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Author Topic: HELP! Thing One's ambitious for science fair
Pete at Home
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My nine year old is preparing a science fair project. His assignment is to demonstrate the scientific method.

He's supposed to
1. Conduct an "experiment"
2. Make "observations"
3. Ask a "scientific question"
4. Make a "hypothesis" (which the instructions characterize as a "good guess").
5. Develop a "procedure or plan" to "test" his prediction.

So, guess what my nine year old son wants to do his science fair project on?


String theory.

Am I right that I need to tell him to pick a less ambitious project? Or can anyone think of any aspect of string theory that my ambitious 9 year old and his math-impaired father could work into an interesting and understandable science fair project?

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Wayward Son
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Only having a bachelor's degree in Physics, I know nothing about string theory. But I did read a short blurb in the newspaper that after over a decade of working on the theory, someone has finally figured out somehting that might be detectable about it.

"Ambitious" is an understatement! [Eek!]

If it actually has to be an experiment, you need to find something else. To dissuade him, look up "string theory" and then "supergravity" on Wikipedia and have him read those articles. If he can make heads or tails out of them, you need to get him out of the second grade and into college right away! (That is, if he tell you what an eigenvalue is.) [Big Grin]

[ February 23, 2007, 08:41 PM: Message edited by: Wayward Son ]

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Carlotta
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Reminds me of when I wanted to do my science fair project on fractals. It worked, sort of, but it was about 1/6 experiment and 5/6 cool pictures of fractals I printed off the internet.

If he can think of a doable experiment involving string theory, I say go for it! But that might be impossible.

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velcro
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Yeah, I think the experiment part rules it out.

I spent about 4 years telling my son (age 5-9) that his inventions, projects, and experiments were biting off more than he could chew. I hated doing it, but it seems not to have done any permanent damage.

Developing a sense of the practical is an important engineering and scientific skill.
There is no shame in starting slow, completing what you start, and building up.

Might I suggest pendulums? Easy to experiment, and the math is accessible to a precocious 9 year old. Period vs. length, independent of mass, etc.

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Pete at Home
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See, he's interested in science, so I get him all the documentaries I can on physics, especially astrophysics which seems to be his favorite. He's gone through BBC documentaries on Newton, Einstein, and String Theory, and got another one on string theory ... trouble is that documentaries just simply stuff so much for the lay-man that he has no idea of the math and complex ideas involved. Hobbsen, that idea about showing him some printed material sounds good.

Velcro, maybe I'll look at that Newton video and see if I can interest him in pendulums. Sounds good.

Thanks!

Although if anyone else has an idea of demonstrable string theory experiments at a 9 year old level, i.e. not involving use of a supercolider, I'd be much obliged!

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Pete at Home
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Hehe. Note this from Wikipedia:

"No experimental verification or falsification of the theory has yet been possible, thus leading many experts to turn to one of several alternate models, such as Loop quantum gravity. However, with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland scientists may produce relevant data."

Sounds like if Thing One figures out how to experimentally verify string theory, we'd be talking more than early college [Big Grin]

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Clark
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Yeah, string theory is beyond anyone at the moment. You'd be talking Nobel Prize if Thing One can find data one way or the other.

One simple idea is to construct a barometer. It's very simple, and can be done with a tin can, balloon and a straw. Put a flexible membrane (balloon) over opened (and emptied!) can. Tape the straw across the top. As the barometric pressure changes, the top membrane will either bulge out or be pushed into the can, deflecting the straw. You can mark the position of the straw each day, and correlate to the barometric pressure printed in the newspaper.

Or, if you have close access to mountains, you can chart pressure changes due to altitude.

My little sister did this a few years ago (in 5th or 6th grade), and it all worked reasonably well, except for when they drove too far up the mountains and the balloon popped off the can.

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Clark
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Great, now I'll be thinking up science projects all night long.

A counter-intuitive example of physics in action can be seen in rolling balls down ramps. Solid balls (bowling balls, billiard balls, etc.) will all roll down a ramp at the same rate. Hollow balls (basketball, inflated balls in general) will all roll down a ramp at the same rate, but slower than the solid balls. Any empty hoop (tin can with the ends cut out) will roll down slower yet. A solid hoop (free weight off the bench press bar) will go down faster than anything but the solid ball.

Provided friction is negligible (no very large light weight inflatable beach balls) the speed things roll down a ramp depends not on their weight as we might think, but on their shape.

The math on this one is somewhat more than for a pendulum (square roots only) or barometer (I was told there would be no math). It requires basic algebra skills. The physics required to understand it is fairly basic (yet sadly, unobtainable to many pre-med students). However, there's no requirement for math in the project. The question can simply be: what will roll down the ramp fastest?

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Clark
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I wanted to be a physics teacher once upon a time.

Two simpler ideas:
1: The "Monkey and the Hunter" experiment. All objects fall at the same rate. A bean bag slid off the edge of the table strikes the floor at the same time as one dropped off the edge. (This one is a bit boring.)

2: Put a bathroom scale in an elevator. Your weight changes as you go up and down. If you want, you can measure the acceleration of the elevator off of this. For extra credit, lug a doctor's balance into the elevator. Your "weight" doesn't change!

My wife suggests biological experiments. Something with plants. Put them in the dark, water them with vinegar, whatever strikes you as interesting. This has the added benefit of introducing the concept of a 'control'.

My sister once ran an experiment on mice running a maze . . . while drunk. (The mice were drunk, not my sister.) The down sides to this are introducing your 9-year-old to beer, and alcoholic mice. (My sister actually found some mice to be alcoholic, while others were mere social drinkers.)

3 consecutive posts. Well, at least when my kids have this same assignment someday I'll already have a compiled list . . .

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The Drake
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I think it's great that theoretical physics can capture the attention of a young person.

I note that the assignment does not ask the student to implement the plan, so I think it is doable.

I think it is probably wrong to limit such inquiry. It won't win any prizes, but will probably be much more valuable in the long run.

I am somewhat ambivalent about science fairs, since it seems that it largely rewards students whose parents do much of the work. Ethical parents should guide students, but not do anything for them. Unfortunately, we see the Little League effect here, where the parents want to win vicariously through their progeny.

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The Drake
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Here's a good line of scientific inquiry.

Peep research

Sorry, couldn't help myself.

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IrishTD
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Catapults are another option. I just guided a 7th and 8th grader through a pretty successful project (and they did the lion's share of the work).
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The Drake
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Oh, potato gun, if only you were not outlawed by zero tolerance.
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Rallan
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I say encourage the kid. If he can think up a testable hypothesis on string theory, he'll be the first person ever to get a Nobel Prize for his science fair project [Smile]

Since that's unlikely though, I'd recommend looking up the IgNobel Prizes and seeing if there's something there that'll be fun for the kid to try.

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KnightEnder
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Jeez I spent 7 hours the other night making a wind chime, and my son is in the 11th grade advanced physics program. Vegas must have way advanced schools. [Smile]

Seriously, well I was being serious, but seriouslier, it would be really hard to do a demonstration of something that is only theoretical at this point. Especially without access to a supercolider.

We also made a catapult out of PVC piping, tiny bungee cords, and a spoon. We had to hurl an egg over a wall. I painted it and the box Little John carried it to school in black and named it Mijlonir (Thor's Hammer for you non-comic book geeks). We spent 4 hours in Home Depot. It was a blast!

KE

[ February 24, 2007, 11:09 AM: Message edited by: KnightEnder ]

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hobsen
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Try an Internet search, KnightEnder. There are sites that list previous experiments and offer suggestions. I do not mean to copy anything, but look for a field that interests him and think of a possible variation. But I agree science fairs are dubious; the best scientific experiment I ever saw in one, which got first place from the department head and me, was not even mentioned by the other judges as it was not showy enough. But it was an original hypothesis, tested by an actual experiment I should have sworn was impossible (setting up a voltage gradient in water, which is often a conductor); and it had possible commercial applications.
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ngthagg
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Do a youtube search for non-newtonian fluids. Apparently, they can be made out of cornstarch and water (although I don't know what the exact recipe would be). NNFs would have a good "wow" factor, and be demonstratable during the science fair.

ngthagg

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seekingprometheus
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Ooh, I like ngthagg's idea. NNFs are cool.
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Newman
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How about analyzing the inspiration -- vibrations of musical strings etc?
This would neatly connect the oldest and newest ideas behind the mathematization of physical phenomena : Pythagoras concluded that numbers were the basis of natural phenomena due to his results on such experiments.

Some questions:

What length ratios represent higher octaves and sounds that appear to be the "same" but just higher pitched. Are there analogies in string theory in terms of different oscillatory modes that represent the same particle or phenomenon?

What type of ratios of string lengths are pleasant to the human ear? Are important ratios in string theory similarly simple (i.e rational)?

How do oscillations of string instruments differ from those of membranes? What different physics (and mathematics) is involved? Are there are any (layman) analogies to strings and branes used in string theory?


(Biology) Are there (neurological) explanations for the pleasantless to the ear of such ratios?

There are many other questions that can be asked about musical instruments and the analogy to string theory that would be appropriate for a bright kid.

He can also use the NOVA site as a starting point

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/resonance.html

I thought the main program by Brian Greene was a bunch of flashy hooey, but the educational site seems to be quite good.

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Jordan
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Well done, Newman. I was wondering if there were any opportunity to use simulations to obtain some meaningful results, but to no effect.

Maybe the best thing would be to explain to him that string theory was an attempt to reconcile our existing knowledge of physics, and is new enough and difficult enough that even the best physicists are trying to find ways to conduct meaningful experiments. That would be the launching point for inviting him to investigate an already established field.

What sort of entries have won in the past, Pete?

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ngthagg
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NNF's are apparently being used in the development of body armour--the idea being that the armour will be flexible under standard conditions, but then harden under sudden impact (ie a bullet) to protect the wearer.

I can think of some fun experiments for this: Fill an egg carton (with eggs still inside) with a NNF, and drop it off the roof of the school. Will it protect the eggs? Can you protect the eggs using less mass than other substances? (Compare with foam insulation, cotton batting, etc.)

I think I may have to make a run to the grocery store and pick up some eggs and cornstarch.

Incidentally, I'm curious how many kids actually do the classic vinegar and baking soda volcano experiment (or perhaps the more modern Mentos and Diet Coke experiment).

ngthagg

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simplybiological
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As someone who judges elementary school science fairs, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAY AWAY FROM PLANTS. I'm so sick of the playing music to plants study, the putting caffeine on plants study, etc etc. If you must use plants, START THEM FROM SEEDS.

I gave first prize to a kid who burnt leaves with a magnifying glass, largely because he showed some sort of understanding of the scientific method.

If Thing One has a control, has replication (like, zero elementary school experiments have replication), and has a couple variables that are reasonably well controlled, AND most importantly, Thing One is be able to say what he did and why he did it and what he found in a reasonably coherent way that illustrates that he did his own work, he'll win. Our number one criteria when judging is, "Did this kid do this, or did their parent?"

Of course, you want him to have fun- winning isn't everything. But most judges reward good thought and the kid doing the project, which shouldn't preclude fun.

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Wayward Son
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If you need inspiration, check out the Number 1 science show on TV today:

Mythbusters.

Seriously. The NY Times did an article on it, and they are the best example of the scientific method around. They take a hypothesis (e.g. Canadians are crossing the border into the U.S. with a giant slingshot), create an experiment to test it (create a 50-foot slingshot with steel aeral towers and surgical rubber hose) and report the results (there would be a whole lot of dead Canadians if they tried it!) Pure science.

And a whole lotta fun. [Big Grin]

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Jordan
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How ambitious should this project be? For example, a very simple experiment you could try to construct would be to see how high a roller-coaster car would need to start from to go around a loop of a certain height.

That was one of the questions I got asked in my interview for Cambridge. The answer is very straightforward, and only requires some simple knowledge of mechanics to derive.

Sadly, it's not very flashy. [Frown]

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