Video Invites Teachers to Turn ‘Deflategate’ Into STEM Lesson

By Marva Hinton — February 03, 2017 3 min read
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When the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons this weekend during the Super Bowl, it will probably be hard to avoid hearing talk about “Deflategate,” the scandal that cost Patriots quarterback Tom Brady the first four games of the season.

Now, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hopes teachers will use that incident to teach their students about STEM.

The National Football League accused the Patriots of tampering with footballs by deflating them slightly during the 2015 American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game and punished Brady for his role in the incident with a four-game suspension that was served this season.

MIT professor Richard Larson heads up the school’s BLOSSOMS program. BLOSSOMS is an acronym for Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies. The program provides free, online lessons that high school teachers can use in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, classes.

BLOSSOMS has recently released a video entitled, “Temperature, Pressure, and American Football: An Introduction to Gay-Lussac’s Gas Law,” which features MIT mechanical engineering professor John Leonard, who’s known as a Deflategate expert.

The video encourages students to look at the evidence and decide if Brady cheated or not.

Larson said he hopes the lesson will show teenagers real-world, modern-day applications of STEM learning.

“We’re a little bit discouraged nationally that a lot of teenagers seem to drop out of the STEM path in high school,” said Larson. “Sometimes, they don’t see that it’s relevant to the world in which they live. They think that all science was invented by people long dead 200 years ago, and there’s nothing related to them.”

But he said the lesson on Deflategate proves that way of thinking to be false.

Lesson Overview

In the lesson, Leonard lays out the controversy. Then he guides students to do an activity that shows how temperature affects the volume of gas. From there, he teaches students Gay-Lussac’s Gas Law, which shows that pressure and temperature are connected values. So when one goes up, the other also increases if the volume of gas remains fixed.

The video also includes three other experiments on how air pressure in footballs is affected by changes in temperature. Then students are given actual football pressure readings from the Patriots game in question and asked to do calculations to determine if they think the footballs were illegally deflated. And, finally, students are asked to do the calculations to show, if there was tampering, how much air was removed.

At the end of the video, Leonard calls Deflategate, “a nice microcosm of some of the problems that scientists and engineers face in doing advanced research.”

Since the video was released last month, it’s been downloaded about 600 times.

Scientists in the Making

Larson said BLOSSOMS videos encourage teens to think and act like scientists.

“So they understand science, math, and engineering is more about process than memorizing facts to be regurgitated on a test,” said Larson. “With BLOSSOMS, we’re trying to get more active learning, get them engaged, and get them involved in the processes, so we augment the content delivery, which is traditional education, with these experiential, active, learning exercises.”

The lessons provided through BLOSSOMS videos are intended to align with the Next Generation Science Standards.

The videos are interspersed with breaks that allow teachers to lead their students in problem-solving activities. The Deflategate video is about 40 minutes long in which the lesson itself runs about 20 minutes without the activity breaks. Once the lesson ends, there’s a presentation for teachers that includes more details on the activities and tips on leading the lesson.

Teachers can find nearly 200 additional STEM lessons in the MIT BLOSSOMS Video Library. The videos come in multiple languages and can be streamed online or downloaded. The school also provides DVDs by request.

PHOTO: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady warms up before a game against the Dallas Cowboys in October. (Tim Sharp, AP-File)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.