Lesson of the Day: ‘What Makes Sand Soft?’

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Lesson of the Day: ‘What Makes Sand Soft?’

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Featured Article: “What Makes Sand Soft?” by Randall Munroe

Peter S. from Brooklyn asked, “What is the softest sand in the world? Why is some sand softer than others?” Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist turned web cartoonist, answered, “We don’t know.” In the featured article, Mr. Munroe explains why we don’t know more about sand and how we can use physics to try to better understand its intriguing properties.

In this lesson, you will learn about sand and other granular materials. Then, you will either learn about another science phenomenon explained by Mr. Munroe, or you will create a science experiment based on your own question.

The featured article addresses the question: What makes sand soft? Before reading the article, what is your hypothesis? Based on what you have observed about sand and what you know about properties of matter, brainstorm why sand is soft.

What additional questions do you have about sand and how it behaves?

Now, watch this three-minute video about sand to learn more.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. How does the example of sand flowing through an hourglass illustrate why sand is so difficult for scientists to understand?

2. There are general theories of relativity and gravitation, but why is there no general theory of sand?

3. How does the way in which grains of sand are organized affect how sand feels to the touch?

4. How do the shape and size of sand grains affect how sand feels?

5. What makes Q-Cell so soft? Why wouldn’t it be good to have Q-Cell covering a beach?

Option 1: Good Questions

Choose another article from the “Good Question” column. Here are some recent questions that Randall Munroe has answered:

After reading the article, challenge yourself to explain Mr. Munroe’s answer for different audiences:

  • A tweet in 280 characters.

  • A two-minute verbal explanation for a kindergartner.

  • A drawing that is different from the ones in the article.

Option 2: What Is Your Burning Science Question?

Do you feel inspired to ask a science-related question? Is there something you’re curious about? Maybe it’s about how something works, like boiling an egg, or a natural phenomenon, like putting your hand out of a car window.

Once you have a question, consider how you could answer it scientifically by designing a lab experiment. Use this Lab Experiment worksheet to establish your question and hypothesis. Then, think about what equipment and setup you would need before outlining the procedure. Keep in mind, you can design your experiment even if you actually aren’t able to complete it.


About Lesson of the Day

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