Does Air Have Weight? ... An Adventure of the True Chess Ninja
Updated: Feb 5
One of our new students had a remarkable adventure. He learned many things in the process that you can only learn by doing...
An eight year old boy by the alias "True Chess Ninja" ... or "Tru" for short ... joined WEquil.School recently. He is starting a Chess Club and a regular at our Debate Club. He also creates and presents one "Project a Week" as recommended for all our students. These projects are chosen by our students, in consultation with their parents. They can choose whatever project they like so long as it is novel and useful. Two weeks ago, Tru chose to answer a seemingly simple question. "Does Air Have Weight?" This was his question. He really wanted to know! So just like an adult he went online and started researching the answer. Not surprisingly, he found many links to potential answers. One promising hit was an experiment commonly conducted in public schools; which he recreated.
To demonstrate that air does have weight; the experiment suggests balancing a long symmetrical stick (such as a ruler) on a string with equal weight and length on both sides. Tru then hung two balloons on each end to confirm that the balloons themselves are of equal weight. Once confirmed, Tru blew one up with air and hung it back on the edge of the stick.
Many are surprised to see that the blown up balloon weights more than the other.
This common experiment is meant to prove that air has weight...but does that really explain the result?
Tru presented his project on Demo Day to his Learning Pod. Several parents and students were in attendance. They watched his video and listened as he presented his project as WEquil.School students do every Friday.
After his presentation, everyone is invited to share a "Feedback Sandwich" consisting of three comments...two positives with some suggestion for improvement or constructive criticism in the middle. We don't have grades...our students learn the same way adults do...by asking questions and paying close attention to feedback. This is quite challenging compared to outsourcing your sense of competence to an arbiter of truth, such as a teacher.
Feedback on this project was particularly challenging. Everyone loved the presentation itself, but there were some critical suggestions. One was to recreate the result using a longer stick to help make the result more robust. There was also some question regarding the reasons driving the result. Did the balloon with air in it really have more weight, or were water molecules from Tru's lungs causing the balloon to have more weight?
Tru was determined to find the answer.
After all...this was his question...not one dictated to him by a curriculum. So he went back and made some improvements.
Description: This is not an actual image of Tru ... the True Chess Ninja ... this is just how I imagined him as he came away from that first Demo Day. He has a calm confidence that I find admirable, and did my best to capture using prompts into "Midjourney" an AI software used to create images based on text.
First, he extended the stick to a full yard making the result clear to himself and the audience.
Second, he used a pump to fill the balloon so that there was no question regarding the contents of the balloon...just air like the air around him.
Third, he found other sources that conducted the same experiment to confirm his results.
Finally, he came back on Friday to present again!
This time everyone in his Learning Pod was a bit more educated on the subject. They were interested as well after such an engaging performance. Tru had a well written essay and a video to back up his results...complete with some comical clips to engage his peers. Suffice to say, he had everyone's attention.
The principle concern with the experiment was the interpretation of the result. After praising the presentation (which was excellent) one member stated, "Of course air has weight, but why does it weigh more than the surrounding air?"
You can find many videos on YouTube conducting the same experiment, "Does Air Have Weight?" ... but does this experiment actually test this hypothesis?
There is, after all, air everywhere. Air has mass...so of course it has weight. The teacher did not perceive the air outside the balloon so the teacher made a mistake of only perceiving the air once inside the balloon. That seems to be why so many mis-understand why the balloon weights more after being inflated...even adult teachers!
To illustrate, consider a similar experiment designed to test the weight of water, but inside a pool. Assume you have a plastic box made of plastic with the same density as water. That way you can ignore the effects of the box. If you were to fill this box with water and put it in a pool...will the box sink, float, or freely move up or down?
If you guessed...."freely move" you would be correct, because there is no difference between the weight of water inside and outside the box.
Why would a balloon be different than a box?
The answer is atmospheric pressure. Source: https://www.millersville.edu/physics/experiments/064/#:~:text=1%20gram%20is%20attributed%20to,than%20atmospheric%20by%20about%202%25.
When the balloon is filled with air the balloon by its nature compressed the volume. Not by much, but just enough to make a noticeable difference. This makes the air inside a balloon more dense than the air outside...which is why it weighs more than the balloon hanging on the other side of the stick.
Tru learned many things from this project ... a lot more than meets the eye.
Many of these things he would likely not have learned or retained, but for the fact that he chose to do it! Tru asked the question because he wanted to know the answer, and up until today his whole Learning Pod was still not sure how to conclude on the result because unlike questions in a pre-packaged curriculum... this was a real world experiment!
So why did that make a difference? Because when you conduct science in the real world you learn...
1) How to ask the question?
Kids generally don't get asked about their questions and interests. They are told what question to ask.
2) How to answer the question?
Kids generally told how to answer questions. This standardizes the response so they can be easily graded.
3) How to interpret the answer?
Kids are generally told how to interpret answers to questions. Questions without clear answers are often ignored in standardized curriculums because they are harder to grade.
4) How to verify accuracy? (Circle of Competence)
Kids learn to rely on their parents and teachers to tell them if they are right or wrong. Tru is learning to triangulate resources, ask for feedback, apply critical thinking, recognize uncertainty, and everything else required to independently determine his own "Circle of Competence"...just like a competent adult.
5) When to quit, and when to keep going?
Kids become dependent on parents and teachers to tell them when to quit and keep going. Homework and tests have perfectly clear directions and steps. Once complete it is graded then thrown away. Tru kept going because he determined that it made sense to keep going...like competent adults do.
6) When is it too hard or too easy?
Kids rarely learn how to handle situations that are too hard or too easy. Teachers and parents often work very hard to ensure kids don't experience them. As a result...kids don't get to practice how to adjust their projects, workloads, influence their situations, advocate for themselves, and set their own expectations based on their own needs, strengths, interests, abilities and priorities.
Tru learned a lot more than this...but you get the picture.
Discover Your Limits
Every now and then I meet a parent that speaks to their kids in ways that lift my heart. Tru's mom is one of these parents. We talked on the phone again today. She mentioned that Tru was still working on his project this weekend. She seemed a bit worried that he might burn himself out, get tired or frustrated.
I told her this happens sometimes with our students. Especially early on until they get used to having more freedom and autonomy. This happens often enough that I wrote an article about it titled, "Discovering Your Limits". When kids are given a lot of freedom and autonomy to pursue their interests to create real value ... it can be highly motivating. Sometimes they do burn themselves out, but in hindsight they are very grateful for the experience...so long as it was their choice.
Some of our students are quite young. Tru is only eight years old. Trying to tackle such complex concepts is mentally painful. It is hard enough to attempt such a project and our students do so much more than that...presenting and exposing their minds to all the real world complexities parents and teachers often try so hard to avoid.
Her concerns were a reminder to me of all the reasons why school's exist. Why we create these artificial environments...even though they often leave our kids unprepared for the real world. We parents don't want our kids to experience pain. We want to protect them. The real world is so big and scary.
"Kids are not adults...We don't want to push them too fast."
While reflecting on our conversation today ... I was trying to find the right words.
Words to help communicate why it is OK to let them work so hard.
Then it hit me.
Our students work so hard because no one is pushing them but themselves.
Sincerely, Joe Dedicated to the True Chess Ninja --
Note: Here are some other images I created using MidJourney while imagining the True Chess Ninja's Adventure :)