The Science Club Tackles a Communications Challenge

06:26 minutes

In today’s connected world, we take instant communications for granted. But what if you had to come up with your own method for getting a message from Point A to Point B? This season’s Science Club project asks you to invent your own communications device—something that can carry a message from one place to another. Science Club founding members Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist outline the parameters of the project, which will last for two weeks. Sorry, no cell phones allowed (at least, not in the traditional use!).

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.

Segment Transcript

[BEEPS, SQUEAKS, BELL] IRA FLATOW: Uh huh, guess what that sound means. Especially the bell. That means the Science Club, our science club, it’s back. That’s when we ask you to go out and do some simple science or engineering project and share the results with us.

And here to fill you in about our new project are the founding members of our science club, our education manager, Ariel Zych.


IRA FLATOW: Our director, Charles Bergquist.


IRA FLATOW: Welcome back. Ariel, what’s the challenge this time?

ARIEL ZYCH: All right. The challenge is– we want you to create a device that can send a message across a distance. Seems pretty simple.


ARIEL ZYCH: But communication’s a big deal. Communication contraptions change the world. Communication is a thing that humans do and love. We want you to give it a shot. We want you to make one.

IRA FLATOW: So, Charles, you have to actually build something, right? You can’t use your cell phone or something like that?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: No, I mean this is something where we want you to get out in your garage or your basement or whatever and tinker and actually come up with some widget that does something. It’s not just enough to give us a description or a pretty sketch. We want to see a real, live gizmo.

IRA FLATOW: So, Ariel, anything is open? Field is wide open. Any gizmo you want to come up with.

ARIEL ZYCH: Totally fair game. It can carry a physical message, like it can say, you know, like take a piece of paper and send it somewhere, mechanically. It could be acoustic. It could be olfactory, if you want to create a smelling message, which would be pretty cool. It could be visual, like lights or laser beams or something. But totally up to you guys. Just make sure that you’re inventing something.

IRA FLATOW: And any ground rules to follow, Charles?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, I mean, of course, we want you to be safe, so please no flame throwers. Don’t rocket motors in the kitchen– no, please. And we do want you to actually make something new, or figure out a new way to send the message. So don’t just pick up your cell phone and text your friend and be like, hey, I did it. Or grab a pair of walkie-talkies. Unless you’re going to hack them some way, that’s not good enough.

IRA FLATOW: This is sort of going to use your hand skills on this. You’re going to need your hands to do this thing.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, and your smarts, too. I mean, think about it. You can communicate with more than just words, right? People do that all the time. If you can come up with a system that communicates in some different way than you’re used to, it might even be more efficient, it might even be more useful.

And it could even help people with disabilities, right? So we think about communicating with words a lot. Devices can also bridge the gap between people who can communicate with words and maybe people who don’t use words to communicate.

IRA FLATOW: So you are our education manager. Who is this for? Is this for the kid or the teachers?

ARIEL ZYCH: Oh, this is for everybody.

IRA FLATOW: Everybody.

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, you got it. Everybody who wants to play: scientists, engineers, students, teachers, parents, absolutely. But, you know, I had a really good time doing it. Charles demonstrated a device earlier today that you can see on our website at sciencefriday.com/scienceclub. And, really, the sky’s the limit.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about our Science Club project with Ariel Zych and Charles Bergquist.

So, OK, for everybody, teachers, educators, you’ve got instructions up on our website how to do this.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: That’s right. If you go to sciencefriday.com/scienceclub, you’ll see full instructions and guidelines on what we want to get from you and how we want to get it.

But, basically, go out, dream up your idea, build it, show us that it works and then share it with us. We’ve got a hashtag #MessageChallenge that people can use to tag their responses to us on all kinds of social media, and we’ll see it and send out some of the highlights to everybody else so that they can see them too.

IRA FLATOW: Can teachers do this as a classroom project?

ARIEL ZYCH: Totally. Absolutely. And out-of-classroom teachers can do it, too. So there are educators in all walks of life. You can do this in your kitchen.

And what’s cool about the way that we’re sharing it is that videos work really. Photos work really well. You can make a thing in like 10 minutes. You can make a thing over the course of a whole weekend. Just capture its effectiveness for us.

IRA FLATOW: Now, Charles, you had one of your projects, your kickoff project in the office today. You were sending messages in a very unusual way.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, yeah. I mean I sort of hacked together out of some PVC pipe and an old water bottle a kind of paper rocket that was firing messages across the room, and I apologize to Brandon for nearly taking his head off with one of them.

But, yeah, I mean you can do anything. As long as it gets to the message from point A to point B. We don’t really care how far apart points A and point B are, but use your creativity and come up with something cool.

IRA FLATOW: And it could be a very simple thing. People sometimes think, hey, this could get too complicated.

ARIEL ZYCH: Oh, not at all. I mean it can be super simple. And so the thing I made was a little clothesline apparatus, where you can kind of like pin your message to the clothesline and pull it along.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, there’s an idea– Any prizes? We’re giving out any prizes here?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: The glory of recognition and worldwide fame.

ARIEL ZYCH: Invention is its own prize. Engineering conceptualisation, it’s a wonderful thing.

IRA FLATOW: It doesn’t matter how far it goes? It could go an inch? It could go 100 feet or–

CHARLES BERGQUIST: I would like to think that it could at least get something across the table to you, but you know, if–

ARIEL ZYCH: Oh, I hope we get something that goes really far.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah. I think– maybe we’ll some special prize for somebody who gets their message the farthest.

IRA FLATOW: So are we eliminating rockets and things like that? Or?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: If you could build them safely–

ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, I mean, put on your safety goggles and get a little messy. Do it in a protected space, maybe, but, you know, be inventive. Don’t use animals. Your cat is not a messenger. But, like, yeah, any device you want to hack or anything you want to create.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, spitballs don’t count. Maybe they do if you put a message in it.

ARIEL ZYCH: If you’ve got a message in a spitball, make it go.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re going to be back when? When are you going to come back and give us the results?

ARIEL ZYCH: Two weeks. So this is a shorty, guys. You got to get cracking. We want to see those devices so that you can share them with your family at Thanksgiving, if that’s what you’re into. But we want to see them before that, so we’re going to come back November 20, wrap up with some expert inventors, perhaps, and share your stuff out.

IRA FLATOW: And where on our website? Give us the hashtag and the place again.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Again, full instructions are on our website, sciencefriday.com/scienceclub, and the hashtag for sharing stuff with us is #MessageChallenge.

IRA FLATOW: All right. There you go. There’s the challenge to everybody. Our founding members of our science club, Education Manager Ariel Zych. Our director, Charles Bergquist. Everybody go out and make that communications contraption. Thank you all. Thank you, both.


ARIEL ZYCH: Yeah, thanks for having us.

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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.

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