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Watermelons and Slinkies and Eggs, Oh My: Sixth Graders Explore Newton’s Laws by Dropping Items Over a Six-meter Balcony
Rachel Freeman, communications & website manager

Ask many Nueva students who have completed the sixth grade what a highlight of that year was for them, and you can expect to hear them talk about the Egg Drop in their physics class. Considered by some as a Nueva middle school science “rite of passage,” the Egg Drop is a culmination of weeks of learning, brainstorming, prototyping, iterating, and testing in which students apply Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to drop an egg six meters over a balcony without having it “omelettize” (“A newly coined verb for this project,” physics teacher Dalton Lobo Dias joked). 

In this project, students use a select number of materials—some years it’s playing cards and staplers, other years it’s straws and tape—to create a contraption that will allow an egg to drop six meters without breaking or cracking. Students use the design thinking process, namely the Generating Ideas and Prototyping Cycles stages, to create a contraption they think will best accomplish the task. And while an intact dropped egg elicits squeals of excitement from students, Dalton has bigger goals for his students than just whether the egg survived the drop or not.

“Whether the egg survives or not isn't the priority,” Dalton says. “The focus of the project—and Nueva’s approach to learning in general—is on process, not product, and to learn by doing. I would much rather have students who are iterating and taking in data and coming up with new ideas, even if they end up having a little crack on their eggs.”

To get to a place where students are ready to build and test their designs, sixth grade science teachers Dalton and Brad Hoge first introduced students to “an arsenal of physics concepts” through a redesign of Galileo’s supposed Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment. He collected a variety of objects—tennis balls, basketballs, feathers, ping pong balls, foam apples, and coffee filters—and dropped them from the second floor of the Science and Environmental Center (SEC) to the first floor, while students observed what happened and shared their ideas with one another. 

“The water stopped pouring out!” a student exclaimed after watching Dalton drop a liter soda bottle filled with water and poked with holes. 

Another noticed that when Dalton dropped the slinky, the bottom of the slinky continued to be suspended in air until the top of the slinky crashed into it (see video for this cool effect). 

Through project-based learning, infused with a little fun, Dalton is teaching his students about things scientists are doing in real time. The physics concepts learned in this unit can be seen in the recent landing of the Perseverance Rovers on Mars. 

“Physics is so fun,” Dalton said. “There are so many interesting things about the world that can be learned through physics. And students love drama so anything that crashes or explodes—like a watermelon dropped from six meters up—is a fun hook for them.”

And don’t worry, the watermelons dropped in the making of these experiments did not go to waste; they were fed to the soon-to-be-named chickens in the garden. “Even better than composting!” Dalton added. 

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