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Shooting, scoring, deflecting, defending. Slapshots, faceoffs, a breakaway, and score! A hoist of the Stanley Cup by Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and … welcome to the Science of Hockey.
“The entire game is like one big science experiment unfolding on the rink,” explains James Falba, digital program coordinator for Carnegie Science Center’s Science on the Road program, as he speaks virtually to a classroom about the science of hockey. “There’s a lot of movement and activity, and we’re going to take a look at the science behind the game and how science can help make the game even better.”
This is Carnegie Science Center’s first partnership with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and the seventh with PPG and the PPG Foundation. It’s a 60-minute educational program—offered virtually or in person—designed to pique a kid’s interest in science using hockey as the inroad, and making physics, geometry, and physiology less intimidating in the process. Over the next hour, Falba will enthusiastically break down the most complex theories into something fun. Cool. Something kids can relate to, conveying the idea that science isn’t just reserved for laboratories, test tubes, and lab coats. It’s everywhere. Even on the ice.
Geared toward students in grades K-8, the idea for the Science of Hockey began in the early months of the pandemic. “It was a cross-department effort that started in May 2020 when we had nothing much going on,” says Michaela Williams, education and operations manager at the Science Center. “The producer was [longtime education program director] Mike Hennessy. Through a weeklong script session, we turned a lot of ‘wouldn’t-it-be-cool-ifs’ into actual script modules. One of our colleagues, Aly Toy, played an especially key role; her family’s multigenerational adoration of the Penguins was very informative for those of us who are more casual fans.”
“The entire game is like one big science experiment unfolding on the rink.”
– James Falba, Science Center Digital Program Coordinator
The program dives into a hat trick of STEM theories on display during an average hockey game: how coaches use mathematics to develop winning strategies for their team; how players use geometry to set up the perfect shot and physics to balance their bodies on the ice; how technology can help a ref know when it’s time for a new puck. The program toggles between an animated hockey game, experiments from Science Center presenters, aw-shucks hijinks of Penguins mascot Iceburgh, and clips of Penguins director of Youth Hockey Shannon Webster, who puts her stick into action to showcase the science of scoring a goal or making a good pass.
These are the laws of motion on the ice. First up: inertia. To demonstrate, Falba stands next to a colorful bowling ball hanging from rope. He gives it a push, launching it into motion. “But there are still outside forces acting on this bowling ball; gravity is pulling it down, the air is slowing it down with each swing,” he notes, standing perfectly still. With every swing, the ball loses momentum, never threatening to come in contact with his body. To bring the point home, he brings up a video clip of Iceburgh, who is challenged to do the same. Instead of standing still, Iceburgh moves forward and gets beaned in the head. Whomp whomp! goes the happy music. Oh, Iceburgh!
“Now, let’s see inertia at work on the ice,” Falba says, cutting to a video of Webster gliding across the rink in slow motion. “Every time she puts her skates down, the ice is resisting her movement, trying to slow her down,” Falba says. “Players have to watch out for inertia since they’re moving so quickly.” He segues into an explanation of another big force in the game of hockey: friction. “Put your hands together and rub them really, really fast and then… STOP!” he directs. “Did you feel a little bit of heat building up in your hands? That’s from friction. Friction is important on the ice because ice is slippery, but players have to watch out for that friction because it can cause them to slip.”
Falba illustrates more scientific tools at play during a hockey game by comparing two pucks, one of them room temperature and one of them frozen and showing purple ink. “That’s called thermochromic paint. Thermo means temperature and chromic is color,” he explains. Developed by PPG and its partner LCR Hallcrest and used on all official game pucks of the NHL, thermochromic ink turns purple when a puck is frozen and white once it reaches 30 degrees Fahrenheit. A white puck signals the refs to drop a freshly frozen puck, which will glide across the ice instead of bounce.
The crescendo comes when Falba whips out a replica of the Stanley Cup that’s been coated with thermochromic paint. Donning gloves and goggles, he carefully dips the top into a vat of liquid nitrogen, foggy vapors pouring over the table and enveloping the stage. As the trophy emerges, it, too, has turned purple, slowly fading back to its original white hue as it reaches room temperature.
“It was fantastic,” says Sean Gildea, principal of Logan Elementary School in the East Allegheny School District, whose students participated virtually. “The students and teachers absolutely loved the program. We would love to have it in person next time. Science programs open up the eyes of students and have that ‘Wow’ or ‘I didn’t know that’ factor. Students are always learning, and science is exciting.”
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