Educator How-To: Build your own personal hovercraft

A hovercraft may look like some high-tech alien vehicle, but the concepts behind its inner workings are really quite simple. Building a hovercraft is an excellent way to investigate the principles of air pressure, friction, lift, thrust, and drag and serves as an excellent motivator for hands-on discovery — for even the most reluctant of learners.

A hovercraft is an ACV (air cushion vehicle) that rides on a pillow of slightly pressurized air. The hovercraft sports a skirt around its perimeter designed to contain air generated by a fan, or in the case of our craft, a repurposed leaf blower.

Build your own hovercraft!The air contained by the skirt in turn creates a cushion that lifts the hovercraft a small distance off the ground. Note: The weight a hovercraft can lift is easily calculated by multiplying the cushion pressure by the area of the craft.

Once lift is achieved, the craft uses directed air to create a forward thrust, allowing the vehicle to be forwardly mobile. A typical hovercraft creates this forward thrust using a propeller or propellers that push air toward the back of the vehicle. Using the principles of lift and thrust, as explained above, the hovercraft operates much like an airplane.

Build your own hovercraft!Now that the craft has forward momentum, it must be steered. Steering is achieved in various ways, depending on vehicle design. A system of rudders placed behind the fan may be used to direct air in different directions, allowing the vehicle the freedom to turn.  This configuration is similar to the mechanism used to steer some boats. Other hovercrafts use subtle shifts in the operator’s body weight to steer, a skill that takes practice to master.

The Museum’s simplified hovercraft was constructed by our own Carolyn Leap using a collection of ideas with a few modifications:

•    Rounded off corners on a square of plywood in order to reduce the weight of the vehicle – a circle of plywood is an even better option for reducing weight.
•    We sought help from the Exhibits Department to cut a hole to accommodate an unusually shaped leaf-blower outlet.
•    We used a plastic tablecloth completely reinforced with duct tape because the plastic seemed inadequate on its own.
•    Reinforced the skirt’s attachment by stapling AND taping around the edges.
•    Added pool noodles (split along one side) instead of pipe insulation as a bumper
•    Added duct tape flaps (sticky sides together) and attached them around the perimeter of the nozzle to create a more effective seal to improve lift.

This hovercraft is used in the Museum’s Xplorations Summer Camp Programs to illustrate various physics concepts. Our hovercraft does not create its own forward thrust and has no steering mechanism, so the craft and rider are guided by the instructor. Take a look at the fun pictures of one of our campers, Noah, as he rides on a pillow of pressurized air!

Build your own hovercraft!For instructions on how to build your own hovercraft, click here.

Sciencebuddies.org and Wired.com have some great additional info. See you same time, same place next month!

LEGO my Robotics! New course to be offered at HMNS Main and HMNS at Sugar Land beginning in September

HMNS is launching a new after-school LEGO Robotics program this fall at HMNS’ main campus and at HMNS Sugar Land.

The program is modeled after our popular Xplorations summer course and spans 10 weeks, beginning Sept. 11 at HMNS and Sept. 13 at HMNS Sugar Land.

LEGO RoboticsClass will be held once a week on Thursday afternoons from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at both locations. Students will explore the basics of NXT Robotics Engineering, building models with the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT system and then using a computer to program the models and manipulate them to obey commands.

Students can compete with other teams to finish challenges and earn the top spot on the class leaderboard.

LEGO RoboticsPlease note that the course is limited to 16 students grades 4 through 7 at each location. Pricing is $240 for non-members, $190 for members.

To learn more about LEGO Robotics at HMNS (Sept. 11 through Nov. 13) and HMNS Sugar Land (Sept. 13 through Nov. 15) and register for class, click here.

Just another day at HMNS: Angry rattlesnakes, gecko cooling and non-stop learning in the Education Department

The conversation starts innocently enough. “So, how was your day?” asks my husband. “Well,” I say, “the short version goes like this: After I spent an hour with my arms held over my head wedged inside the gecko tank to extend its misting system, I asked my Director of Education to help me transfer our very large (and angry) rattlesnake so I could clean out his tank.

Nicole conversing with Archie

After I scrubbed out the rattlesnake tank, we wrangled him back in again. Then I think I paid some standard bills: fruit flies, crickets, you know — the basics. Oh, but the best part was during my test dissection of an owl pellet for an upcoming class, when I found an entire bird skull in the pellet. It was so cool! How was your day?”

Bird Skeleton found in Owl PelletMy husband pauses to let all of that to sink in and finally says, “Fine.” Another pause. “Did you say angry rattlesnake? You didn’t touch it, did you?”

“Well…”

So begins another conversation about my day-to-day with an incredulous spouse. I assure him once again that, yes, all of that is in my job description. And it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when you think about the Overnights, Teacher Workshops, Outreach Programs, or overarching if-you-don’t-know-ask-Education requests our Department solves daily.

One thing is for sure, it’s never routine, and there’s never a dull moment.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (behind glass)

To learn more about HMNS’ Education Department, what it does and the amazing programming it offers, click here.

Wash, rinse and repeat: See pics from Paleo Wash Day at HMNS Sugar Land

I would like to thank the approximately 175 citizen scientists that came out Saturday at HMNS Sugar Land. They helped us process approximately 1,000 pounds of soil and rock from the specimens we’ve collected from our Permian-aged (182-187 million years ago) site near Seymour,Texas.

washday 010I was impressed with your cooperativeness, curiosity, and, most importantly, the care you all exhibited in processing these samples. Also, this experience absolutely would not have been possible without the facilitation of our experienced museum and field crew volunteers.

washday 011The Process:

In excavating fossils, many times we will work to retain the matrix that is removed from around the specimen. This matrix is soaked in water and allowed to disaggregate. Then the mud is placed and screens and gently rinsed, leaving behind hard pieces — including fossils.

UntitledAfter rinsing, the specimens are dried and then searched. This process will typically reduce the bulk sample size by 80 percent.  People processing the sample typically are left very wet and muddy, as you can see here:

washday 048From all of us here at HMNS, thank you!