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Teaching Newton's Laws with Bowling and Mars
On a big screen in one of the theaters at the Hampton CineBistro, a bowling ball rumbles down a lane and mows through a clutch of pins with a satisfying crack and clatter.

A cheer goes up as more than 140 fourth and fifth graders from Hampton's Kraft Elementary School — named after Christopher Kraft, NASA's first human space mission flight director — celebrate the fact that their classmate, Kolby Davis, has just bowled a spare.

More than 140 fourth and fifth graders from Kraft Elementary School in Hampton learned how Newton's laws of motion apply to bowling and the Mars Curiosity rover during "The Science of Bowling," an event organized by Bonnie Murray and Caryn Long of NASA Langley's Digital Learning Network. Credit: NASA/Gary Banziger

After Davis and a couple of his Kraft classmates finish bowling their frames and rejoin the rest of the children in the theater, Bonnie Murray, an Education Specialist with the Digital Learning Network (DLN) at NASA's Langley Research Center, looks out across the stadium seating and asks, "Did you see any science happening?"

Murray and her colleague, Caryn Long, in collaboration with Hampton City Schools and CineBistro, organized this hour-long event, titled "The Science of Bowling," to teach the students about Isaac Newton's laws of motion.

The students are totally engaged as Murray and Long pace the front of the theater, peppering them with questions: "What do we study in science? Any forces at work that you saw? What else was in motion after the ball was in motion?"

They demonstrate each law with a joke or prop. For the first law — an object in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it, and an object at rest stays at rest until an unbalanced force acts upon it — Long gives Murray a shove. For the second — force equals mass times acceleration — they roll a tennis ball and bowling ball across the floor. And for the third — every action has an equal and opposite reaction — they let the air out of a balloon rocket.

Bonnie Murray

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Bonnie Murray, an Education Specialist with NASA Langley's Digital Learning Network (DLN), talks to fourth and fifth graders from Kraft Elementary School in Hampton about Isaac Newton's laws of motion. Credit: NASA/George Homich

Mars Bowling

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Students from Kraft Elementary School in Hampton learned how Isaac Newton's laws of motion apply to bowling and the Mars Curiosity rover at an event organized by NASA Langley's Digital Learning Network (DLN), Hampton City Schools and CineBistro. Credit: NASA/George Homich

They then turn the lesson to the Mars Curiosity rover.

After Murray tells the students that Curiosity was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, an impressed boy shouts, "word!"

"Word, yeah," says Murray, laughing.

The children are equally impressed by video of Curiosity being launched into space atop an Atlas rocket.

Murray tells them that no rocket exists that can launch anything heavier than Curiosity. "We need some new launch designs," she says, "so I'm hoping that some of you will be the engineers working on these launch designs in the near future."

Murray then introduces David Way, the NASA Langley engineer who led the Curiosity rover's Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) team. Way, who appears from the DLN studio at NASA Langley, looms large on the screen. He talks to the children about how Newton's second law — his personal favorite — affected the rover's descent.

"Think about it for a minute," he says. "If we know all of the forces that are acting on our spacecraft, then we will know how it's accelerating, how its velocity — or speed — is changing. And if we keep track of how its velocity and speed are changing, then we will know where it's going to go."

After walking the students through the forces at work during each stage of Curiosity's entry, descent and landing, Way tells them that with the help of Newton's second law, his team was able to land the rover within seven seconds of their anticipated touchdown time and just 1.5 miles from the landing spot they'd been aiming for.

"How long did it take to plan the Mars landing?" one of the students asks him.

"We worked on this mission for 12 years," he says, "and that entire landing sequence took seven minutes."

"I have a question for you," Long says. "You know that math that you learned in fourth and fifth grade — did you use any of that for this?"

Yes, Way says. "It's that math and knowing those scientific laws that allow us to do really cool things like land rovers on other planets."

After the event, Jessie Minter, a fourth-grade teacher at Kraft, says she's glad for the opportunity to show her students how some of the lessons they're learning in the classroom can apply to life in the real world.

"That was really one of the things I was looking forward to — us being able to connect all those vocabulary terms we're learning in class to some real-world things," Minter says.

One of her students, Skyler Washington, puts it in simpler terms. He says he'd consider being a rocket scientist one day "because it looks awesome and it's fun, too."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman