatically tell which plants are ripe and which ones are not, resulting in smarter and more efficient harvesting. It may sound like science fiction to have robotic equipment harvest only the ripe strawberries in a crop, but in this project, students create the kind of circuit that might someday be used for exactly this purpose.

In this project, students build an electronic color-detecting circuit using a light-emitting diode (LED) and a photoresistor. By investigating how the photoresistor's resistance changes when you illuminate different color surfaces with a red LED, students create and fine-tune a circuit with an LED that lights up if the fruit or produce is ripe (red) and does not light up if the fruit is not ripe (green).

A bird's-eye view

In the new Smarter Farming with Aerial Photo Analysis environmental science project idea from Science Buddies, students investigate what can be determined from looking at the color histograms of a photo. After comparing histograms to see how colors (like green and brown) can be quantitatively differentiated, students write up a set of steps that could be repeated by a computer (e.g., an algorithm) to evaluate a photo and determine how "green" the photo is. After first testing with construction paper, students then test (and adjust) their algorithm to see how well it work with aerial photos of grassy (green) and non-grassy land (brown).

If successful, this kind of computer analysis of aerial (bird's-eye) photos of an area might someday help farmers make decisions about field health and treatment for individual fields or even areas of a field, rather than treating all fields based on small data samples.

Learn more about agricultural technology

The new Agricultural Technology Science Projects page is a special interest collection of student science, technology, engineering, and math projects and resources, including related careers.

Support for the new Agricultural Technology collection was provided by the Pentair Foundation and the Donaldson Foundation.

Science with Fidget Spinners

Fidget spinners are incredibly popular right now with kids. There is some argument about whether or not there is "science" behind the claims that the toy helps some kids focus, and some schools have gone so far as to ban the toys. At Science Buddies, we are more interested in the fun science kids can DO with these toys. From 3D printing and design to data analysis and even physics, with fidget spinners on hand, kids can tap into engaging science explorations this summer and turn the "spin" into a learning experience.

Science with Fidget Spinners
Above: A three-blade fidget spinner at rest (left) and spinning (right).

The Fidget Spinner Craze

Over the last few months, fidget spinners have gained widespread popularity with elementary and middle school kids. A small handheld toy, fidget spinners come in a wide range of models, differentiated first by the number of blades (or prongs) and then by the type of bearing, the color, and the material. One of the most well-known styles is the popular three-blade fidget spinner, with ball bearings in each prong and in the center. Made from plastic and skateboard ball bearings, fidget spinners do just one thing—they spin.

Whether they actually reduce fidgeting, help alleviate stress, or improve concentration or focus has been hotly debated by the media. Despite the claims that the sensory experience of spinning a fidget spinner may be calming or focusing for some students, some schools have banned the toy. Beyond the media hubbub about the toy, most kids playing with fidget spinners probably don't care whether the spinner has psychological grounding or not. Fidget spinners are simply cool and fun to handle. (And maybe when they spin a fidget spinner, they thump their desk less, or shift around in their seat less, or bite their nails less, or twirl their hair less, or tune in better to the lesson being taught and have better recall later. Maybe.)

What is it about a fidget spinner that makes it so fascinating for kids? Why have kids latched on to these little bits of spinning plastic? Maybe it is the action of flicking a fidget spinner to keep it spinning. (It takes a bit of practice. You might even get a bit of a blister or a callous before you find your fidget spinner flow, and perfecting that flow for the smoothest spin is part of the challenge.) Maybe it is the sound the spinner makes while it spins. (Some spinners are quieter than others, but some spinners do make a whirring noise as they spin.) Maybe it is the sensation of the spinner spinning, the simple feel of it in the hand. Or maybe it is the movement of air created by the spinning, a small fidget-spinner-induced breeze. Ask a fidget spinner fan, and you might get one of many different answers about the appeal of the toy, but for a true spinner fan, the toy is always close at hand.

If you have never tried a fidget spinner, maybe you should! Before you move on to find ways to explore science with a spinner, try a spinner just to see what the craze is all about. Pick the spinner up. Hold the center bearing between your thumb and finger, top and bottom, and use a finger from your other hand to give one of the blades a firm push to set the spinner in motion. How long does it spin? Is the spin smooth? Do the blades bump into your hand? What does the "spin" feel like? What does it sound like? If you have another spinner on hand, spin it. Does it behave the same? If there are differences, what are they and why?

Today, there are independent online sellers, mainstream sellers, and scads of videos showing fidget spinners in action. That the toy is totally analog, doesn't plug in or light up or involve a screen, makes the fidget spinner an unexpected novelty, almost anachronistic, on the kid scene. But hot schoolyard toys are often similarly and surprisingly analog. Last year, the must-have toy in some areas was the Kendama, a wooden ball attached by a string to a handle with a wooden spoke on which you try and catch the ball. In prior years, Beyblades (which also spin) were popular, and before that, there were Bakugan. Shaped ("silly") rubber bands had their turn at school, as did rubber band bracelets. And, in the mix, proving its longevity, yo-yos come and go in the hive mentality of the schoolyard. Periodically, a student comes along with some serious sleeper or walk the dog yo-yo skills, and the classic "spinning" toy gains renewed interest.

Despite the fact that all they do is spin, as this school year winds down, fidget spinners have taken the top spot on the playground. Fidget spinners are cool, but beyond spinning, what can you do with a fidget spinner? Science, of course!

Data at Hand

Sellers of custom fidget spinners often sell spinners made from different materials or with different kinds of ball bearings. To help fidget spinner fans decide what kind of custom spinner they want, many sellers provide extensive information about the differences in spin time with different kinds of bearings. Better (longer-spinning) bearings typically mean higher prices, but for fidget spinner connoisseurs, getting the longest and smoothest spin possible is often the goal. (The length of spin is one of the few ways that fidget spinner owners can "compare" their spinners with others, which often plays into schoolyard interest.) While longer-spinning bearings have appeal, they may also make more noise, so sorting out the pros and cons of various options becomes important for prospective buyers.

Students with access to an assortment of fidget spinners can turn this "keep your hands occupied" toy into a quantitative, data-gathering science project by testing and comparing spinners with different kinds of bearings or with different numbers of spokes. Do different bearings really make a difference in how long a spinner spins? Different bearings also may make differing amounts of noise. Does a spinner with 2 blades spin as long as a three-pronged spinner? It is easy to do some testing, gather data, and draw conclusions! Students can explore data charting and graphing, find averages, experiment with histograms, and more!

Students with access to an Android phone can also experiment with using Google's Science Journal App to record and compare the noise of different spinners. For more information about using the Science Journal app, see: Google's Science Journal App Transforms a Cell Phone into a Powerful Tool for Science Class

Colorful Spin

Watching a spinner can be mesmerizing. Depending on the colors and patterning of the spinner, you may see illusions during the spinning, including illusions related to color. Some spinners are striped or have more than one color. What happens when the spinner spins? Depending on the colors on the spinner and the spacing of the bands of color, your eyes may see a different color completely or what looks like concentric rings of color. What kinds of patterns can you create by experimenting with the arrangement of color on the top of the spinner?

With a spinner on hand, students can adapt the Spinning Colors: How Do Primary Colors Combine to Make New Colors? project to learn more about color and light. The project typically uses a drill with a sanding disk to create a spinning surface. The objective of the project is to investigate how primary colors combine to make new colors.

With a fidget spinner, students can create their own "disks" out of cardstock (or other lightweight paper) to cover the blades of the spinner with different colors (or patterns). When they spin the fidget spinner, what will they see?

3D Printing

Students interested in printing their own spinners can experiment with 3D modeling and design to create their own 3D printing file for a spinner body. With a custom body printed out, kids can buy their own skateboard bearings and pop them in place for a totally DIY fidget spinner experience. The Design and 3D-Print Your Own Robot! * project at Science Buddies is about designing robots, but interested students can use this information as a launching point for experimenting with the 3D design of fidget spinners.

Making Connections

Kids you get excited about the science they can explore with a fidget spinner may also enjoy projects and STEM investigations like these:

Additional Reading

For other media and science coverage of fidget spinners, see:

Students Find Flow in Third Successful Fluor Challenge

Congratulations to everyone that participated and submitted a water flow solution for the 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge. Science Buddies and Fluor were impressed by the creative and innovative solutions submitted by students around the world.

Fluor Challenge photo from a student doing the experiment

This year's Fluor Engineering Challenge gave students a real-world puzzle to solve. Using the Banaue Rice Terraces as inspiration, could students design a terraced water flow solution with plastic cups, tape, aluminum foil, and Popsicle sticks? More than 2,000 years old, the Banaue Rice Terraces are often referred to as an Eighth World Wonder. Would students be up to the challenge for creating non-mechanical water flow machines that use similar principles?

The 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge laid out specific materials requirements and limitations, set up a scoring matrix so that balancing the materials used with the performance of the solution was something students had to take into consideration, and invited K-12 students around the world to build, test, and submit their water flow solutions.

This is the third year of the Fluor Engineering Challenge and the third year that Fluor has awarded cash prizes via random drawings to schools and organizations participating in the challenge. To support the importance of trying the challenge and learning by doing, every student or team that enters, within certain geographic locations, is entered in the random drawing, regardless of score. Ten cash awards of $1,000 (USD) were awarded based on random drawings.

Water in the Classroom

Every year, the Fluor Engineering Challenge at Science Buddies is an adaptation of a challenge that has been done by Fluor engineers in a global, annual competition within the company. In the first two years of the student Fluor Engineering Challenge, students were tasked with building a balloon-powered car and a marble sorting machine. This year, the challenge upped the game by adding water to the mix.

For teachers, a water-based activity can be particularly challenging in the classroom—and messy. With limited space and limited time for cleanup, a water requirement can be tricky to manage, but this year's water requirement didn't stop teachers from planning and leading the Follow the Flow activity with their students. More than 3,000 students participated in the 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge.

In small teams or by themselves, kids around the world put their creative thinking and engineering skills to the test. They were presented with the challenge. They brainstormed a solution. They built their solution. They tested their designs, and then they modified their solutions to make improvements based on their tests. In this year's challenge, students designed a system of cups that would carry water from top to bottom. According to the challenge, each layer needed to hold 1cm of water, and the solution had to have at least two but no more than 10 layers.

Students doing 2017 Fluor Challenge

Student Innovation

Year after year, the Fluor Challenge reminds Science Buddies' staff and educators that the Engineering Design Process invites and depends upon innovation and creative thinking. Given the opportunity, students are creative thinkers and bring their own unique ideas to the challenge at hand.

There is no single solution to this year's Fluor Challenge. A sample photo gave students a way to start thinking about the challenge, but students who took the challenge approached their designs from scratch. They had their own ideas about how best to solve the problem, and they had fun seeing if their ideas would work.

Science Buddies saw an amazing array of solutions to this year's water flow challenge as students submitted their entries, and, across the board, students left feedback indicating how much they enjoy this kind of challenge. Their comments clearly reinforce the value of providing hands-on opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

Here are some of sample comments from students who did the 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge (and from teachers that made their exploration possible) about what they enjoyed most about this year's challenge:

  • " it made Engineering innovative from 2,000 years ago and is still applicable to this day."
  • "Getting to test it, seeing the flaws in your plan, and to keep on trying and fixing it."
  • "My favorite part of the 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge was making the model itself. It was certainly a challenge, and I had a lot of fun. There was also a lot of competition, and there were millions of ways on how could you design up your model. Also, it taught me some things I didn't know about engineering."
  • "Our favorite part of the Fluor challenge was when we tested our product. We never had more happiness then the time we saw it work and all of the marbles reach the bottom."
  • "I really liked the planning phase of building. It felt good to design methods of water flowing, to see if it worked, and If it didn't, then we would re-design it, and that was the fun part."
  • "I liked the part of having so much freedom when designing our idea for the challenge."
  • "My favorite part of the Fluor challenge was getting to plan and design an irrigation system, then getting to bring my plan to life and seeing it [succeed]."
  • "I had a great time with my teammate trying to build something different from what we usually do."
  • "I really enjoyed that when the test failed you got to do it over and that you could always add more layers."
  • "My favorite part of the Fluor challenge was actually creating the irrigation system after making a well thought out plan for construction."
  • "Working and collaborating together and re-engineering it when something goes wrong."
  • "I got to make a cool irrigation system with my partner, as well as communicating throughout the project."
  • "Knowing that we had to be able to build the item with a limited amount of supplies you have to use. And actually making it work."
  • "It made people show their creativity with limited resources."
  • "It was really fun thinking of different ideas for how our thing would work, and coming up with new ways to solve the problem when something didn't work."
  • "Our favorite part of the Fluor Engineering Challenge was working together in a group and collaborating and sharing ideas to come up with a unique diorama of the Rice Terraces."
  • "Our favorite part of the challenge was going through the engineering process and creating our product. When a problem arose, we would change and think of a way out. Working as a team really helped."
  • "It was the building that was the most fun. It was cool to see where we started and where we ended up."
  • "Trying to do this with 100 7th and 8th graders was insane, but they had a blast. Thank you so much! They truly enjoyed this!!!!"

To see the drawing winners and teams with the top scores from this year's challenge, visit the Fluor Engineering Challenge page.

A Great K-12 Challenge

For Science Buddies and Fluor, the third annual Fluor Engineering Challenge was an unparalleled success. According to Sandra Slutz, Director of Science for Science Buddies, "The Fluor Engineering Challenge is one of my favorite events to work on every year because of the clear and immediate impact it has on students. This year's feedback from teachers and students has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, with many describing the experience as both challenging and fun. To me, that is the highest of praise! The Challenge stretches the students to work on a novel problem that is just outside of their everyday comfort zone. It expands their horizons, yet they have fun doing it and, in the end, feel proud of their success and have a positive view of themselves as engineers and problem solvers."

Science Buddies and Fluor are already planning next year's challenge with Fluor. It is going to be exciting!

A Great Classroom or Home Activity

The 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge is over, but the project is still available on the Science Buddies website. Students can do the Follow the Flow engineering activity at any time!

Students doing 2017 Fluor Engineering Challenge

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