Every two years, 8th grade science teacher Susan German brings the Olympic Games into her middle school classroom at Hallsville Middle School in Missouri. The Olympics are exciting enough, but German's students are also engaged by the activities she brings to her lessons and connects to the events the students watch, as well.
She may have her class consider why a ski jump has to be at a certain height and angle, and what happens if they change those details. Or she’ll pull out micro:bits after talking about a runner’s reaction time leaving a starting block, and get the class to start measuring their own reactions, too. Her goal is to get science out of textbooks and get her class to ask questions and examine the way the world works around them, as well.
“While they hopefully learn science, that’s not what I’m after,” German said. “I’m after them learning how to think. We consider an idea, take some time, learn how to bring some data to the discussion, learn how to have a meaningful discussion and learn how something works. That’s what’s important for me.”
With the Summer Olympic Games starting July 23, educators like German are looking at how to tap into the event, or even those from years past, for lessons to bring students. From studying the technology athletes use or considering the science behind the sports themselves, experts hope to siphon some of the excitement from the event and pull it into their classrooms.
Measuring athletes performances
When it comes to excitement, German is right there with her students, bringing in clips of events and then watching and even cheering alongside her class.
“There’s a little bit of showmanship when I am watching the games,” she said. “When Michael Phelps was swimming, and so close on one of his swims, I was in my chair screaming. So we talk about it on a personal level.”
Then German brings out tools so the class can recreate some of the ways these events are measured. Resources range from micro:bits — customizable pocket-sized computers she uses as sensors and timers — to cardboard, aluminum foil and rulers. A favorite area of interest for her is reaction time, such as the way fencers can detect when they’ve scored a point. German notes many athletes train to shrink their reaction times — the moments it takes to pull away from a starting block on a track, for example — to improve their overall time.
For one lesson, she’ll have students set up a simple circuit, start a timer on a micro:bit, and stop the timer when the circuit is complete. Or one student will hold a ruler, with another expected to stop its fall right before it touches the ground, and measure that reaction time.
"Part of what we do is say, 'Where have you seen something similar?'" German said. "A lot of kids have done track or some sport. And while they’re interested in the games, they’re more interested in trying to answer their own personal question."
Tech athletes have on hand
Athletes also use technology often woven into the very tools or equipment they need for their sport.
“When you look at the technology, front and center, a swimsuit is going to do certain things, or a racket,” said Joshua Chamot, media affairs specialist at the National Science Foundation, which partnered with NBC Learn and NBC Sports to co-create a series for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
Called “Science of the Summer Olympics,” the series used nine video pieces, still archived online, to show how science, technology and engineering are very integrated into modern sports. Designed for teachers, the pieces feature Olympians including sprinter Usain Bolt and weightlifter Sarah Robles, and they are designed to help students think more about STEM in a real-world environment.
STEM can also help Steve Mesler explain how a 1,400-pound bobsled appears to defy gravity as it whips around the side of a track. A gold medalist on the U.S. bobsled team at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Mesler shares knowledge gained from his sport with students through Classroom Champions, an educational organization he co-founded to weave STEM subjects and social-emotional learning into classrooms.
Mesler enlists other Olympians to also work with students to demonstrate how science, math and technology are all around them. For example, a bobsled’s ability to seemingly move on a vertical surface can be a great gateway for teaching Newton’s first law, which covers how an object in motion tends to stay in motion. But the organization can also bring in lessons on vectors and G-forces, too.
For this summer, the group has already built activities and content centered on the Olympic Games in Tokyo to help educators connect students to the science of the event. “This helps teachers engage kids, whether they’re sports fans or not,” said Mesler.
From Olympic fields to the playground
Josh Levin believes to really drive STEM lessons home, you also need to connect to something personal in students' lives. A former member of the U.S. climbing team, which recently finished the 2021 Olympic Trials for the sport, Levin has worked with Mesler through Classroom Champions and also separately with middle school students at Synapse School in Menlo Park, California.
Levin admits he was an avid math student in school and continued to pursue a STEM education, earning a mechanical engineering degree from Northeastern University. But he also recognizes not everyone comes to these subjects as easily as he has, and he looks for ways to engage all students.
“With STEM education, I think a really important aspect is to have some way to relate to it emotionally,” Levin said. “For a lot of students, it’s easy to see numbers, physics, and not have any way to personally connect to the material. It looks like a foreign language.”
So Levin will use sports as a bridge between a student’s own experiences and the STEM lesson at hand. For example, one lesson may be on Newton’s third law: how every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Students will learn that when climbing a rock wall, if someone grabs a hole on the left side with their hand, their feet need to find a hole on the right. The students may never have been rock climbing, but they may have climbed a jungle gym on a playground.
“Climbing is an intrinsic human movement, and every child can grasp that without ever having touched a rock climbing wall,” he said.
To German, this is what the work comes down to, as well — finding a way to bring the learning back to students so they’re engaged. They may not choose to become scientists or pursue the Olympic Games, but if they develop the ability to not just see the world, but to examine it, ask questions and find answers, she feels she’s won.
"To me, high praise from kids at the end of the year is if they tell me, ‘I’m still not a fan of science, but I enjoyed the class,’” she said. “And it’s because I allowed them to follow their thinking, what they’re interested in, and so they’re willing to engage with the material at that point.”