How YOU Solved the Science Club Message Challenge

10:38 minutes

Two weeks ago, Science Friday’s Science Club challenged listeners to invent and build a device that could get a message from one place to another. We ruled out using walkie-talkies or cell phone text messages, but left most of the other options wide open. This week, club founders Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist meet with Ira Flatow to share some of your solutions, and educator Karen Haddas describes some of the innovative messaging methods developed by her fourth grade students in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Segment Guests

Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s director of audience. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Karen Haddas

Karen Haddas is a 4th Grade Teacher at Ann Arbor STEAM, one of the Ann Arbor Public Schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Segment Transcript

[COMPUTER SOUNDS] IRA FLATOW: No, there’s nothing wrong with your radio. That sound means it’s the Science Club. Science Club is back in session. Just two weeks ago, we challenged you to come up with a device that could get a message from point A to point B, not using your cell phone. That was one of the rules what we made. And boy, did you rise to the occasion. Here to talk about how some of you solved our message challenge are the two founding members of the Science Club, Ariel Zych, Charles Bergquist. Welcome back.


ARIEL ZYCH: Ira, thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Ariel, remind us what the contest was all about.

ARIEL ZYCH: Well, as you said, we wanted folks to create some sort of device that got a message from point A to point B. And we really didn’t want cheaters, right? So we didn’t want you to use a communication device to communicate. We wanted you to hack or invent something that did that. And so, we left it pretty open. We also didn’t specify what modality people used or how far it went. And we got some really interesting submissions.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? Charles, a lot of people?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, there are dozens of submissions from all over. And as Ariel, said, they really ranged from some people were using light or sound. Some people were physically flinging things from one place to the other. One team even had this robot that crawled along a line drawn on the floor of their classroom to physically carry a note sneakily from one person to the other.

IRA FLATOW: And they can see all these submissions on our website?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: That’s right. They’re up on our website at sciencefriday.com/scienceclub.

IRA FLATOW: Ariel, I know you you’re such an education geek.


IRA FLATOW: [CHUCKLES] What were some of your favorite submissions?

ARIEL ZYCH: Well, I think the ones that were my favorite were probably the ones that were the most surprising. So I watched a bunch of girls put a message that was wrapped around a marble into pool noodles, so these giant foam noodles, which I didn’t know were hollow. But they’re hollow. And then they took a balloon that had been fully inflated and used it to force air out the noodle and shoot the marble with the message out the other side, which is pretty cool.

I also really enjoyed seeing, again, these kind of hack devices, right? So this idea that taking a robot that you’ve already done. So we have this computer science class, computer integrated manufacturing class from Jordan-Elbridge High, where they had already engineered this robot and said, hey, we can actually create a little cart for it and have it tote around a message during class. It was pretty awesome.

IRA FLATOW: And Charles, your favorite?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Probably one of my favorites was a group of, I believe they were seventh graders, who built a crossbow out of some rulers and pencils. And you would think, OK, maybe it’ll fling something from one side of the desk to the other. They had this thing outside in their school parking lot, and it probably went a good 30 or 40 feet.

ARIEL ZYCH: That was incredibly impressive.


ARIEL ZYCH: When we watched that, both of us were like, whoa!

IRA FLATOW: Well, they were just trying to emulate you, Charles. You’re the star on the web there with your– describe what you made.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Oh, It was basically an air-powered rocket made out of some PVC pipe. And it almost took the head off of our social media guru, Brandon Ector, one day in the office. But yeah, there were people coming up with all kinds of solutions.

IRA FLATOW: And we have on the line with us someone who really came up with a lot of solutions– Karen Haddas. She’s a fourth grade teacher at Ann Arbor STEAM, one of the Ann Arbor public schools in Michigan. And her students participated in the challenge in a big way. She sent in a bunch of entries. Welcome, Karen.

KAREN HADDAS: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: There were a bunch of approaches that were sort of like projection boxes.


IRA FLATOW: Hello there, are you there?

KAREN HADDAS: Yeah, I am. It’s just you cut out for a minute. Yeah, we had dozens of different ideas that the kids came up with. So it was three fourth grade classrooms, mine along with Heather Bertelson, and Emma Huntley’s. We had like 18 creative teams come up with a bunch of different ideas. We started off with the concept, how can we transfer information using light and sound? And we actually started our project a month before we saw the Science Club challenge. So it was really cool to see that come up and the kids to share their ideas.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And then there were other groups that went to a more code-making route. Did any of them just not work?

KAREN HADDAS: We had one group that started off with the idea they wanted to do a dance code. And so the group was coming up with dance moves that they wanted to stand for different letters. And it got too complex for them. They couldn’t manage it. So they had to go back to the drawing board. But they created a new code, and they decided to use light and colors instead of dance moves. So they did a great job with the revision.

ARIEL ZYCH: I think that’s just outstanding. I mean, one of the things that we hear, Karen, all the time about code, and even in common communication now, is that codes are revised constantly, right? So your students kind of did that anyway. I’m curious, did you guys notice in your students that as they did this project, they had any change of heart or change of perspective?

KAREN HADDAS: Well, I think two things. I think you really became aware about how light and sound and patterns are used all over the place. We talked about encryptions and how banks use them. Our team became fascinated with fiber optics. And so we did a lot of research and they did a lot of discovery. And I think with the engineering process, they really learned how valuable feedback and revision is. And that was really powerful for nine-year-olds to know, I need to go back and keep working and changing what I’m doing, and I can make it better.

ARIEL ZYCH: Outstanding.

IRA FLATOW: Charles?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: I think one of my favorites that the students came up with was a bike helmet with a reflector on top. It looked almost like a satellite dish, or something like that.


CHARLES BERGQUIST: And then there was a light bulb in the middle. And there was–

IRA FLATOW: The old Al Franken helmet.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it looked sort of like that old “Saturday Night Live” skit. But the student was using it to flash messages across the room at each other.

ARIEL ZYCH: I loved that.

KAREN HADDAS: Yeah, again, they did a lot of studying of what’s already out there. So they were adapting Morse code, and semaphore flag code was a really popular thing that started sparking their own imagination.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re pretty happy how creative they were, Karen?

KAREN HADDAS: Oh, they were fantastic, yes. I was really impressed. And we had a huge Expo Night about two days ago in our school that’s K through 7. And they were able to present to the community and parents. It was fantastic.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And do you think they’ll keep doing it even though the contest is over?

KAREN HADDAS: Oh, absolutely. They’re obsessed with secret codes, and all that kind of stuff. And I’m sure they’re going to keep on going with it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you great luck, and thank you for all the stuff. We have all that stuff up there on our website, and even on YouTube, and Twitter, and all kinds of places. Thank you very much, and congratulate your kids for us. They did a great job.

KAREN HADDAS: Oh, they absolutely did, and I will. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Karen Haddas is a fourth grade teacher at Ann Arbor STEAM. That’s one of the Ann Arbor public schools in Michigan. Ariel, this wasn’t just schools, though, right?

ARIEL ZYCH: Not at all. Actually, I mean, we had schools, yes. We also had home schools, so there’s a home school group that spent the whole day on these projects– catapults, balloon rockets, all the things to send messages. We also had some adults who put together a really interesting apparatus. David and Laura, who are a couple of amateur radio station buffs in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, they put together a– they used an Arduino light package. You can get these guys and you can program it, right? They used it to actually Morse code a grocery list. [CHUCKLES]. Which, you kind of get the impression they’re sending some message when you watch the video on our site. But I dare all of you to check this out, because you probably can crack the code and figure out what they needed to buy at the grocery.

IRA FLATOW: No need to crack our code. We’re “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International, talking about the Science Club, Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist. Yeah, it’s amazing how creative some of these people are.

ARIEL ZYCH: Absolutely. And sometimes you could tell it was in the moment. So there was a family that created a pumpkin base catapult. So they had a whole front yard setup. They used a pumpkin to anchor this catapult and pulled it back– in a princess dress. I’d like to remind everyone that you can be an engineer in a princess dress. It doesn’t matter. And sent eggs– those little plastic egg with messages inside– all the way across the lawn.

IRA FLATOW: Charles, did it matter how big the message was?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: No. We didn’t have any requirements on what people had to say. A lot of the messages that people were sending were just things like “Hi.” But one entry from a gentleman named Fred did helpfully calculate out for us the bandwidth involved in strapping a little USB drive onto this cable car that ran across a string through his room. And I think he probably won for the greatest bandwidth entry.

ARIEL ZYCH: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Were people working on it as a project with two or three kids or families?

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, it could be in groups. It could be individually. I mean, what I like to see– and I think this is kind of exciting to think about as you go into the holidays– is like you look around and realize you can communicate with anyone with anything. So when you guys are sitting at your ultra-long Thanksgiving table, maybe you can come up with a cool device that sends the message across the table to say pass the salt. I’m just saying.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Well, my dad used to have a nice stare that sent a message–


IRA FLATOW: –across the table. [LAUGHING] And there was no ambiguity about that. Are we going to have another Science Club?

ARIEL ZYCH: Oh, yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, we are.

ARIEL ZYCH: Stay tuned with us in the spring. We’ve got some big stuff planned. If you’ve got ideas for a Science Club that you’d like to see happen, you can email us at scienceclube@sciencefriday.com. Of, of course, tweet us @scifri. Of course, if you’re still planning on working on it this weekend, we’d love to see any submissions you’re wrapping up. And yeah, stay tuned.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And, of course, if you want to see these projects, they’re all up there on our website.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: They’re all up on our website. We’ve got a big gallery of them at sciencefriday.com/scienceclub. And you can get up there and see that pumpkin catapult, see the satellite dish on the kid’s head, all kinds of stuff.

IRA FLATOW: I want to know what your kids– I know you have children. What were they thinking when Dad was on the floor doing all those projects?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: They just wanted to steal the rocket and start shooting it around the backyard. I mean, come on, they’re kids.

IRA FLATOW: Did you ask them to do any of the challenges themselves?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: They did not. They actually had a lot of homework that day. So this is Dad’s homework while they worked on their homework.

IRA FLATOW: All right, I want to thank both of you for taking the time to be with us today, “Science Friday’s” education manager, Ariel, Zych, and our director Charles Bergquist, founding members of the Science Club.

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Meet the Producer

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.