Thursday, September 26, 2013

Making Myth Busters

As a self-respecting nerd, I have a fondness for Mythbusters. This Emmy-winning show -- featuring special effects experts/mad scientists Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman – seeks to bust or confirm urban legends and popular myths using a positively gleeful approach to the scientific method. Mayhem often ensues. Failure is an option. Their tagline is “Don’t try this at home.” You get the idea.

That’s why I was so thrilled when my students started watching the show and asked to replicate some of their wild experiments in class. Yup. That’s pure Maker gold right there, and totally educational too. Even better, my mad Google skills revealed that there are official lesson plans available online for free, offered by the fine folks of Discovery’s MythBusters: The Explosive Exhibition traveling museum event. Sweet!

So I clicked on the “Educator” tab and looked at the experiments provided. First up, the “Airplane on a Conveyer Belt” episode – one of the most controversial and awesome myths explored on the show and perfect fodder for a discussion of Newton’s First and Third Laws of Motion. The idea is simple: If you put a moving airplane on a conveyor belt moving at the same speed in the opposite direction, will it be able to take off?

The experiment offered in the lesson plan: a balloon zipping down a string. It just about broke my nerd-girl heart.

Don’t get me wrong. I love balloon on a string. It’s super fun. But when presented for education, it is also boring, boring, boring! As in the “Airspeed” lesson plan, step-by-step instructions are given. Attach a piece of drinking straw to a balloon, tie a piece of fishing line to a chair, thread the line through the straw, blow up balloon and launch. That folks is a procedure, not an experiment.

You can ask all the leading questions you want, but the fact is, the kids know what’s going to happen. And though they may not know the exact jargon, they get why it works. Not a huge mystery here. Not really myth busting. Where are the planes? Where’s the conveyer belt? What went wrong between awesome, action-packed T.V. show and mundane, run-of-the-mill science class?

I did a different experiment with my students. I pulled out the LEGOs and the balloons. Students were tasked with making a freestanding vehicle that could be powered by the propulsion of the balloon. That’s some serious design work right there. You need to consider the mass of the vehicle, the wheel base, how to attach the balloon, how to achieve maximum thrust and more.  We took the time to prototype, test and optimize our cars using a design cycle and shared our ideas. (Those that need a nudge can take inspiration from 2013’s Maker Camp “Rocket-Propelled Toy Car” Week 1 project.)

Once students had their vehicles built we used wax paper as make-shift conveyer belts, pulling the paper in the direction opposite of the car, just as Adam and Jamie used paper and cloth in the Mythbusters episode. We experienced many of the same frustrations, trying to keep the moving car on the paper, accidentally stepping on and ripping the belt, etc. Just like in the episode! It was difficult, and frustrating and challenging. Just like real science and engineering!

In the end we only got a couple of good runs, but that’s ok. The whole class shared in the triumph together. We also busted the myth. Bonus! This of course led to great discussion about why it worked and plans to test the same concept with motorized cars instead.

So thank you Mythbusters. You guys rock! And my advice for teachers? Skip the boring procedural experiments and make some mayhem instead. You’ll be glad you did.

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