Share it! Science : Saturday Science Experiment: Spinning Dreidels and other Tops

Saturday Science Experiment: Spinning Dreidels and other Tops

Happy Hanukkah! The Jewish Festival of Lights, is a wonderful opportunity to experiment with dreidels and spinning tops. During Hanukkah children traditionally play with the dreidel, a four sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters that serve as an acronym for "A Great Miracle Happened Here".

Science and physics are everywhere, including games that involve a spinning top! This time of year I enjoy giving my fourth grade students the engineering challenge of manipulating the dimensions of a top until they find what makes it spin the longest. The students may change the length of the "stem" or axle that the top spins on, how much of the stem is above or below the disc, and how wide the disc is.

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spinning tops
Spinning Tops Image by Davidturnswood [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dreidel or Top Design Challenge

You can easily try this science challenge at home or school. If you have any actual dreidels or tops you could get those out and measure the dimensions and spin times. What do you find out? If you don't have any pre-made spinning toys there are plenty of ways to make them. I offer my students the following supplies, but this list is by no means the end-all-be-all! There is a lot of room for creativity here! 
For the printable lesson plan with student worksheets click here.

hanukkah STEM engineering design challenge dreidel tops

Materials for Hanukkah STEM Project:

They can build with whatever materials they like. We vary the size of the cardstock discs, the length of dowels or build with K'NEX. If you don't have K'NEX at home, try other building toy sets like LEGO, Tinkertoys, etc. Other household items could be jar or container lids, old cds, pencils, q-tips, etc.
You'll find this Hanukkah STEM lesson plan to download here.

I think it is always more valuable to have your child or student experiment with their own designs first before giving them a recipe-style plan. If this self-exploration becomes frustrating it is always good to have a back-up plan to insure success. You might want to try some of these ideas on Pinterest if this is the case. After experimenting for a while, you might want to try some of the variations of this exploration in this spinning tops lesson plan.

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What did you find out? 

Which designs work the best? What are some of the variables that affect your experimentation? [One big one is that you cannot consistently control for how the top is spun, however, if you have a design that works well it will be clear that it spins longer regardless. We're not trying to publish our data after all!] If you'd like to get deeper into the actual physics of angular momentum you may wish to visit this site.

A data collection worksheet is included in the dreidel or top design lesson plan here
With all this practice spinning tops you'll definitely be in the mood to play a little dreidel after you light the Menorah tonight!

Happy Hanukkah!

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