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USU camp teaches kids the science of Angry Birds

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Angry Birds is immediately a physics game. It’s a projectile motion game. It’s what we teach in introductory physics in high school and at the college level. – Boyd Edwards

VERNAL — Boyd Edwards' introduction to the relationship between energy and matter came at a very early age.

"I was spoon-fed physics by my father and I'm a chip off the old block," said Edwards, who followed in his father's footsteps to become a physics professor.

Now, as the dean and executive director of Utah State University's Uintah Basin campus, Edwards is looking to pass his love for science on to kids who aren't expected to see the inside of a college classroom for at least another four years.

He's doing it by highlighting the connection between his field of expertise and one of the world's most popular video games.

"Angry Birds is immediately a physics game," Edwards said. "It's a projectile motion game. It's what we teach in introductory physics in high school and at the college level."

This past week, Edwards brought the game to life to teach sixth, seventh and eighth graders how differences in launch angle, projectile mass and velocity impact the distance an Angry Bird — or rather a water balloon — will travel.

Armed with three fully adjustable, giant slingshots that were designed and built by Edwards and his colleagues, the students launched volleys of water balloons into the dusty field on the Vernal campus' south side.

The group at each slingshot was assigned a different experiment to complete. One launched its balloons from different angles, another launched them from the same angle but decreased the velocity with each shot, and the third launched balloons filled with differing volumes of water.

"Angry Birds actually allows you to adjust the angle of launch and you can adjust the velocity of the launch," said Edwards, who added that the game's differing sizes of birds also mimics the differing masses of the water balloons the students used.

"So you can do the math — there's a little bit of algebra, a little bit of physics to it, a little bit of trigonometry — to find out that a 45-degree angle gives the maximum distance."

The Angry Birds experiment was conducted as one of eight sessions held during the Vernal campus' inaugural science and engineering summer camp. Students were also able to explore chemistry, biology, paleontology and engineering during the two-day event.

The camp was held inside the school's Bingham Research Center, which houses state-of the-art labs where the university's faculty and students carry out cutting-edge research in a number of different fields.

"We thought it would be a great opportunity to bring elementary-age kids in to see those lab spaces and use those lab spaces," said USU Uintah Basin academic adviser and recruiter Leslie Jessup.

Jessup, who has a degree in elementary education, said she's seen the passion for science education continue to grow among younger students. The camp, which hosted more than 60 kids, is an effort to foster that passion and make kids more aware of different scientific disciplines, Jessup said.

"As the kids have looked at the material and what's available to them, they get more excited," she said. "It's been fun to see their enthusiasm."

Jake Green was interested in attending the camp as soon as his mom showed him the flyer. His favorite session: chemistry.

"Because I get to make stuff explode," said the 12-year-old from Vernal, referring to the gas-filled balloons that a professor detonated for the students.

"It's been a great time," he added. "I get to learn more about science."

Green said his real interests are working with electronics and studying astronomy.

"It's all so immense, so fun," he said.

Organizers hope to build on this year's success and host a larger, more diverse camp next year.

"It would be great to see this grow," Jessup said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik