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Teacher brings her PocketLab on adventure to the South Pole

If you’re on a six-week expedition to the South Pole you have to pack light. It’s a requirement. But if you’re also a high school physics teacher, you can’t resist the opportunity to do some classic experiments at the bottom of the Earth. So, Val Monticue brought a PocketLab.

PocketLab on South Pole
PocketLab chilling at the South Pole. Photo by Val Monticue

Monticue teaches physics at Pinewood High School in Los Altos, Calif. In December she took a leave of absence to go on the adventure of a lifetime--a journey to the South Pole to help with  maintenance and repairs on Bicep3 (Background Imaging for Cosmic Radiation), a telescope that is investigating the birth of the universe, specifically, inflation theory.

While there, Monticue wanted to do experiments that would be interesting to her students back home. She brought a PocketLab because of its durability and versatility. “I like that it’s small and easily portable,” said Monticue. “There was a very strict weight limit that we could have coming and going, so it being small and lightweight while having so many sensors were both very convenient.”

Monticue performed a couple experiments with PocketLab. She investigated the strength of the magnetic field being so close to the magnetic pole and she looked at how quickly the temperature reading would change in the cold based on whether the silicon case was on or off.

“It showed a pretty perfect exponential [change] over time that probably would have matched Newton’s Law of Cooling quite well,” she said.

She also stress tested the PocketLab, noting that the battery and the bluetooth connection worked well in the cold.

You can read more about her work with Bicep3 in this IEEE Spectrum article. From the article:

(Monticue) helped disassemble the telescope, check for leaks in its vacuum jacket, and run tests of different types of refrigeration systems at the various tilt angles of the telescope. “I never got near the real innards,” she said. “People who had worked much longer with the telescope did that. But we were all improving the structure, adding sensors, deciding how to adjust things. It was a matter of fixing lots of little fiddly bits to improve the whole system.” She’s still waiting to hear whether or not the repair effort worked.

On her last day at the Pole, Monticue helped put the whole thing back together.

“The engineering was done, and it was ready for the science to happen,” she says. “Turns out throughout my career I’m always there for the engineering, but not the science.”

Monticue’s background in telescopes is what gave her such a unique opportunity. As an undergrad engineering student at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont Calif., she researched how to build a telescope on a tower that could withstand the harsh winds of Antarctica.

From IEEE Spectrum:

She was proud of the work she did, designing a control system that could keep the telescope pointed precisely in spite of the challenging environment.

After graduating she found her way to education, and while she loves teaching she still stays involved in the engineering industry. During the summers of 2014 and 2015, through the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME) fellowship program, she worked at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University on the Bicep3. At the end of her time at Kavli, she was invited to go to the South Pole to continue working on the telescope.

Val at South Pole
Val on her Antarctic Adventure. Photo by Val Monticue

For other teachers looking to stay involved in industry, Monticue says IISME is a great program. “They take teachers and place them into industry or research positions for eight weeks during the summer,” Monticue said. “It’s a paid fellowship and an amazing experience for teachers.”

Monticue said her school was incredibly supportive of her during her absence. They even held a one hour all school assembly for her when she returned so she could talk about her experience. In her classroom, Monticue is now able to speak to the roles of science and engineering in research projects like Bicep3.

On her overall experience, Monticue said, “The science is pretty neat, but the people (on the project) and their stories and their adventurousness is incredibly inspiring.” She said many of those on the project, were not researchers, but support staff with a variety of backgrounds, including Mike the Plumber who responded to a Craigslist ad.

“Everyone there was on the same team and everyone wanted everyone else to succeed,” said Monticue. “My experience with the community was just as good as my experience working on the telescope.”

Monticue plans on continuing to use PocketLab in her classroom. Recently she used it to discuss circular motion with her students by swinging it above her head on a string.

“(It) gives a strong acceleration in a consistent (way) ‘along the length of the thing,’” said Monticue. “When students realize that that side is always pointed inward, it gives them a good visual for the direction of centripetal motion.”

Measuring acceleration due to gravity

Hi everyone, 

I teach physics, and I created this quick lesson using PocketLab. I got the idea from a video they had on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlBwYWDcZSI

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 11.04.51 AM

I used this lesson as Bell Work during a unit on Energy. The lesson is about the force of gravity acting on the accelerometer and how you can observe the Acceleration graph change as the PocketLab changes orientation. It wasn't directly related to Energy, but we were looking at GPE that day, so I thought it was a good way to get kids thinking about gravity. 

The final question asks students to answer in Claim-Evidence-Reasoning format. If you aren't familiar, it's a way for students to write conclusions/explanations. You can read more about it from this article on Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/s...soning-eric-brunsell

This was a very helpful lesson because when using the Acceleration graph previously, students were confused as to why all three axes weren't at 0g when the PocketLab was at rest. This activity helped illustrate to them that the non-0g reading is caused by the force of gravity pulling on the accelerometer and that changing the orientation with respect to Earth's gravity field will result in approximately either 1g, 0g, or -1g readings along different axes. This also lead to a cool discussion about accelerometers in cell phones and how they know to change the orientation of your screen depending on how you're holding it. 


Planning to jump out of a spacecraft 24 miles above Earth? Don’t forget your PocketLab!

Exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 aircraft, Felix Baumgartner did too, but not in an aircraft. He did it by jumping out of one. In a state of the art pressure suit, Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule dangling from a helium balloon that had reached the stratosphere, 24 miles from the surface of the Earth. Before deploying his parachute, Baumgartner reached a top speed of 833.9 mph.

Brian Anderson, Program Developer in the Community Engagement department at Science World holds a PocketLab in front of the actual capsule from the Red Bull Stratos jump.

Now, a little over three years after his daredevil jump, a PocketLab sensor is helping patrons at Science World in Vancouver, British Columbia  understand just how incredible and important his jump was. Science World currently hosts the actual capsule and suit from the jump as part of an exhibit on the Red Bull Stratos jump.

We asked Brian Anderson, Program Developer in the Community Engagement department at Science World, about the exhibit and how they were using PocketLab.

How is PocketLab being used at the exhibit?

A lot of the exhibition explores the challenges of staying alive in a high altitude environment with very low air pressure. We use the PocketLab’s Pressure/Altitude feature to show how an altimeter works. The sensitivity of the PocketLab is great – we can have a volunteer carry the PocketLab up a staircase near the demonstration stage and see a very visible change in altitude on the display.

We also demonstrate how an altimeter works at high altitude through ‘faking out’ the PocketLab by putting it in a vacuum chamber. As the pressure in the chamber drops, the pocketlab altimeter reading shoots up to over 10,000 meters in the air.

What could people expect to see if they check out the exhibit?

The Red Bull Stratos exhibition features the original capsule and pressure suit that were used in Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking parachute jump on October 14, 2012.  There is a tremendous amount of information about the research and technology that went into preparations for the jump as well as videos displaying highlights from the jump itself and interviews with the team that made it possible. You can read more information about the exhibition here (http://www.scienceworld.ca/stratos).  The exhibition will be at Science World until April 26, 2016, the final stop on its tour.

What’s exciting about having the exhibit?

For me, the most exciting thing about the exhibit is hearing the human stories of the people involved.  Beyond Felix himself, the team of engineers and scientists who built the equipment for the jump had to solve so many unique and unusual problems in such creative ways.   Some examples include:

  • The door of the capsule which was not hinged but rolled out of the way and was held closed by nothing but air pressure.
  • The G-Whiz , a device with a built in accelerometer would automatically trigger the drogue parachute to stop Felix from spinning if he experienced more than 3 G’s of acceleration in any one direction for more than 6 seconds
  • The balloon itself which was taller than the Statue of Liberty yet thinner than a dry cleaning bag.

Why was the jump so important?

As commercial space flight looks to become a reality it becomes more important to explore the effects of high altitude and high velocity on the human body to explore ways to bring space tourists home safely in the event of an accident. This jump provided information on how the human body reacts when traveling faster than the speed of sound.

What is your favorite part of the exhibit?

My favorite part of the exhibit is the capsule itself. Looking at that small step that Felix jumped from, so small that your foot will not even fit on it, the toes have to hang over the edge. I try to picture what it would have been like to look down on the earth from 39 km in the air.

Favorite facts

  • The date of the jump was quite accidentally exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in a plane.
  • The length of Felix’s freefall (4 minutes 20 seconds) is longer than the length of Tom Petty’s song “Free Falling”

Are you using PocketLab for anything else? 

We have used it to measure the acceleration of a cocktail shaker when professional bartenders are mixing drinks.  For the future we hope to measure acceleration under platform holding a concrete block when we break it with a sledgehammer while lying on a bed of nails. We have also attempted to measure the speed and acceleration of chickens but have not found a good and humane way to attach the sensor to them.

Position Vs. Time Investigation

Hello All,

I'm an AP Calculus teacher, and I used the attached lab to introduce position vs. time graphs to my students. My school doesn't offer physics after freshmen year and historically students have struggled to translate graphs into the actual motion that they represent. This year, using PocketLab and some magnets, the students were able to create their own position vs. time graphs, and concept mastery has been significantly higher. I'm definitely planning on repeating this lab next year!

Position vs Time Graph Investigation_magnet     Position vs time graph investigation_graph


p.s. I've also shared this lab with our 9th grade physics teacher - she said that her students really benefited from the lab as well.

Measuring magnetic field of washing machine motor using PocketLab

PocketLab user Martin Isaksson used his PocketLab to measure the magnetic field generated by the motor of a washing machine. Check out his results below. Pretty cool! 

Washing apparatus ready detection

Martin Isaksson


Using a PocketLab put on the top of a washing machine, we measure the magnetic field generated by the motor. The magnitude of this vector is used to detect if the motor is on, and when the motor has been off for some time, we say that the cycle is finished.



Read data

Read data from PocketLab CSV and calculate magnitude from x, y, and z components. Then use an Exponential Moving Average filter to remove the trend (seems like the sensor does not return to zero when the washing machine motor turns off).


Rearrange and plot x, y and z components.

Plot the magnitude

Plot the magnitude trend

Plot the adjusted magnitude (removed magnitude trend).

Plot the normalized absolute magnitude.

Using zero as a threshold, plot on or off status.

Use PocketLab to model relationship of friction/stress to frequency and size of Earthquake

This cool demonstration was brought to us via Twitter by Earth and Environmental Science Teacher, Ryan Hollister (follow him at @phanertic). 

Using PocketLab's 3-axis accelerometer, the PocketLab app's video function, and an Earthquake Machine (instruction on how to build one here, more resources here), Ryan provides his students with a unique way to visualize a difficult concept. 

His first PocketLab video simulates a high-friction/stress Earthquake model. Energy is stored, elastically, and then suddenly released as a large Earthquake. The high-friction/stress results in Earthquakes with lower frequency but greater magnitude.

His second video models a "slow-creep" of a continental plate along a fault-line, similar to sections of the San Andreas fault and the Cascadia subduction zone. The video simulates a low-friction/stress Earthquake model. Energy is released much more frequently but at lower magnitudes. Ryan points out that over time both models release the same energy, just in different ways. High friction equals fewer but larger Earthquakes whereas low friction equals frequent but smaller Earthquakes.

For some interesting articles on slow-creep Earthquakes check these out here and here. For a terrifying read if you're a resident of the Pacific Northwest, check out this New Yorker article from July 2015 (it even scared the White House to pay more attention to the Cascadia subduction zone).