Thursday, February 7, 2002

Demonstrating the validity of formulas, principles and hypotheses in a physics laboratory can save time, money and even lives when it comes to building skyscrapers or the perfect airplane. Thanks to advances in computer technology, experimentation has become a more virtual, but still rewarding, endeavor.
Two universities have teamed up to highlight the role of the computer in science and help everyone from kindergartners to college freshmen unravel just a few of the many mysteries the world has to offer.

Site address:
Creator: This joint effort between Syracuse University and Cornell University got its start in 1995. It is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Creator quotable: “We were motivated to bring the excitement and significance of modern scientific research to K-12 and college students in the form of four representative educational modules, based on supercomputer-based research projects at Syracuse and Cornell universities,” says Edward Lipson, SimScience project director and professor of physics at Syracuse.
“Since the beginning of the project in 1995, we have taken advantage of emerging Web technologies, such as the Java programming language, to provide the interactivity that is so crucial to the learning and appreciation of science. Part of our goal is to motivate students to consider careers in science, or at least to become well-informed citizens in this age of rapid advances in science and technology that affect the lives of us all.”
Word from the Webwise: The SimScience meaning simulation science site incorporates various Internet technologies into educational modules to teach lessons usually relegated to a lab environment.
Within the primary modules “Membranes,” which explores surfaces, interfaces and supercomputers; “Fluid Flow,” which studies topics ranging from golf-ball dimples to sound propagation; “Cracking Dams,” which tells how civil engineering helps create massive structures; and “Crackling Noise,” which explores the link between earthquakes and crumpling a piece of paper the scientists explain the targeted phenomena using both practical and theoretical examples.
Each module features numerous animations, photos, resources, quizzes and a linked glossary to help visitors decipher the science. Additionally, each section has been broken into beginning (primarily for grades four and lower), intermediate (grades five through eight) and advanced (grades nine and higher) levels to appeal to as many teachers and students as possible.
I found the “Cracking Dams” presentation the most impressive, with its attempt to introduce civil engineering as well as some of its major areas, such as fracture mechanics, hydraulics, geotech and structure analysis.
The module’s opening page uses an animation nugget developed with the FRANC2D program (a two-dimensional crack-propagation simulator) that shows how water can help push a gravity dam to open up further and cause a major break.
Starting with the beginner level, visitors join Dammy the Beaver as he explores cracks and dams. Many of the pages use simple rollover effects to reveal information, which then is reinforced with pictures.
Young visitors will see how cracks happen, the types of dams that exist, the properties of concrete and the histories of dams that have burst. They also will find a few movies of dams collapsing and a great layout showing how a computer simulation of a crack in a dam can be created using a software program flexible enough to incorporate different types of materials such as concrete, steel or rock into the equation.
Entering the module’s more advanced levels reveals the hard-core science. Topics in the intermediate and advanced levels include a look at the stress-intensity factor, fracture toughness and a fascinating look at “Dam Busters.” British scientist Barnes Wallis invented these spinning, cylindrical bombs, which were used very effectively to blow up German dams during World War II. Numerous video clips highlight the devices in action.
Ease of use: The site uses JavaScript and numerous applets, so the browser must be configured accordingly. (Hint: most already are.) Also, a media player will be needed to view the video clips.
Don’t miss: I enjoyed the 3-D view of a red blood cell which can be rotated and displayed in higher or lower detail found in the “Membrane” module and the golf-ball trajectory applet found under “Fluid.” I really smiled, too, at the earthquake animation found under the advanced level in “Crackling Noise.”
In the quake-maker simulation, a group of green blocks rests on a constantly moving marble table. The blocks are attached to each other by springs, and each block also is connected to a stationary bar. The table represents one tectonic plate, while the blocks represent the other. As the table moves, the blocks stick to and slide with the table and then get “unstuck” and bounce back, simulating the earthquake. Visitors can control the spring strength, table slipperiness and earth speed to change the results.
Elements on the horizon: The site is as fluid as a pendulum in a vacuum, so expect more refinements and content in the near future. The design offers unlimited expansion, and I would expect both universities to take advantage of this feature to tout some of their more impressive findings.
Comprehension level: Even with Dammy the Beaver, kindergartners may not understand the concepts being presented, but the impressive amount of information, including a whole range of work sheets and “Webquests” (a lesson plan for the classroom using the Internet), makes the site invaluable for any school or home-school situation.
Overall grade: B+
Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it’s accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

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