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Avalanche!

Stage: 2 and 3 Challenge Level: Challenge Level:1

Avalanche! provides ideas for a STEM club for up to half a term.
This would be a great project for a STEM club wanting to combine maths and science in a fun and creative way.  It would also be a great project for students who want to gain a CREST award.

What does this project offer your club?

This project covers all the STEM areas, without needing to be specifically categorised as science or maths or engineering.  This should help students to integrate what they learn in lessons as they investigate the topic.

This project starts with a basic experiment, using whatever materials are available to pour through a funnel to make a heap.  Sooner or later there will be an avalanche.  Will it be a small, medium or large event?  Students collect data to help them make predictions about when avalanches will occur, and what the severity is likely to be.  The experiment can be extended in a variety of ways, helping students to think about what conditions are likely to make avalanches more or less likely, and how they might be prevented, or at least how damage might be minimised. 

Possible approach

This whole project is intended to be group activity.  Depending on how many people there are in your club, you could divide students into smaller groups, or all work together.  One possibility is to start off as a whole group, then let students work in smaller groups on particular questions they want to investigate further.  

Student worksheets can be printed out for each phase of the project:

It is important that students record their data carefully, as well as enjoying the experiment and looking for avalanches, if they are to get behind the phenomena to find the science and the maths.  But this is also about having fun in discovering maths and science!

After the basic experiments have been completed, and students have drawn graphs of their data, it would be good for groups to report on what they have discovered to each other, if they have been in smaller groups.  This will ensure that everyone hears all the ideas that are emerging, and will help them to think about how they might take their investigation forward. 

Key questions

  • How can we categorise avalanches as small, medium and large?  What features might we observe and record to help us?
  • What patterns do we see in our graphs?  What do these patterns tell us about avalanches?  Can we make predictions based on these patterns?
  • Does the particle size make a difference to the frequency or severity of avalanches?
  • What about the dryness or wetness of the material?
  • How about if we mix different substances?  What difference does that make?
  • What if we tried ... ?

Other links:

The background tab goes through to pdf slides which avalanche researcher, Dr Jim McElwaine, of the University of Cambridge, used with school students in a videoconference about avalanches.  Although there is no commentary, the photos can be used to stimulate general discussion, and some suggested discussion points are listed.

More ideas links to a Motivate page with other ideas for experiments which simulate avalanche-like effects, plus some useful links and presentations by schools.

More advanced projects provides a different extension idea for the experiments and another project area - looking at safe routes in a mountainous region using Google Earth to explore the terrain.

Read: engineering is an article in which an engineer, Dr Ian Johnston, of the Open University, talks about the importance of mathematical models, and how simple experiments can be used to explore real-life events like avalanches.  He also talks about the experiment to model an avalanche using a funnel and suitable material, and two other ways of modelling avalanches using simple experiments.  (These are the project ideas linked through More ideas).

Avalanche researcher is an interview with Dr McElwaine, about his career as a mathematician and why he researches avalanches.