The Incredible Flying Human

This lesson uses amazing video of base jumpers in wingsuits as an introduction to a discussion of surface area and its relationship to aerodynamics.

Portal Part 4: Conserve Your Momentum

Students explore how objects conserve momentum and examine collisions that illustrate conservation of momentum and how a collision occurs between objects with differing momentum.

Battle of the Consoles Part 2

In this lesson, students collaborate to identify the specifications of different next generation video game consoles to determine if the next generation of video game consoles will really be superior to the last generation.

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Why Do We Love Crazy? Analyzing Batman Villains using the Scientific Method

Jared-Leto-Joker-Tattoos-Teeth For whatever reason, we as fans are intrigued and even obsessed with Batman’s enemies. However flawed, characters like the Joker, Harley Quinn, Deathstroke and the Red Hood have crept their way into mainstream pop culture and have seriously devout cult followings-leaving Batman in the shadows…pun intended. Next year they will even get their first feature film Suicide Squad that will not feature the caped crusader. We all know Bruce Wayne is a smart guy and never underestimates his foes, but how exactly does he psychoanalyze his enemies? Let’s assume for a second that he employes the scientific method by performing research and analyzing the psychological state of his villains. He would have to identify what is their psychological state, and what psychological disorder is exhibited. After conducting thorough research, hacking into Arkham Asylum’s medical records, he would have to hypothesize and come to a diagnosis for each of them. Next, Batman would test his hypothesis with an experiment by likely using verbal cues of attack strategies that trigger the villain’s behavior, motives and views to determine and reveal symptoms of any psychological disorders. Bruce would then analyze this data under a critical lens to determine if the villain’s behaviors are indicative of the hypothesized disorder’s symptoms. The data may even point toward a disorder that was not initially hypothesized. Batman is known for using science and technology as a tactical defense strategy. Knowing his enemy’s emotional and mental state is an important part of this process. What kind of mental disorder do you think the Joker suffers from? Or maybe the scariest thing about him is that he’s not crazy at all…

The Science of Superheroes

In this lesson, students research an animal of their choice and create a superhero that embodies its living, eating, and survival habits.

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The Science of Why Elders React to (and Love) GTA V

Grand Theft Auto V is the fifth installment of a popular video game franchise, where players assume the roles of crooks and criminals, advancing their careers and performing illegal activities.  Some of the press surrounding the game has been quite critical, which is understandable given the subject matter, especially when you consider young impressionable minds playing it.  The React Channel filmmakers on YouTube saw an opportunity to explore the nature of play with GTA V, especially with a group of people who may have a strong aversion to this kind of entertainment.

When asked what their opinions were of this notoriously naughty video game, a selection of elderly individuals were quick to negatively judge it, saying they have heard of it and thought it was a bad influence and game overall.  When given the opportunity to play the game for a half an hour, some were curious and eager, while others didn’t have any interest at all.  While playing the game, there were observable, telltale signs that these elderly individuals were actually enjoying themselves! Whether they were actively aware of it or not, there was a noticeable motivation to play, to try out actions in the game (most very violent) and the end result was a recognition from most of them that this was essentially an amusing experience that they might want to try again.

Was this a case of people judging a book by its cover?  Is there a cognitive bias at play?  What were the psychological reasons these elderly individuals had a positive, fun experience playing GTA V?  The elderly generation didn’t grow up playing video games, so they don’t understand them as well as the younger generations.  This may result in negative or suspicious feelings about them.  The same thing happened with new technology that arrived in the 1940s – the television.  Some thought it would ruin kids’ brains if they just stared at a screen all day.  Also, the media loves to push huge generalizations about games and gamers, because it provides tangible reasons for unreasonable, violent behavior.  These superficial reasons to dislike video games in general can be considered a cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input.   An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.  That is why when asked what they think about these kinds of games, the responses are largely similarly negative without any firsthand experience.

Here are some observations from the video.  The players clearly had the drive to figure out how to get their character to perform the required actions.  Beyond the morally reprehensible behavior, actually functioning in the game the right way was a priority for the players.  Some people were so closed minded that they openly criticized it the whole time. Some of them stopped at stop signs and waited for lights to change even though there are no “real” rules at play in this universe.  Some are completely open to exploring and are excited to be in the environment – and even discover some secret gems about the game that traditional players might overlook.  Nearly all of them got excited to find the ammunition.  It would seem that materialism and freedom are alluring qualities to just about anyone.  There were some real surprises here, mainly the desire across the board to shoot innocent civilians in the game.  The players understood its just a game, but really wanted to shoot em up!

Many people view games as a safe form of release.  A safe way to experience stress, and to generally, just play.   Perhaps that comes from the stress hormones released during game play – cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).  Playing the game creates a heightened sense of stress and this can actually be an enjoyable experience, especially for those who have never had that kind of “safe stress” experience before.   Why is it fun to play games?  Recent research has found that gaming can be an ideal platform for people to try on different hats and take on a characteristic they would like to have. Giving players the chance to adopt a new identity during the game and acting through that new identity – be it a different gender, hero, villain – can make them feel better about themselves and less negative.

What Grand Theft Auto games provide can be thought of as the essence of play.  What is play if it isn’t breaking reality’s boundaries, taking on a role, experiencing the feelings, emotions, problem solving with a different set of circumstances from our own usual day to day life?  Play in its purest form creates a sense of release through experimentation.  GTA can provide that.  For the elderly people who may not actively take the time to participate in these kinds of activities, it can be a real thrill.

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Watch Two Girls Launch a Weather Balloon into the Stratosphere

Space! You can reach it!

Two Seattle girls, aged 10 and 8, decided it would be fun to plan the construction and launch of a weather balloon into space.  They achieved their goal, took a video of the whole process and launch, and have even impressed NASA.

Designed to Rise:

They learned how to create a design for their spacecraft from the web and created a design using materials bought and some from home.  Trial and error changed the design from using PVC pipes to old arrow shafts to keep it light weight.  Overall, the design of the craft resembled a triangle, or pyramid.  They planned for the craft’s landing and even added styrofoam balls in the event of a water landing.  The standard weather balloon they used for the ascent was filled with Helium, and the whole spacecraft was strategically launched from a specific point where they would be most likely to recover the craft upon its return to earth’s surface.

Pop Goes the Weather Balloon:

As the weather balloon traveled further from the Earth’s surface, the air pressure around the balloon decreased drastically. As the air got thinner, the balloon’s casing got tighter. This is due to the gas expanding within the balloon. The expanding gas caused the balloon to reach full capacity and it popped.  This is how weather balloons work, and these girls planned for its popping to initiate the spacecraft’s return to earth.

The girls collected data during the launch.  The Balloon ascended at a very constant rate – an average speed of 35 kilometers/hour. There was a peak speed recorded, of 110 kilometers/hour as the craft left whats called the Tropopause, right before entering the Stratosphere.  They noticed a temperature drop as it got higher up, but then it changed at got higher as the craft left the Troposphere and got into the Stratosphere.

The Earth’s Atmospheric Layers:

The atmosphere is divided into five layers. It is thickest near the surface and thins out with height until it eventually merges with space. The troposphere is the first layer above the surface and contains half of the Earth’s atmosphere. Weather occurs in this layer. Many jet aircrafts fly in the stratosphere because it is very stable. Also, the ozone layer absorbs harmful rays from the Sun. Meteors or rock fragments burn up in the mesosphere. The thermosphere is a layer with auroras. It is also where the space shuttle orbits. The atmosphere merges into space in the extremely thin exosphere. This is the upper limit of our atmosphere.

The girls’ spacecraft’s weather balloon popped at 78,000 feet, or about 15 miles into the atmosphere, which puts into the Stratosphere.

This picture above is the girl’s notes following their successful mission – inspiring! – from GeekWire

The Higher Up, the Lower the Pressure:

Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted by the weight of air in the atmosphere of Earth.  In most circumstances atmospheric pressure is measured by the hydrostatic pressure caused by the weight of air above the measurement point. On a given plane, low-pressure areas have less atmospheric mass above their location, whereas high-pressure areas have more atmospheric mass above their location. Likewise, as elevation increases, there is less overlying atmospheric mass, so that atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing elevation.

These girls took all of these factors into consideration when planning their weather balloon spacecraft.  It’s amazing what careful planning, passion, and ingenuity can do, even at a young age.

The girls – Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung – photo by GeekWire

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The Physics of the Star Wars BB-8 Droid: How Does It Work?

Introducing the BB-8!

Fans of Star Wars are rejoicing with the release of the seventh episode in the series, The Force Awakens.  With it comes a new robot, the BB-8, that has immediately captivated viewers at first sight.  It is an astromech droid in the Star Wars Universe. An awesome new toy version is available, made by Sphero. It’s a remote controlled robot that rolls without the use of external wheels.  Regardless of how the robot functions in the Star Wars universe, it’s probably not too different from the way the toy version works. Rumors from production claim Sphero’s technology helped with the development of the actual BB-8 and there was also some puppetry involved in the film version of the droid.

How do you make a sphere roll without pushing it?

An article in Wired recently explained that you need a moveable mass inside the sphere. The mass could be any number of things, like a tiny car with wheels, or a hamster.  We’ve probably all seen how a hamster rolls one of those plastic see-through spheres from running on the inside of it.  Whatever the mass is, when it moves up the wall of the sphere a little bit, the center of mass for the whole sphere shifts.

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And now for some science stuff:

When the center of mass shifts away from being vertically over the contact point, there is an external torque on the sphere.  The contact point is where the movable mass lies within the sphere. Torque is the tendency of a force to rotate an object about an axis. This torque then increases the angular momentum of the sphere and causes it to roll.  In physics, angular momentum is the rotational analog of linear momentum, meaning the momentum of the spinning sphere will keep spinning until a force acts upon it.  This is similar to an object moving in a linear line – it will keep moving in a straight line until a force acts upon it. The angular momentum of a system remains constant unless acted on by an external torque.

Once the sphere starts rolling, the inside mass could just stay at the lowest point—except there is some external friction which will require the inside mass to continue to ride up the side and provide some torque.  The external friction is the floor surface on which the sphere is rolling on.  When the inside mass moves up the wall, there is an external force to accelerate the sphere horizontally—friction. Here is a more detailed image showing all the forces on the sphere when the mass moves up the wall.

Magnets keep it together:

As far as the head of the robot goes, it uses a magnet to stay on. There is probably some type of magnet inside the sphere to attract a magnet inside of the head. The head then has rollers so that it can roll along the top of the sphere. The inside magnet would have to be movable so that you could make BB-8 do fun head moves.

This is truly an adorable, awesome addition to the Star Wars Universe. I for one would love to see a buddy movie spin off featuring BB-8 and R2-D2.