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Archive / January, 2015

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Sir Isaac Newton—about his life, said it best, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Many STEMists can identify with Sir Isaac Newton.  Like any modern-day STEMist, Sir Isaac Newton was driven by investigation and a quest for truth—wanting to know how things work and why they work. And, if he found no answer, then he created a way to find one, such as when he developed integral and differential calculus to help determine why planets have an elliptical orbit.

Young Sir Isaac Newton

Newton was born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthrope, Lincolnshire, England.  Sadly, Isaac Newton never knew his father, who died just three months before Newton was born.

Young Sir Isaac NewtonSoon after, his mother remarried and left Newton with his grandparents. In his preteen years, Newton lived with a local apothecary (pharmacist) where he learned about the fascinating world of chemistry.   It was after her second husband died that Newton’s mother returned for him, along with three half-siblings.  His mother pulled him out of school so he could be a farmer, just as his father was.  Newton, however, found farming to be dull, and he did not do it well.

Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion

When he was 18 years old, Newton found his passion for mathematics, astronomy, physics and optics while he attended Cambridge University. As time passed, Isaac Newton made many discoveries in each of his passions. However, he is most noted for discovering the Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion, as published in the 1687, in “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” where he explains:

  • Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac NewtonThe first law (law of inertia) – “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
  • The second law states that acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass – therefore, the greater the mass of the object, the greater the force required to accelerate it.
  • The third law – “for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.”

And, although these ideas are centuries old, they are still relevant today, as Neil deGrasse Tyson,  American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, explains in his video with Big Think:

A Career in Mechanical Engineering

So, how would groovy STEMists of Newtonian thinking choose a career path?  Mechanical engineering as a career will give STEMists many options of industries and type of work to choose.  Mechanical engineers work mostly in engineering services, research and development, manufacturing industries, and the federal government. They design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, engines and machines.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mechanical engineers was $80,580 (May 2012). STEMists who become mechanical engineers can work in various engineering industries, including:

Women in mechanical engineering

Gretchen Christenson, KU sr. studying mechanical engineering is on the chassis team of the KU Formula car team, a mechanical engineering senior design project. Photo courtesy: LJWorld.com


  • Aerospace– designs, manufactures, researches, operates and maintains aircraft
  • Automotive– designs, manufactures, distributes and markets motor vehicles
  • Chemical– covers oil companies, chemicals manufacturers and the businesses that support them
  • Construction– designs and builds infrastructure, buildings and buildings services such as heating and ventilation
  • Consumer goods industry– manufactures products such as household cleaning items, personal hygiene goods and convenience foods
  • Defense – provides equipment, support and services for the armed forces and national security
  • Electronics – designs and manufactures components and installs equipment for various engineering sectors
  • Marine– develops and helps operate boats/ships
  • Materials and metals– develop new materials and manufacture components or end products
  • Pharmaceuticals – develops and manufactures drugs/medication
  • Rail– designs, constructs, manages and maintains rail system components from trains and tracks to electrical power systems and train control systems
  • Utilities – helps supply power, water, waste management and telecoms.

Mechanical engineers are not tied to the industries above. They also can find themselves working in finance, information technology and education.  Or, Groovy STEMists may land a job on Mars through the Mars One mission plan!  By 2024, the plan will set up an outpost where human crew will live and work.  The Mars colony will need workers who have the skills to build and maintain transit vehicles and rovers, life support units that generate energy, water and breathable air, and more!

Mars 1 Mission

Get your STEMists on their way to achieving Newtonian grooviness with a Groovy Lab in a Box monthly-themed subscription.  Your STEMists will try their hand at mechanical engineering, and explore more of Newton’s Third Law with this month’s “Pull Your Weight” box. Order your Groovy box today!

Groovy Pulleys

What do elevators, flagpoles, trains, planes and automobiles have in common? They all use a pulley system.  A pulley is a wheel with a groove that holds a rope, cable or belt, and is used to help lift an object or change the direction of a force.  Too often, we take for granted everyday items that use pulleys as part of their engineered design.

History of pulleys

An advancement on the technology of the wheel, the pulley allowed great weights to be lifted with little force. The first use of a pulley can be traced back to Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer, and philosopher (287 BC – 212 BC).

It was Plutarch – no, not Plutarch Heavensbee from Mockingjay – but the ancient Greek philosopher who recorded that Archimedes designed a block and tackle pulley to move an entire warship, laden with men. This pulley was known as the Claw of Archimedes and nicknamed the “iron hand.” The Claw was an ancient crane with a grappling hook that was able to lift enemy ships out of the water, causing the ships to capsize or be suddenly dropped.

Claw of Archimedes

In fact, STEMists will be surprised to learn that the Greeks used pulley systems to place actors on stage.  Using pulleys on stage continued during the 1500’s in England, when William Shakespeare used a variety of special effects at the Globe Theatre, including flying actors using a pulley system—a technique which is still used in today’s theaters.

Types of Pulleys

Fixed – A fixed (class 1) pulley has a fixed axle, anchored in place, which redirects the force in a rope, called a belt, when it goes full circle.  A fixed pulley has a mechanical advantage of one—it is useful because when you pull down, you can use your body’s own weight to add to the push.
Fixed pulley
Movable – A movable (class 2) pulley has an axle in a movable block. A moveable pulley supports an object with two ropes, placing the pulley in the middle. Since the pulley is being supported by two ropes, the amount of force you need to move an object is cut in half. It has a mechanical advantage of two.
Movable pulley
Compound – A compound pulley is a combination of a fixed and movable pulley that forms a block and tackle, which can have several pulleys mounted on the fixed and moving axles, thereby increasing the amount of force.  The block and tackle has been a key tool for raising boat sails and cargo for centuries.
Compound pulley

How It Works

The design of a wheel on an axle supports movement and changes direction of a rope/belt or cable along the circumference of the wheel.   Pulleys are used to lift loads, apply forces and to transmit power.  In simple terms, your STEMists will understand the concept of an object being too heavy for one person to lift, even for the strongest of men.  For example, if you want to lift a brick that weighs 20 kilograms, you have to pull down with a force equivalent to 20 kilograms. If you want to raise the brick two meters into the air, you have to pull the loose end of the rope a total distance of two meters at the other end. Therefore, with the use of a pulley, your STEMists can effectively multiply the force their body produces.

Be sure to order “Pull Your Weight” – a pulley-themed Groovy Lab in a Box to get your STEMists excited to investigate pulleys, cranes and Newton’s Third Law.

4 Groovy Ways to Teach Newton’s 3rd Law

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Teaching Newton's Third Law of Motion

Although the explanation of the law is simple, STEMists often find the concept hard to comprehend. How do you demonstrate this law to your STEMists?

Check out these 4 groovy ways to teach your STEMists about Newton’s 3rd law.

Play with Marbles

Using marbles to teach Third Law of Motion

An easy activity that shows the law of physics at work is to play with marbles.  Ask each STEMist to choose two marbles and set one marble at the end of a flat surface.  Then, ask your STEMists to push the second marble into the first marble (at the end of the surface). Observe what happens when the two marbles collide—notice the reaction to the collision. Encourage your STEMists to talk about the transfer of energy from one marble to the next.  Also discuss that like the marble, any object hit with another would react to the action.

LEGO Balloon Car

LEGO car

A favorite teaching tool, LEGOs continually find their place in STEM-related activities! The LEGO balloon car activity will not only entertain your STEMists, it will demonstrate Newton’s 3rd law!  Ask your STEMists to build a car with LEGOs that includes an area on the back of the car to secure (between two LEGOs) the mouth of a balloon.  Add air to the balloon by inserting a straw in the balloon mouth, then blow into the straw.  Watch what happens when you release the straw from the balloon—as the air releases from the balloon, the car moves in the opposite direction.

If LEGOs are not available, you can design a paper rocket car that will demonstrate the same principle law of motion— for every force there is a reaction force that is equal in size, but opposite in direction.

Pop Tops

Pop top

Grab 2 film canisters, a seltzer tablet (Alka-Seltzer), water and a pan with sides (2.5 cm/1 inch or higher).  Use a permanent marker to draw a line down the center of the pan. Then, pour water into each canister until half full, and equal to each other.  Cap the first canister and lay it on its side with the cap facing toward the line on the pan.  Then, work quickly to add 1/2 of an Alka-Seltzer tablet to the second canister. Immediately cap the canister and lay it cap-side at the center line in the pan, facing the other canister.  Watch as the seltzer tablet creates enough gas to fill the canister and cause it to pop its top, and push against the first canister.  Your STEMists will witness equal force affecting each canister, causing them to move in opposite, mirrored direction.

Observe a Bird in Flight

Birds and Third Law of Motion

Take your STEMists outdoors to observe Newton’s 3rd law in action!  Watch a bird as it takes flight. Consider the flying motion of the bird and use of its wings as they push the air downwards.  The downward motion reacts to the opposite force of the air pushing the bird upwards. This makes perfect sense if your STEMists can remember that for every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction – therefore, the action-reaction force makes it possible for the bird to fly.

For more ways to learn about science and physics, check out next month’s pulley-themed “Pull Your Weight” Groovy Lab in a Box.  Your STEMists will become engaged in the engineering design process as they work through investigations and the custom retro-style Groovy Lab notebook!

3 Ways to Ensure a Groovy Back-to-School Transition


3 Ways to Ensure a Groovy Back-to-School TransitionMost STEMists enjoy the free time afforded during winter break.  Students get to sleep later in the morning, participate in late-night family gatherings, and hang out with friends without the worry of completing project assignments or homework. Although a winter holiday is much needed, it can present challenges when it’s time to get back into the educational groove.

In fact, many teachers find that grades drop in the third quarter.  And, though this is not true for all students, there are several reasons a drop in grades may occur.  Some say it is the more challenging curriculum in the third quarter, and others blame the long winter break that causes students to get too relaxed and lose focus.

Here are 3 ways to ensure a smooth and groovy back-to-school transition for your STEMists to help them make the grade.

Get Organized

Now is the time to clean out your backpack.  STEMists should completely empty their backpack and go through each folder and binder, pulling out already-graded papers, old project outlines and other items they won’t need for the next semester.  Be sure to include working pens and pencils, and fill binders with a new supply of paper.

STEMists should also declutter their workspace at home.  Whether a STEMist does homework at a desk in his bedroom or has a designated space in the family room or den, a clean and clutter-free area will allow for a more productive and stress-free environment.  Make sure to clear a space for new incoming homework assignment materials and discard old papers.  File them into a file folder or file drawer.

Set Goals

STEMists will experience a true sense of accomplishment by setting and meeting personal goals. Whether it’s to get a better grade in math, make new friends, join a club, keep their room clean, or even read the entire Harry Potter series, people who set goals are more likely to be successful.  Ask your STEMists to set at least two goals for the remaining grading quarters in their school planner.  Be sure to check them off after they are met. Also remind your STEMists to use their planners each day to help prioritize homework and in-school assignments.

Exercise Your Brain

Keeping your mind active is as important as physical exercise, and will help the brain stay fit and focused while out of the classroom.   Engage your STEMists brains with board games such as Monopoly, Scrabble or Risk.  Jigsaw puzzles also keep the mind in tip-top shape!  Or, try one of the many free brain training apps that offer brain exercises to help your STEMists keep their minds in good working condition.

BrainHQ – Brain Training Exercises:


Posit Science claims BrainHQ is the only brain training program clinically proven to improve memory, speed, and attention. Top scientists provided input into the challenges in this app, resulting in a training system that comprehensively improves brain function, from the most basic elements of perception through the most complex elements of memory, thinking, and decision-making.



Sophisticated, scientifically designed brain training for anyone, Lumosity is part of the Human Cognition Research Project and offers a personalized brain training program that includes a personal brain trainer, 40+ scientific-based games, and a variety of brain tests to assess your performance at different points in time.

A monthly-themed Groovy Lab in a Box is another way to keep your STEMist’s brain fit and focused to help transition from winter break to a back-to-school routine.  The Groovy Lab in a Box challenges STEMists to use their natural creative skills to complete investigations and an engineering design challenge!  Recently named in Popular Mechanics 100% Wholesome Holiday Toy Guide, Groovy Lab in a Box challenges enhance STEMists’ ability to retain knowledge and to think like engineers—all while having fun!

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