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Go for the Gold with STEM

Beijing National Olympic Stadium

Beijing National Olympic Stadium (PhotoTalk, iStockphoto)

Beijing National Olympic Stadium

Beijing National Olympic Stadium (PhotoTalk, iStockphoto)

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Let's Talk Science

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Learn about how STEM powers the Winter Olympics.

Did you know that when you watch an Olympic event, you’re watching science in action? The 2022 Winter Olympic Games are taking place in Beijing, China in February. The Paralympic Winter Games are also taking place in Beijing in March. How does science help athletes go for the gold?

On Ice

Many winter sports take place on iced surfaces. These include speed skating, ice hockey, luge, bobsled, figure skating, curling and more! Did you know that chemistry allows athletes to skate across the ice? Water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule (H2O). The hydrogen end has a positive charge. The oxygen end has a negative charge. The opposite ends attract other water molecules and attach with hydrogen bonds.

As liquid water molecules move around, hydrogen bonds form and break. But as water cools, the molecules slow down. The hydrogen bonds remain attached, forming a crystal lattice. That’s what keeps the ice hard.

Molecular arrangement of water molecules in ice and liquid water
Molecular arrangement of water molecules in ice and in liquid water (©2019 Let’s Talk Science).
Image-Text Version

Shown are the molecular arrangements of water molecules in ice and in liquid water. Water molecules are shown as being made up of one red sphere connected to two smaller white spheres. The red spheres represent oxygen. The white spheres represent hydrogen. The ice crystal structure shows molecules arranged in a lattice structure made up of connected hexagons. The liquid structure shows a jumble of molecules rather an an organized structure.

 

 

However, this hard lattice only forms beneath the surface. On top, there’s still a thin layer called pre-melt that acts as a lubricant. This semi-frozen ice is perfect for gliding objects, like hockey pucks and skates!

People playing ice hockey
People playing ice hockey (Source: Berend Stettler via Wikimedia Commons)
Image-Text Version

Shown is Gillian Apps of Canada's women's hockey team competing for a hockey puck in front of the net. The opposing team's goalie and defenders are attempting to keep her from scoring a goal.

 

Read more about the science behind ice rinks.

On the Slopes

 

Every time you ski or watch downhill skiing, you’re seeing laws of physics at work. Have you ever seen a skier launching themselves from the starting gate at the top of the hill? This is Newton's Second Law of Motion. This law states that a force on an object produces an acceleration. In this case the object is the skier, and the force happens when they push off. Gravity then takes the skier down the hill.

Newton’s second law of motion
Newton’s second law of motion (Let’s Talk Science using image by VectorMine via iStockphoto and nadia_bormotova via iStockphoto).
Image-Text Version

Shown is an illustration of the principles of Newton's Second Law.
On the left is a woman wearing a green hoodie and orange pants. Her hair is up in a bun. She is looking down at an empty shopping cart. There are movement lines by her hands indicating that she has pushed the shopping cart and it is moving quickly away from her. This is meant to demonstrate that an object with a small mass will have a large acceleration with a given force.

Beside this image is an image of the same woman, only this time the grocery cart is full of food. The motion lines indicate that the cart is moving slowly away from her. This is meant to demonstrate that an object with a large mass will have a small acceleration with a given force.

Below the images is the heading "Law of Forces and Acceleration" and in a text box "The force experienced by an object is proportional to its mass times the acceleration."

 

 

Ever wonder why skiers hunch down while they ski? It has to do with air resistance. This is when the gas molecules that make up air slow down a moving object. The smaller you make yourself, the less air resistance there is. You may have felt air resistance while riding your bike.

Australian skier Shannon Dallas competes in the slalom event at the Vancouver Paralympic Games in 2010
Australian skier Shannon Dallas competes in the slalom event at the Vancouver Paralympic Games in 2010 (Source: Australian Paralympic Committee [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
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Shown is Australian skier Shannon Dallas competing in the slalom event at the Vancouver Paralympic Games in 2010. The skier is sitting on a sit-ski. The skier is wearing a red helmet, a green long sleeve shirt, and a blue and green competition bib. He is sitting in a sit-ski. The sit-ski is a single ski attached to a black binding. Poles are attached to his arms. He is skiing through a gate, made up of a blue pole and a red pole.

 

Did you know?

Your body uses more oxygen when you exercise. Your lungs need to pull in up to 15 times more oxygen than at rest to keep up.

In The Air 

 

In addition to great physical feats from the athletes, there are also impressive feats of engineering that make these sports possible. In ski jumping, the ramps need to be perfectly shaped to maximize a skier’s ability to gain speed on the downhill ramp and then launch themselves into the air. Some fly as much as 100 m from the base of the jump! Similarly, for halfpipe snowboarding and skiing events, the height and angle of the pipe has a huge impact on the potential jump height of the athletes.

Snowboarding at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics
Snowboarding at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics (Source: Martin Rulsch [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
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Shown is a snowboarding halfpipe event at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics. A woman on a snowboard is in the air after doing a trick on the wall of a halfpipe. The woman has a white long sleeve shirt, black helmet, pink bib, black pants, and a black snowboard. The halfpipe is a curved wall of smooth white snow with a blue line at the top.

 

 

Athletes also use many other techniques to move more quickly in the air. Snowboarders, for example, will pump their legs to build up speed. Figure skaters will pull their arms in to speed up rotation, or spread them out to achieve the opposite. What other techniques can you spot when an athlete is defying gravity?

Figure skating spinning in the air at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics
Figure skating spinning in the air at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics (Source: Sandro Halank [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image-Text Version

Shown is a figure skater spinning in the air at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics. The figure skater has her legs crossed and her arms wrapped around her. The figure skater has brown, straight hair pulled into a pony tail with a red bow. She is wearing a red leotard with a skirt that is flaring out from the force of her spinning. She is landing on ice at an arena surrounded by a light blue wall.

 

Inside the Athletes’ Brains

Many of us watch Olympic athletes and think, “How do their bodies do that?” But there’s often a lot of psychology involved, too. Visualizing a positive outcome is a powerful way to improve sports performance. But that performance improves even more if you do the visualizing in context. One study compared skiers who visualized at the top of a slope right before a race to skiers who did not. The skiers who visualized at the top of the slope had faster times.

Visualizing an action helps athletes build the connections between neurons in their brains. This allows the neurons to fire more quickly, achieving better results.

 

Have you ever felt nervous or worried before a big competition, test, or performance? Athletes also experience a lot of stress during the Olympics. When you’re stressed, the hypothalamus region of your brain tells your body to react. Athletes train their brains, using strategies to remain calm and focused. They can do this because of the prefrontal cortex, which is the command centre of the brain. The prefrontal cortex tells the hypothalamus that you are not in danger. This helps to reduce an athlete’s stress response.

Cross-section of the brain
Cross-section of the brain showing the location of the prefrontal cortex and hypo (Source: jambojam via iStockphoto).
Image-Text version 

Shown is a cross-section of the brain showing the location of the prefrontal cortex and amygdala. A person's head is shown from the side. An illustration of the brain with coloured, labeled parts is shown. The prefrontal cortex is shown at the front of the brain, right behind the eyes. The hypothalamus is located in the centre of the brain, above the brain stem.

 

Even the toughest of athletes face mental health challenges. Recently, athletes have been speaking more openly on this topic. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, gold medalist Simone Biles chose to focus on her mental health. She decided not to compete in several events. Other athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Liz Cambage have also taken breaks from competing. Just like the rest of us, athletes need to make sure they are mentally and emotionally healthy. Taking care of themselves allows them to achieve greatness.

Careers for Sports Lovers

You don’t have to be an athlete to make a living from sports! Many other skill sets are needed to make events like the Olympics and Paralympics happen. Here are some examples of STEM careers in sports.

Sports physiotherapists help athletes recover from injuries. They need to have a good understanding of biology, anatomy, and physics. This allows them to diagnose and treat patients.

Dieticians help athletes understand how what they eat can support their performance. They need a strong understanding of nutrition and biology. 

Ice technicians use math and physics to keep the ice ready for skating. They help to build and maintain ice rinks.

Ice technician on a zamboni at an outdoor skating rink

The Hidden Heroes of Hockey!

Ice Technicians use math and physics in order to keep the ice ready for hockey.

Researchers study how to make sports safer for everyone. They research everything from treating injuries to designing better helmets.

Keep your eyes out for some of these STEM connections next time you watch an Olympic event!

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating

  • Do you participate in any of the sports that take place at the Winter Olympics? 
  • Do you think visualization techniques can work in other areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • Have you ever experienced stress before a big competition, test, or performance? What are some strategies that you use to stay calm in a stressful situation?

Connecting and Relating

  • Do you participate in any of the sports that take place at the Winter Olympics? 
  • Do you think visualization techniques can work in other areas of your life? If so, which ones?
  • Have you ever experienced stress before a big competition, test, or performance? What are some strategies that you use to stay calm in a stressful situation?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • How might environmental changes, such as those associated with climate change, have economic and cultural impacts on winter sports? Explain.
  • How might athletes speaking more openly about mental health challenges impact our society?

Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment

  • How might environmental changes, such as those associated with climate change, have economic and cultural impacts on winter sports? Explain.
  • How might athletes speaking more openly about mental health challenges impact our society?

Exploring Concepts

  • What type of bonds form between molecules of water when water freezes? How does this bonding affect the formation of ice?
  • Why does crouching down help skiers and skaters go faster?
  • How many other sports-related careers can you think of? Choose one that you’re interested in to investigate. What appeals to you about this career? What education would you need to pursue it?

Exploring Concepts

  • What type of bonds form between molecules of water when water freezes? How does this bonding affect the formation of ice?
  • Why does crouching down help skiers and skaters go faster?
  • How many other sports-related careers can you think of? Choose one that you’re interested in to investigate. What appeals to you about this career? What education would you need to pursue it?

Teaching Suggestions

  • Students could explore career options related to athletics. Teachers could use the Flipgrid Career Showcase lesson plan. In this lesson, students create a video about a career profile that they are interested in. When searching for relevant career profiles, students could select the subject “Physical Education.”
  • To learn more about the properties of ice and the ice conditions required for various winter sports, teachers could have students watch The Science of Ice.
  • Students could choose one Olympic event to explore in depth. They could investigate the STEM connections to this event. Students could then create an infographic to share what they’ve learned.

Teaching Suggestions

  • Students could explore career options related to athletics. Teachers could use the Flipgrid Career Showcase lesson plan. In this lesson, students create a video about a career profile that they are interested in. When searching for relevant career profiles, students could select the subject “Physical Education.”
  • To learn more about the properties of ice and the ice conditions required for various winter sports, teachers could have students watch The Science of Ice.
  • Students could choose one Olympic event to explore in depth. They could investigate the STEM connections to this event. Students could then create an infographic to share what they’ve learned.

Learn more

How fast can you react?
Olympic athletes need super-fast reflexes to excel at their sport. Test your own reaction time with this hands-on activity from Let’s Talk Science.

Why do ice rinks stay frozen?
Learn more about the science behind ice rinks in this article from Let’s Talk Science.

How much air do I breathe in?
A higher lung capacity can help athletes succeed. Measure your own air capacity with this hands-on activity from Let’s Talk Science.

How Fast Can a Skater Turn in the Speed Skating Short Track?
This article from Wired examines the physics behind the speed skating event and calculates what the maximum speed of a skater might be.

Science of the Winter Olympics - Downhill Science
This video (3:59) from the United States National Science Foundation examines the physics involved in the sport of downhill skiing.