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The Science Behind the Winter Olympics

The Science Behind the Winter Olympics

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Updated on Feb 19, 2010

Television may be labeled a “cheap babysitter” for good reason. But some television programming is practically irresistible—especially when we know that TV viewing can actually be beneficial for kids under the right circumstances. Experts agree that when parents and children watch certain programs together and use the experience as a springboard for discussion—much like you use book-reading as a springboard for discussion—the viewing can lead to a solid learning experience.

Families across the globe are tuning in to watch the 2010 Winter Olympics. And what a terrific opportunity for children to learn from and be inspired by the very best athletes in the world! How did they do it? Who inspired them to do it? What did their road to success look like? What did their failures look like? How did they respond to failures along the way?

With open-ended questions and prompts, parents can morph just about any age-appropriate TV viewing experience into a playground of learning. And the Winter Olympics present the perfect opportunity to learn about and reinforce understanding of scientific concepts.

In fact, NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC, has joined forces with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to prepare a series of videos explaining the science behind various sports featured in the Olympics. This sixteen-part series explores scientific topics such as “The Science of Skis,” “Figuring Out Figure Skating,” “Safety Gear,” “Slapshot Physics: Hockey,” and “Aerial Physics: Aerial Skiing,” and NSF scientists and Olympic athletes discuss the science from their perspective.

“It might be useful before the Olympic events to see if children would be interested in watching one of these video segments,” says David Ucko, NSF Director of Research and Learning. “This could help them look at the event differently and help them realize that science is everywhere—this is part of the value of informal learning experience, which could include television or radio programming or things on the web.”

Ucko suggests that parents use the Olympics to help their children develop and explore new interests—scientific as well as athletic. “If a child develops an interest based on watching the Olympics, parents could help to build on that interest,” he says. In addition to signing children up for the ski trip next year, parents can take kids to a science museum to learn more about a specific science concept, or they can visit the local library and check out a book on the topic.

For many parents, though, the word science sounds pretty scary. It might have been fifteen or twenty years since they took their last science class—and that might not have been their strongest subject. But Ucko says parents need not be intimidated.

“One piece of advice is that you don’t really need to know everything,” Ucko says. “You can explore answers with the child. You don’t need to feel like you need to be an expert yourself, but you can engage in the process of discovery with your child.”

Bob Thompson, Science Curriculum Specialist for the Center for Elementary Math and Science at the University of Chicago, taught science in the classroom for nearly thirty years. He says, “I used to look forward to being asked a tough question by my students, so I could say with a real big smile on my face, ‘I don’t know.’ There’s more out there than any one of us could possibly have knowledge of. Just look at the Olympics—those people are very good at what they do, but they couldn’t do it all!”

And remember, science concepts for young children don’t deal with molecular biology and the aerodynamic forces of lift and drag. Parents of young children can explore with their children age-appropriate scientific concepts such as water, weather, animals, and nutrition.

Visit NBC Learn for ideas on talking to tweens and teens about the science of the Winter Olympic sports (see overview below), or take a look at these discussion starters for talking to younger children about the science related to skiing. You can ask these kinds of open-ended questions about any of the Olympic sports! Remember, science for young children has to do with exploring the senses, seasons, plant life, animals and insects, water and land, transportation, changes in the sky, motion, etc.

Read on for discussion starters about science and winter sports, as well as details of the science at work in the events of the Winter Olympics:

Discussion Starters About Science and Skiing

  • Seasons. What time of year is it? How can you tell? What are the four seasons? What is your favorite season? Why? Why do you think the snow isn’t melting on the mountain? Where do you think snow comes from?  
  • Weather: What is the skier wearing? Why do you think she is dressed in such warm clothes? How do you think she would feel if she were wearing a bathing suit instead? Why? What do you wear when it’s cold outside?
  • Animals: What kinds of animals do you think you might see on a mountain? What kinds of animals might you see in the sky? What kinds of animals would you see in a lake or river? Do you think you might see a bear on a mountain in the winter? Why or why not? What do bears do during the winter? What animal would you like to see up close? Why?
  • Motion: Why do you think the skiers are skiing down the mountain instead of up the mountain? Have you ever tried to ride a tricycle up a hill? Was it easier or harder than riding down a hill? What makes you say that?

Tip: When talking to young children about science and the Olympic sports, be sure to ask questions to help them personalize the concepts. What is your favorite season? Why?

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