A $50 do-it-yourself device designed at UCLA makes science fun for students of all ages

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Teachers receive free instructions, lesson plans and videos for experiments on climate, oceans and atmosphere

Spencer Hill

Children and adults view an experiment using a simple device designed at UCLA that includes water, food coloring and a turntable.

Students at all grade levels can learn about climate, atmosphere and oceans as they watch colors swirl during experiments they conduct, thanks to a project developed by UCLA scientists. Using simple materials such as Legos and a Lazy Susan turntable, teachers from elementary schools through colleges can set up the experiments for about $50.

website and YouTube channel provide assembly directions, lesson plans and instructional videos.  Armed with these assets, students and teachers may experiment with Earth science concepts through what the scientists call DIYnamics (Do It Yourself dynamics), in which a rotating tank and food coloring help to demonstrate the physics of fluid motion.

“Science has an innate beauty and provides a sense of wonder, and DIYnamics enables students of all ages to see this,” said Spencer Hill, who co-leads the project as a UCLA researcher and National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow. “Science is also important, interesting and fun.”

What do students learn using DIYnamics?

“They learn science isn’t beyond them,” said Jonathan Aurnou, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences and founder of the project. “There’s nothing intimidating about this system. We create what students see on a weather map. MIT offers a very nice laboratory model of atmosphere and ocean dynamics that costs about $6,000. Our goal was to lower the cost to below $100, and we got it down to about 50 bucks, using Legos, a Lazy Susan and a $5 planter. Everyone can use this Lego table. It’s an incredible teaching tool.”

Students discover that “science can be creative, fascinating, intuitive and fun — and that scientific models, including rotating tanks, make abstract concepts more understandable,” said Juan Lora, who co-leads the project as a UCLA National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow and who will assume the role of assistant professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University next year.

“The beauty of rotating tanks is they can show very basic properties of the atmosphere, ocean currents and planetary interior flows,” Hill said. “Just by putting a tank of water on a tabletop and rotating it with food coloring, you can see what the flows look like.”

“Kids hear about climate, but they have almost no hands-on tools to simulate climate processes,” Aurnou said. “I want them to see there are people building climate models, and that could even be you.”

Aurnou compares the behavior of fluids to that of a spinning top. “If you don’t spin a top, gravity pulls it down. If you spin a top, it doesn’t fall down. Fluids have the same behavior as tops when you spin them. If you don’t rotate the table, denser fluids immediately sink to the bottom of the tank and spread out, but if you rotate the table like a record player, it’s totally different. People see immediately how different rotating worlds are from non-rotating worlds in our experiments.”

The team’s project took off when a UCLA undergraduate, Norris Khoo, saw that Aurnou, Hill and Lora were working to create an affordable, simple laboratory model for fluid dynamics demonstrations, and thought he could design a less expensive prototype. Khoo, who earned a bachelor of science degree in geology and paleobiology earlier this year, had played with Lego toys since kindergarten and wanted to use the plastic blocks to build a model.

Aurnou was skeptical at first and asked, “Does Lego make motors? Can you turn them into a rotating table?” Khoo knew Lego sells robotics kits with motors, and he went to work creating the prototype. He used a Lazy Susan turntable as well as a motor, battery and wheel by Lego.

The scientists were immediately sold on his prototype. “It’s awesome, and so simple,” Aurnou said.

The team is now working on using the device to demonstrate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the largest accumulation of swirling ocean plastic in the world. The patch is located between Hawaii and California, and is larger than Texas, Aurnou said. DIYnamics can demonstrate the winds acting on the ocean surface that create the swirling garbage patch.

The scientists published an article about their DIYnamics project online today in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. They show how the device can be created, and how to perform the demonstrations and explain the concepts they illustrate. Sean Faulk, who earned a doctorate in geophysics and space physics from UCLA this year, is a co-author.

Hill, Lora and Faulk led demonstrations last year in classrooms at La Tijera Middle School in Inglewood and Ralph J. Bunche Middle School in Compton. The scientists also used a larger, more expensive version of the device at UCLA’s annual Exploring Your Universe science festival this year.

“A lot of kids get right away that it’s a scale model of atmospheric weather patterns,” Aurnou said. “Several of them said things like, ‘That’s the atmosphere’ and ‘I just made what the weather looks like.’ I heard a 9-year-old say, ‘I built this tool and now I’m going to use it to do experiments and see how it works.’ I was so happy and thought, that is right; that is the process of science.”

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