STEM grant benefits science classrooms

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Whitefish High School student Abby Lowry, right, with the help of Ella Greenberg, tests out the durability of various shin guards as part of a physics project for Todd Spangler’s class. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Whitefish High School students are already putting to use a $3,000 grant for science research with real world applications.

The Society for Science and the Public last month announced $120,000 in grants to 35 science teachers across the country including at WHS to help secure “much-needed equipment and amenities for their classrooms,” according to a prepared release.

WHS science teacher Todd Spangler said the grant money is going toward purchasing eight Vernier sensors to be used in experiments by his physics students.

The Vernier sensor is an accelerometer that measures acceleration, rotation, altitude and angle data in the classroom or in the field and allows multiple connections to transfer data. The sensors cost $99 each.

Spangler said the sensors allow his classes to measure acceleration and impact in more realistic ways than they’ve been able to previously. In older accelerometers, the maximum impact recorded was 25 Gs — 25 times the force of gravity — and cables were required to run out from the sensor to a computer.

The new sensors measure up to 200 Gs, which is generally used as a testing benchmark for things like the impact absorption of football helmets, and use a wireless Bluetooth connection to send data to a computer or smartphone.

Testing football helmets is one of the many ways the sensors can be used in class, Spangler said, and with the new sensors those tests can be performed more accurately than they’ve been in the past.

“I’ve been wanting to do more, especially with our concussion helmet unit. We test ski helmets, bike helmets, all kinds of different helmets, and what we’ve done in the past is take a foam mannequin head and put the sensor inside, and then put the helmet on and then what I’ve done in the past is drop a baseball from a foot high. It was kind of realistic, but not super accurate,” he said, noting that with the new sensor’s higher impact threshold, the test can be adjusted and a ball dropped from greater heights. “We’ll get more realistic impacts, so it’ll be a more realistic test.”

While Spangler waits for his eight new sensors, two students are putting the lone Vernier sensor already available to good use.

Dillon Botner, a senior, is taking the football helmet test a step further, comparing different brands of helmets and measuring the impacts of a realistic football hit.

“We have a foam mannequin head, so I’m putting the accelerometer in and then we are dropping weights from certain heights and measuring how much force the helmet reduces and just seeing, of the ones we have for our football team, which brand of helmet is the best and most effective and how much it reduces the force,” Botner said. “I was going to put it on to one of my helmets and have Keegan [Wold] and I go and hit each other and see what an average football hit is in terms of force and then see how they compare and how effective modern day helmets are in preventing concussions.”

Botner said the tests are also of personal importance to him, as he’ll be playing football for the University of Montana Grizzlies next fall.

“I’m going to play football at UM and my parents and I are a little worried sometimes about concussions and I want to see if there’s something I can do to prevent it myself, or what we can do better,” he said.

Spangler said the intention of the tests are also to help inform the football team’s use of helmets in the future, though the students’ tests can’t be directly compared to national benchmark certifications for helmet brands.

Senior Lady Bulldogs soccer player Abby Lowry is taking the same concept to her own sport, testing out the impact absorption of shin guards.

“I’ve been playing soccer since I was little. Shin guards, when you start out really little, they’re huge and they have a bunch of padding. As you get bigger, they get smaller with less padding, and I wanted to test the impact absorption of those because there’s a lot of soft tissue damage and different injuries associated with being kicked in the shins,” she said. “Basically I have this huge metal bar that I am putting the shin guard on top of and then I’m putting [a heavy piece of metal] in the impactor and hitting it with it and seeing how much of the energy is actually absorbed, and how much is not, then relating that back to how much soft tissue damage that can do to your legs.”

Lowry is testing a variety of shinguard brands, like Nike and Adidas, along with those made by Lady Bulldog head coach Roland Benedict’s company, Legend Soccer.

Lowry said she’s hoping to provide Legends with her data after testing is complete to help them see where they land in terms of national certification benchmarks.

Spangler said it’s exciting to see the practical applications students can find in the projects, and having more sensors only enables more interesting projects.

“Before it was limited to a class project where we would test everybody at the same time. Now, with eight of them I can distribute them out to different groups and say hey, this is your task over the next week or the weekend, take it skiing, go do something where you test some real world acceleration applications, and then we can come back and analyze that in class. It allows us to look at a lot more possibilities and it allows us to do more research in these classes,” he said.

Likewise, these projects push learning in a way that exists in the real world, outside of the classroom, he said.

“What we do in school is very linear, whereas this kind of stuff — you go off on a tangent, you hit a dead end, you get frustrated, then boom, there’s a breakthrough. It always works that way. The kids are like, ‘Tell me what to do.’ I don’t know what you need to do, that’s what you need to figure out,” he said. “It’s really how things get done in the real world.”

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