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Archive for the ‘STEM’ Category

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SciTech Tuesday: Percy Spencer and the microwave oven

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Seventy one years ago, on October 8 1945, Percy Spencer filed a patent for a cooking oven powered by microwave radiation. He worked for Raytheon, who owned his intellectual property, so Spencer got a $2,000 stipend but no royalties for his invention.

Percy Spencer, born in rural Maine in 1896, had a very hard early life. His father died before he was 2 years old, and when his mom couldn’t support him after that she left him with an aunt and uncle. That uncle died shortly thereafter. Percy was working in a mill by 12, and as an electrician at 14. He enlisted in the Navy with an interest in radio, and learned there about the science of making and using electromagnetic waves to send information.

By 1939 he was an expert on radar tubes, and was working for Raytheon. Most of the government’s research on radar leading up to WWII was being conducted at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory and Raytheon won the contract based largely on Spencer’s reputation. At Raytheon Spencer developed new manufacturing techniques to build radar tubes much faster.

In 1940 the Tizard mission brought UK radar technology to the US, including a cavity magnetron that greatly improved radar technology. When Spencer was experimenting with magnetrons he discovered that a snack bar he had in his pocket had melted. He was not the first to notice that magnetrons created heat energy, but the next day he was the first to experiment with it. Spencer put a container of popcorn over the magnetron and made the first microwave popcorn. He worked to contain the waves in a metal box and focus their energy.

The first commercial microwave oven was made in 1945, but was very large and expensive. They became smaller and more affordable as the decades passed.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

A Raytheon Radarange from the 1950s

A Raytheon Radarange from the 1950s

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SciTech Tuesday: The Anniversary of the Jeep

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On September 27 of 1940 a vehicle prototype made by American Bantam Car Company began testing at Camp Holabird in Maryland. Bantam was the only company to respond to a request from the military for a small, lightweight, powerful, 4-wheel drive vehicle. The car tested well, but there were concerns about Bantam’s size and financial state, so the government gave Willys Overland and Ford a chance to study the vehicle and copies of its blueprints.

Willys and Ford submitted prototypes in November of 1940, and they also tested well, and were not-surprisingly all very similar. Orders were placed for 1,500 vehicles from each company.

In July of 1941 the military decided it would be best to standardize and choose one vehicle to use. They awarded the contract for the next 16,000 vehicles to Willys because it was less expensive and had a more powerful engine. In the end Willys could not meet production targets and Ford was licensed to make some of the vehicles too. During the war Willys made 363,000 and Ford made 280,000 ‘Jeeps.’

There is much conjecture and not a lot of evidence on the etymology of the term ‘Jeep.’ My favorite is that the soldiers loved the vehicle and named it after a popular cartoon character, Popeye’s sidekick Eugene the Jeep. The name was first used in print when Willys staged a publicity event and invited photographers to see the vehicle drive up the Capital steps in Washington, DC. The caption refers to the vehicle as a ‘jeep.’

The first 4-wheel drive vehicles were made for the military in WWI by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company and Thomas B Jeffrey Company. After WWII, Willys produced the CJ (Civilian Jeep), and when American Bantam went bankrupt in 1950 Willys was granted the Jeep trademark.

Happy 76th birthday to the Jeep.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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SciTech Tuesday: The Hurricane Season of 1944

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At a time when we have been relatively free of tropical systems for a few years, it is interesting to look back at the historical pattern of hurricane activity. This year only Hermine, a relatively minor storm, and the ‘hurricane without wind’ that dumped 30 inches of rain in about 24 hours over parts of Louisiana, have reached the U.S. Gulf Coast. Hermine was the first hurricane to hit Florida in 10 years.

With all the major events that happened during WWII, it is easy to forget the regular hardships and crises that occurred. This includes tropical storm activity. In 1944 there was a very active tropical storm season in the Atlantic.

In 1942 there were 11 tropical storms in the Atlantic, 4 of which became hurricanes, 1 which became a major hurricane. There were 17 fatalities from these storms.

In 1943 there were 10 tropical storms in the Atlantic, 5 of which became hurricanes, and 2 of which were major hurricanes. There were 19 fatalities from these storms.

In 1944 there were 14 tropical storms in the Atlantic. Eight of those storms became hurricanes, and 3 were major hurricanes leading to 1,156 fatalities.

In 1945 there were 11 tropical storms in the Atlantic, 5 of which became hurricanes, and 2 of which were major hurricanes. There were 29 fatalities from these storms.

Hurricanes weren’t designated by names until 1953, so the storms of this era are named numerically, or referred to by names they got from press coverage. The two storms of the 1944 Atlantic tropical season that impacted U.S. territory were the Cuba-Florida hurricane and the Great Atlantic hurricane.

The Great Atlantic hurricane of 1944 started as a tropical storm near the Virgin Islands on September 9. As it moved west and north the system gained strength and reached peak strength as a Category 4 storm on September 13 near the Bahamas. It passed the Outer Banks, and then, weakening, made landfall on Long Island, NY and again on Rhode Island. At landfall it was a Category 2 storm. It ended when it merged with another extratropical system near Greenland on September 16. The lowest pressure recorded was 933 mbar, and the highest sustained winds were recorded at 145 mph. (Airplane reconnaissance of storms began in 1943. Regular radar tracking of storms began after WWII.) This storm sank the USS Warrington (a destroyer) 450 miles out from Vero Beach, leading to the death of 248 sailors. The hurricane was a category 4 producing 70 ft waves when the Warrington encountered it. The storm also sank 2 coastguard cutters, a minesweeper, and a lightship. The Jersey Shore was heavily damaged.

The 1944 Cuba-Florida hurricane developed off the coast of Nicaragua on October 12. The storm moved northward and strengthened, reaching Category 2 status as it approached Grand Cayman. It moved north again and still strengthened, reaching peak winds of 145 mph as it crossed Cuba. By October 19 the storm weakened and made landfall near Sarasota with a windspeed of 75 mph. It weakened more as it moved north and east across Florida, and then went out over the Atlantic near Jacksonville. When it reached Savannah, GA, it came ashore with winds near 50 mph, and moved over the eastern Carolinas, and then went to sea again near Norfolk. It traveled along the shoreline as it moved north and east, causing gale force winds off Newfoundland. The most deaths in this storm were in Cuba, where about 300 people died. The storm also destroyed much of the Florida citrus crop.

 

All the Atlantic tropical storms of 1944. From Wikimedia Commons

All the Atlantic tropical storms of 1944. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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SciTech Tuesday: Konrad Zuse and German Computing

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At a time when a ‘computer’ was a job title, most numerical calculations during the 1930s and 1940s were made by men and women using slide rules. At Harvard, the Mark I was developed in 1944, and the Colossus at Bletchley Park was developed beginning in 1943. These programmable computers were preceded by the Z1, designed and created by Konrad Zuse in 1938 at his parents’ apartment in Berlin.

The Z1 had limited programability, reading instructions from perforations on 35mm film. Its mechanical components limited the Z1’s accuracy. The Z1 and its blueprints were destroyed by bombing raids in January 1944.

Konrad Zuse, born in 1910 in Berlin and raised in East Prussia, attended Berlin Technical University and graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1935. He worked on his computer in isolation from other computing researchers because of the growing economic and political isolation of Germany. In 1939 he was inducted into the Germany Army, and given the resources and charge to build a better computer. The Z2 was completed in 1940 and took up two rooms of Zuse’s parents flat. It used telephone relays to extend its computing power. The German Research Institute for Aviation gave him funding to start a company, and Zuse moved to an office. There he built the Z3 using even more computer relays. This machine more was more flexibly programmable and had memory.

The German government denied funding for Zuse’s computing project, deeming it to have little immediate utility. Bombing raids destroyed the Z2 and Z3, and led Zuse to pack up the almost finished Z4 in February 1945 and ship it to Gottingen. Work to complete the Z4 was halted until 1949. During this hiatus Zuse developed a programming language he called Plankalkül (plain calculus). He had found programming in machine language very difficult, and so wrote the first high-level computing language.

Zuse died of heart failure in 1995. Two years later the Z4 was shown to be Turing-complete.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

Images from Wikimedia Commons

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SciTech Tuesday: Silly Putty is a WWII invention

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In 1943 James Wright, a Scottish-born engineer working for General Electric mixed silicon lubricant with boric acid. It was too sticky to be the artificial rubber he wanted, but when he dropped it it bounced. It was interesting enough for a patent application. Engineers with Dow Corning filed a very similar patent slightly later.

The product of the patent was developed into a toy, called Silly Putty, in 1949. Today about 6 million eggs of Silly Putty a year are sold by Crayola, who purchased the rights to sell Silly Putty in 1977. Silly Putty is a non-newtonian fluid–this means that it has characteristics unusual for a liquid or a solid. If left in a shape it will eventually flow to a flat shape like a liquid. However it bounces, and when struck strongly and sharply will shatter.

Because it is made of silicon lubricant, if your Silly Putty gets stuck on a pourous surface (like hair or fabric) you can dissolve it with WD-40 or alcohol.

At home you can make a substance with very similar properties. You’ll need Borax (which you can find at the grocery store next to the bleach) and white glue. White glue is a polymer (polyvinyl acetate, or PVA) like silicon lubricant. The Borax affects the glue like the boric acid Wright used changed the silicon. Here’s a recipe we use in our Real World Science curriculum:

1/2 cup white glue

3/4 cup water

1 tsp borax

Dissolve the borax in the water, and then mix it with the glue. Put the resulting polymer into a ziploc bag and knead it until it forms a nice stretchy mass. Pour remaining liquid down the drain.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

image from The Museum of Play

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SciTech Tuesday: Real World Science 2016 cohort

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Last week 28 teachers of 5th through 8th grade science came from all over the country to learn about teaching science in the context of history. From California to Maine, South Carolina to Utah, schools big and small, urban and rural, they represent the amazing folks who are teaching the next generation of problem-solvers and innovators. We discussed how WWII is a great context to teach the role of science in society, and the ways new ideas replace old ones when the old ones don’t work. We did hands-on activities in our classroom at the museum and at the University of New Orleans, we visited galleries at the museum and the lagoons of City Park. We framed the curriculum with the best practices of science teaching, and we had a great time!

This is the second cohort of the Real World Science Summer Teachers Seminar, funded by the Northrop Grumman Foundation. Teachers and their students will collect data on weather conditions today and 75 years ago once the school year begins, and this year’s cohort, like the last, will stay connected as a community of practice to get better at their profession.

Applications for the third cohort will open in early January 2017. You can learn more about the activities of Real World Science classrooms on the project website

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SciTech Tuesday: Zyklon B

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On June 20, 1922 a German company filed for a patent on a new formulation of a pesticide/insecticide, which it called Zyklon B (zyklon is German for cyclone).

After its first use as a pesticide in California citrus plantations in the late 19th century, hydrogen cyanide came to be used in all sorts of circumstances as a fumigant. In the US it was used to fumigate train cars, the clothes of immigrants, and in Germany it was used to kill lice and rats. In World War I, a form of hydrogen cyanide, known as Zyklon, used as a chemical weapon by the German military.

After World War I, this form of hydrogen cyanide was banned. The scientists at a German chemical company came up with a new formulation, getting the cyanide from the waste products of sugar-beet production, and packaged the hydrogen cyanide with diatomaceous earth in a canister, along with a chemical irritant to warn of the product’s toxicity. They called it Zyklon B to differentiate it from the earlier, banned, product. From 1922 to the start of the war, most of the sales came from outside of Germany.

Hydrogen cyanide is a very potent toxin. It binds with the iron compound in an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase in cells. This enzyme is necessary in production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is required by cells in energy transfer. Without ATP cells cannot survive, and without cytochrome c oxidase cells can’t make ATP. Hydrogen cyanide reacts with cytochrome c oxidase and keeps it from making ATP. In aerial forms, such as Zyklon B, it enters the body quickly. In a human of about 150 lbs only 70 milligrams of Zyklon B can be fatal in 2 minutes.

In 1941 the German SS was experimenting with methods of efficiently killing prisoners. A captain tested Zyklon B on a group of Russian POWs at Auschwitz in a building basement. By early 1942 Zyklon B became the SS’s preferred method for killing prisoners and was used to kill at least 1 million prisoners. Many of these were at Auschwitz, where the practice originated.

Two of the scientists who developed managed Zyklon B production were tried and executed in British military court for knowingly delivering the chemical to kill prisoners.  Different forms of hydrogen cyanide are still used today as pesticides.

 

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

all images from Wikimedia Commons

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SciTech Tuesday: The Radiation Lab

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Today we see wealthy entrepreneurs funding research to cure or eradicate diseases (e.g. Bill Gates with malaria and polio) or to explore space (Elon Musk and SpaceX). In the WWII-era, there was a wealthy entrepreneur and self-trained physicist who did the same, but he is pretty unknown today.

Alfred Lee Loomis was born to wealthy parents in Manhattan in 1887. His parents separated when he was young, and his father died while he was at Yale studying math and science. His cousin Henry Stimson, who served in presidential cabinets from Taft to Truman, was an older mentor to him. Loomis graduated from Harvard Law School in 1912 and joined a prominent corporate law firm. He did very well at the firm but was not overly excited by the work. When the US entered World War I, Loomis joined and was made captain–he was assigned to the Aberdeen proving ground. While there he devised a device to measure the velocity of ballistics leaving a muzzle. He worked alongside scientists who helped him develop his interest in experimenting in theoretical and practical physics.

After the war Loomis didn’t return to the law but began investment banking. With a partner he developed the concept of holding companies and consolidated electric utility companies, developing power infrastructure on the East Coast. Much of his practice would be deemed insider trading under today’s regulations. In 1928 Loomis believed that the stock market was very overvalued and removed his money and his firms’ capital from the market, converting it to cash. After the crash they reinvested in stocks while their price was very low–his wealth increased exponentially at a time when many people lost all theirs.

Loomis used his wealth to pursue his scientific interests, and to support other science research. In particular, as the 1930’s progressed, he began to support the development of technologies that might support a US war industry. He developed a large lab complex near his mansion in Tuxedo Park in New York. The work there focused on brain waves, and electromagnetic waves.

By 1940, Loomis was very focused on preparation for the coming war. In the absence of government funding of important research, he decided to step in. He opened a new lab on the campus of MIT. Hoping for some obfuscation, he named it The Radiation Lab, hoping to confuse it with the new Radiation Lab at UC Berkeley, run by Ernest Lawrence. Although funded by Loomis, the lab operated under first the National Defense Research Committee, and then later the Office of Scientific Research and Development, in both cases directed by Vannevar Bush.

The ‘Rad Lab’ as it was called, focused on parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that could be used to transmit and receive information. When the Tizard Mission sent British technology and research results to the US, they went to the Rad Lab. They used magnetrons to create high energy waves and developed new radar technology as a result. The 10 cm radar that resulted from this research was used in planes and ships and military bases throughout the war. Nine scientists from the Rad Lab went on to receive Nobel Awards.

After World War II the Rad Lab closed, and its operations, still funded by the government, became part of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT. Loomis was always a very private man, and preferred to operate in the background. In 1945 he divorced his wife, who was suffering from dementia, and remarried. There was a huge society scandal as a result. Loomis sold his properties and led a quiet domestic life until he died in 1975. He refused to give interviews. Perhaps this is why his story, and the story of the Radiation Lab, is little-known.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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SciTech Tuesday: The National WWII Museum’s 2016 Robotics Challenge

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The theme of the 4th Annual National WWII  Robotics Challenge was Can Do! That was the motto of the Seabees in World War II. The Seabees (officially they were the United States Naval Construction Force) built bases, airstrips, and all sorts of things, especially in the Pacific Theater. Their nickname came from the fact that they were organized in Construction Battalions. Their average age was older than most of the military, because these were experienced construction workers and working engineers given this special assignment.

The war in the Pacific, which is the focus of The National WWII Museum’s newest gallery, The Road to Tokyo, held many challenges. The volcanic islands, the vast expanses of ocean between them, the lack of infrastructure (or the destroyed infrastructure), volcanoes and earthquakes–all made the logistics of this campaign a great challenge. Robotics was not really a part of World War II, but solving problems by extending the abilities of current technology was. Today, robotics is a great way to extend the abilities of technology, and it is a way to engage young people in learning to solve problems with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

The Robotics Challenge has two parts–A Design Project and the Robot Competition–and involves teams of up to 10 3rd-8th grade students.

In the Robot Competition, students use Lego Mindstorms robots to accomplish a series of tasks. They program their robot to complete as many tasks as it can in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. This year the tasks included moving ships to a harbor, crossing the equator, and fighting malaria. The tasks use models and analogies to teach the history of WWII at the same time as they teach programming and problem-solving skills.

The Design Project this year asked students to design a Rhino Ferry with a limited range of supplies. Rhino Ferries were pontoons, basically sections of pontoon bridges or harbors, with engines on them. They had to test and redesign until they came up with a final design, and to propose a cost and construction plan. This project helps build student skills in STEM that might not be used as much in the competition.

We wouldn’t have been able to have had a successful challenge without the help of a dedicated and enthusiastic team of volunteers, who assisted The National WWII Museum’s Education  staff in running this event. In particular, Chevron (which also provided major funding for the challenge) sent many volunteers. The robotics team from Fontainebleu High School served as referees, and this was a crucial assist.

Forty teams participated in the 2016 Robotics Challenge–36 made it to Challenge Day. I think all of us AND all  of them are winners, since we are preparing these youngsters for the future. The winners in each category of awards are listed below.

Rhino Ferry Project

  1. Gretna No. 2–Barrow’s Bravehearts
  2. Phyllis Wheatley–761st Tank Division
  3. St. George Episcopal–Higgin’s Heroes

Robot Design and Process

  1. After the Bell Robotics–Legotrons
  2. Madisonville Jr High
  3. Faith Christian Academy

Robotics Competition

  1. TIE Patrick Taylor Academy–TIE Fighters and Central Alabama Community College–Legonators
  2. Faith Christian Academy
  3. Girl Scouts of Louisiana East–The B7 Teens

Special Award

Metairie Park Country Day School–The CDs (outstanding work by a very young team)

Grand Champions

Girl Scouts of Louisiana East–The B7 Teens (all around excellence and amazing teamwork)

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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SciTech Tuesday: The Ring of Fire and WWII

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On September 1, 1923 at 11:58 AM an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 occurred in a bay just south of Tokyo. Tokyo and Yokohama, a relatively young port city with a strong international influence, were the closest large population centers. After the earthquake a tsunami with an 11 meter high crest hit Yokohama and surrounding areas. Fires spread throughout Tokyo and Yokohama, and with water mains broken by the quake there was no way to fight them. The earthquake led to a 2 meter uplift on the coast, and a 4.5 meter horizontal displacement of land. Even though it lasted only 14 seconds, it was a huge amount of energy released. 570, 000 homes were destroyed, and more than 140,000 people were killed. With telegraph technology connected to radio, news from Japan to the countries of the West moved rapidly. The US and other countries mobilized support for victims of the earthquake within 24 hours.

Japan had annexed Korea more than a decade earlier, and, in the months before what came to be called the Great Kanto Earthquake, a group working for the liberation of Korea had been conducting terrorist attacks. Rumors spread in the aftermath of the quake that Koreans were looting and starting fires. Violent attacks on Koreans, and anyone thought to be Korean, followed. The government tried to protect Koreans, but also covered up any attacks that occurred.

This event, and Japan’s dependence upon the West for support in recovery, fueled growing nationalism. The expansion of Japanese influence and the later war in the Pacific can be traced in part to this earthquake in 1923.

Earthquakes were, and still are, common in that part of the Pacific. So are volcanoes. These geological factors shaped the islands, and when US troops fought there in WWII these conditions shaped logistics, and even the path of the war.

There is a diamond shaped continental plate—the Philippine plate-pinned between the much larger Pacific and Eurasian plates. The Pacific plate is moving slowly but relentlessly west, pushing the Philippine plate ahead of it. Where the plates meet the Pacific sinks below both the Philippine and Eurasian plates, and the Philippine plate dives under the Eurasian plate. This pattern of plate convergence is called subduction, and leads to earthquakes and volcanoes. Where the plates come together in the ocean they form volcanoes which can emerge from the ocean, creating islands. From New Guinea to the Marianas and Iwo Jima (on the east side, between the Philippine and Pacific plates), from the Philippines to Okinawa and up (on the west side, between the Eurasian and Philippine plates) to Japan (split by the Eurasian and Pacific plates), all those islands are formed from volcanic activity. Some of those islands are very old, mostly dead, volcanoes, and the coral reefs that surround them (like Tinian, or the Bikini atoll). Others are younger, and form very high tropical peaks (like in the Philippines). Iwo Jima, which in its original Japanese name means ‘sulfur island,’ was formed by slightly different volcanic activity that led to its peculiar geography. There is abundant groundwater on Iwo Jima, all of it very hot and enriched in minerals. The frequent volcanic activity there is mostly steam created by the interaction of groundwater and magma (molten rock).

The geological theory that explained volcanoes and earthquake patterns, called Plate Tectonics, wasn’t solidified until the late 1960s. So troops went into this zone, where there were more than two dozen large earthquakes (> 6.0) between 1940 and 1946, without any way to predict what was going on, or any understanding of what each stop on the island-hopping path to Tokyo would bring.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

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