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Combining Math and Science

I heard about this experiment on an episode of Radio Lab. It combines math and science, and can easily be replicated as a science fair project.

The experimenters were interested in the relationship between memory and our ability to think before we act. (Psychologists call this "executive function.")

The scientists hypothesized that putting a strain on memory will lower our executive function.

Here's what they did:

They asked subjects to remember a series of numbers, ranging from two digits (like "1, 7") to nine digits, (like "4, 7, 1, 5, 9, 0 1, 1, 8.")

The subjects then needed to walk down the hall and repeat their numbers to an experimenter in the other room.

As they were walking down the hall, some were thinking, "17; that's pretty easy."

Others were thinking, "471590118, 471590118, 471590118..."

On their way to the other scientist, they were approached by a lab assistant who offered them a snack, and they could chose between a piece of fruit and a piece of cake.

They scientists assumed that people with a well-functioning executive would choose the healthier snack, and that those with a poorly-functioning executive would choose the cake.

There was a very strong relationship between how many people choose each snack and how many digits they were being asked to remember.

Those whose memories were already straining to remember a lot of digits just went for the cake. Those whose memories weren't working too hard were able say, "Yeah the cake looks good, but I know the fruit is better for me."

This experiment could easily be replicated in a school setting.

Work with one of your teachers, and explain what you are doing, so they will let you talk to their classes for a few minutes. Tell the classes, you are going to administer a memory test.

Say, "I'm just going to ask you to remember some numbers. Don't write them down yet. I will give you a paper to write down your answers in a minute. Here they are: 5, 3...."

Some classes will be asked to remember two digits, others will remember longer strings of numbers.

Then, have someone barge in the room, saying, "We have some leftovers, would anybody like some?"

You could record the data, either by giving the teacher a tally-sheet, or if you know how many pieces of fruit and cake are on the tray when you started, you can just count how many are left over.

There are a lot of ways that you can combine math and science, but teachers will love this because it also involves learning and the mind.

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