Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More Cheap Science Experiments

I stumbled across a couple of web sites last weekend that truly epitomize the mantra that "real science and innovation doesn't necessarily require big budgets." Check out these two web sites that show enough experiments and projects to keep students going for a couple of years for about $50 per student across the duration.

Some of the hardened science-teaching veterans among you might be inclined to scoff that these projects don't distill the essence of any one curriculum goal espoused in the state or NCLB teaching standards, or that they fail to promote the meticulous record keeping and lab disciplines essential to early science advancement. Please note that I do believe those goals are important parts of a science curriculum. But I would also argue that perhaps an even more important element has been missing from most science programs.

Students need to develop an understanding that science isn't just about hearing what other people have done and memorizing facts. It is about developing an outlook and method for living life while exploring the world OUTSIDE OF TEXTBOOKS, and OUTSIDE OF FORMAL CLASSES. (note the emphasis on exploring) Science and technology advancement also rest on the realization that one can take fundamental principles described in class, and build really interesting things with materials at hand. Sadly, this is an almost impossible goal when most science lab materials have evolved into sterile pre-constructed and pre-planned cook-book exercises with little or no room for innovation or exploration.

The projects below use common household objects and apply fundamental scientific principles to do cool stuff. And while most of them are not pretty, they could be the first step in applying a more disciplined approach to science and technology development, and to refine and improve the gadgets with ever more rigorous and meticulous care. Consider the projects below starting points that do not sacrifice creative innovation and exploration in the process. In that regard, I would consider a program built around these sorts of projects much more valuable than most of the rote programs I have seen. (End of rant; now on to the fun stuff!)

Here are some of my favorites from David Williamson's wonderful cardboard science and toys site.

This next one is a rather elegant and simple solution to a fundamental problem in robotics and control, that might also lead to a great discussion on the human body and the development of balance in infants, relating to the anatomy of the inner-ear (semi-circular canals) and eyes for callibration, vestibular-occular reflexes and motion sickness.

This next one is a great application of several fundamental physical principles ranging from conservation of angular momentum, energy storage and springs, aerodynamics, and strength of materials and material structures.

I just love this student's expression. "Holy cow! Science really works!" Okay, maybe that's not EXACTLY what she's saying.

This next one is just fantastic. it is an EXTREMELY sensitive magnetic field detector made with less than $1 of parts (not including the laser pointer, because you could make one with an LED or flashlight) It is very sensitive, and will detect a large speaker magnet being slowly rotated from two rooms away. Without the earth nulling magnet the suspended magnet lines itself up north/south. If the earth's field is exactly cancelled out it becomes sensitive to any magnetic anomalies.

Principles discussed could range from magnetism, geomagnetism, optical levers, dynamic and static equilibria, remote sensing, sensor precision...I could go on for a while on this one...

This is a toy originally invented and marketed by Orville Wright.
This version uses two neodymium magnets.

David is prescient enough to warn where this one led one of his students:

(perhaps best left for a homework exercise.) And while you might tend to fear for the neighborhood autos and animals, take heart in that you really need to learn a lot of physics to make an effective and efficient trebuchet.

Soup Tin Sterling Engine

And from
Arvind Gupta's Toys from Trash Site.

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