Teaching science through sledding

Run out into the snow and try to improve your sledding time.

Anyone, even children, can conduct science in the natural world. This can be done within a family, in a day care setting, as part of school activities, a 4-H club or with any group working with young children. Michigan State University Extension will explore how a favorite winter activity, sledding, involves science.

The 2014 Winter Olympics begin Feb. 6 and the world will be entertained by the action taking place in Sochi, Russia. As your family watches the athletes whoosh down the track in the bobsled, luge and skeleton, ask questions such as, “How do they go so fast?” After watching, see what you can do in your backyard or on your favorite sledding hill.

Why do we sled in the winter? Couldn’t we slide through the dirt just as well? What is it about snow that makes us slide faster? If you have a good sledding hill, there are a number of variations that you can experiment with to try to move faster and further. Using a stopwatch you can measure the time and anything stuck in the snow can be used to measure distance. Although the children are having fun, they are also learning about physics and engineering (even if you don’t call it that).

Ask yourself the following questions during different parts of your sledding adventure:

  1. The Push – If you just sit on top of the slope, before it starts angling downhill, do you go anywhere? Newton’s first law is that, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest.” In order to overcome the friction between the sled and the ground, you need a push.  
  2. The Stop – What makes the sled slow down and stop? Why doesn’t it just keep going? Friction between the sled and the snow causes things to slow down.
  3. Weight of the rider – Do heavier kids (or parents) move further or faster than lighter kids? Why might that be? Try sending down the sled with nobody and see how that changes things.
  4. Leaning on the sled – If you lean forward or backward on the sled do you go farther? Why? What about face down versus on your back? Does going backwards change anything?
  5. Material of sled – Sleds can be made of all sorts of materials. How does this change the speed? Why? Sleds can be made from plastic garbage bags, pieces of cardboard, garbage can lids, or with or without runners.  Commercially made sleds have lots of different shapes. Do they contribute to the speed and distance?
  6. Changing the bottom – Can you make the sled even slipperier? Try putting soap, vegetable oil, wax or other substances on the bottom of your sled. See if that reduces friction.
  7. Type of track – Sliders may notice that they go faster and further the longer they ride on the same track. Why does this happen? If you sprinkle water on the track the night before to freeze into ice, will that change your speed?

Kids can give you a new appreciation for snow. By going out and asking questions while the children are having fun and conducting science experiments, you might be helping develop a scientist, engineer or a future Olympian.

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