What is CABS?

This site will help high school students and teachers find original, independent science research topics and questions that can be done without a professional lab...these can be done in a school lab or even in one's basement! The project ideas and research questions being developed and presented here have been vetted and could lead to true discoveries, and not just finding already known results. See our Welcome message. These are the types of projects that could be done and submitted to high school contests such as the Regeneron Science Talent Search, Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, or the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and be competitive. If you have an idea to share, or a question about one of the project ideas, contact us at vondracekm@eths202.org.

Pages (on the right side of the screen) have lists of ideas for different types of science research projects, and clicking on one of those ideas will take you to posts with details and all sorts of information about that type of project. Get more information about why there is a need for CABS!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

After 19 years, Siemens Science Competition ending

The 2017 Siemens Science Competition was the last, as the Siemens Foundation has decided to use its financial resources for STEM in different ways. This competition was one of the biggest STEM challenges for high school students, alongside the Regeneron Science Talent Search.  In my opinion, the biggest loss from this is it was the only major science competition that allowed team submissions. From now on, it will be only contests for individual students, which in some ways is a shame since science research is typically such a collaborative process and experience. Perhaps other competitions will make modifications to accompany partner/team efforts - time will tell.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Example of a Vibrating Granular Experiment

This is a good example of a vibrating granular material experiment. When granulars are vibrated vertically, there are combinations of frequency and amplitude that lead to interesting patterns. There are many ways to tweak these experiments and look for new patterns and results!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pure vs. Applied Science - Why BOTH are necessary!

This is a blog post I wrote back in August of 2005. Every so often this question comes up, especially when budget cuts to science are proposed by the politicians. With the current administration, numerous cuts to many areas of STEM research are proposed.

Questions: What is the point of pure science? Which is better, pure or applied science?

A summer science research course I teach always has many good discussions about analysis techniques, the scientific method, and specific areas of research. A topic that always makes an appearance is the debate over what type of research is more valuable, pure or applied. In particular, the class debate peaks when we travel out to Fermilab to visit some of the facilities and labs. Prior to that visit, classes are normally close to split over which is more vital to the progress of science and the U.S. lead world research.

Pure science research is that work which is done in the pursuit of new knowledge. Scientists working in this type of research don’t necessarily have any ideas in mind about applications of their work. They may be testing an existing theory, they may have a new experimental technique they want to try, or they may literally stumble accidentally into a new area of discovery (many of the great discoveries in history occurred by accident, such as X-rays and penicillin). Encompassed in this realm is a good deal of theoretical research, such as those who are working on quantum mechanics, superstrings, theoretical cosmology, and many others.
Applied science research is that which is geared towards applications of knowledge and concrete results that are useful for specific purposes. Engineering is certainly an application of knowledge for finding practical solutions to specific problems. Research into instrumentation, new inventions, and new processes that may improve productivity in industry, as well as medical research geared towards the production of new drugs, are obvious examples of this type of research.

Fermilab, for example, is a mammoth device that is used almost entirely for pure research in particle physics. Scientists look for new forms of matter, study fundamental forces between particles, test theories such as the Standard Model, and test new types of instrumentation. As an ideal example of ‘big’ science, students are wide-eyed when told the power bill is something like $10,000 per hour and that operating budgets, paid for by taxpayer dollars, run in the hundreds of millions (not to mention the billions of dollars that have been spent over the years to build the facility and the main experiments). My question for them is: Is it worth it?
On the surface, most people can think of better uses of billions of dollars. I’ve been asked countless times how scientists can justify the costs of facilities like Fermilab or the price-tag associated with sending another space probe to Mars. What about cures for cancer? New energy sources? Better sources of food that can be grown and used by the third-world? Are these not more important areas of study, especially when the answer to the question, “What good is a top quark?” is “I cannot think of a single application.” Certainly politicians are faced with such questions, and rightly so. We absolutely need to ask these questions and find priorities for limited resources and funding.

Politicians, of course, prefer applied science research. They would love to be able to go to their constituents with news of a new invention or discovery that will make life better, and, gee, since I supported the funding of the research I deserve to be re-elected. While applied science almost always wins out in a class vote of which is more important, as I argue in my last posting that thinking in terms of absolutes can limit progress, my conclusion is BOTH are absolutely essential for the progress of science as well as maintaining our status as a superpower.

Pure science keeps new ideas and discoveries flowing. Progress in almost any field, be it industry, business, or medicine, depends on the amount of knowledge one has access to. Continuing wit Fermilab as our working example, it is true that a discovery such as a top quark almost certainly cannot yield a direct, beneficial application for mankind. But, in order to make that discovery, and what is not obvious to the general public, requires new technologies and breakthroughs that can often lead to spin-offs that revolutionize everyday life. The world of fast computation, massive data storage, and fast electronics has been built on the work that needed to be done to build Fermilab and discover the top quark. Applications of superconductivity took this phenomenon from a fascinating quantum state we can produce in the lab to the world of high-strength magnets necessary for steering particles at the speed of light. Little did anyone originally know that eventually someone would figure out that these same superconducting magnets can be used to create internal images of the body, now called MRI technology. This blog site is possible because of the pioneering computer network (both hardware and software) created by high energy physicists, who found it necessary to share data between experiments in the U.S. and Europe. And most people are unaware of the Cancer Treatment Center at Fermilab, that uses neutron beams created by the main accelerators. There are only four such centers in the U.S., and thousands of patients have been treated over the years.

The point is that pure science is absolutely essential. This type of science ensures that we keep pushing the envelope and continue our quest of deciphering Nature’s puzzles. It leads to the fringe and cutting edge science in all disciplines. While primary work may or may not be useful for the general public in the form of a physical device or process, history shows convincingly that whatever investment is made will usually be paid back (often many times over) in the form of spin-offs. I, for one, have no complaints of some of my tax money going towards a national lab such as Fermilab, or any other facility that promotes pure science research.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Fluids in rotating systems - Example, what happens to hydraulic jump on a rotating surface?

Fluids are challenging because of our lack of understanding of the details of turbulence, a chaotic, random process of fluids of all types. One way to introduce turbulence into fluid flow is through rotations, and the currents produced within fluids due to the rotation. 

This could lead to numerous possible experimental setups and research questions. Think about, as a primary experimental design, using old turntables to mount a surface and rotate it. One could also use drills with variable speeds, and connect surfaces to the drill. Be creative and design and build a structure that will hold a drill in place, and attach the surface (perhaps flat pieces of plastic or vinyl, for instance).

One other interesting option is to experiment with using rheoscopic fluid mixed with water. This is interesting because you may be able to see and video flow patterns that arise. 

As is the case for most 'basement science' experiments, the primary data collection will be with video. If you have cameras that do high-speed video collection, this is ideal. Be sure to have, in your experiments, some measuring device or scale(s) that allow you to determine and measure distances and possibly times when it comes to video analysis. Using software such as Tracker allows you to do video analysis frame-by-frame, if your phone or camera does not do this.  

Possible Experiments and Research Questions:

  • Hydraulic jump on rotating surfaces: What happens to a hydraulic jump when the water jet lands on a rotating surface? Do different patterns or characteristics arise as a function of rotational speed? Try other liquids for the jets and compare/contrast what happens, as a function of density and viscosity.
  • One could attach petri dishes or other containers on the rotating surface. Many options arise for experiments: start with the petri dish empty, and have a water or other liquid jets fall into the dish as it rotates. What happens initially, and what happens as liquid begins to fill the dish? One could vary the rotational speed, flow rates of the jets, and any other parameters that are involved in your design. 
  • Is it possible to rig a rotating surface on angles? This may produce new types of patterns and behaviors of the hydraulic jump, or whatever else a fluid does when hitting a rotating surface with gravity now an influence. 
  • What happens if two different fluids are involved? For instance, one could have a petri dish partially filled with water, and a jet of some type of oil falls into it, with and without rotation of the dish. Or a thin layer of oil could start in the petri dish, and a jet of water falls into it, with or without rotation of the dish. Is there any sign of a jump, depending on the depth of the initial liquid layer? What strange patterns emerge as the water-oil 'mixes' and/or separates? 
  • Start with layers of liquids, such as a layer of water with a layer of some type of oil on top, at rest. What happens when this setup is rotated, as functions of rotational speed, depths of layers of water and/or oil, and diameter of the dish or container? What happens if a jet of oil or water falls into this system, both with and without rotation? 
  • What happens to any of the above rotating experiments, when the rotating platform or dish has rough surfaces? Or patterns of grooves, bumps, obstacles arranged in various patterns, or curved rather than flat surfaces? Think of all the variations on a theme one could dream up and try, each of which would be a new set of experiments and research questions. We are not aware of any experiments that have been done for these types of rotating experiments.
  • What would happen to any of the above rotating experiments if granular materials were involved? For instance, what if there was a petri dish or container on the rotating surface that starts off with thin layers of sand, various sized plastic beads, or other granular material covering the surface? What would happen when different liquid jets fall into the granulars? 
This could be a rich source of numerous, original fluid experiments and projects! 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Learning Computer Programming for Research

For anyone interested in any kind of research in any field, computer programming has become an absolute MUST skill to have. If you want to do any computational work, data analysis, animations, access online datasets and databases, theoretical work, or working with the latest craze that is here to stay, BIG DATA and data science, you have no choice but to know and do some basic programming. Perhaps the best and most recommended computer language for this right now is Python.

To learn how to use and write code with Python, check out the programming page.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hydraulic Jump - Easy to setup, numerous options for research

Topic: Fluid Dynamics

The first section on the Experimental Research Ideas page is for Fluid studies. The reason for this is that there are many studies and situations one can dream up involving fluids that have not been studied in great detail, if at all. It is possible to look at past studies on fluid dynamics and think of different ways to 'tweak' the system that was studied and make it your own, original study. Perhaps my personal favorite is what is called the hydraulic jump.

The hydraulic jump has been studied for over a century, but because it involves turbulence, it is still not entirely understood. Turbulence, being a feature that involves random processes, is what allows fluid studies to have such a vast richness and variety, and each new discovery and observation is a contribution to the field. I cannot think of an easier experimental system for fluids to setup than the hydraulic jump. You literally see a jump every day of your life in sinks, bathtubs, or drinking fountains. When a stream of water lands on a hard surface, it flows outward in a smooth circular pattern, until suddenly the water lifts up, or jumps, to form a turbulent region. Don't get me wrong, while easy to create, a hydraulic jump is not easy mathematically - fluid dynamics is governed by the Navier-Stokes equations, which are presently unsolvable with exact solutions due to turbulence. Solving these equations numerically in computer simulations is the best we can do, and those theoretical studies have become very sophisticated. But a very rich set of experimental options is what we are after!

The novel research possibilities now become possible once you have a setup in your basement or kitchen, where you have a water source that can fall in a smooth stream or 'jet' onto a surface. The best way to collect measurements and other data is through video techniques. Be sure to have a grid and/or rulers in the video or photos in order to calibrate and scale for distance measurements. One can get radial and height measurements from video and digital photos, using software such as Tracker or LoggerPro, which many schools have; Tracker can be downloaded for free.

There are several student studies and papers serving as examples on the Experimental Research Ideas page, for certain types of hydraulic jump studies. Check those out for details on experimental setups and procedures. All of the following will be similar in their design, but differ in the physical situation that might affect the jump. We have not found any formal or detailed studies of these in the literature. Almost all of the suggestions below could be done in a combination of qualitative and quantitative studies. It is suggested that for quantitative studies, make plots of data and obtain fits for varying the variable quantity versus the radius of the jump, trying to develop an empirical formula for the radius that may be added into accepted mathematical models for the hydraulic jump.


  • A basic study involves creating a stationary hydraulic jump on a flat surface, and find the relationships between the radius of the circle that forms and the flow rate, type of surface (materials, with different coefficients of friction), height from which the water stream falls, and even the viscosity of the fluid (try other liquids in addition to water). These studies have all been done over the years, but can be replicated if you just want to try the experimental setup and is also good for calibrations with past studies.
  • Effect of a tilted surface on the jump structure; try a wide range of angles, is there a mathematical relationship one can find that fits the shape of the jump on inclines. See an example.
  • Study of the interactions between multiple hydraulic jumps - have multiple streams/jets on the same surface at different distances between the jumps; can have each jet with the same or different flow rates. We have done this with two jumps, but try any number of jumps and see what patterns are created. See an example.
  • Multiple jumps, but with different fluids - how are patterns affected when different fluids interact
  • What does a jump look like and behave if the jet is a mix of two or more fluids? Could have two pipes with two different liquids flow together to make a single jet.
  • The effect of having obstacles in the laminar portion of the flow on the surface, which allows for numerous studies just by varying the size, shape, and number of obstacles. Could also put obstacles in the region where the jump occurs and study what happens. For instance, obstacles just before, inside, and just outside the radii range of where the jump is forming. The obstacles could be small enough to be under the fluid surface or taller so it breaks through the surface.
  • Effect of scratches in the surface on both the laminar and turbulent flows of the liquid. 
  • Effect of the jet landing on a 3-D surface rather than a flat, 2-D surface. Are there still hydraulic jumps? What conditions must exist for a jump to form on a 3-D surface? Could try curved surfaces, funnel-shaped, pyramid shaped, and so on. 
  • Effect of surface temperature on the jump.
  • Polygonal jumps using viscous fluids (see a highly technical article).
  • Jumps created on vertically oscillating surfaces; or jumps created on a 'see-saw' oscillating surface.
  • Jumps on horizontally oscillating surfaces.
  • Jumps created on rotating surfaces.
  • If you have access to high-speed video, the time evolution of a hydraulic jump - film it from when the jet hits the surface and examine how the fluid flows outward and watch the formation of the jump.
  • Does a jump form if there is a thin layer of stationary liquid sitting on the hard surface? What if the layer and jet are two different liquids?           
  • Project a stream horizontally onto a vertical surface/wall, is there anything resembling a hydraulic jump? Investigate the properties of whatever pattern/structure forms.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Vertically-vibrated Granular Studies

Topic: Granular Materials

Granular materials are interesting because they can show properties of both fluids and solids. The classic example is sand, but it can be any sample of a bunch of (usually small) grains, or particles, that are of course solid. Researchers have used small beads, pepper, salt, peas, rice, and so on. Think of something like an avalanche, where individual small solid objects 'flow' down the incline - here, solid objects collectively show something more like a liquid flowing.

A really interesting phenomenon happens when one vertically vibrates granular materials. When one does this with small bronze beads or sand, there are certain combinations of frequency and amplitude where a variety of patterns appear. These patterns always remind me of interference patterns of liquids. Small piles that also form patterns also appear, called oscillons.

In order to oscillate granular samples, one can purchase a mechanical oscillator from a variety of supply companies, such as PASCO, Arbor, and others. Many high schools may have some version of this to form mechanical waves on strings or to vibrate Chladni plates. These go for under $200. To drive the oscillator requires function generators; there is a simple sine wave generator from PASCO that goes for $270, or a more robust function generator that is more expensive at around $700. Some people have used speakers to create vibrations. Granular samples can be placed in petri dishes that are attached to the oscillator.

The vibrated granular experiments can be done easily in a school lab or in a student's basement or bedroom! Data collection is most easily done with video techniques. Be sure to have a ruler or some size standard to measure distances, radii, heights of piles (with a camera with a side view of the material).

Research Ideas for vibrated granular materials:

  • Classic crating oscillons and multiple patterns by vertically vibrating sand, small beads, bronze powder, or any other granular material. You can vary size of grains, size of container being vibrated, frequency and amplitude combinations, depth of granular materials, mixtures of different sized grains. (an example)
  • Patterns in granular materials at high frequencies (an example)
  • Patterns that form when experiment is inside a vacuum, or as a function of air pressure if one has a bell jar and vacuum pump
  • Behavior of vertically vibrated piles of granulars; any pattern formation and/or avalanching
  • Observations and search for patterns/pile formation/avalanching when granular material is falling onto a vertically vibrating surface (compared to a stationary surface).
  • Patterns of vertically vibrating granular materials when the experimental setup is rotating
  • Patterns of vertically vibrating granular materials when the experimental setup is on a pendulum, or moving (accelerating) horizontally.
  • Pattern formation as a function of moisture/dampening of the granular material (such as wet sand; different levels of wetness)
  • If multi-sized beads/grains, is there any stratification or segregation of beads when vertically oscillated 
  • Mixing properties of the layers of grains when vibrated; if you have different colored sand, for example, make layers by color, and then find out how the mixing takes place among layers. (an example)
  • Search for any horizontal movement/drifting/mixing while vertically vibrating. (an example)
  • Effect of barriers, compartments, or obstacles in the container on the pattern formation of the vibrated granular materials
  • What happens if a granular sample is vibrated back and forth horizontally?