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Hotchalk Global

news & tips

A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

The Classroom Olympics

I have posted some ideas about using the Olympics in the science blog. It is simply too big a teaching opportunity to limit my comments to just the blog. Every four years there is an exceptional opportunity to teach the students some science, sportsmanship, thinking skills,  geography and use the Olympics as the vehicle.

In one elementary teacher’s classroom the flags of many different countries come out at the start. She has children from over 12 different countries. Often, the parents will come in during this lesson for an open house and the first comment is positive as they instantly recognize the flag from their country of origin in the room. This may lead to even more cultural connections as the parents are often more than willing to help in the classroom by bringing other cultural artifacts.

The Olympics is also a great time to teach teamwork. Organizing the students into teams to complete science tasks brings science and collaboration into the mix. I like to let the students select a country without knowing who else has selected that same country. On the day of the event I use color coded nametags or ribbons to give the team an identity. I emphasize teamwork and not competition. Everyone wins something.

The first event is almost always an Olympic scavenger hunt to build an understanding about the events of the winter Olympics. Beacon has a good example at their site.

The next set of events will depend on what science concepts you are teaching at the time. If you are on forces and motion the whole world of Olympics is open to you. You can measure speed with a marble roll challenge. This activity teaches the change from potential to kinetic energy. Requiring the students to design a track to roll the marble from one point to another gives the activity a thinking skills angle that is fun and powerful. One activity is outlined at the online Science-a-thon site.

Now that the students have completed a scavenger hunt and one event it is time for more complex activities. For this one I wanted to make a connection between the concept of friction and skiing. In the Olympics there are downhill skiing events, cross country, biathlon, and now snowboarding. All rely on a rich understanding of friction to gain a competitive edge. Most friction activities use rolling matchbox cars.

I like to use old chalkboard erasers. These are about the right size and the students can decorate them to wear the colors of their selected countries. I use washers hanging from string and attached to the string with paperclips all hanging over the edge of a table (the other end of the string attached to the eraser which is on the table) for mass. I can vary the number of washers and vary the surface of the table.  My students have used construction paper, wax paper, plastic and even sandpaper on the table to increase the friction. The number of washers it takes to move the eraser and the speed of the eraser provide the quantatative data. With the Olympics I usually select the surface (just the table) and ask the students to decrease the friction and prove how much they decreased the friction with their treatment. Most students use some sort of plastic attached to the bottom of the eraser. One bright student used powder (the skiing equivalent of wax) to win an eraser race.

We have tried the metric olympics, events that fine tune the skills of measuring speed and distance, we even had an event on solutions where students tried to dissolve a sugar cube the fastest. Of course each one of these required training and trials. They also had to write up a plan complete with the science behind whay they were designing the experiment in a specific way. 

Usually two or three events per week will be enough to give the students enough to keep them busy and not become bored with the unit. If you know the art teacher they may be willing to make you some clay “gold” metals. If not, I have purchased cans of spray paint in gold, silver and bronze metallic colors. Then, I had the custodian find me some huge metal washers. I think the local hardware store donated these. They are about 2-3 inches in diameter. These, spray painted make exceptional medals and every member of the class will win at least one or more. In the medal ceremonies I require the students to tell the class a little bit about their country and about the science concept that helped them win the competition.

We will watch the Olympics and keep some data and statistics on the winners and the races. How fast do the downhill skier’s go? How could we measure that? How do snow conditions impact the friction on the snowboard course? How fast is a slap shot in hockey? The questions will come at us fast and with a little luck we will be able to locate a science source that will help us learn while we answer them. The best one so far is NBC.

So, lace up your skates or buckle your ski boots there is a whole world of learning opportunities coming in from Canada and it all begins soon.


Shannon C ‘de Baca is a passionate educator who teaches at Iowa Learning Online. Visit her blog at

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