Science Questions to Consider

Traditional science simplified things in order to analyze and understand them.  For real world systems, however, there are feedback loops that cannot be ignored, and looking at a problem in isolation can tell a misleading story.  Take the water cycle, or CO2 cycle -- can you model these?  There is a free program that you can download,, if you would like to explore some of these questions mathematically.  Another example is looking at mechanical or chemical engineering problems in isolation of the environmental and cost impacts that they might have.  There is a new field of "green chemistry" that widens the boundaries of problems under examination.  Similarly, other fields are also widening their boundaries.  See, for example, the Environmentally Benign Manufacturing (EBM) research group that is part of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity in the Mechanical Engineering Department at MIT.

Also note that almost all scientific questions these days are multi-disciplinary:  PhDs from MIT work on eye disease at MGH; PhDs in Chemistry from UCB work on photosynthesis at LANL.  And mathematicians and models are everywhere.  Biology is the best nano-tech system that we know of so far.  So, assigning these questions to categories is somewhat arbitrary and subject to point of view. 

The categories below are typical of science fair categories, and they are used for that reason.  Not all of these questions would fit the criteria for a science fair question, but all are worth thinking about.  And think not just about the questions, but how you might demonstrate —mathematically or by experiment — the answers to any of these questions.  What measurements would be appropriate, and how can you make them? 


Astronomy:   What is the composition of the atmospheres of the different planets in our solar systems?  (Do all planets have an atmosphere?)  Do any moons have an atmosphere and what is that composition?  How good are these mixtures at “trapping” heat — what is the net flux of heat through the atmospheric system?  In other words, how much of the sun’s radiation reaches the atmosphere, how much reaches the planet, how much is absorbed, and how much is re-emitted or reflected? 

Biology:  What is a simple predator-prey relationship?  How does the stability of the system change as the environmental system that this relationship is operating in changes?  What if the two components (predator and prey) have different life-cycles and therefore different abilities to adapt?  (This could also be a math problem.) 

What strategies do different plants employ to match their food production with their food requirements?  What is the difference in between plants that “like” shade and those that like bright light?   What is the CO2 balance of different environments? E.g. old growth forests, prairies, rain forests, etc. 

Behavioral Science: How many people in your class recycle?  Why and why not?  If you make a survey, how do you know they are giving you accurate answers?  How many people recycle in their homes?

What do people believe about global warming?  Why?  The American Academy of Science issued a report in 1980 – 25 years ago – that this would be a problem.  Do people still think that it is a debate? 

Test a population and see – maybe at the grocery store or stores.  Does it relate to any other variable, such as -- level of prosperity, education, religious background?  What do people think about energy?  How many kids in your class drive to school?  How many take the bus?  How many get a ride from their parents?  Why?

Europeans have essentially the same lifestyles as we do in the United States (some would say better), but they use have half the energy per capita that Americans do.  What has generated this difference? 

Biochemistry:  How efficient is photosynthesis?  How does it adapt to changing light levels?  Do different plants have different efficiencies?  How would you measure this?

What are bio-fuels?  How are they different from fossil-fuels?  Are they all the same? 

As any trip to the liquor store tells you, many different things can be converted to ethanol – potatoes (vodka), grains (whiskeys and saki), grapes (wine), honey (mead), and apples (cider).  How does this process take place?  In Brazil, they make ethanol out of sugar cane after it is processed.  How are these enzymes different?  What is cellulosic ethanol?  If you make ethanol out of any bio-material, what processing is needed to make it usable?  What is left-over, and is it usable? 

Chemistry:  Why are some gases green house gases and others are not?  What is the difference?  Can you measure or correlate their behavior with any particular property? 

What is the difference in chemical formula between the different kinds of fuel that we use?  What makes one kind suitable for one application and not for another? 

Computers:  See math problems – most of these require modeling or iterations, i.e. some computer work.  What is it about silicon that makes it the major component in computers and in photovoltaic cells? 

Engineering:  What is the difference between a diesel engine and regular gasoline engine? Which is more efficient?  Why?  Can you calculate the theoretical maximum efficiency? 

Analyze any particular mechanical device.  Where are the sources of heat (efficiency) loss?  What could reduce these losses and improve the efficiencies?

In the United States, approximately 30% of our energy is consumed by/in buildings – for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.  If you have a CAD program and design a house, how could you estimate its energy efficiency?  What design changes would change the energy efficiency?

Mercedes just introduced the E320 BLUETEC® series that gets higher mileage than any of its previous models.  What changes did Mercedes make? 

What changes have taken place in the last ten years to make computers or any other appliance more efficient?  What improvements could still be made?  How does the efficiency of a European or most efficient appliance compare to an American or least efficient appliance? 

How much energy is “lost” in the grid? 

How does a hybrid car work?  Are there different kinds of hybrids that work differently?

Electronics:  What is the efficiency of a computer?  What is the efficiency of a laptop?  What generates the heat? 

What is an inverter?  What is the ideal efficiency for photovoltaics?  Where are the energy losses in computers/chips/any electronic device and how could the design be improved?

What was the difference between AC and DC current?  How did we come to use one instead of the other?  Would you make the same choice today? 

Earth Science:  What is the jet stream?  What cycle does it have, and what produces this cycle?  What is El Niño and what causes it to appear on a regular basis?  What causes a hurricane, and how sensitive is it to a change in any of these variables?  What is the CO2 cycle?  What is the N2 cycle? 

What takes gases out of the atmosphere?  How sensitive are any of these to changes in variables, such as pH or temperature?  What built the white cliffs of Dover?  How did we get fossil fuels in the first place? (i.e. how did all of that material get buried?)

The weather is always changing, but it usually changes in a predictable way over time – i.e. it is colder in the winter than in the summer.  But, some summers are cooler on the average than others, and some winters are hotter on the average than others.  Some days it is sunny, some days it rains, but raining once a week is different than raining five days in a row. 

Given all of this natural variability, how can you tell if the weather is really changing?  What would you measure?  How narrow of a window would you want: average temp of a month, a week; extremes in temperature over a day, a week?  Which would be more indicative of an actual change?  How long of a period would you have to analyze?  (Data from various stations is collected over long periods of time -- but maybe not the particular variable that you want to analyze.)

Environmental Science:  How do changing conditions affect different species in a particular “environment”?  How do these changes cascade out to the rest of the ecosystem? 

What is the difference between smog, acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming?  What causes which and what is the effect of each? 

Math:  How do you find out if there is a pattern in data that is very “noisy” –like the weather?  How do you find out if the pattern is changing? 

If there are feedback loops, there is an iteration going on that may be stable, which gives rise to some attractor around which the system cycles or loops.  Can you think of such equations?  There are also feedback loops that are stable given some range, but then behave very differently outside of that range.  For example, a simple iterative equation is

x(n+1) = rx(n) ((1-x(n))

If you map this equation, how does the pattern change as you change “r”, or as you change x(0)?

Some systems can vary tremendously at any one point in time depending on the initial conditions.   Can you find some examples and map them?  A simple example is x(n+1) = (x(n))^2.  If x(0) = (1-0.1) it will turn out quite differently than if x(0) = (1+0.1).

Physics:  How does a solar cell work?  How does it provide current? 

Why do the old windmills of the Netherlands and the Midwest differ so much from modern windmills that generate electricity?  What would be the ideal size of a wind turbine?

What is the difference between the light into the atmosphere and light out?  What characterizes the light that comes from the sun?  What is the difference between that light and the light that actually reaches Earth?  What is the difference between that and the light that leaves earth?

What is albedo?  Can you measure it? 

What are the different ways that we can store energy?  How efficient are they?  What pros and cons do they have? 

Can you figure out how much energy we use, converting all of the forms to the same units? 


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