Solving sports problems with science

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Why Spiraling Footballs Sometimes Miss the Mark / View Guide

Directions for teachers:

Ask students to read the online Science News article “Spiraling footballs wobble at one of two specific frequencies” and discuss the first set of questions with a partner. A version of the article, “Why spiraling footballs sometimes miss the mark,” appears in the September 10, 2022 issue of Science News. Next, use the questions to run a class discussion about the scientific method. Have students answer the second set of questions individually and then share their answers with a partner. You may find that the topic of STEM careers in sports is either a good hook or a possible extension for some students. Check out the Science News Explores article “Cool Jobs: Sports science” to integrate it into your lesson.

Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the online Science News article to your virtual classroom. Discuss the article and questions with your class on your virtual platform.

Step by step

1. What is a recent problem you solved? For example, did you fix something that didn’t work, mend tensions with a friend or family member or figure out how to get to the next level in a video game?

Student answers will vary.

2. Break down how you solved the problem into steps. How did you know there was a problem to solve? How did you decide to take the action you did, etc.? List the steps.

Student answers will vary. They should include at least some of the following steps: noticing something was off and wondering why, determining a way to try to resolve it, trying something to resolve it and deciding whether it worked or not.

3. The scientific method is a systematic way to solve problems and answer questions in science and engineering. List the steps of the scientific method. Use an external resource if necessary.

Make observations. Analyze your observations and develop a measurable, testable question, or a hypothesis. Develop a procedural method to test your hypothesis, while collecting appropriate data. Analyze your data to determine your results and new hypotheses.

4. Read the Science News article “Spiraling footballs wobble at one of two specific frequencies.” Using the steps of the scientific method from your answer to the previous question, give an example of each step from the article.

Make observations: When a football is thrown it wobbles and veers away from its intended target.

Analyze your observations and develop a measurable, testable question, or a hypothesis: What forces cause a football to wobble?

Develop a procedural method to test your hypothesis, while collecting appropriate data: Create a computer simulation to determine wobble rates based on the football’s speed and spiral rate.

Analyze your data to determine your results: Footballs wobble at rates of one or five times per second when the spinning momentum interacts with the twisting force.

Develop new hypotheses or questions: How much does the wobble rate affect the football’s path?

Science in sports

1. What is your favorite sport? Do you like to play it? Do you watch it on TV? Have you ever watched it played professionally? Do you have a favorite professional team?

Student answers will vary.

2. Choose a position in your favorite sport. What are some skills required to be successful in the position? For example, a soccer player that takes free kicks needs to be able to angle their foot correctly to put spin on the ball to get it over a wall of players.

Student answers will vary.

3. Search for your sport in the Science News Explores archive and choose an article to read. What is the article about? What scientific question does it ask? If you can’t find an article about your chosen sport, check out these examples:

Why sports are becoming all about numbers – lots and lots of numbers

Let’s learn about the science of the Winter Olympics

These young researchers take aim at sports

Student answers will vary.

4. Come up with a testable, measurable question you’d like to explore about the sport of your choice. When brainstorming a question, it might help to think about things related to your sport such as skills, health and physical abilities, performance, statistical averages etc. 

Student answers will vary. For instance, questions could explore equipment use, like how the weight of a baseball bat relates to the distance the ball is hit; a skill, like whether the height of where a ball is hit affects the number of aces served in tennis; or statistics, such as whether a batter’s RBI (runs batted in) score is correlated to their place in the lineup in softball. Questions could also be about the health and physical abilities of athletes. For example, does the amount of sleep the night before a race impact a swimmer’s time? 

5. Explain how you would attempt to answer the question using the steps of the scientific method. What would you do for each step?

Student answers will vary. As an extension, students could develop a full testing procedure and perform the experiment.