Thursday, January 7, 2010

Countdown to the Olympics...and the Science of it all!

Thanks to the people at NBC Learn! They have created fantastic resources for students to learn about the science behind their favorite Winter Olympics sports. Many of the science concepts are about physics and physical science, but there are a few aimed at Biology. In all actuality, these athletes rely on a variety of science principles from all subjects. These concepts are shown virtually and to visually demonstrate scientific principles that play a crucial role in how Olympic athletes perform. This 16-part series explores such principles as gravity, friction, velocity, acceleration, drag, resistance, and more - is available free to teachers on

About the resource:


NBC Learn, NBC Olympics, and The National Science Foundation Collaborate To Create Video Content About the Science Behind Popular Winter Olympic Sports

The 16-Part Video Series Starring Top U.S. Athletes and Narrated By NBC News’ Lester Holt Will Be Featured On NBC Broadcast and Digital Platforms Including

How does angular momentum help figure skater Rachael Flatt achieve the perfect triple toe loop? How does elastic collision allow three-time Olympic hockey player Julie Chu convert a game-winning slapshot? How do Newton’s Three Laws of Motion propel short track speed skater J.R. Celski to the finish line? These are just a few of the scientific principles explored in a special 16-part video series entitled “The Science of the Olympic Winter Games,” presented by NBC Learn, NBC Olympics and the National Science Foundation.

In a unique collaboration, NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC News, has teamed up with NBC Olympics and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to produce a 16-part video series focusing on the science behind how athletes preparing for February’s Vancouver Games skate, ski, jump and curl to Olympic gold. This groundbreaking collaboration capitalizes on the massive spotlight on the Vancouver Olympics to make science accessible to students throughout the United States by illustrating how scientific principles apply to competitive sports.

The video series is narrated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt and available to viewers on NBC’s “Today” premiered a piece from the series this morning. The project will also be offered to educators as a timely way to incorporate the Olympics into classroom learning.

In each piece in the series, an NSF-supported scientist explains the selected scientific principle, while Olympic athletes describe how these principles apply to their respective sports. The science is broken down by capturing the athletes’ movements with a state-of-the-art, high-speed camera called the Phantom Cam, which has the astonishing ability to capture movement at rates of up to 1,500 frames per second. This allows frame-by-frame illustrations of Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum, friction, drag, speed, velocity, and other scientific concepts.

“Science touches every aspect of our nation’s popular pursuits, including its athletic events,” said Jeff Nesbit, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “It’s exciting to partner with NBC Learn and NBC’s Emmy-award winning Olympic division to present the range and depth of that science to a huge American audience while ultimately inspiring the passions of young people across the United States in all the things science can do.”

“This unique project shows just how versatile NBC Learn can be,” said Steve Capus, President of NBC News. “We’ve made a commitment to education and this project is another creative way to support classroom learning using the journalism and production resources of NBC News. Every two years the Olympics captivate us. This project is another way of telling the remarkable stories of athletes who are the best of the best."

Rachael Flatt, a 17-year-old high school senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and among the favorites to qualify for the Vancouver Games in figure skating, may understand the ins-and-outs of the science behind her sport better than anyone else on the ice. The straight-A student’s father is a biochemical engineer, while her mother is a molecular biologist.

“I guess it’s definitely safe to say that science runs in my blood!” said Flatt. “I jumped at the chance to participate in this project because my parents have passed along their love of science to me over the years and I hope to one-day pursue a career in the field.”

In addition to Flatt, the “The Science of the Olympic Winter Games” features two-time Olympic medalist and Harvard graduate Julie Chu (Hockey) from Fairfield, Connecticut; 2006 Olympic bronze medalist John Shuster (Curling), from Chisholm, Minnesota; 2006 Olympian Emily Cook (Freestyle Skiing), from Belmont, Massachusetts; and 2010 Olympic hopefuls J.R. Celski (Short Track Speed Skating) from Federal Way, Washington and Liz Stephens (Cross-Country Skiing) from East Montpelier, Vermont.

About NBC Learn

NBC Learn ( is the educational arm of NBC News dedicated to providing engaging and innovative resources for students, teachers, and lifelong learners. The online resources NBC Learn has created for the education community leverage nearly 80 years of historic news coverage, documentary materials, and current news broadcasts. Currently two unique offerings, iCue ( and NBC News Archives on Demand (, give students and teachers access to thousands of video clips from the NBC News archives, including great historic moments -- from the Great Depression to the Space Race to the latest political coverage. NBC Learn also offers primary source materials, classroom planning resources, and additional text and image resources from our content partners.

About NBC Olympics

NBC, America’s Olympic Network, has broadcast 11 Olympic Games, the most Olympics broadcast by any network. NBC surpassed ABC’s 10 Olympics with the 2008 Beijing Games, the most watched event in U.S. television history with 215 million viewers. The 2010 Vancouver Games mark the sixth of an unprecedented seven consecutive Olympic broadcasts by NBC Sports, which began with the 2000 Sydney Games and continues through the 2012 London Games.

About the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year 2009, its budget is $9.5 billion, which includes $3.0 billion provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to over 1,900 universities and institutions.


The Science of the Winter Olympics Games

Scientific Areas Explored

Figure Out Figure Skating

How do Olympic figure skaters do triple axels and quadruple toe loops? It's all about angular momentum, vertical velocity, and conservation of angular momentum. NSF-funded sports scientist Deborah King, from the Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences at Ithaca College explains, using high-speed, high-resolution video of Olympic hopeful Rachel Flatt.

Safety Gear

Most Winter Olympic sports are high-speed and dangerously high-impact, from ski-jumping to short track speed-skating to hockey. To protect their skulls and brains, athletes wear protective helmets. NSF-funded scientists Melissa Hines, Director of the Cornell University Center for Materials Research, and Kathy Flores from Ohio State University's Dept. of Materials Science and Engineering, explain how a helmet's hard outer shell works to dissipate energy, and foam linings work to absorb energy. Olympic athletes Julie Chu, a member of the U.S. Women's Hockey Team, and Scott Macartney, a U.S. Ski Team member who suffered a concussion in a 2008 fall, talk about the importance of helmets to Olympic competitors.

Slapshot Physics: Hockey

The slapshot is the fastest, hardest shot in ice hockey--and an excellent illustration of elastic collisions, energy transfer and momentum exchange. NSF-funded scientists Thomas Humphrey of The Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Kathy Flores, an Ohio State University materials scientist, explain, along with U.S. Olympic hockey players Julie Chu and Zach Parise.

Aerial Physics: Aerial Skiing

Behind the breath-taking twists and turns of Olympic Freestyle Aerials is the science of angular momentum and moment of inertia. NSF-funded physicist Paul Doherty, Senior Scientist at The Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Olympic aerialist Emily Cook, explain and demonstrate 'cat twists' and 'contact twists.'

The Science of Snowboarding

The physics behind the awesome, gasp-worthy tricks snowboarders do in the half-pipe? Gravity, friction, and energy (potential and kinetic), as explained by NSF-funded scientists Paul Doherty at The Exploratorium in San Francisco and Deborah King, from the Dept. of Exercise and Sports Sciences at Ithaca College; with assistance from Kevin Pearce, a member of the U.S. Snowboarding Team.

The Internal Athlete: Cross Country Skiing

Cross-country skiers are among the fittest athletes in the world; they train to increase their ability to take up and use oxygen--a maximum aerobic capacity measured by a VO2 Max test. NSF-funded scientists Deborah King, from the Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences at Ithaca College, and Joseph Francisco, President of the American Chemical Society, explain the biomechanics, assisted by two members of the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team, Liz Stephen and Andy Newell, and Troy Flanagan, Director of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Center for Excellence.

Blade Runners: Short Track Speed Skating

Short track speed skating, the fastest self-propelled sport in the Winter Games, illustrates all of Newton's First Three Laws of Motion: (1) An object at rest will remain at rest unless an unbalanced force acts on it; (2) a force acting on a object produces an acceleration of that object; and (3) for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Using high-resolution Phantom Cam video of Olympic short track skater J.R. Celski, NSF-funded physicist George Tuthill explains.

Banking on Speed: Bobsled

NSF-funded scientists Paul Doherty, Deborah King, and George Tuthill, along with bobsled designer Bob Cuneo, use an Olympic bobsled run, from starting push to the finish line, to illustrate acceleration, velocity, gravity, and drag.


From the formula used to figure figure-skating scores to the calculus used to figure instantaneous velocities in a speed-skating race, arithmetic and math are part of every Winter Olympic event and every move Olympic athletes make on snow or ice. NSF-funded mathematician Edward Burger from Williams College explains some of the math you can see in Olympic sports, with assistance from figure-skating expert and sports scientist Deborah King of Ithaca College, and U.S. hockey player Ryan Miller.

Air Lift: Ski Jump

Ski-jumping--hurtling down a ramp at speeds of 60 mph, then soaring through the air--is an excellent illustration of the aerodynamic forces of lift and drag. NSF-funded scientists Paul Doherty, of The Exploratorium in San Francisco, and physicist George Tuthill of Plymouth State University, explain, along with U.S. ski team members Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong.

The Science of Skates

Skates used by Olympic speed skaters, figure skaters and hockey players are custom-engineered by materials scientists so that the boots and blades meet the demands for each sport. NSF-funded scientists Melissa Hines, Director of the Cornell University Center for Materials Research, and Sam Colbeck, formerly of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Lab, explain, along with U.S. Olympic hockey player Julie Chu, short track speed skater J.R. Celski, and figure-skater Rachel Flatt.

Competition Suits

The chemistry and materials science used to create aerodynamic competition suits is described by NSF-funded scientists Melissa Hines of Cornell, Troy Flanagan of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and U.S. Olympic speed skaters Trevor Marsicano and Chad Hedrick; U.S. luge team members Erin Hamlin and Mark Grimmette; U.S. ski team members Scott Macartney and Anders Johnson; and U.S. bobsledder Steve Holcomb.

Downhill Science: Alpine Skiing

A downhill ski race is a tour de force--emphasis on force: from the forceful push-off that accelerates the alpine skier down the slope, to the forces of gravity, friction and wind or air resistance. NSF-funded scientists Paul Doherty of The Exploratorium in San Francisco, and Sam Colbeck, formerly of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Lab, explain the physics of alpine skiing, with help from four members of the U.S. Ski Team: Ted Ligety, Marco Sullivan, Scott Macartney and Julia Mancuso.

Science Friction: Curling

Sending the 42-lb. granite curling stone down a long sheet of ice toward the center of a bull's-eye target is all about friction and surface physics, as NSF-funded scientists Sam Colbeck, formerly from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Lab, and physicist George Tuthill from Plymouth State University explain, with help from Olympic hockey player John Shuster, and Iain Hueton, from the Ogden Curling Club in Ogden, Utah.

Science of Skis

Skis used by Olympic Alpine and Nordic skiers are made of fiberglass and polymers, engineered by materials scientists to give skis used in different events the flexibility, stability and torsional rigidity required. NSF-funded scientists Melissa Hines, Director of the Cornell University Center for Materials Research, and Kathy Flores, an Ohio State University materials scientist, explain how skis are made, from the core to the ski base, with help from three members of the U.S Olympic Ski Team: Julie Mancuso, Scott Macartney and Ted Ligety.

Olympic Motion

The Olympics are a chance to marvel at the physical abilities of the athletes. But what makes these athletes so unique from the rest of us? Dan Fletcher, an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, explores how the organization of human cells through training, exercise and "muscle memory" produce the fantastic range of Olympic motion.

Tags: NBC Learn, Olympics, science education

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