Cometary Tales Blog,Hands-On Science On Aisle 42, Universe Components: The Shopping List(s)

On Aisle 42, Universe Components: The Shopping List(s)

As hinted in the previous post, for our universe-building project we’re doing two construction activities related to elementary particles.  So, we’ll have two “Lists of Requirements” this time around.  The model atoms use marshmallows, miniature candy chips, and gelatin mix.  You’ll need just one packet of mixed-flavor candies for even a fairly large group–in advance, you can separate out flavors into the amounts needed.  For sub-atomic particles, we’ll use multi-flavor candies, such as “Life-Savers”…we need six flavors, so you get to buy both peppermint and five-flavor mixtures.  Depending on your workspace, you may choose to have participants work in table groups of of 3-4 people or to set up supplies assembly-line style in a relatively mess-friendly zone.  The assembly-line method reduces the need for extra supplies, though these are quite inexpensive materials.  For pre-preparation, it helps to count out supplies for each participant–small paper cups are ideal and stack neatly once your supplies are set up.  Another helpful side item is a roll of waxed paper or a stack of paper plates for setting out the end-products while they dry or for taking them home.

One extra item, for your wrap-up, is highly recommended if your budget permits:  pick up one humongous balloon–the 36-inch diameter size, in any color or design that delights you.

The recommended quantities are generous, to allow for after-project treats.  Ice-cream sundaes, anyone?

 

The Atomic Marshmallow Project

Per person For a group of 10 For a group of 30
Standard size (not miniature) marshmallows

1

10

30

Miniature candies,  dark color*:  try candy “decors” or extra-tiny chocolate chip ice-cream topping mixture

2

1 package of mixed candies:  count out at least 20 dark-colored pieces

1 package of mixed candies:  count out at least 20 dark-colored pieces
Miniature candies:  light color*:  try candy “decors” or extra-tiny white candy chip ice-cream topping mixture 2

From the same packet of mixed-flavor candies:  count out at least 20 light-colored pieces

From the same packet of mixed-flavor candies: count out at least 60 light-colored pieces.

Gelatin mix

(choose a variety of fun, colorful flavors)

1 packet

(3-ounce size)

3 packets

(one per group of 3-4 people)

For groups:

8 packets

For an assembly line:

3 packets

Water

1 cup

3 cups

(one per group of 3-4 people)

For groups:

8 cups

For each assembly line:

1 cup

Wooden skewers (alternative: toothpicks) 1  10  30
10-16 ounce containers

(mugs, plastic cups, reused food containers)

2 6

For groups: 16

For each assembly line: 2

Small cups for sorting supplies 2 20 60

*   IMPORTANT NOTE:  If you’re tempted to use peanut-flavor candies, remember to be SURE to check in advance that none of the participants suffers from peanut allergy.  In its worst form, this allergy can trigger anaphylaxis merely through physical contact with peanut oils or proteins, but at the very least, peanut-sensitive people should not eat anything tagged “packed in same location as peanut-handling equipment” or “may contain nuts”.    There are lots of different candy chips to choose from; just be sure you end up with two different colors of “chips” for the protons and neutrons.

Sufficient Supplies For Construction of Approximately 40 Model Atoms

The second project’s list is even easier, and doesn’t require a “mess zone”:

One Side Makes You Smaller

or

A Top-Down Search for the Strange Charm of Putting Up With Those Quarks at Bottom of the Universe

The counts of candies in a mixed bag of five-flavor candies is a bit random, so if buying for a group you may need to grab an extra bag, just in case you need it.  The package of sorting cups you purchased for the Atomic Marshmallow Project will have enough for you to sort supplies for this project as well.

Per person

Per 10 people

For 30-person group

Five-flavor Life-Savers candies

1 of each color,

a total of 5

50:

each gets 5 total, 1 of each color

(2 bags of individually-wrapped Life-Savers)

150:

each gets 5 total, 1 of each color

(6 bags of individually-wrapped Life-Savers)

1 extra piece of one of the five flavors

1

10

(There should be enough left over from the 2 bags you’ve purchased.)

30

(There should enough left over from the 6 bags you’ve purchased.)

Peppermint Life-Savers

2

20: each gets 2

(1 bag of individually-wrapped peppermints

60: each gets 2

(2 bags of individually-wrapped peppermints)

A Pile of Quarks, Ready for Construction of a Small Universe

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Chasing CometsChasing Comets

As a  re-entry activity, let’s fall right into the project which inspired the overarching theme for this so-called blog:  cometary tails.   That is, in this instance, we’ll be “studying” the behavior of the tails of actual comets falling along their orbits about a star.    But of course, this is a “Messy Monday” project, so it  involves running, arguing, and playing with scissors (not all at the same time).

So far, the only star whose comets we’ve observed have been those of our own Sun, but as our star is not particularly unusual, it’s likely that comets ply their trade throughout the cosmos.  We’ll not be delving too deeply into astrophysics, instead we’ll be building fun models of comets and playing games which illustrate the apparent motion of a typical comet’s tail.  If you’re running this project as part of a school science program, you can double-count the activity as a P.E. session, as the central game involves more than a bit of running, though not likely moving as fast as a comet.

Just as a reminder, what I want to give you in these “Messy Monday” project descriptions is 1) enough background on the science that you’ll be prepared for questions and have resources to draw on if your own curiosity is triggered, 2) a play-by-play description of running the project with a group, recognizing that your time and resources are limited and your participants will vary in both interest and prior knowledge, and 3) a shopping list detailed enough to help you minimize your costs as well the time you have to spend assembling supplies.

Shoemaker-Levy panoramic (courtesy NASA-NSSDC)

Fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy heading for Jupiter (courtesy NASA-NSSDC)

So, What Do You Want to Know?

For thousands of years, humans have wondered at the strange visitations of comets.

Natural philosophers of the middle ages studying comets.

Natural philosophers of the middle ages studying comets.

In our time, people now understand that comets are not harbingers of doom or annunciations of the births of kings but fellow travelers in our solar system, icy bodies wheeling in towards the sun and shedding a fraction of their substance as they approach the sun.  However, a key aspect of the comet’s tail remains counterintuitive to us earthbound air-dwelling creatures.  The tail of a running horse flows behind her as she gallops, so we naturally expect that the tail of comet simply flies behind it as it plunges along its course.  But a comet’s behavior plays tricks with such expectations.

Where do comets come from?  The Solar System is a big place, but for most of us, the territory ends with Pluto, the Object Formerly Known as The Ninth Planet.

Great_Comet_of_1577 by Georgium Jacobum von Datschitz public domain

The Great Comet of 1577

However, if you’re a fan of Cosmos (either Carl Sagan’s or Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s version) or if your school is lucky enough to have new textbooks, then you’ll know about the Oort Cloud , that sphere of orbiting material from which most comets emerge.  Do you realize how much farther out this region is? On a scale of one inch per 100,000 miles, in which the orbit of Pluto would be one mile across, the distance from the Sun to the Oort Cloud would be the length of the state of California.  It’s even been hypothesized that the Oort clouds of neighboring stars may physically interact, exchanging comets.

The Oort cloud is a long way out, but it’s still a part of the Solar System, because the objects there are still subject to the Sun’s gravity.  Occasionally, a piece of this clutter is jostled from its orbit and begins the long fall towards the sun.  Depending on the path it takes as it zooms around the sun, the comet may slingshot out of the solar system entirely or it may settle into a new orbit, returning to loop around the sun on a regular schedule.   For instance, Comet Halley returns every 86 years.  The last time round, it actually came in ’86–1986 that is.  I was lucky enough to visit New Zealand that year, so I can confirm that Comet Halley was extremely unspectacular that year–only just barely visible.  Fortunately, New Zealand itself is spectacular every single day of any given year.    NASA was more successful, having a noticeable advantage in telescope access.

Babylonian Astronomers Wrote Down Their Observations of Halley in BCE 164

Babylonian Astronomers Wrote Down Their Observations of Halley in BCE 164

Comet Halley's Appearance Dooms King Harold in 1066

Comet Halley’s Appearance Dooms King Harold in 1066

Comet Halley in 1910

Comet Halley in 1910

Comet Halley in 1986 (Courtesy of NASA)

Comet Halley in 1986 (Courtesy of NASA)

                                                                                                                                                                                        But why do comets even have tails?  We don’t see shiny tails glowing in the wakes of our planets.  Well, it all has to do with the change in environmental conditions as the comet moves towards the Sun.  Comets are composed of water ice, frozen gases, rocky matter, and even traces of organic compounds.  As this frozen jumble approaches the sun, it warms up enough that the various ices in the outer layers of the comet become gaseous—water vapor, ammonia, carbon dioxide.  These gases bubble and boil into a misty cloud, so the comet will have an atmosphere of sorts, called the coma, for the duration of its passage through the inner Solar System.  The gas expulsions may even shoot out of the comet’s rocky layers like jets, causing the comet itself to tumble as it falls along its inward path.  At the same time, very small-scale “dust” particles are swept from the cometary nucleus.  This is not the heavily-organic dust we find under our furniture here on Earth (if you really want to know what’s in household dust don’t use “Google images”;  stick to text searches or just ask your friendly neighborhood allergist).  What we mean is that the particle size—a few microns—is extremely fine, about the same size as the particles in cigarette smoke.

We get our fabulous cometary tail once these newly-ejected gases and dust of the coma approach the sun just a bit closer, enough that the various solar emissions can have their ways with the comet’s atmosphere.   First, there is sunlight itself, which acts in several ways to provide us with the visual spectacle of the comet’s tail.

The simplest role of sunlight is to shine on the cloud of dust ejected from the nucleus.  That’s the main tail we see.  But that still doesn’t explain why the dust forms a tail at all:  the secret is that light, as electromagnetic radiation, actually exerts pressure on objects, and with tiny objects like cometary dust this radiation pressure force is enough to fan that  material out from the core.  Plus, there is a cool bonus “secret”: that most comets actually have two tails—one formed by the gases and one formed by the dust.  The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight blasts the gas particles, stripping away electrons, and so creating a mass of ionized gas, which fluoresces (mostly blue) in sunlight. Then those glowing blue ions are blasted in a straight line away from the sun by the solar wind, a stream of high-energy particles hurtling at supersonic speeds through the solar system.  The solar wind is a wonderfully intricate system in its own right, but for our purposes here it is most important to convey that, like earthly winds, it consists of particles moving at high speeds and that its direction is away from the Sun.

The result of all these combined forces is that a complex, continuously shifting cloud of gases and dust streams out from a comet during its time in the inner solar system and that tail—or, rather, pair of tails—points away from the sun, even when the comet is on its way back out to its origin.  (If you’re a die-hard comet enthusiast, you’ll know that the dust tail does curve inward a bit, as the small particles of dust battle with the solar forces, striving to curl into their own individual orbits about the sun, but from our earthly perspective, the outward forces have the upper hand.)

In the next installment, we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of building our own comet models and playing a game of As the Comet Tail Flies.

Oh, yeah, and I’m not making things up about radiation pressure.  Consider the prospects for spaceflight under the power of light!

The Japanese IKAROS spaceprobe in flight (artist's depiction by Andrzej Mirecki).

The Japanese IKAROS spaceprobe in flight (artist’s depiction by Andrzej Mirecki).

Walking to Pluto: Step 2Walking to Pluto: Step 2

Step 2: The List of Requirements:

Don’t worry.  This is one of the least expensive major science projects you’ll put together.

You’ll need:

Note that

I found a sunny yellow ball for my Sun.

1) Any ball roughly 8” (19mm) in diameter—a basic playground ball is likely to work, as will a standard soccer ball. FIFA size 5 works for the English-units model; the SI model is slightly smaller, so a youth-sized FIFA size 4 is appropriate—but don’t get bogged down in the details. Visually, when compared with the planet models, all of these ball sizes look the same.  It’s most likely that you already own or can borrow a ball for this project; if you simply must buy a ball, you should be able to find one for under $10.

 

 

2)  A set of eleven objects to represent each of the eight planets, our Moon, and two of the dwarf planets:

Mars or Venus

Mars or Venus

Pluto or Ceres

Pluto or Ceres

a)  four pins (two pin heads represent Mars and Venus, two pin points represent Ceres and Pluto),

The Moon Is Made Of Green Candy

The Moon Is Made Of Green Candy

b) one tiny candy nonpareil (cake décor or “sprinkle”) for the Moon

Earth Gets Spicy

Earth Gets Spicy

c) two peppercorns or allspice seeds for Earth and Venus

 

Having a Ball with Jupiter

Having a Ball with Jupiter

d) one jacks-size ball (Jupiter)

This jellybean could be Uranus or Neptune

This jellybean could be Uranus or Neptune

e) two jelly beans (or coffee beans) for Neptune and Uranus

 

Saturn represented by a large swirly peppermint

Saturn represented by a large swirly peppermint

f) and a ¾” (19mm) “shooter” marble or a big round piece of candy (also 3/4″ or 19mm) for Saturn.  (It’s just so nice to have something extra-cool and colorful for our most spectacular planet.)

 

 

Total cost: less than a dollar US; ideally, rummaging about an average home or allowing participants to bring contributions should turn up most of these objects for free. To splurge, pick up a whole jar of fresh peppercorns for around $5 and share them out among the students.

2) Eleven inexpensive holders for your objects, with the object names written on them. Empty clear yogurt containers or plastic drink cups work very well (see photos), as the pins can be pushed through the cups and others attached with glue to the cup bottoms…such that the cups then serve as mini-pedestals for the model objects. However, don’t feel bound by guidelines here—a set of index cards will do the job if that’s what you have handy. It does help to secure each object to its support. However, be sure that students can see the actual object clearly so that everyone has a feel for the scale. Cost: as much as 10 cents

3) A few signs printed on regular-sized paper to leave with objects that will be waiting for your return, such as:  “Please Leave This Experiment Undisturbed — (Teacher’s Name).”   Cost: 10 cents

4) Weights to keep each sign from blowing away in a breeze—anything from a handy rock to a water bottle to an actual sports-field marker from your supply closet.   Cost: negligible

5) Your basic first-aid kit and/or other equipment required by local protocols for a field trip.

6) Water as needed (Up to $10 if you need to buy each student some bottled water; negligible if students can bring refillable water bottles.) You may choose to make the walk as short as a half-mile (kilometer) or as long as twice that. For a short walk, you should only need modest supplies; for a long walk, snacks and water will be welcome.

7) A printout of your “Cheat Sheet” for either the English-units or SI-units version of the project Walk to Pluto, Miles or Walk to Pluto, km   (Just click to download the desired document) Whichever measurement system you’re using, it’s just one sheet, front & back, and includes short comments you can make as you take your trek. Cost: 15 cents, if your printer ink is expensive, because it does have colors.

Total cost of essential supplies: normally about a dollar, assuming most items can be gathered at home or borrowed.   For bottled water, if needed, budget an additional 50 cents per student

If you purchase all new supplies, you could spend as much as $40 for a brand-new soccer ball, a jar of nonpareils, a jar of peppercorns, a packet of pins, a jacks game, a bag of marbles with a shooter, and a package of jellybeans.

Interested in more details about the project calculations?  Here are copies of the complete worksheets:  Walk to Pluto Databank, miles and Walk to Pluto Databank, km

(For workbook copies in Excel format, ready for editing, I can send you a copy via Facebook messaging.  Just connect to one of my pages, Pixel Gravity or Cometary Tales.  Say, while you’re there, “like” the page.  Either way, you’ll receive the file in a return message.  The beauty of this approach is that you don’t even need a copy of Excel to use the workbook—Facebook will prompt you to choose whether to open it in Office Online or to download it.  The alternative is to email me via cometary@cometarytales.com.)

 

 

 

 

Good News, Everyone!Good News, Everyone!

“Good news everyone! I’m sending you on an extremely controversial mission!”
―Professor Hugo Farnsworth, “The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz”, Futurama

It’s graduation season, and I’m in post-production now after playing the role of Audience Member in three recent productions of Commencement 2014. At UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Professor Tanya Atwater of UC Santa Barbara provided the keynote address. She was excited to report on her experience as part of the team writing the new science standards.  For members of the EPS department, the “good news” is that the new standards specifically include Earth & Space Science as one of four core disciplines.  Advocates of coding-in-every-classroom will also be happy that one of the four is “Engineering, Technology, and Applications”, though they may be disappointed to find that coding is not all there is to technology.

However, as Professor Atwater pointed out, this is a creation devised by a committee, and a large one at that.  These standards are huge, complex, and demanding.  I won’t be surprised if primary teachers throw up their hands and say “Heck, the old Science Framework was complicated enough!  We’re going back to literature, thanks a lot.” I had a peek at a few pages–the new standard can be surveyed in an interactively, online.  For instance, if you select Grade 1 and Physical Sciences, you are taken to a page entitled Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer

If that’s not enough to send your primary-grade teacher screaming to the arts-and-crafts cupboard, he/she is then presented with a grid of expectations about what first-graders should be able to understand and demonstrate about waves, from sound waves to light waves.  I can tell by the “clarifying statements” and all the hyperlinks to definitions for everything from the requirement that students “Make observations to construct an evidence-based account” to explaining that you use “Cause and Effect” to show that when the lights are off you can’t see objects.  Well, says the gamer kid, what if I have my night-vision goggles on? 

Meanwhile, the teacher is supposed to be tracing all the Common-Core standards links and the cross-discipline values obtained.  As an engineer, I find that sort of thing daunting, while I suspect most trained teachers find those elements-links an easy yawn–it’s the demand they convey science skills to kids at what seems to be a very sophisticated level that presents a barrier.   Remember, it’s unusual for an elementary-school teacher to enter the field with more than a bare minimum of science or technology training.

Not good news?  Well, it may be good news for some students currently graduating in the sciences–the new standards create a market for teachers who have science toolkits ready to hand.   And if states are not too heavy-handed in adopting these standards, the NGSS provides tons of leeway in the actual curriculum developed and in both straight-up statements and in the subtext of the descriptive matter the NGSS strongly urges the use of hands-on, experiential learning techniques.  That’s good, especially in elementary school, because hands-on activities are the best, overall, at evoking those Aha! moments that make science exciting.  What the scientists working on that committee were most excited about was the prospect of bringing that thrill to more students, not only to attract some to actually becoming scientists or engineers but also to allow those following other paths to understand what motivates the ones who do follow the siren song of science.

For example, if you jumped to Professor Atwater’s page, you’d have read her non-committee-developed description of her motivations to teach and her love for science, “In lecture, I used to think I wasn’t a good scientist if I admitted my passion. No more. In the last few years I have adopted a style of expressing my delight along with sharing why I’m delighted – the intricate order and sense (and, sometimes, irony) of how things work – wonderful!”

One of my best experiences during Commencement Week was talking about education with a Kindergarten teacher who was struggling with making sure his (yeah, don’t go sexist on me–men can so teach kindergarten) students each got the attention they needed, despite a class size of more than thirty, in a year when he had no parent volunteers to help out.  And though he was looking forward to summer vacation, he was the most interested to hear about some of my “Messy Monday” science experiences.   As a result, I’m determined that the next couple of activities I put up here under the “Messy Monday” label will be ones targeted to the K-2 crowd.

So, well, the new science standards, if you can get past the committee-style presentation, could be turned into good news.   Let’s get kids doing the kind of science that comes naturally to them:  trying things out, making mistakes, watching what happens.  Let’s help them break free of seeing what they expect to see–it’s those wow moments of unexpectedness that give doing science that endorphin rush.  It’s when the comet is chasing its tail on its way out of the inner Solar System or a water jet sprays farther than you guessed or you suddenly realize that a rainbow isn’t part of a prism or a raincloud or even a soap bubble–it’s the light itself that makes the rainbow.

 

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