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?

Overview: Science of the Olympic Winter Games

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.

Mathletes

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.