The Science of Summer Sports

“But when will we have to know this?” Every middle school teacher has heard this lament. It’s hard to make Newton’s Laws or simple machines exciting, and it’s hard for a 7th or 8th grade student to engage with heavy dry material. But when you can make the science engaging or relevant, kids will dig in. Children are naturally curious, and if you can tap into that curiosity, you can help them learn anything. The newest product line in the JustAddH2O store is a series of products connecting the summer games to science, and the kids are loving it! The science of summer sports engages middle schoolers and helps them make connections to physical science.

science of cyclingThe Science of Cycling

The first product in the science of summer sports product line analyzes how science affects cycling.

How do helmets work? First we’ll tackle the problem of bicycle helmets. Learn how helmets work and then use what you learned to protect an egg in everyone’s favorite lab – the egg drop!

Helmets protect your head from injury in two ways. The plastic outer shell helps your head slide rather than stop suddenly, preventing or lessening the severity of an injury. The foam padding inside cushions the impact by spreading it out over a longer period of time and a larger surface, reducing the force on any one part of the head.

Use what you learn about helmets to design and build a container to protect an egg from breaking. Kids love this activity – I’ve had students come back years later and remind me of how their egg didn’t break (or did break) and what fun they had doing the lab.

What are wheels and axles? A wheel and axle is a simple machine that helps make work easier. In a bicycle, the pedal acts like a wheel and transfers the movement of your food to the smaller axle, which transfers the movement to the bicycle chain. The bicycle chain acts like a pulley and transfers the movement to another axle, this one in the center of the bicycle wheel. This axle transfers the movement to the larger wheel which makes the bike move.

Students make their own go-kart wheel and axles out of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, I tell students to bring in a piece of fruit or a vegetable without telling them what it will be used for, and then I pair up students so that they have to make their go-kart from the two items they brought in. This is another high engagement activity that graduates remind me of years later.  “Remember that time we had to make a cart out of a piece of celery and a green pepper?!”

The Science of Basketballthe science of basketball

The summer games wouldn’t be complete without basketball. There are 3 hands on activities that even sports-challenged middle schoolers can complete to learn about the science of basketball.

How does the surface affect the bounce? Students can practice collecting data while trying to determine how the type of surface affects how high a basketball bounces. Using controls (inflation of the ball, height from which the ball is dropped) and variables (different surfaces), students use the scientific method. A simple data table comparing the height of a bounce on linoleum, wood, grass, carpet, asphalt, or whatever surfaces are available to you will allow students to make comparisons. Create a bar graph and add another NGSS skill to your toolbelt.

How does inflation affect the bounce? A similar experiment uses differently inflated basketballs to measure how each one bounces. Have students try different amounts of inflation ranging from 4 psi up to 8 or 9 psi to determine the inflation that produces the best bounce. Students will use controls (surface and height from which the basketball is dropped) and variables (inflation) and collect data which they can graph in a bar graph.

How do senses affect accuracy? A fun activity students enjoy is to compare how many baskets a student can get in 10 shots when they’ve covered one eye, plugged their ears, or worn gloves.

science of runningThe Science of Running

Start off studying about the science of running by learning how the human body is built to run. The muscles and tendons of the legs combine with the arches in the foot to make our bodies perfect runners. The ability to sweat helps us control our body temperatures.

Measuring Lung Capacity – Students can make bubbles using a straw dipped in bubble solution on your lab tables and measure the diameters of the bubbles. Using the formula of a sphere, you can calculate the volume of the bubble and therefore the volume of your lungs. It’s interesting to compare the lung capacity of tall students versus shorter students or the lung capacities of athletes versus non-athletes.

Chicken Leg dissection. In what’s sure to be the most remembered activity of the school year, have students dissect a chicken leg. Start off explaining the difference between smooth, skeletal, and cardiac muscle. Then, provide students with a labeled drawing of the muscles of the human leg and have them attempt to locate those muscles in a chicken leg. Surprisingly, the muscles are very similar (Hey, great opportunity to talk about homologous structures!). Then, remove the muscles and identify the bones in the chicken leg to compare them to the bones of the human leg.

The Science of Swimmingthe science of swimming

My favorite summer games sport is swimming, probably due to Michael Phelps dominating during my formative years 🙂 Here are two activities you can do with your middle schoolers to learn about the science of swimming.

Newton’s Third Law – Swimming is a result of pushing the water in one direction while the water pushes you in the other direction. Newton’s Third Law is one that is easy for students to understand, and an old fashioned game of marbles helps them get it. I build marble tracks by taping meter sticks to the lab tables. Set up a marble on the track and then flick another marble toward it. What happens? How does that change when you set up 2 target marbles and flick one shooter marble? How about setting up 2 target marbles and 2 shooter marbles? This is a great activity not only to learn about Newton’s Laws, but also to lead into momentum.

Hydrodynamics – Why do competitive swimmers wear bathing caps? You’ll need a kiddie pool to answer that questions. Use string to attach a spring scale to various objects – start with a frisbee, an orange, and a wooden block. Then, measure the force required to pull the object across the water. If you pull nearly horizontally, the force you’re measuring is the force of the water rather than the force of gravity. As you’re measuring the force, the concept of hydrodynamics comes in to play. Students will see that different shapes move more easily in water.

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