Summer 2014: Robots, Day 2 or 3

imagesDay 2 of our 3-part summer series on robotics was a blast! Jeff Goodin started us off with a great introductory discussion about robotics, pointing out that robotics exist everywhere in our daily lives. There are sensors that automatically turn on water faucets or flush our toilets; there are sensors in cars that help us park our cars and avoid running into objects; and scientists can even create fully functioning hands and arms for people who may lose their limb in an accident! When Jeff asked our kids if they could think of any other things that might be robotic, one of our young scientists even recommended the creation of a robot squirrel to help get kites out of trees :)

Jeff was again joined by adult mentors Ray Kelchner, Rob Brucato, and Joe Grzybowski and current teen and alum members of the Mecha Rams:  Sean Kelchner, Christian Kenney, Michael Defranesco, and Bella Guo (alum). Jeff kept the introduction short, because there was no time to waste – the purpose of day 2 was to get our G3 scientists familiar with the LEGO® Mindstorms kits. But before we jumped into the days activities, there was one very important task that needed to be taken care of:  choosing official team names for the competition that will take place on Day 3!  Our 4 groups of young scientists became…

  1. The Cyber Rams
  2. The Mechanical Monkeys
  3. The Iron Cheetahs
  4. The Metal Dragons

Kids had the opportunity to again make some buttons – this time with their team name on them. There were also several stations set up with laptop computers and the LEGO® Mindstorm software. Most of the program time was an opportunity for our G3 crew to work with the teen and adult mentors to learn how to program the LEGO® robots and test the programs they created. We also had a station set up with iPads so that our kids could continue to practice coding with Angry Birds on code.org. After some failed attempts with unexpected results, most of our teams were able to successfully program a robot and watch it fully perform an expected series of actions.

Next week, the final day of our program series, our teams will be hard at work preparing for the day’s competition(s). I wonder which team will be the victor?… :)

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Summer 2014: Robots, Day 1 of 3

I like to refer to the summer of 2014 as “Return of the Robots!” We had such a great time with the Cheshire High School Mecha Rams (FIRST Robotics Team #999) that I couldn’t wait to invite them back for another program series this summer. Jeff Goodin was just as excited as me by the idea, and he and his teen mentors have worked hard to put together a great series of events and activities for our G3 scientists to introduce them to the amazing world of robotics.  Jeff was unable to join us for this first day, but he had adult mentors Ray Kelchner, Rob Brucato, and Joe Grzybowski do a bang-up job of filling in for him. They were joined by current teen and alum members of the Mecha Rams:  Sean Kelchner, Christian Kenney, Michael Defranesco, Dan Fisher, and Bella Guo (alum). The teens will attend the full program series to help mentor our young scientists through all of the activities.

One of the coolest moments of the day had to be be when our G3 crew was introduced to the Mecha Rams award-winning robot, “Tomorrow.” Last year, their robot didn’t survive the rigorous competition rounds; this year, we were lucky to see the actual competition robot in action. The goal this year was to design a robot that could launch a ball through a hoop. Points could be achieved by actually sending the ball through the hoop, but they could also be achieved by assisting other robots to do the same. Ray Kelchner described the robot competitions as something like a basketball game. Your team combines with other teams, and you have brief strategy discussions to see who will perform what function on the team. You might be on “offense” and work to launch a ball through a hoop. You might be on “defense” and work to protect your own goal. You also might be like a point guard, who “assists” other players by putting them in the perfect position to score points for the larger team. The robot Tomorrow actually turned out to be a great “assist” robot, feeding balls to other robots for scoring maneuvers.

After meeting Tomorrow and watching the Mecha Rams manipulate him both outside in the parking and indoors in our program room, it was time to divide the room into 3 large groups for the day’s activities. There were 3 stations set up in the room:

  1. STATION ONE:  BUTTON MAKING.  Students were allowed to design and produce their own wearable button. A big part of robotics competitions involves the fanfare and team spirit – many people show their support and spirit through the vast number of thematic buttons they wear to the competition venues.
  2. STATION TWO:  COMPUTER CODING.  Working on laptops or iPads, the G3 crew got some practice with coding…coding an Angry Birds game, that is, by visiting www.code.org. :)
  3. STATION THREE:  THINK LIKE A PROGRAMMER.  Working in groups of three or four, our G3 scientists programmed each other using a handy robot dictionary that was provided by the Mecha Rams. They wrote their own code with paper and pencil to guide a human “robot” through a maze with the goal of picking up a beach ball from the floor.

STATION ONE: BUTTON MAKING

Our G3 crew had a lot of fun making their own buttons. The designs ranged from cool pictures to fun team names to just buttons showcasing their own names.

STATION TWO: COMPUTER CODING

When we took a vote at the end of the day, this activity by far was the favorite among our G3 crew. They worked in pairs on either a laptop or iPad to practice their coding skills with the fun of Angry Birds thrown in. Of course that was a blast! Several kids even came up to me as the program day ended to make sure I was posting the web site on my blog post so they could visit it again on their own time and continue playing with code (and Angry Birds!) :)

STATION THREE: THINK LIKE A PROGRAMMER

This station was a lot of fun because it really showed our G3 crew how difficult it is to think like a programmer. The kids were first given a “robot dictionary” to help them in designing the instructions they would give their human partner (acting as a robot) to walk through a maze and pick up a beach ball at the end. All groups were given the opportunity to walk through the maze, testing their code, before they made a formal attempt to complete the course. When they were ready, the person giving the code turned their back to the maze (so they couldn’t see what their partner was doing on the course itself). Instructions were given one-by-one, and the partner in the course was forced to only perform actions as instructed by their partner. Many of our teams discovered just how difficult it was to get a person through the course to the end. In fact, when Rob Brucato turned the “announcer” around to see where their “robot” partner ended up, some of our kids even had a hard time spotting their “robot” partner in the room because they had gone so far off course!

LOOKING AHEAD TO DAY 2 OF THE SERIES…

Later this week, the G3 scientists will do their first hands-on work with the LEGO® Mindstorms kits and continue fine-tuning their coding and programming skills. We’ll also be putting our G3 scientists into their smaller competition teams, they’ll come up with formal team names, and even create their own team buttons!  All of this will lead up to the final program of our series on July 24th, when the G3 teams will actually compete in a final challenge using their robots. I can’t wait to see my G3 scientists dive into their hands-on work with the robots :)

 

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Program 34: ArtBots!

Art + Robots = Crazy Fun!

The G3 scientists and I LOVED this most recent program that tested our skills on the gadget/gizmo end of the spectrum. With a few simple items from the dollar store plus a little tenacity (some of the connections can be a little finicky), we created with our own hands some nifty “robots” that created art!  I’ll stray a bit from my usual style of blog posts to include step-by-step instructions with pictures below (as I found that particularly handy in explaining the project to others). There are many sites that actually provide instructions for how to create versions of artbots, but I rarely found one with pictures (and personally I find visual references very helpful). So here goes! If you have any questions, feel free to post them to comments and I’ll see if I can give some needed advice :)

Materials

  • Electric toothbrush + some spares (I purchased the Luminant brand battery-operated brushes sold at Dollar Tree; I found it handy to have a few spares on hand)
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Box cutter (to cut the pool noodles down to size)
  • Electrical tape + scissors (though masking tape or duct tape probably work similarly)
  • A styrofoam pool noodle (I found these at Dollar Tree as well)
  • Rubber bands
  • Markers or pens (thin or thick – makes no difference!)
  • Spare batteries (just in case the one that came with the toothbrush is a dud)
  • Any other supplies you want to use for decorating

STEP ONE:  Test the toothbrush battery and motor

image

Step 1

This is a simple enough test. Following the instructions on the back of the toothbrush package, you simply need to insert the battery into the toothbrush and turn it on. I found that some of the toothbrushes were a bit temperamental even at this step. If the toothbrush didn’t work at first, I give the brush a gentle shake or smack with my hand. On the rare occasion that even that didn’t turn the brush on, I provided a new battery and that fixed the problem.

STEP TWO:  Removing the battery casing

image-2

Step 2B

Step 2A

Step 2A

This step takes a little muscle and the needle-nosed pliers. Pull the bottom off the toothbrush, remove the battery, and look inside. You’ll see a circle of plastic – that’s the top of the battery casing. You need to grasp one edge of the casing with the pliers and firmly yank to pull the battery casing outside of the toothbrush casing. On a rare occasion, the metal piece attached to the battery casing pulled off during this step. If that happened, I had a spare toothbrush on hand for my scientist to use.

STEP THREE: Removing the motor with spring

This step was a favorite for a lot of my scientists :) With luck, you may find that the motor and spring naturally fall out of the toothbrush casing when you pull out the battery casing. If that doesn’t happen, you need to shake it loose from the toothbrush. My scientists and I discovered that the best way to do this was to the throw the toothbrush down onto a carpeted floor. If you use this method, be aware that the spring may detach from the motor. It’s easy enough to hook the spring back onto the motor, but you may lose sight of the spring itself, especially if you have a dark-colored carpet like we have in our program room. In a few cases we needed to crack open some spare toothbrushes simply to pirate the spring piece for one of my scientists.

After steps two and three, you should have the following two pieces:

image-3

Battery Casing + Motor with Spring

Step 4

Step 4

STEP FOUR:  Put the battery back in the casing

You’ll notice in the picture above that the metal piece attached to the battery casing has a longer straight piece that sticks out above the smooth, curved edge of the casing – and a shorter end that sticks out from the end that has two little plastic “legs.” When you put the battery back into the casing, you want the positive end (with the bump) to stick out from the same end as the little plastic legs.

STEP FIVE:  Creating the base of our re-purposed motor

image-7

Step 5C

Step 5B

Step 5B

Step 5A

Step 5A

For this step, you use the bottom, colored piece from the toothbrush itself and place the battery with casing from the above step into the colored piece (this is the piece from the toothbrush that actually has the on/off switch on it). The battery should go into the colored piece with the positive end first (the end with the bump). As you’re pushing the battery into the colored piece, you also want to line up the metal square on the colored piece with the metal piece from the battery casing. The metal piece from the battery casing should overlap the metal square on the base piece (refer to the pictures on the right). When you have the metal pieces overlapping, and you’re sure that the battery is pushed fully into the base piece, you should securely tape these components together with the electrical tape. [It's okay to have the tape directly touch the metal pieces - you need to make sure this connection stays secure.]

STEP SIX:  Attaching the motor and spring to the battery and base

image-10

Step 6C

Step 6B

Step 6B

Step 6A

Step 6A

This is by far the trickiest step – not because it is difficult to put the pieces together but because the connections themselves need to be spot on or you won’t have a functioning motor. Looking at the motor and spring, you’ll see that on one side there are two small copper connectors on either side of the motor. The copper connector on the left is attached to the spring – the connector on the right is slightly curved but is not attached to anything. It is the right copper connector that you need to work with. You need to hook and/or align the metal piece still sticking up from the top of the battery/base component to that free copper connector on the right. I actually found it very handy to have the on/off switch of the base in the “on” position for this step so you can be sure when you have all pieces properly aligned. Once your connection is good and your motor is spinning – with the the base still turned “on” – firmly tape the motor and spring to the battery/base component with the spring in direct contact with the battery.  I also found that, on occasion, I needed to jury-rig the whole assembly once everything was taped together because despite repeated taping attempts the battery in the base kept slipping a little. This fix was simple enough – a double-wrapped rubber band placed around the whole assembly length-wise (you will have to wiggle it a little to make sure the on/off switch is still accessible, and you need to make sure the spinning portion of the motor is free on the other end). This fix consistently worked for several of my scientists and me.

STEP SEVEN:  Putting the final pieces together

image-12

Step 7B

Step 7A

Step 7A

Now we’re getting to the really fun stuff! I cut manageable pieces from the styrofoam pool noodles (about 4.5 inches in length) – you can do this with scissors, but I found it much easier to do with a box cutter. [NOTE: I did this step in advance of the program and then just let my scientists choose their favorite color.]  You take your fully taped motor assembly and push it into the hole inside the pool noodle piece, making sure that the on/off switch remains exposed for easy access. [NOTE:  You should once again test your device to make sure no connections have come loose by turning it "on" at this point.  If the motor is no longer turning on, simply pull it out of the styrofoam piece and retape where necessary.]  Place rubber bands around the outside of the pool noodle piece near both the top and bottom of the piece. Attach as many markers as you want by pushing them under the rubber bands, with the inked ends sticking out from the opposite end of the on/off switch. Now give the piece a good test by placing it onto a piece of scrap paper and turning it on.

FINAL STEP:  Decorate!

Now that you have a fully functioning device, truly transform it into an “artbot” by decorating your robot and giving it some real personality. I provided our scientists with pipe cleaners, googly eyes, feathers, and fun buttons. Some artbots can be made using plastic cups and the like, but the beauty of the styrofoam pool noodle pieces is that decorating is a snap! All you need to do is push materials directly into the styrofoam – no glue or tape required.

image-17

Let’s Decorate!

Now you can just have some fun :) I actually covered our usual program tables with paper so my scientists didn’t even have to worry about scrap paper. Once the artbots were assembled and decorated, my scientists had free reign of table surfaces to create their art. At some point, of course, the battery will likely wear out and you will need to pull the motor assembly out of the styrofoam, remove the tape, and replace the battery. But that’s a simple price to pay for such a fun gadget!

 

Categories: Gadgets | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Program 33: Tastes Like Butter (Got Milk Revisited)

Milk…yum!  Butter…even better!

The past couple of weeks my G3 crew and I revisited a really fun program that lets us play with some basic ingredients from the food store. And, as a bonus, I added a yummy component to the day’s activities – making our own butter!

EXPERIMENT #1:  Let’s Make Butter!

Materials

  • Heavy whipping cream (room temperature – out of the fridge for 6-8 hours)
  • Small jars with secure lids (I used recycled 4 oz. baby food jars, one for each scientist)
  • A little salt for flavoring
  • Bread, for snacking

I recently stumbled across a youtube video where a man was making his own butter with his own two hands in a very simple process. So simple, in fact, that I was amazed I had never heard of the process before. And interestingly, none of my G3 scientists had ever done this experiment either! So, I told my crew that our first challenge for the day was for each of us to make our own butter…so we could have a tasty after-school snack!

I passed out the jars, which had about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of heavy cream in the bottom. [This small amount of cream produces plenty of butter for each individual scientist, approximately 1-2 servings.] I instructed my scientists to add a pinch of salt for flavoring (most of us eat salted butter at the dinner table). We sealed the jars tight, and then it was just a question of some time and arm muscle. You need to shake the cream in the jar for about 10-15 minutes to instigate the physical change in the cream. Basically, when you agitate the cream for a long enough period of time, you are helping to separate the fat solids from the “butter milk.” [NOTE: Leaving the cream at room temperature for a while helps the physical transformation along at a quicker rate.] Our group actually did not get to the stage where the solid fat and butter milk truly separate – our results were more of a whipped butter quality. However, that did nothing to impact the taste! I passed out some bread so that every scientist could taste their own butter creations. All agreed that it was very yummy :)

The second part of our program was all about MILK.

Milk is a beverage that most of us drink every single day, but probably not one that we give much thought to. Some of us drink cow’s milk. Others of us (myself included) drink other varieties of milk, like almond milk or rice milk. Because I just can’t help myself when it comes to sharing ‘fun facts,’ here’s a highlight of some information I shared with the group at the start of our program:

  1. The habit of drinking milk actually became popular over 10,000 years ago when animals were first domesticated in Afghanistan and Iran. Domestic cows – where we get most of our milk – didn’t even arrive in North America until the 1600’s!
  2. Cows produce 90% of the world’s milk needs, and an average cow can produce the equivalent of about 90 glasses of milk a day (or 200,000 glasses during its lifetime).
  3. But Cows aren’t the only animals that produce the milk and dairy products that humans consume. You can add to that list goats, sheep, apes, yaks, water buffalo, reindeer, and horses!
  4. Why do our dentists say that milk is good for our teeth? Milk and dairy products actually reduce the amount of acidity in our mouths, curb plaque formation, and even reduce the risk of cavities.

As scientists, though, we want to know what exactly milk is…so we can figure out some fun ways to experiment with it. Think of milk as a solution of mostly water that also contains vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fat “droplets.” The proteins and fats actually float around freely in the solution. The gotmilk website actually has some very fun online games that show you just how difficult it is to create a substitute beverage for milk.

Our mission for the ‘got milk’ experiments was a simple one:  What happens when you add food color drops to milk, and then introduce a drop of regular dish washing soap?

 

EXPERIMENT #2:  Colorful Milk

Materials:

  • Milk (I only used whole milk this time around, but when we did this experiment in the past I had our scientists test various kinds of milk – including skim, 1% and 2%)
  • Liquid food coloring (NOT the gel food coloring that is popular in stores today – I actually discovered the liquid food colors shelved with the spices at the food store)
  • Plastic or coated plates (the first time around we used coated paper plates, but over time even they get rather droopy, so this time we used plastic plates)
  • Q-tips
  • Liquid dish soap (any variety – I used Dawn brand soap)
  • Small Dixie or bathroom cups to put the soap in
  • Paper towels for any mess

We poured just enough milk into our plates to completely cover the bottom of the plate. Each scientist determined which colors to add to the milk solution. Only 1 or 2 drops of food coloring per color is necessary, but some of our scientists wanted to add more in specific patterns throughout their plates of milk. Once the drops of food coloring were in place, we dipped a standard q-tip into the Dawn soap, and then slowly lowered it into the center of the plate of milk (you don’t have to put the q-tip into the color drops themselves). What were the results?

The results were both instantaneous and VERY COOL. With just a single drop of dish soap, the colors instantly begin to swirl around the milk in crazy patterns. But why does this happen? Well, remember from our description of the milk solution that the fat droplets are actually floating around in the main solution of the milk. The dish soap molecules are designed to instantly want to attach themselves to fat molecules. [That's why dish soap does such a good job of cleaning up greasy pots and pans!] As the soap molecules race around the solution trying to attach to the floating fat droplets, the food coloring molecules are frantically pushed around the plate. Hence, the crazy swirling of colors that the G3 scientists witnessed!

What would happen if you tested this with other liquids/beverages? This is a simple experiment that can be done at home. Just be careful with the food coloring since it will stain just about any material. You can also read more about this experiment by looking at the “Color Changing Milk” experiment on Steve Spangler’s web site.

 

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Program 32: Polymers…diapers and goo?!?

I love revisiting certain programs from the early days of G3…and this program on polymers was begging to be revisited. Not only are polymers just the coolest thing in the world, but it’s also been a while since we had fun with some mess and goo :)

Polymers can be found just about everywhere – in places you might not even have realized. They are in natural materials like wool and silk (among many others), and then also in many man-made synthetic materials like nylon and rubber. [A rubber duckie, for example, is made of synthetic polymers.] Even the double-helix strand of DNA is a form of a polymer known as a “biopolymer.”  But what exactly is a polymer?

The word polymer means “many parts.” The individual parts that actually combine to form a polymer chain are called monomers.  Sometimes a substance can actually help polymer chains link together and form a more solid substance. The youtube video below, uploaded by TTScienceClub, does a great job of graphically showing the basic formation of polymers and linked polymer chains:

Our G3 scientists had the opportunity to test out polymers with two fun experiments:  “Diaper Magic” and “Goo!”

Experiment #1:  Diaper Magic

Materials:

  • Diapers (we used Seventh Generation size 3 diapers)
  • Dark colored construction paper
  • Scissors
  • Gallon-sized zip-top plastic bags
  • Clear plastic cups (I gave each scientist 2)
  • Plastic spoons for stirring

I love this experiment so much. For some reason, even just discussing diapers completely grosses out all of our G3 scientists – and they certainly don’t want to touch them. I think too many of our scientists are used to helping their parents change younger siblings out of dirty diapers, so it’s hard to imagine diapers from a scientist’s perspective :)

We’ve all seen diaper commercials on TV, where one brand after another claims to be the “most absorbent.”  But what makes a diaper so absorbent in the first place? Is it the cotton stuffing? Not really. It’s one of many uses of modern polymers. Tiny polymers no larger than a grain of sand are mixed into the cotton lining the inside of a diaper. Modern diapers actually contain a super absorbent polymers no larger than grains of sand – they are called polyacrylic acid and are designed to attract water molecules. Each polymer can absorb about 30 times it’s weight in water! All said, most modern diapers can absorb about a half cup of water.

Well, our G3 scientists got a chance to test this out!  Steve Spangler’s web site provides a great description of this experiment, along with the following how-to video:

Each scientist received their own diaper. We cut into the lining, pulled apart the cotton, and shook the polymer grains onto a piece of colored construction paper (to make it easier to see the white polymers). To make sure we got as many polymers as possible, we also pulled the cotton lining from the diapers, sealed it in gallon sized plastic bags, and shook it for a few minutes. [You'll be surprised at how many more polymers you can get by doing this additional step!] We poured the polymers into a clear plastic cup, and then added water 1/4 cup water. I also put water bottles on the tables so our scientists could add additional water in small increments to see how much water their polymers could actually absorb.  The result?  The polymers absorbed the water, and congealed to form a squishy, gel-like substance. If the gel-like substance is powdery and loose, it can still absorb water; if the substance is moist, you’ve already reached the capacity of the polymers you collected. Our scientists all pushed their polymers to the limit and ended up with a substance that was definitely more moist and liquid than it started out as.

I believe that if you leave the cup full of squishy polymers on a counter top for a few days (or longer) and allow the water to evaporate, the polymers should return to their original state…what do you think?

Experiment #2:  Goo!

Materials:

  • 1/4 cup glue (we used white, but clear glue should work as well)
  • 1/4 cup water (we used tap water)
  • 1/4 cup liquid starch (you can find this in most supermarkets, but you can also order liquid starch online from sites like Amazon.com)
  • Paper bowls (ideally lined so they can handle wet items)
  • Plastic spoons for stirring
  • Food coloring optional (we chose NOT to use food coloring)

Our second experiment involves every scientist’s favorite concoction:  GOO!  There are many different goo (or slime) experiments available online. We based our goo on a formula provided by Science Bob that is equal parts water, liquid starch, and glue. We specifically used 1/4 cup of each item in our mix. Though we didn’t do this the day of our program, food coloring can be added during the early stages to make goo of a specific color. First we stirred together the water and glue in a small bowl. You know the glue and water are combined well when it looks like you have a thick, milky liquid in your bowl. We then slowly added the liquid starch. The starch is the key goo ingredient; it is the substance that binds together (links) the polymer chains present in the glue and gives us our slimy goo. The more you stir the three ingredients together, they better they combine. Our G3 scientists loved the goo, especially since it is solid enough to pick up in your hands, stretch, and pound.

Below is a peek at our scientists in action. G3 is now on break until the first week of May, but I can’t wait until we meet again :)

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Reminder: This week tracks A & B are combined!

madscientistHi, G3 scientists!

Just a reminder that because I was out sick last week for the Track A program, I am inviting all Track A kids to come to the Track B program this Thursday on April 3rd. Trust me – it’s going to be tons of fun – so I hope I see everyone there!

:) Nicole

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Program 31: Light & Color

I’ve always loved rainbows. There’s nothing more special than seeing a brilliant rainbow in the sky after a summer storm, or seeing dozens of miniature rainbows floating about your room thanks to a strategically placed prism in the window. But how do we see certain colors in the world around us? And is there a difference between the colors we see in, say, ink on paper, and the colors of light we might see in the sky via a rainbow?

I turned to “the master,” Bill Nye, to start off our Light and Color program to teach some key facts to our G3 scientists. Why does Bill Nye remain such a popular scientist with both kids and adults? He’s truly the master of honing a science topic down to a handful of key facts and concepts and presenting that information in such a fun and silly way.  We have a full line of Bill Nye DVDs at the library for anyone to check and take home, including his episode on Light and Color :)

From Bill, we learned (or were reminded of) several key facts about light and color:

  1. When we see a color in the world, we are observing the color that a specific object is reflecting. For example, we see a red apple as red because the apple is absorbing every single color except red. Red light is reflected, and thus that is the color we see for the apple.  For another example, if you are wearing a green t-shirt, you and everyone around you see it as a green shirt because it absorbs every color except green; green is reflected, and thus that is the color we see.
  2. White is all colors reflected; black is all colors absorbed.
  3. Black absorbs all colors and converts that light to energy or heat. This is why wearing a black shirt on a sunny day makes you much hotter than if you wear a white shirt. Or why sitting in black car in the sun is much hotter than sitting in a white car.
  4. colorwheelColored light behaves differently than colored pigments and dyes.  Most of us have heard the phrase “yellow and blue make green” before, right? And that’s true, at least for dyes/pigments. If you had yellow and blue paint, they would indeed mix together to make green paint. But what about yellow and blue light? For light, the primary colors are red, blue, and green. So, no colors combine to create green. But green and red light will combine to make yellow light. Or red and blue light will combine to make magenta light. Check out the color wheel to the right to see what some possible colored light combinations are.

OUR EXPERIMENTS

Experiment #1:  Chromatography

Chromatography is a term used to describe the separation of mixtures, usually with the help of a fluid.  As we know, black is the combination of all colors. So does that mean that black markers are the combination of all color dyes? Just a couple of colors?

Materials

  • Round filter paper or coffee filters  (we used 11 cm. filter papers; some experiments even use something as simple as paper towels)
  • A variety of black markers, including water soluble (washable) ones
  • Small plastic cups
  • Pipe cleaners, cut to size (for us, about 4-5 inches in length)
  • Some water (we used distilled, though tap water would work fine)
  • Table cloths (I mention them specifically because as you use water to separate the dyes in markers, you get the equivalent of water with food dye which can stain clothing, carpets, etc.)

A chromatography experiment can be done simply without some of these steps, but we’re scientists after all! We used Steve Spangler’s spin art experiment as the inspiration for our chromatography experiment. First we poked a hole in the center of the filter paper with our pipe cleaner, and then set the pipe cleaner aside. I instructed our scientists to put large, filled-in dots of black ink around the filter paper. You will see the best results if you put 4 or 5 large dots around the filter paper versus lots of tiny pin-point dots.  Next we dipped our pipe cleaners in the cups of water, making sure we pinched any excess water from the pipe cleaners. The final step was to put the pipe cleaner back through the center hole in the filter paper, and put one end of the pipe cleaner back into the water (like a flower stem going into water). The filter paper can simply rest on the top lip of the cup. You should notice water slowing moving from the center of the filter paper outward. Water is actually moving up the pipe cleaner stem thanks to friction, and is then flowing through the fibers of the filter paper in the same manner.

This process was actually a bit too slow for some of our scientists, so in most cases we pulled the filter papers off of the pipe cleaners, placed them on the table, and used the pipe cleaners to slowly drip water on the filter paper directly. Most of us only saw a partial separation of colors in the black dyes – namely, blue, some purple, and even some hints of yellow/orange. I also gave all of the scientists the opportunity to experiment with water soluble markers of other colors. We may not have had complete success in separating the black dye from the markers, but our scientists got to take home some pretty cool art!

Experiment #2:  Kaleidoscopes

Technically, this was more of a project than an experiment. I finally discovered a super simple way for our scientists to create kaleidoscopes of their very own…thanks to really nifty objects called rainbow peepholes.

Rainbow Peepholes

Rainbow Peepholes

Materials

  • Rainbow peepholes (you can buy these from various locations – I got mine from Amazon.com)
  • Recycled paper towel tubes
  • Duct tape or electrical tape (we used duct tape since I can get it cheap at the dollar store)
  • Scissors
  • Craft paper punches (optional – I bought a few at Michael’s in the scrap-booking aisle)

Steve Spangler was again our inspiration for this project. And the project is simple enough thanks to the peepholes, which are designed to naturally refract light. In fact, you can hold a peephole alone up to the light and you’ll see refracted light (in rainbows) through the peephole without the aid of a constructed kaleidoscope. To construct the kaleidoscope, you hold the rainbow peephole in place over the hole of one end of the paper towel tube, and then secure it in place with some tape….and you’re essentially done! You can cover the rest of the cardboard tube with tape to make it cosmetically more appealing if you’d like. Also, if you punch shapes out of circles of paper, hold them at the opposite end of the kaleidoscope, and then look through the peephole, you’ll actually see swirls of refracted color in the shape you punched. For example, I purchased punches for a star, puppy paw print, butterfly, and flower. If you punch a star out of a circle of paper, you’ll see star shapes in the kaleidoscope. According to the Steve Spangler site, you can also line the cardboard tube with tin foil for a dramatic result. We didn’t get a chance to do that, but you can give that a try at home and tell me what happens!

Experiment #3:  Colored Light

Materials

  • Flashlights (I got as many as I could at the dollar store so our scientists could work in small groups)
  • Sheets of colored cellophane (I got 8 1/2 x 11 sheets from Amazon.com)
  • Rubber bands
Red and blue light create magenta light.

Red and blue light create magenta light.

Red and green light create yellow light.

Red and green light create yellow light.

This experiment was inspired by something I read on HowStuffWorks about making colors. We didn’t have a ton of time to do this experiment (I was a little ambitious with my time), but our scientists got to at least try it out so that they can then attempt this one at home. Refer back to the color wheel for light at the top of this post. Our three base/main colors were red, blue, and green.  Grab 1 flashlight and place 2-3 layers of red cellophane over the top, held in place with a rubber band. Do the same with 2 more flashlights, but using green and blue cellophane. In some cases, I needed to play around with the lights to figure out how many layers of cellophane worked best. [I created multiple layers simply by folding the cellophane sheets.]

This experiment works best in a dark room (we closed the shades and shut off the lights in our program room). To create yellow light, take the flashlights with red and green cellophane. We found it worked best when we walked very closely to the wall so the light from each “colored” flashlight was very concentrated. Then you slowly move the two concentrated pools of light closer together on the wall. As they start to cross, you will see the new color of light emerge!

Below is an Animoto video highlighting some of the work of our G3 scientists with this program. See you next time for some fun with polymers!

 

Categories: Color, Light | Leave a comment

Program 30: Magnets

Finally!  I’ve been wanting to do a program about magnetism with my scientists for quite a while and I finally found just the right experiment for us.  But more on that later. First, let’s talk a little about magnets…

SAFETY RULES FOR MAGNETS

hqdefaultYes indeed, there need to be some precautions when handling magnets. They can damage many devices in the modern world. Even the smallest magnets can do permanent damage to:

  • Credit cards or bank cards (damaging the magnetic stripe on the back of the cards)
  • Audio Cassette Tapes
  • Older TV screens (LCD and plasma screens are not affected)
  • Older computer monitors
  • Video Cassette Tapes

Some of the world’s strongest magnets – neodymium magnets – are so strong that if your hand get between a 6″ neodymium magnet and the object it is attracted to, your hand would likely be crushed!

“THE IRON DETECTOR” & HOW IT WORKS

Interestingly enough, magnets are only attracted to iron…which also makes them the perfect “iron detectors.” If you hold a magnet up against other metals – steel, copper, etc. – you’ll see that there is no attraction.

Here’s a fun experiment for home, if you can obtain a smaller neodymium magnet. One of the main components of meteors from outer space is iron. And even though it is rare to see a large meteor hit the surface of the earth, we are constantly being showered with tiny pebble-sized (and smaller) pieces of meteors as they break up in the earth’s atmosphere. On his web site (with an accompanying video), Steve Spangler shows how you can detect and collect actual pieces of meteors from your own back yard!

Magnets are also made of two “poles” – referred to as the “North Pole” and the “South Pole.” Opposite poles are attracted to each other, and like poles repel each other. Thus, two North Poles will repel each other, but the North Pole of one magnet and the South Pole of another magnet will be drawn to each other.  Have you ever wondered how a compass works? Well, part of a compass is always attracted to the magnetic pull of earth’s North Pole, and the other side of the arrow is always attracted to the magnetic pull of earth’s South Pole. You can even use a simple magnet to help with directions. Our scientists tied a string to a ring magnet (round magnet with an open center). If you let the magnet hang in the air from the end of the string, the magnet’s own North Pole will eventually face North directionally because it is being attracted to the earth’s North Pole!

8130horseshoe_magnetAs a group, we also talked about permanent magnets and temporary magnets. A permanent magnet – like the one pictured to the left, can actually make an iron-based object temporarily magnetic. For example, if you place a nail on a horseshoe magnet, and pull the nail away, you can then use the nail to pick up small iron-based objects (like paperclips).

THE WORLD’S LARGEST MAGNETS

What’s the biggest magnet in the world? The earth itself!  In the video below, we learn a little more about how magnets work – and about the earth as a giant magnet:

As a group we also talked a bit about neodymium magnets and how strong the pull of some magnets can be. In the video below, we get a peek at the world’s largest magnet, currently housed in the world renowned “MagLab” in Tallahassee, Florida:

ELECTROMAGNETS

Electromagnets were a key focus for us given that our experiment of the day was also creating our own electromagnet using some simple-to-find items. Electromagnets are magnets that become active with the presence of electricity. Once the electricity stops or is interrupted, the object ceases to function like a magnet.

OUR EXPERIMENT

We used information and instructions from Science Bob as the foundation of our electromagnet experiment.

Materials:

  • 1 D-sized battery (other sizes can be used, but the experiment burns through the battery quickly so a larger battery will last longer)
  • 1 large nail with flat head
  • 1 36-inch long piece of copper insulated “bell wire” with the insulation stripped from both ends (it’s important that the wire is both insulated and copper…I bought my wire at a local Home Depot; it came as a red and white insulated piece wrapped together, but I simply unwrapped the two pieces so they could used individually)
  • Paperclips (to test the electromagnet strength with)

The steps of the experiment are simple enough. Leaving about a 6-inch lead, you wrap the wire around the nail (being careful not to overlap the wire loops on the nail). Our scientists were each able to fit about 35-40 wire loops on their nails.  When the wrapping was finished, there was a 6-inch length leading from both the top and the bottom of the nail.  We then used duct tape to solidly tape the exposed copper end of one wire lead to the positive end of the D battery (the end with the bump).  We then placed a square piece of tape on the other wire lead.  Once the second lead is connected to the negative end of the battery, the electromagnet is fully functional and the exposed tip of your nail becomes the magnet (though it may take a few seconds to get fully charged). You will notice both the battery and the nail getting warm to the touch. It’s best if you loosely tape the 2nd lead to the negative side of the battery so that it is easy for you to pull it away from the battery and turn off the electromagnet (to preserve the charge in the battery as long as possible between tests).

One Step Further:  How can you make the electromagnet stronger?

TIP – the key to the electromagnet’s strength is NOT the battery – it’s the wire! Try wrapping a second wire on top of the first wire around the nail, and connect both exposed ends to each end of your battery…

With the electromagnet active, our scientists tested the strength of their magnets by seeing how many large paperclips they could lift with the nail tip. Many of our scientists lifted 5 or more paperclips!  We then moved to a table I set up with various objects so our scientists could test both their electromagnets and other permanent magnets on various objects to see which objects magnets were attracted to. Everyone had a lot of fun exploring just how magnets worked with a variety of objects. Check out the video below for some highlights from our program. See you in March for our next programs!

Categories: Magnetism | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Program 29: Balloon Bananza!

I felt it was time for our G3 scientists to once again have some fun with balloons. Not only are balloons a pile of fun, but they help us learn a lot about science! In fact, in just this one program our G3 scientists learned a little about:

  1. The Properties of Polymers
  2. Centripetal Force
  3. Friction
  4. Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion

We started the program with a quick discussion about the properties of polymers. In particular, how the rubber in balloons is made of long strands of molecules called polymers. And it is the elastic quality of the polymers that allows the balloon rubber to stretch. Our conversation then turned to centripetal force and friction. The word “centripetal” is actually Latin for “center seeking.” And that truly describes this force. Without centripetal force, objects would not be able to travel in a circular path (they would only be able to travel in a straight path). One example is how a satellite orbits the earth. In this case, the centripetal force is supplied by earth’s gravity (think of it like an invisible thread that links the earth to the satellite and keeps the satellite moving around the earth in a circular orbit). Another example is the swings ride at an amusement park, where the centripetal force is supplied by the chains that link the chairs to the central pole. I shared my favorite video with the groups. In the following video, Jeff Williams on the International Space Station (ISS), shows that, due to centripetal force, the bubbles in his iced tea package move to the center of the package and form a large, singular air bubble when the package is put into a circular path.

EXPERIMENT #1:  The Balloon Skewer, or what I call, “Balloon on a Stick”

Materials:

  • Clear balloons are a must (a bought a package of 70+ at a party store)
  • Wooden skewers (the longer the better – again I found some at a party store, but I suspect some grocery stores have them as well)
  • Some liquid vegetable oil in a cup

This is definitely an experiment designed to impress a crowded room :) Thanks to my favorite scientist Steve Spangler, I impressed our scientists with a demonstration from his web site called The Balloon Skewer. By coating a standard bamboo skewer with vegetable oil (for lubricant), you can push the skewer in one side of the balloon and out the other side…without popping it!  [The trick is making sure the entry/exit points are where the balloon's rubber is LEAST stressed, or more opaque looking then the rest of the balloon - near the base where you tied off the balloon, and at the opposite end and top point of the balloon.]  Each G3 scientist was given a clear balloon and a skewer to try their hands at this demonstration. An important early step is inflate the balloon as large as you dare, and then release 1/3-1/2 of the air before you tie off the balloon. This actually helps stretch out the polymers and gives you a better chance at success when you aim to slip the wooden skewer between the polymer chains and through the balloon itself. The vast majority of our scientists were a success…though the sounds of popping balloons could be heard here and there throughout the room.  Practice makes perfect!

Experiment #2:  The Spinning Penny

Materials:

  • Clear balloons are a must
  • One penny per person

With our next experiment, we had a chance to see centripetal motion at its best. The Spinning Penny is an experiment described on the Steve Spangler’s web site. The experiment itself is very simple. A single penny is placed inside a clear balloon. The balloon is inflated and tied off with the penny still inside.  After shaking the penny a bit, the balloon is then swirled to help start the penny on a circular path inside the balloon itself. Due to the limited amount of friction, the penny can stay on its circular path for close to 30 seconds before gravity begins to slow it’s path! Our scientists all managed to create this very cool demonstration of centripetal force. [Special Note:  It is important that the balloon is pointing toward the floor as well as your eyes when you inflate it - there is a danger of a choking hazard if you choose to tip the balloon above our head to inflate with the penny inside!]

Experiment #3:  The Screaming Balloon

Materials:

  • Clear balloons are a must
  • One zinc hex nut per person (though any size works fine, we used a 1/4 inch diameter nut)

This experiment is actually a fun variation to The Spinning Penny. For The Screaming Balloon, we replaced the penny with a zinc hex nut…and guess what? The nut also moves on a circular path within the balloon due to the centripetal force we supply, but there is more friction between the hex nut and the balloon thanks to the the shape of the nut, and thus we get a high-pitched whining sound! Very fun for us…maybe not so fun for friends and family :)

Experiment #4:  Balloon Rockets

Materials:

  • Any balloons will do (we made sure everyone used the same size balloon for fairness since we did some mini races)
  • String
  • Straws (if you have the bendy kind, you can just cut off the bendy portion)
  • Tape (any kind will do, though masking tape proved a little easier to work with)
  • Chairs

What better way to see Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion in action than some friendly competition with balloon rockets! According to Sir Isaac Newton and his 3rd Law of Motion,

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

To test this principle, we followed the guidelines of Science Bob to create our very own balloon rockets. We divided our group of scientists into 2 teams, and each team assembled a rocket “track” – a pair of chairs with some kite string strung between them (like a zip line). A straw was threaded onto each string. Each scientist received a colored balloon (clear is not necessary for this experiment), and was instructed to inflate the balloon as large as they wanted without tying it off. While pinching the open end of the balloon closed, the balloon is held under the straw and taped to it (with the mouth of the balloon pointing in the opposite direction that you want the balloon to travel in). When you’re ready to the see the balloon in action, you just unpinch the mouth of the balloon and let go! The result mimics the take-off of a rocket, with the air pushing back in one direction and propelling the balloon in the opposite direction. We had some friendly competition to see which team’s balloon would travel the farthest. Every scientists received a small prize for their efforts :)

At the end of our hour, every scientist was able to bring a copy of these simple demonstrations and experiments home with them.  Below is a nifty video showing our scientists’ efforts during all of the balloon experiments. Until next time!…

Categories: Forces, Motion, Polymers | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Program 28: Banana DNA

For our final program of 2013, I wanted us to dig deep into science. That’s right – I broke out the test tubes and magnifying glasses and even some pipettes! This month we revisited one of my favorite programs from the past: Banana DNA. Our G3 scientists learned how to extract actual DNA from bananas!

dnaAs always, the program kicked off with a brief discussion. We talked about the nature of DNA itself. Do humans have anything in common with a rhinoceros? Or a frog? Or even a tree?  The answer to all questions was YES. All life forms contain DNA, which determines what that life will look like and more. In the case of our bananas, the DNA is what tells the banana to be a certain color, or a certain shape, or a certain flavor. We watched some great videos from Dole about what goes into harvesting and shipping all of their bananas. [Video 1: Dole Banana Development & Care; Video 2: Dole Harvesting Bananas.]  I also pointed out a sheet of fun banana facts that each scientist could take home with them.

Cavendish Banana...soon to be extinct?

Cavendish Banana…soon to be extinct?

One very interesting thing we discussed is the fact that most Americans eat only one type of banana: the Cavendish. And due to a fungus that is attacking Cavendish banana plants around the world, in 5 or 10 years the Cavendish banana could very well become extinct! When that happens, we will all be forced to begin eating a completely different kind of banana. Our G3 scientists’ children or grandchildren may never know what a Cavendish banana tastes like! Though this isn’t the first time a banana species has become extinct. Prior to 1950, most Americans would have been eating a banana called the “Gros Michel,” but a fungus made that banana species extinct before any of our young scientists (and maybe even their parents) were born!

OUR EXPERIMENT

Using the instructions from the magazine Scientific American as a guide, the G3 scientists discovered that we can extract the actual DNA from bananas using a few household items like dish soap, salt, rubbing alcohol…and of course bananas! I made a few tiny modifications based on experience that I’ll note below.

Our supplies for the day:

  • 1 ripe banana per scientist
  • 1/2 cup of distilled water
  • 1 resealable zip-top bag
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. liquid dish washing soap (any kind)
  • Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) (chilled in the freezer)
  • 1 coffee filter
  • 1 narrow and clear glass or test tube
  • 1 narrow wooden coffee stirrer

The first step was mashing up the bananas…something that we all enjoyed :) Each scientist was given a whole banana sealed in a zip-top plastic bag. The goal was to achieve a “pudding” consistency. Both tracks did a great job of firmly, but gently, breaking apart all of their banana lumps and creating a bag of banana mush.

In a separate cup, we combined 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 cup of distilled water, stirring until the salt was dissolved. This salt water was then added to our banana “slurry,” gently kneading to combine the ingredients in the bag. We then added 1/2 tsp. of liquid dish soap to the “slurry,” again gently kneading to combine the ingredients.  This led us to our trickiest step:  straining our banana slurry (to collect just the banana liquid in a cup). [The soap actually helps to dissolve the membranes of the cell walls that hold the DNA, and the salt helps to draw the DNA strands toward each other.]

Photo Dec 05, 4 46 48 PMI made some modifications to our previous work with banana DNA (and to the steps as identified by sites like Scientific American) to help with our success. Each scientist placed a coffee filter in a clear plastic cup, holding it in place with a rubber band. [This was an important and successful improvement to the process! In the past, so many of our filters fell back into the cup forcing the slurry to be restrained time and again.] Once we had maybe 1/4-1/2 inch of banana liquid in the bottom of our cups, each scientist carefully worked with a partner to remove the filter and remaining slurry from the top of the cup so that all that remained was the strained liquid beneath. Using pipettes, the G3 scientists then filled their test tubes about 1/2 way up with the banana liquid. They then used a clean pipette to add chilled isopropyl alcohol to the top of the test tube. [NOTE:  You can keep the alcohol in the freezer...it will stay in liquid form!]

The online experiment descriptions say you may have to wait up to 8 minutes to see some results, but almost all of our G3 scientists had immediate and successful results in hand. All G3 scientists were able to extract the white, fibrous, web-like DNA from their bananas! We tried out best to preserve the DNA bits in plastic baggies for those scientists that wanted a souvenir, but I think that photographs are the best way to preserve the results of this experiment. Check out the nifty slide show below of our scientists (from both tracks) in action:

In a final note, many of the banana facts I shared were obtained from the Chiquita banana web site.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in 2014 when our next programs will start. Happy holidays!

Categories: DNA | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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