Monday, June 29, 2009

Fantastic Contraption

What’s fantastic about this game is that there are so many playing it. When I discovered over thirty-two thousand players had submitted a solution to the first problem, I knew the game dynamic had to be good in order to attract so many players.

You build your Fantastic Contraption from an assortment of wheels and rods (see below). When set in motion, your contraption will move according to basic, physical principles. It will topple or fall if overbalanced. If it’s too heavy for the drive wheels, it will stall trying to climb a gentle slope.

At the higher levels, it’s doubtful your contraption will solve the problem the first time it’s set in motion. A failed design means you have to think through why it didn’t work, and then design and apply a fix. Test again, and perhaps fix again, until the problem is solved.

Each of the first 20 (free) problems requires you to build a contraption that will carry a small red circle or square (I call it the football) from a light-blue box on the left side of the field of play into a light-red box on the right side of the play field (see below).

The contraption can carry, push, drag, sling, or shoot the “football” into the light-red box, in any manner you choose. In problem five, called The Wall (see picture above), you build a contraption in the light-blue box, that carries the red square through the wall of yellow blocks, across the gap, and into the light-red box.

This is the contraption I built for solving The Wall. I used five clock-wise wheels, six brown fixed rods, and one blue flexible rod.

The following picture shows my contraption poised and ready to go. I saved my solution to The Wall and published it online for others to see and use. Over 62,000 solutions to this problem have been published! The solutions I looked at are much more clever than mine.

To see my contraption in action, view the following video.

Go to and open a free account (Username–Password). Having an account let’s you save your progress, upload your solutions for others to examine, and to look at the methods of other players used to solve the problem. Fantastic Contraption is also available on the IPhone and Ipod Touch.

Grandad is currently trying to solve Problem 13, Big Ball. Help!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Color Burst

Kids begin playing with water as soon as they can sit up to take a bath. They learn that water flows into and out of containers, escapes through even the tiniest hole or crack in a container, can be hot, cold, or lukewarm, “wets” some objects and not others, and has many other physical properties.

Water (not ice) is a fluid. To the scientist, a fluid is a gas, a liquid, or a granular solid (like sand or granular sugar) that has the ability to flow. Exploring “flows” is what makes the bathtub and sandbox such a playground for kids. Observing “flows” is a great activity for helping kids learn how to observe (and not just look at) events in the natural world.

In the following video, two drops of blue food coloring sitting at the bottom of a layer of cooking oil, coalesce into a single drop and then burst into a bottle containing ordinary water. The pattern that follows is reproducible. View the video and then help the kids to set up the same apparatus.

I never tire of watching fluid phenomena. Each one is different but still the same.

To make your own Color Burst gather these materials.

Clear bottle (a 2-Liter plastic soda bottle works well)

Cooking oil

Food coloring

Tell the kids to:

• fill the bottle to the bottom of its neck with lukewarm water,

• carefully pour an inch of cooking oil on top of the water,

• let the bottle set for a few minutes to allow time for any currents to die down,

• add a drop of their favorite color of food coloring, and

• wait patiently for the food coloring to burst through the oil into the water.

To repeat the process, draw off the cooking oil with an eyedropper and refresh the water.

The drop of food coloring being heavier than cooking oil, sinks to the bottom of the layer of oil. The boundary that separates the oil from the water is called the fluid interface. There are forces at the interface that prevent the drop of food coloring from immediately breaking through into the water.

The heavier food coloring eventually wedges its way through the interface into the water. Notice that the drop of food coloring does not just fall through the interface, it bursts through!

Be sure the kids note the structure of the ensuing flow of food coloring through the water. Even though mixing occurs, thin tendrils of food coloring end in circular pads that are characteristic and appear whenever the process is repeated.

Over time, I will share numerous activities that use water play as an effective way to introduce kids to some very important concepts in science. In Color Burst, three fluids with different densities interact in a simple but dramatic way to illustrate an important fluid concept called Rayleigh-Taylor Instability. (Don’t let the name scare you as Rayleigh and Taylor were two pioneers in the field of fluid dynamics.) More about Rayleigh-Taylor Instability in later posts.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More Evidence that Ghosts Exist

I have further evidence that ghosts exist (see the post Do You Believe In Ghosts? in the April folder). In that first post, I defined “ghosts” as unseen entities that can exert an influence on objects in the physical world.

I have a cardboard box about a foot high with width and length dimensions slightly larger than a standard sheet of copy paper. I was going to use the box as a bin for storing recyclable paper. Anymore, Grandad doesn't believe in wasted motion so I don't wad a sheet of paper before dropping it in the box. I simply slip the sheet into the mouth of the box and let go.

The first time I did this, I was amazed at the result. Check this video to observe what happened.

Having been bitten and infected by the dreaded “science” bug early in life, all I could say when I first observed this action was, “That is so cool!” Again, those unseen entities I call ghosts were able to work together to slow the fall of the sheet of paper.

Help your kids or grandkids make a Ghost Box of their own. Find a box that is close to the dimensions of the box in the video, which are, 11 1⁄4" x 8 5⁄8" x 8 ".

The “ghosts” are invisible air particles floating around in the box. Let’s call them “air ghosts”. Even though unseen, they are quite capable of exerting an upward force on the sheet of paper, as seen in the video.

When you slip the sheet of paper into the mouth of the box, the forces acting on the paper are gravity, which acts to pull it down, and the upward push of the air ghosts.

The two forces are not balanced. The pull of gravity is stronger than the push of the air ghosts. The air ghosts can’t stop the paper from falling but they can and do slow it down. The upward force of the air ghosts is called air resistance.

As the paper falls, ghosts are squeezed around the edges of the paper. It’s the fact that the escape route around the edges is small and restricted that reveals their presence.

Ah ha! Even though I couldn’t see you, I know you are there!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Asher's Soma Pieces

   I recently glued and painted a set of Soma pieces for Asher, our grandson living in Georgia with dad, mom, and baby sister Kate. (If you missed the Soma post, look in the April folder.)
   He’s just two years old and entering the building-block stage so grandad wanted to be sure he had a set of the seven Soma pieces in his learning environment.
   He plays with them when he chooses and arranges the pieces as he see fit. His mom reminded me that kids love color so I painted each of the seven pieces a different color. In this picture Asher is holding the light blue “Z” piece.

   It’s always more fun when you have a friend to play with so Asher has invited Bear, his constant companion, to marvel at the Soma pieces.
   Note that in the second picture, Asher has placed the “Z” piece so that it stands up. He then set the dark blue “C” piece …
… on top of the “Z” to create a stable structure.

   Until I saw the second picture of the “C” on top of the “Z”, I had never considered asking stability questions about Soma structures made from two or more pieces. If the only blocks Asher had in his learning environment were alphabet blocks (single cubes), then he could never have constructed the “C” on “Z” structure. Single blocks don't allow overhangs.
   If a single cube (see diagram below) is placed in the upper-left corner of the “C” on “Z” structure is the structure still stable? If the “C” piece is flipped horizontally (see below), is the structure stable?

   I think you can begin to see how easy it would be to explore with your kids and grandkids the stability of Soma structures. Just take the time to sit with them, build structures, and talk with them. Form now on, when I make a set of Soma pieces, I will include a few extra single cubes.
   Thanks Asher for helping grandad think some new thoughts about the seven Soma pieces and invent new ways to explore the pieces.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Amazing Adventures - The Lost Tomb

Not all of the computer games I want my grandkids to play have a science or math theme. For example, the series of educational (and inexpensive) games called the Amazing Adventures series have a strong vocabulary builder built into the problem-solving and puzzle play. Kids increase their vocabulary without knowing that they are learning new words as they play through the game.

The first in the series is The Lost Tomb. Searching the tombs of the ancient Egyptians never cease to be the context for an exciting game. At the opening screen, setup your profile by typing your name. All of your game progress is saved under your profile name. This keeps it separate from the saved progress of the other players. 

When you start the game, the opening screen displays a map of the Nile delta with your starting location highlighted. As you play, more locations are opened for exploration. You can also go back and replay any level with a new set of problems.

After selecting a location, you will be shown a gorgeous picture brimming over with a myriad of objects skillfully blended in to the scene.

At the bottom of the screen appears a list of objects to find in the picture. The looked-for objects in the above scene are a portable keyboard, pistol, saxophone, 5:17, spicy pepper, spade, razor blade, goblet, 2 dice, and dynamite. 

The game requires the player to pay attention to detail, and to persevere, ignoring the temptation to ask for a clue. Asking for a clue costs points but otherwise there’s no penalty as far as progressing through the game is concerned. The game is a great vocabulary builder 

Once all of the hidden objects have been found, a puzzle screen appears. The puzzle may be a traditional jigsaw puzzle, as shown in this picture,

or, a block puzzle as shown in this screen shot.

Spintop games are available at Wal-Mart. Look in the $10 section of the PC games rack. I prefer to buy the games on Steam, an online game store. The Steam program itself is free and I encourage you to download Steam and then download the free demo of Amazing Adventures – The Lost Tomb.

Any games that you purchase on Steam or demos that you download from Steam can be played on any PC connected to the Internet. Sorry, Macintosh users have to acquire games from other sources (email for help).

I created a Steam account for Joshua and Jordann (our two oldest grandkids) and purchased Amazing Adventures – The Lost Tomb for their account. They can now play the game anywhere they have access to a PC.