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Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I think this is the best forum, but please recommend others if you can think of a better one:

There is a program for National Engineers Month (February in case you forgot) that involves going to local schools and presenting on your job and engineering careers in general - drumming up excitement for the next generation of techies.  A large part of the presentation is an 'experiment' to offer hands-on experience to the kids and make them think about engineering outside of their normal routine.  You only have about 30 minutes, and obviously monetary resources are limited.

I'm aiming at middle school, but high school level is acceptable too - does anybody have any bright ideas?

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Is this a demonstration of a pre-made experiment, or a hands-on experiment that the students build?

I'd guess the most public icon of engineering for students in middle school is wind turbines.  Maybe they could make one to run a small light.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Toothpick bridge using gumdrop or marshmallow connections.  By middle school, you can usually get them to stop eating the materials...


RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I remember the introductory physics course from MIT has videos available online that you can watch and there was a demonstration for each lecture.

The one I remember best is when the instructor stood with his back against the wall and a bowling ball on a pendelum. Hold the ball to your nose and drop it and conservation of energy says it cannot smash your face when it swings back. Place a few things (soda can, fruit, ect) at the bottom of the swing first to get the idea through that if you are wrong it could really hurt you.

-- MechEng2005

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Oil covered block of sodium dropped into 5 gal bucket of water.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I always really enjoyed bridge and tower design events though they are a little obvious.  You can do them from toothpicks, marshmallows etc.  or to be more create, just give them stacks of newspaper and tell them to build the highest tower.  Then you get to see them roll the paper or other ideas and make trusses and such.  Anyhow, like I said, I think those are kind of obvious.  The downside is that sometimes you get groups with take charge kids that dominate while other kids get pushed aside which is not really the purpose.

A fun thing I did as a teenager in the Boy Scouts was constructing a self supporting bridge over a fictitious span.  We had a good leader who started with a bunch of spars (wood logs about 3inches in diameter and varying lengths, perhaps between 2.5feet and 6-8feet)and talked us through the project.  It was more a physically executed thought experiment than us trying to solve the challenge individually.  The fun part is you get each student involved and they hold a piece, until at some point, when all the parts are assembled and it becomes self supporting.  The specific design can be something similar to the rainbow bridge or Da vinci's self supporting bridge.  The lesson learned relates both to mechanics and design, but also to cooperation and teamwork.  


RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Some time ago, I took my little one to see a show at a space museum. I did not intend to puchase a package to see all the shows, but things workrd out that way. So I intended to see everything. One of the shows they had, and I have the link, was very impressive in the way they presented the concepts.


I would suggest something simular, with some action or excitement. Something they will remember.

I think what they are showing in the picture is the lighting of a cotton ball after it was diped in liquid oxygen.

A simular idea maybe something simple like a bakeing soda and vinegar rocket.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Another structural idea.  Using balsa wood, foam core or some similar material build a variety of sections (Box, Tube, I Beam, Truss, etc) and test them to failure in some simple bending set up.  You wouldn't have to go into the complexity of the analysis, but just let them guess which will carry the most load, and how much load it will be.  

Then you could quickly compute the efficiency of the various sections and show them that indeed, an I Beam or Truss does hold quite a bit more load per unit weight.  If they inquire further, you can explain in simple terms that the idea is to put the most material in the locations of maximum load, where it will be most needed etc. etc.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Middle school or high school, doesn't matter- whatever you do, it has to blow up or make fire or destroy something to catch the interest of any but the ones who are already destined for a life of science or engineering.

Unfortunately as a mechie, your options for blowing things up or making fire are relatively limited compared to mine as a chemie.  Unless you're good with straying outside your specialty, I'd suggest destroying something!  Testing things to failure is a good one.  Show 'em that any idiot can design something to do the job if they throw material at it, but that it takes an engineer to do it safely with an economical use of material.  

If you were an electrical, I'd suggest you drop a rare earth magnet down a vertical copper tube and ask them to puzzle over why it takes a LONG time to fall out- much longer than a nonmagnetized disc of steel or ball bearing of the same size.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

You could always download the free bridge design app over at West Point - don't have the link but do have the software - I am sure Google will find it.

Lets you rapidly design and test various bridges.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

check this site out...


"If you avoid failure, you also avoid success."  

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

The killer in your case is the time limit.  It's not really enough to let the kids do much that involves actual building planning...

Think of the kinds of things they do on kids science TV shows and similar, like 'what the Romans (or Victorians or whoever) did for us', Johnny Ball or I guess Bill Nye this side of the pond.

You could maybe show with just pieces of paper and some book ends or equivalent how arches & 'triangles' make a stronger 'bridge' than straight bits of paper or something.

The idea of pre prepared 'beams' for them to break has merit.

One demo on 'what the Romans did for us' that I really liked was an explanation of how concrete worked V just cement.  He had a jelly made in a jelly mold with just jello and showed how wobbly it was and how it squished etc.

He then had another one with pieces of pasta suspended in it, multi colored Fusilli as I recall, and demonstrated how it didn't wobble etc.

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RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

If we really want to excite them, show them what its' like just give them some contracts and specs to read:)



RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Pick a Mythbusters segment and explain the actual physics and engineering of the thing.

Or if you're not into that, some suggested curricula for exactly what you are doing are provided by the SAE Foundation.



RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

There are endless things you can do

Energy is one concept (particularly sustainable energy technologies) that is very important.




RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

a simple = quick experiment might be one i saw on tv ... turn a small container (an old film canister) into a projectile by a small gas generator (bi-carb soda and acid, i think) inside.  a fun demo, and some reasonably serious physics.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

We had a lecturer visit us at college (so we were a bit older than your target class but it doesn't matter).
He was talking about safety and illustrated his talk with a variety of explosions... a plastic down pipe with flour blown through it was pretty impressive.
He managed at one point to bring down two or three of the ceiling tiles and his finale was to dip a cigar in liquid oxygen and then light up......OK, cigars are not so good these days but the idea is good.
There is a great deal that can be done with liquid nitrogen, liquid oxygen and dry ice.
Materials like Bitumen are a good example.
I recall visiting a roofing felt company where the bitumen arrived in paper wrapped blocks which they first froze and then smashed with a sledge hammer before dumping the chips in the heating tanks.



RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I did a presentation for 5th graders (I think) on Engineering, the had the create a structure that was a minimum of 12" tall out of 8.5x11 paper adn masking tape.  And had a competition to see which structure could support the most text books.

Needless to say, the kids lost interst after about 2 minutes in to the build.  So my suggestion is that you make sure your the students are age approperiate for what ever you plan on the activity being.  

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I'll chime in on what a couple of other people said. If it blows up it's really interesting. I've had to do a couple of these myself.

You could do something on steam condensing. There is a cool video of a rail car that collapsed after it was steamed out. You could play that and then do an in-class demonstration by heating 1 tbsp of water in a pop can until it boils then turning the can upside down into a bath of ice water (the can collapses quite dramatically). There should be pictures of tanks that have collapsed under vacuum on the net. That's all mechanical!

Collapsing popcan:

Imploding rail car:
(there's a video somewhere on the net but I can't get video at work)

Although it's not destructive you could get tanks of water and have them design a neutral buoyancy item by using foam and paper clips.


This website is awesome:
I love the quartz watch video.

Or you could do a demonstration of automata:

This thread has been great, I'm adding all of these ideas to my collection!


RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Something simple like an electro-magnet: need batteries (C, 9V, etc), wires, various carbon steel nails, bare copper wires.

Batteries in series to boost voltage. Some big nails to demonstrate strength of the electro-magnet.

The experiment is available on web I believe.

"Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater."   
Albert Einstein
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RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Show a re-run of "Pumpkin Chunkin" and review the physics involved...

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

We solved a problem in fluid dynamics that has always interested me as to building a working model.

It involved finding (as I recall) the max range of a free jet exiting the side of a tank of fluid. Due to the form of the governing equations it had two solutions, one near the bottom, one higher up. It would, I think, make an interesting model and demonstate the physical reality behind the math.

Students would need to be at a high enough grade level to get the math, of course, which is not really that advanced. After all, I got it.

Pretty simple equipment, some kind of a container, a drill and drill bit, some water, some pencil and paper. Add a small pump and battery and have a "water sculpture". I'll do this when I get all that more important stuff done:)



RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

When I was a lot younger, I found that making electric bells from copper wire, bits of meccano and batteries was always good fun.  The next extension is to make one of those steady-hand games, where the (home made) bell goes of if you accidentally complete the circuit.

- Steve

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

yeah, but that was before twitter and the momentary attention span prevalent these days.  the more flash and bang (shock and awe?) the better !


RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

get a very flexible but flat ruller, ask them to guess which orientation it will be stronger and which it will bend more and then hang a weight from the middle to test it.

Good demonstartion of buckling.

You can also turn it around to act like a column to show the effect of reducing the effective length.

I saw a load test on an egg once I think it took 300kg. But that would be hard to simulate in a classroom.

Also get them to build a tower with a pack of cards.

You can also demonstrate post tensioning with a bolt and a couple of blocks.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Thanks for all the links and discussion, I'll dig around and see what I can find.  Unfortunately I think some of the more...energetic exercises might get us banned from the school (not that it wouldn't be awesome and make a big impression on the students).  

Definitely leaning towards destructive testing of something, the toothpick tower/bridge is an old standby but you're right the time-limit is so tight there's probably not time for a second iteration, which is where actual learning could happen.

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Are you expecting to be invited back?



RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

A nice simple demo would be to to take the same limited piece of material and deploy it to span a distance between two desks in two different ways:  as it comes, and in an "engineered" form (i.e. a truss or I beam etc.) Test them both to failure- a bucket and nice dry sand etc.  For a reasonable distance and a reasonable load to failure, a 2x4 is probably too much material...  

RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

I had the same thought as moltenmetal a few weeks back.

Maybe take a few pieces of 'poster board' or similar thin cardboard.

something that will just support it's own weight over say a 24" span.  Load it with small weights - or even better something entertaining to the kids like lego men or something - until it fails.

Then produce one rolled into a tube and repeat.

Then say one folded into a box beam and repeat.

Then maybe folded into an I beam and repeat.

You need to be careful to use little or no tape or adhesive or the kids will think that's why they're stronger.

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RE: Experiment for Schoolchildren Edutainment

Success!  The presentations were on Wednesday, and despite a freak blizzard everything went (almost) according to plan.  

The experiment was about bone fixation since that's what my company does, I had a model humerus bone split in half with popsicle sticks, dowels, and electrical tape to fix it back together.  Each part had a cost associated with it, and they had to come in under a fixed budget as well.  The constructs were tested on a 3-pt bend fixture we brought from in from the lab, highest load to failure and most efficient solution teams won candy bars (and bragging rights).

It took just about the whole class to work through it, although one or two groups were fast enough to get a second iteration in - all of which were 10-20lbf stronger than their first.  It was also interesting to see even at that age you could tell the techie kids from the rest.   

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