Exploratory Science and Technology Project

written on January 19, 2015


I received an email late last week:

… I was inquiring to see if you would be able to find time either once a week or once every other week to explore and teach the boys some technology skills. Our schedule is flexible and I was thinking for about an hour. (I can pay you too. Or at least double a recipe to give your wife a night off from cooking!)

This was sent to me by a family friend, with two middle school boys. Neither parent are tech-oriented, so they asked if I could help1. This is an incredible opportunity! Naturally I jumped at the chance to do experiments with them.

So about those “Technology Skills”…

This is quite a broad phrase.

The definition I’ll be using – practical, experimental approach to becoming familiar with principles of electricity and basic circuits, simple physics2, and an introduction to programming.

I am looking forward to solidifying my understanding of the first three and working on my ability to introduce people to the fundamentals of writing software.

A Smattering of Ideas

I have been racking my brain and my coworkers’ to come up with something that would be a semester long “technology skills” project for a fifth and a sixth grader.

After trying to recall the interesting things I did in Middle School, High School and College, in addition to all the great suggestions from my brilliant coworkers at Vox Media, we came up with this list:


  • Paper airplanes, longest flight, highest distance, …
  • Geo caching, with some DIY technology twist.
  • Rockets, using an arduino for telemetry data
  • Catapult and Trebuchet, classics!
  • Spaghetti bridge
  • Egg drop in cardboard
  • Arduino powered weather station, Iowa has some great weather.
  • Legos (including MindStorm and the excellent FLL Robotics programs)
  • RetroPie Project turning the Raspberry Pi into a retro-gaming console.

The Project – Spudnik

I needed to find a project that would be interesting to middle school boys, so I gravitated toward explosions and projectiles. 3

After thinking about this over the weekend, I’ve settled on a progressive buildout of a pneumatic potato gun. Each section4 we will read, discuss and hopefully build an experiment to explore the concepts.

The buildout contains six main sections with an introduction and a stretch goal — if we all still like each other at the end of this project. Some of these sections will be accomplished in one meeting, others might take a month to get through. 5

Key Concepts:

  1. Refresher on the Scientific Method – Question, Hypothesis, Prediction, Testing.
  2. Physics of Compressed AirPressure, how does that potato fly so far?
  3. Basic ElectronicsSeries and Parallel circuits . Building a solenoid based (Electromagnet triggering mechanism.
  4. Gravity and Trajectory – Will this potato hit that house over there? Understanding gravity and calculating trajectory.
  5. Programming – Introduce basic programming concepts and build a trajectory calculation application.
  6. Sensing and Circuits – Connect a digital pressure sensor and accelerometer to get quantitative values to improve trajectory prediction.
  7. Programming With Hardware – Connect the pressure and orientation sensors to an arduino and use the live data to determine the spud’s flight time and distance.
  8. Motorized Tripod – If we still have time after we cover all the topics above we can combine everything we’ve learned to build a two axis motorized tripod that allows for pitch and yaw control. It would be arduino controlled and allow precise targeting and firing control.

Huge thank you to @keving1977 for coming up with the name Spudnick, and then @regentscholar tweaking it to Spudnik.

The Meta Project


I am going to try and journal the progress of our small “Technology Skills” (TS) club and the development of our project right here on this site.

I have created a (currently empty) Spudnik repository on GitHub to contain each week’s lesson. I would love to write this lesson before I meet with the group, but I am guessing, and based on my past projects, I’ll procrastinate and end up writing the lessons after we try them.

I am dog fooding my own Educational Repository proposal.

@banderson623 (Please get in touch if you want to contribute.)

  1. For full disclosure, this family has a full on gym in their basement and have opened it up to anyone in the community who wants to work out. They patiently train a lot of flabby people – so this is the least I could do.

  2. Let’s be honest here, this is about all I understand of physics anyway.

  3. I love this stuff too – so it is a natural fit.

  4. I am not sure how long each section will take. I suppose that some sections can be accomplished in a week, some will take multiple weeks. I really don’t know what to expect here. There are some ideas that are complex, and others that are simple. But even with simple ideas, an experiment or build-out can take a lot far longer than 90 minutes I’ve allotted for each session.

  5. I’d rather the pacing be dictated by their appetite and curiosity than an predetermined schedule.