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Inspiring Our Children to Pursue STEM Through the Olympics

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The world's top athletes are competing at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Their talents and abilities are truly amazing. Their preparation and dedication to their sport and their country are inspiring. No doubt, millions of children watch these athletes with similar dreams of achieving athletic excellence. But as I previously wrote, the likelihood that any child will reach the pinnacle of sports is slim. However, there is great opportunity for our athletically passionate students to continue their love of sports through their careers. The fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have as much to do with athletics as the athletes themselves, and the Olympics show us just how much STEM goes into making our athletes, and the fields they compete on, ready for competition.

From the half pipe to the ice rink and the snowboard to the speed skating suit, STEM experts make the 2014 Winter Games possible. Each Olympic season is better than the one before it -- the events are safer, the Olympians are faster, and the techniques are more precise. Materials scientists and chemical engineers are key to the innovations that allow our athletes to perform at the top of their game. The equipment our athletes use continues to get better, faster, stronger, more flexible and more durable. Materials scientists and chemical engineers are the brains behind skis and snowboards, designing them to withstand high speeds, vibration and torsion. Whether the athlete competes in the downhill or the slalom, the ski must be tailored to the particular sport. The skates used by speed skaters, figure skaters and hockey players are each different, and have evolved over time to allow the athletes to turn tight corners at full speed, perform a triple axel, or turn instantly in pursuit of a puck.

The clothing worn by our athletes is just as intricately designed and manufactured. To go faster, Olympians must don revolutionary suits made of special materials invented and designed by top scientists and engineers. The suits worn by speed skaters, for example, must counteract drag and take factors like wind resistance and air flow into account. But for athletes like ski jumpers, their suits must capture air to keep them aloft for as long as possible.

Engineers also play a vital role in the stadiums, arenas and venues in which our athletes perform. The half pipe in Sochi is taller, longer and larger in radius than any previous Olympic half pipe. The increased size lets the snowboarders get higher, turn faster and perform stunning tricks. Engineers considered the laws of gravity and used their knowledge of energy, velocity and momentum to create a half pipe that allows athletes to perform 1440 degree twists. What our students learn in high school physics class are the very principles at play here. The taller the pipe, the larger the walls and the more gravitational energy athletes experience, giving them the ability to lift higher. The larger the radius of the pipe, the easier the athlete can deal with the considerable force experienced from gravity and friction.

Consider Shaun White and the half pipe. White experiences two to five times his own weight in G-forces from the friction of the snow on his board. He pushes back against those G-forces through his calculated performance, maintaining the perfect balance on his snowboard as he does so. As he moves up the pipe, he builds kinetic energy, and at the height, the kinetic energy is converted to potential energy, which allows him to move faster down the pipe and back up the other side. All of this energy creates momentum that allows him to perform the fascinating twists and tricks for which he's known. Without engineers perfecting and continuously improving the venues and equipment, these new gravity-defying jumps and tricks would not be possible.

But to perfectly execute those tricks, the athlete and his or her coaches and trainers must be knowledgeable in STEM as well. For example, to engineer the perfect jump, figure skaters must consider and routinely adapt to changes in angular velocity, height, speed and momentum. A triple axel toe loop looks effortless, but it's not without careful planning, precision and STEM.

STEM is the foundation of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Engineers and scientists are responsible for the innovative technologies that continually produce new and improved equipment. Computer programmers and digital electronic manufacturers must create precise timing devices that measure the one-thousandth of a second that may be the difference between an Olympic gold and disappointment. Doctors, trainers and scientists each have a role in the training, muscle recovery, injury prevention and healing that our athletes need to perform at the top of their games.

Athletics are important in our culture and in teaching our children life lessons and skills. So we tell our children to pursue their passions, but we should also tell them about the exciting career possibilities created by studying the STEM disciplines -- jobs that will allow them to continue being involved in their passions. And while they may never be the 1500-meter speed skating World Champion, they might be the next inventor of the fastest speed suit in the world.

Project Lead The Way is the nation's leading provider of STEM education programs for students in elementary, middle and high school. Through world-class curriculum, high-quality teacher professional development, and a network of business and educational leaders, PLTW is preparing students for the global economy.

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2 United States 9 7 12
3 Norway 11 5 10
4 Canada 10 10 5
5 Netherlands 8 7 9
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