I don’t think any sane person would set a group of third graders loose with an inclined plane and a bowling ball, but sometimes we do crazy things in the name of science. So last Thursday, that’s exactly what a group of SPS interns did at a Virginia elementary school. Armed with a inclined plane made from plywood and soda bottles, canned food, PVC pipe, marbles, and of course, a bowling ball, a group of intrepid interns set out to teach a class full of 9-year-old students the principles behind one of Galileo Galilei’s perhaps lesser known experiments.
Probably best known for his work in astronomy and run-in with the Catholic Church, Galileo made other discoveries in the 16th and 17th century that trip up physics students even today. For instance, he discovered that the speed at which two objects fall does not depend on their weight (but don’t forget about air resistance!), and that the period of a pendulum depends only on its length, not its mass or height of release.
The SPS inclined plane experiment wasn’t exactly like Galileo’s. Third graders are a little too excitable to keep time using their heartbeat, and I don’t think they had Pepsi cans in the 1600s. The lesson became more of a competition, where the students raced different objects and tested their intuitive knowledge of moment of inertia. But in the true spirit of science, research was done, discoveries were made, and everyone had a great time. I think Galileo would have been proud.