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Beyond Winter White: A Burst of Color for Winter Engineering

Hands-on winter science may be full of snow and ice, but that doesn't mean it can't be colorful! Take a cue from this inspiring story about an engineering student who gave a colorful twist to a backyard igloo. Students can explore physics, civil engineering, and more in related science projects at home or in the backyard on a snow day!

An igloo made from colored ice bricks is illuminated from within
Above: Rainbow igloo project caught the attention of makers and engineers of all ages—and opens up plenty of angles for hands-on student exploration! View full image set.

In many places, winter months are dominated by a subdued palette, quiet tones of gray and white, deep greens and browns, a monotony of color dictated by snow, wintry skies, barren deciduous trees and evergreens. Spicing up the visual landscape with a burst of unexpected color might be a fun and creative winter challenge. But what shape or medium will your color take? When New Zealand-based engineering student Daniel Gray visited his girlfriend's family in Edmonton, Canada, he was greeted with frigid temperatures and a challenge from his host: brighten things up! More specifically, his girlfriend's mother threw down an engineering gauntlet for Daniel: build an igloo in the back yard.

This may sound a bit like an activity parents might suggest for restless children on a snow day: go build a snow fort! As the story goes, the heart of the igloo challenge was similarly conceived. Brigid Burton (the mother) wanted to have a project to keep Daniel occupied during an extended holiday visit so that he wasn't bored and so that she would have plenty of time with her daughter while Daniel was busy. In preparation, Brigid spent months filling empty milk cartons with colored water and putting them aside to freeze. When Daniel arrived, Daniel learned that he had "work" to do during the holidays, especially if he wanted Brigid's approval of a future engagement between Daniel and her daughter.

Daniel's igloo took approximately 500 colorful frozen ice blocks, a large chunk of time, and lots and lots of snow mixed with water ("snowcrete") to hold the cartons together. In the end, Daniel completed the challenge and secured his future mother-in-law's approval, but Daniel's story—and the whimsy of a rainbow igloo—also caught the attention of engineers and makers everywhere. If the conditions are right... why not try your hand at an igloo!

Making Connections

Building an igloo, in and of itself, is a great conceptual and hands-on project for students. But Daniel's igloo also raises a number of other angles for student inquiry. Here are some suggestions for students interested in exploring a hands-on science project as an outgrowth of the inspiring rainbow igloo story:

  • Dome Sweet Dome: The dome shape of a traditional igloo offers interesting issues for students exploring structural design. Once built, the structure is sound without any internal support beams and strong enough, if done correctly, to support a surprising amount of weight at the centermost external point. In the "Dome Sweet Dome" civil engineering science Project Idea, students construct a geodesic dome from tubes of rolled up newspaper.
  • Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?: Daniel's girlfriend's mother spent months preparing ice bricks for the igloo. If you needed to freeze ice bricks on the spot, however, to supplement a quantity you have ready or to generate a number of bricks in a short amount of time, are you better off using hot water or cold water? Explore the Mpemba effect and put it to the test! Making a few dozen bricks for a small igloo project, ice chest, or snowball barricade in the back yard is a perfect excuse to see whether hot or cold water freezes fastest!
  • Mixing Light to Make Colors: You know that even if you only have a few colors of paint on hand, you can mix a range of secondary and tertiary colors. Does light mix the same way? The translucent colored ice blocks in the rainbow igloo might create interesting colors on the inside, a changing interior as the angle of sunlight on the surface changes throughout the day. In the "Mixing Light to Make Colors" science Project Idea, students use colored films (or hand-colored transparencies) to explore how light shining through different colors mixes to create the color our eyes perceive. Anyone interested in theater knows that different "gels" are often key to getting the right lighting effect! Budding photographers, too, can turn this science exploration into an eye-opening experiment.
  • How Does Color Affect Heating by Absorption of Light?: A typical igloo, made of snow, is opaque, and igloos are known for their ability to offer insulation and warmth even in extremely cold temperatures. The ice bricks in Daniel's igloo are filled with water tinted with food coloring. As a result, these blocks are more translucent than a traditional igloo's snow blocks. Will the rainbow igloo melt more quickly? Will the temperature inside the rainbow igloo be similar to a snow igloo? While the colors used in the ice bricks for the rainbow igloo offer more whimsy than engineering purpose, when it comes to painting a house, color can be an important factor. In the "How Does Color Affect Heating by Absorption of Light?" science Project Idea, students explore the relationship between color and heat absorption using small jars of water covered with various colors of paper. When it comes to creating the warmest space, is there an optimum color for house or windows paints, coverings, or materials?

Additional Reading

To learn more about igloos and other snow-based architecture, check the following books:


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