At Open Source Maker Labs, we’re always looking for opportunities to be involved in education. One such relationship currently in the works is with Pathways Academy, a combination charter and homeschool program that allows students to learn at their own pace, and gain valuable skills. Making science concepts like physics more tangible, however, is often beyond the scope of a parent. Therefore, OSML has devised a series of workshops for Pathways Academy, in order to make what may be a difficult concept more tangible.
We had a great science workshop with Pathways Academy, centered around a hands-on physics experiment called the MARLAC (MARshmallow Linear ACcelerator). Students had the opportunity to use the scientific method to make predictions, learn laboratory procedures including safety and data recording, and compare the results to their predictions to revise their model.
We began by bringing up a few questions: What would happen if you used an air cannon on a mini marshmallow? How fast could you make it go? If you predicted the results, would the actual results be the same? The students took the first step in the Scientific Method by making hypotheses about these questions and making educated guesses about the answers. Based on their calculations using some physics equations, the marshmallow would travel at about 577 meters per second. After finding the predicted results, the students set out to find out if their hypotheses were correct.
During the experimentation portion of the Scientific Method, the students were introduced to OSML’s MARLAC – the MARshmallow Linear ACcelerator. They began by observing and recording the mass of each individual marshmallow. Then, using a bicycle pump, the students pushed 80 PSI of air into the reservoir, pressurizing the air cannon. With the barrel of the cannon directed over a chronograph, the students observed and recorded the speed of each marshmallow when the air valve was opened with the big red launch button!
After many mini marshmallow launches, the students had a collection of data and a plotted graph based on this data. When analyzing their results, they realized that their marshmallows only went at an average of about 134 meters per second. Compared to their predicted results, they were off by a factor of four. Why was this? What went wrong?
Actually, for a scientific experiment, a factor of four is pretty good. Many experiments are off by factors of ten or more. This shows that their hypothesis about the speed of the marshmallows was close to correct.
But what was missing? What could possibly alter the results like that? The students brainstormed – “you need to push air out of the way,” “maybe the marshmallow scraped along the launch tube,” “I saw a puff of marshmallow dust come off,” and so on. These phrases are simply what we know as air resistance, friction, and mass loss. The students were right on target.
The students at Pathways Academy are now certified with a Digital Badge, which validates their learning experience and is a portable credential that they can keep with them and post wherever they choose. Digital Badges are a growing form of unofficial certification that can act as a form of resume for future employers and other professionals. These students have now proven that they have demonstrated the scientific method and exercised proper laboratory procedures, and that proof will carry with them throughout their educational and professional careers.
We took the students at Pathways Academy through the scientific method from questioning to experimenting to concluding. This process led to more curious questions and “what ifs.” Furthermore, it instilled a deeper understanding of physics in the students because they saw their equations in action and understood where the energy was going and how it affected the natural world. At Open Source Maker Labs, this is our goal for the student workshops: to foster a deeper understanding and a new appreciation for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We look forward to our next workshop with bright students such as these.