Girls in Engineering Workshop Captures Her Imagination

For my daughter, the best part of a Saturday spent crafting a paper bridge, creating a water-powered crane, and making her own electric quiz game was, “everything.”  Ten years old, she joined about 60 other girls for the fourth annual Wow! That’s Engineering! program coordinated by the local Society of Women Engineers earlier this year.

girls in engineering hydroliftThe outreach program encourages girls in engineering by engaging them in hands-on activities.  This year, the girls constructed devices representing various engineering fields.  The girls were separated into small groups, those who knew each other well were put into different groups to encourage bridges of friendship in addition to the paper bridge design contest in which they took part.

“I really enjoyed the electricity game we made,” Sweetie shared.  “We made these circuits and if you get the right answer, a light will come on.”

My daughter wants to be an engineer one day and with many adult friends who are engineers themselves, she has a lot of mentors.  A day spent with peers exploring her area of interest, however, was a special opportunity.  She most enjoyed creating the paper bridge.  She went into the activity with confidence because she had previously built a very strong toothpick bridge for a homeschool science fair years ago. At the Wow! That’s Engineering! workshop, however, the set up was different.  Each girl was given a few pieces of paper and a handful of paper clips to build a bridge that could hold 100 pennies.  Having experienced a similar scenario, Sweetie was convinced her design would win.

When it came down to the test, the girls were presented with a problem.  Thy had been told they would be spanning a gap of about 8 inches, but when they measured the test site found that the estimate was 2 inches too small.  “We threw in that twist to make it more real,” the volunteer said. “We’ll go out to a site, and it’s different than what we were told.”

Sweetie’s friend also attended the Wow! That’s Engineering! workshop. She was proudly holding her Hydrolift, a wooden crane the size of a tea kettle that used two syringes as pumps to raise and lower rocks, when my husband came to pick up the girls.

“I want to come back ’cause it’s fun,” the girls said. “I love it.”

The Society of Women Engineers offers outreach programs for girls interested in engineering all over the country.  Visit their website and find a workshop nearest you.


The Domino Effect :: Science Saturday

Frequently, the munchkins will entertain themselves watching videos on YouTube … Buddy searches “Lego Trains” or “HO Trains” while Sweetie will search “Polymer Clay” or “Paper Crafts”.  I was surprised to discover that what caught their attention this past week were Dominoes.  They spent hours watching videos and then trying to set up similarly complicated patterns.  They even used my iPhone to record their own videos and take photos of their designs before they were made to fall.

All the while they played investigated the properties of dominoes and experimented, I kept thinking to myself,  “We should really be doing schoolwork.  We have quite a list of tasks that are due next week.”  Then inspiration struck … “What they are doing is science!  So I ran into the dining room where they had set up their testing space.  “I have a challenge for you both,” I said as I gave them a stopwatch and a meter stick.    “How does the distance apart affect how fast dominoes fall? You might try and find out … maybe at 2cm apart and at 4cm apart.”  I then walked away. 

They had some experience recording their results in the past with other experiments so not wanting to interfere – or take over as I have a tendency to do – I left this one up to them.  Upon completion of their test, we sat down with their results table and discussed how it all meant.   

The Domino Effect

Purpose: This investigation will determine whether the speed of sound is affected as it travels through a solid, liquid, or gas.  In this experiment, think of the dominoes as molecules that make up a solid, liquid, or gas.  Sound travels in waves or moving molecules.

box of dominoes
smooth surface
ruler or yardstick
stopwatch or a watch with a second hand


  1. Line up dominoes approximately 2 cm apart, stretched out over a 100-cm length.
  2. Measure the time it takes for all the dominoes to fall. Be sure to start the timer just as you knock over the first and stop it just as the last domino hits the surface.
  3. Record the amount of time it took for all the dominoes to fall.
  4. Line up the dominoes again, this time 4 cm apart, stretched over a 100-cm length.
  5. Predict the amount of time it will take the dominoes to fall and record your prediction.
  6. Measure the time it takes for all the dominoes to fall. Be sure to start the timer just as you knock over the first and stop it just as the last domino hits the surface.
  7. Record the amount of time it took for all dominoes to fall. How close was your prediction to the actual time?
  8. Set up both lines of dominoes so that they each stretch to 100 cm, but one line should be placed 2 cm apart and the other line 4 cm apart. Lines should be parallel to each other.
  9. Knock the first domino of each line over at the same time. What do you notice?
  10. Answer the following questions:
    • Which dominoes traveled faster, the ones 2 cm or the ones 4 cm apart?
    • Think of dominoes as molecules. Which line of dominoes (molecules) represented a solid (2 cm or 4 cm)? Which line represented a liquid (2 cm or 4 cm)? Think about the three states of matter: How do the molecules behave in a solid, liquid, and gas?
    • How would you explain the results of your findings to someone else by using these words: chain reaction, wave, solid, liquid, and traveling ?
    • How far apart would you place the dominoes if you wanted to investigate a wave
      moving through gas (like air)? Base this decision on the two measurements already given.
    • Predict the amount of time (another hypothesis!) it would take for the dominoes
      representing gas to fall through a 100-cm line.
What’s Happening?
Matter consists of tiny particles called molecules, and these molecules are always moving around and bumping into each other. They react as the dominoes did when the first one fell into the second. Sound energy in the form of vibration is transferred from one molecule to another. Energy is transferred from one domino to another as they fall to the table. In the first activity, the dominoes are placed closer together, and the sound travels faster through the particles, much as in a solid (molecules are close together). In the second activity, the dominoes are placed farther apart and the sound travels slower through the particles, much as they do in a liquid (molecules are farther apart than in a solid). 

Building Tetrahedron Kites

Few things capture the spirit of spring like flying a kite. Watching a kite dance and sail across the sky is not only a visually appealing experience, it also provides a foundation for studies in aerodynamics – a discipline that beautifully integrates science and mathematics.  Building tetrahedron kites combines art and handcrafts as well.

The Science of Kites

A kite is a tethered aircraft that flies when the forces of lift and thrust are greater than the forces of drag and gravity.  In between flying and crashing to the ground are a variety of swoops, wiggles, pitches, yaws, and rolls that show the kite is seeking a balance among the conflicting forces.

A kite creates a physical obstacle to the normal airflow which causes the air to change direction and speed. The air flows across one surface faster than it moves across the other side of that surface. This difference in speeds results in lift in the direction of the surface with faster moving air. As air pressure can be altered by changing the kite’s angle of attack, the changes in air speed result in changes in air pressure, which cause the kite to produce greater lift.

Constructing a Kite

Begin by constructing a pyramid composed of equilateral triangles by running string through three straws, arranged in a triangle.  Continue on with the string through two additional straws, forming an additional triangle (the two triangles now share the same base).  Finally, run the string through one more straw and lift the left triangle upward to form a pyramid, tying the the lead end of the strings.

tetrahedron template

Use the template pictured here to cut out a tissue-paper covering for two sides of the tetrahedron. The template measurements are for standard length drinking straws.  Cover only two sides of the tetrahedron.  Glue the covering over the frame, wrapping the excess materials around the straw frame.  Repeat these steps to create a total of four tetrahedrons.

More detailed instructions for building these kites can be found at Easy Kitemaking: How to Build a Pyramid Kite.

triangular kite

Designing an Experiment

Now that you have familiarized yourself with the characteristics of the tetrahedron kite, design an experiment to determine how changing one variable in the kite’s design will affect its performance.

For example, you may wish to build a kite using heavier tissue paper or a different kind of covering altogether (newspaper, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil for example).  You may try a kite with a larger number of tetrahedron cells (16 instead of 4).


Bicycle Breakdown

We had such a good time this week with our science co-op.  For the past few weeks we have been meeting with to take part in an 12-week introductory physics class.  Today was the culminating activity for a unit on simple machines.  The kids had been looking forward to it for weeks and their enthusiasm was evident in how engaged they were throughout the lesson.

For Christmas each of the kiddos received a new bicycle from Santa.  I purposely held onto their old bikes for this activity.  If you would like to do this activity yourselves, I would encourage you to check with local bike retailers for an old bike they may be willing to donate to the cause.

Before we began, we reviewed the names of the 6 simple machines:  lever, wheel & axle, inclined plane, wedge,  and pulley.  We then discussed that a bicycle is a machine made up of many simple machines.  These simple machine work together to make a very efficient machine that helps us move distances much faster than on foot.

The kiddos worked in two small groups of 3 … just the right size to assure everyone had a fair chance to use the tools.   They examined the bike only briefly and immediately went to the pile of tools I had provided (some that were purposely of no use) to begin they process of taking it apart.  Of course, they wanted to work in segregated groups .. the boys took apart Buddy’s old bike while the girls dismantled MeiLi’s.  As they worked, they were encouraged to sketch the simple machines that made up the bike.  They were so engrossed in the activity, however, that this didn’t happen. 

Everyone worked really well together and despite the fact that they did NOT record the simple machines they identified on paper, they stayed focused on the activity for nearly 2 hours.  It was such a delight … even us moms had an opportunity to visit … for me, that is a real treat!

At one point, the boys encountered a very troublesome bolt that was too tight for even I to loosen.  Fortunately, DH was home and showed us a little trick.  Using two wrenches, we extended the arm of the lever and thereby were able to loosen the bolt with less force.  Even I learned something today! 

Ponyo Inspired :: Science Saturday

My kiddos love the anime movies of Hayao Miyazaki .  One of their favorite is Ponyo which was recently released onto DVD.  This delightful Japanese film follows the adventures of a 5-year-old boy, Sosuke, and his burgeoning friendship with Ponyo, a goldfish princess who desperately wants to become human. After running away from and then being recaptured by her strict father, Ponyo — with some help from Sosuke — becomes more determined than ever to make her dreams come true.

Ponyo’s magic brings “to life” one of Sosuke’s toys, a candle powered steam engine boat.  Like most boys, my little guy was fascinated by this boat and asked about it frequently after we had seen the film on the big screen.  To his surprise and delight, he received one in his Easter basket this year.
Inside the boat and extending out the stern, there is a little metal tubes.  This tube fills with water and when the water in the tube boils, the steam expands. This pushes the water out of the tube. The reaction pushes the boat forward.  As the steam continues to expand, it encounters the section of tubing that used to be full of water. This tubing is cold, and the steam condenses back into water. This causes a vacuum to form, which pulls more water back into the tubes.  As it does this, a little putt putt sound is generated.

You would expect that the water moving back into the tubing would cause the boat to go backwards. However, the water doesn’t get very far before it hits the end of the tube where the two streams of water meet each other. Any motion caused by the water being sucked into the tubes is reversed by the water hitting the front of the tube and pushing the boat forward again.

Buddy has been having a great time navigating the seas of our bathtub.  I know it will be the first thing he packs when we go camping this summer.  Little does he know that he is doing science!  🙂

Click here for instructions on how to build your own candle powered boat.  Here’s another, for more detailed descriptions, Pop Pop!