What Can Kids Learn from the Sochi Olympics?

Friction, gravity, and international relations: the Sochi Olympics are a golden learning opportunity for all things STEM and beyond.

There’s one uniting factor in the Olympics that transcends nations, politics, and even sports. When people sit down to watch the games, whether they’re old or young, no matter what country they’re from, one thing goes through their minds is “How do they do that?”

It’s a rare opportunity when an event on TV naturally spurs so much intense curiosity about tiny details of physics, engineering, and math. For that reason, the Sochi Olympics might be the most educational event on the tube all year. The National Olympic Committee has essentially built a $51 billion lab where innumerable cool science demonstrations can happen. That’s pretty far beyond most schools’ science budgets, making the winter games an extra chance to pique kids’ interests in STEM.

First up are the athletes who make mastering the forces of physics on ice look easy—figure skaters.

“There’s no better example of physics than on an ice skating rink. It’s a wonderful place to see science,” says Brad Orr, head of the physics department at the University of Michigan, in a video that’s part of NBC’s video series “Science and Engineering of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.”

For example, Orr explains that for any object to be balanced, its center of mass has to be directly above its point of support. A figure skater’s center of mass is near his or her hips, which have to remain directly above his or her skates at all times, otherwise the skater will wobble. Easier said than done when you’re flying through the air!

NBC Learn and NBC Sports, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, have put together the video series which explores the science, technology, engineering and math on display at the games.  And the National Science Teachers Association has provided accompanying lesson plans and activities.

The series also points out that when the snowboarding half pipe event kicked off in 1998, the walls of the half pipe were only about half as high as they are now. Over time, engineers have designed the half pipe’s walls to be higher and the radius to be larger, letting snowboarders like Shaun White go higher and faster while simultaneously reducing the forces on their bodies.

Of course, the skills used to figure out velocity and momentum don’t just come in handy every four years. Physics and engineering are around us everyday—in bridges, cars, and manufacturing. But science and math are on display in such a thrilling way at the games it’s likely to get kids asking questions.

A close third for the most nail-biting event behind figure skating and snowboarding is definitely curling. Well, not really. But even curling can heighten any Olympic fan’s curiosity. How does brushing in front of the rock really make a difference in how far it slides?

“In sweeping in front of the ice here, you are bringing the temperature of the ice up and that reduces the friction, but you’re also creating a thin film of a quasi-liquid type [of] material,” says curling expert Mark Shegelski of the University of Northern British Columbia in a Scientific American interview from the last Olympic games. “This is something that is not fully agreed upon by everybody, but the work that we’ve done strongly supports the idea that the key thing going on is the friction that is due to the thin liquid film.”

Speaking of friction, it’s a bobsledders number-one enemy. CBS News delved into how engineers from BMW, Dow Chemical Company, and Protostar Engineering gave the old bobsled model a complete overhaul for this year’s games using 3D imaging, wind tunnel testing, and carbon fiber materials. All together, their innovations trimmed 15 pounds off the two-man bobsled—which allowed the BMW engineers to add back that weight more strategically (they still had to meet minimum weight requirements).

STEM careers are projected to grow 17 percent by 2018 (compared with 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs), and we’re facing a major shortage of qualified workers. A recent report from the nonprofit group ACT analyzed data from 1.8 million teens and found the overall interest level in STEM is actually pretty high, but the intent and skills needed to actually pursue a career is still low.

That’s why building on things kids are already interested in—like the Olympics—and matching those interests with hands-on opportunities is a great way to demonstrate the real ways STEM impacts our world.

Common Sense Media has this great guide for finding other teachable moments in the games. As curious as kids are about how sports work, equally as intriguing is the political backdrop to the games, not to mention all the hard work and perseverance on display. Talking with kids about how athletes got to the games, as well as the controversies and advertisements, makes them savvy watchers and critical thinkers—definitely gold-medal skills.


Photo / Atos International

Published February 11, 2014