Fidget Spinners 101

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Annoying distraction, or useful tool? Read on to find out!

Fidget spinners. Need I say more? Those two words alone have likely already evoked a response from you: ranging from gleeful excitement, confusion, disdain, or possibly even a dissatisfied “HARUMPH”. Regardless of how you feel or what you think about fidget spinners, the fad is stuck in full-throttle, and it will most likely stay that way all summer long.

That being said, these tri-lobed marvels of plastic and steel, with their races and bearings are no less fascinating because they are toys than they would be if they were mind-control devices.

The little spinning marvels offer lots of teachable moments for physics and math lessons, and the fact that so many students already possess them–and probably carry them everywhere–makes the usual access dilemma a non-issue. Lessons about moment of inertia, angular momentum, and friction immediately come to mind, and there is lots of other ground that could be covered before spinning out of control. (LOL)

We are looking at developing cross-curricular lessons for fidget spinners, so if you are a teacher interested in that, drop us a line at newsroom@leedaily.com to show your support or to ask any questions you might have.

And now for an overly technical description of a fidget spinner. This part of the article was originally on the cutting room floor, as it were, but I reconsidered, thinking that some of you may actually get a kick out it. The following comes from a blend of my own nerdliness and my alter ego as a professional technical writer. You have been warned.

Fidget Spinners 101

For those select few out there who have yet to encounter a fidget spinner, here is a brief dossier. A spinner similar to the current fidget spinner was first invented in 1993 by a chemical engineer called Catherine Hettinger, who patented the device shortly thereafter. [1] Hasbro market tested the devices, and, after poor results, decided not to pursue production. [1] After not finding a niche, the patent expired, and only recently has a similar product found footing in the toy market, albeit under the dubious pretense that the spinning wonders can help with ADHD symptoms. [2]

There are many variants, but the most common fidget spinner is a small, three-lobed plastic device with a ball bearing assembly in the center, and up to three similar bearings embedded within each of the three lobes. The central bearing has two concave plastic disks fitted within it. These two disks have on their inner sides studs, which, when fastened together in the spinner’s center, form an axle that both supports the spinner and locks the inner race of the central bearing in place, allowing the spinner to freely revolve about the axle when held between the thumb and forefinger, or when the spinner is placed on a table or a balancing point, like a pencil.

In addition to the central bearing, the most common spinner designs have three additional bearings, one embedded within each of the three lobes. These “lobe bearings” add to the spinner’s overall mass so that spinning it will impart greater angular momentum than would otherwise be possible without them.

It is notable that each lobe bearing is functional and complete in its own right. As such, they would make handy attachment points for accessories that are, no doubt, already under development in fidgety labs spanning the globe.

Because of the mass of the four bearings and the relatively high density of the plastic, fidget spinners are somewhat denser than one might expect. In other words, fidget spinners seem to be “heavy for their size”. Common spinners have a mass of between 30 and 50 grams, but much more massive metal ones are also available.

Spinner quality is often judged by the length of time that the spinner will continue to spin once it is set going. A measure called the moment of inertia is largely responsible for the spin time. The mass of the bearings embedded within the spinner increases the spinner’s moment of inertia to help smooth out it’s rotation. The added mass also increases the spinner’s angular momentum—we will learn more about that in a minute.

Other important factors influencing the spinner’s period are (1) drag, (2) turbulence, (3) internal friction, (4) slop in the central bearing, and (5) the amount of torque applied when starting the spinner.

The spinner’s angular momentum causes a gyroscopic effect that the user can feel whenever they try to alter the gadget’s spin axis. Whenever you try to roll the device left or right while it is spinning, you will feel it push back, trying to return to its original spin axis. This phenomenon is conservation of angular momentum at work. This conservation means that the spinner wants to keep spinning in the same axis it started in, and so its momentum will push back on the user when they try to change that axis.

A cool trick to try and see if this is true is to get the spinner going and move it straight up and down, and then straight left to right without rotating it in your hands. Notice whether or not the spinner tries to push back. Then, do the same thing, but try to turn the spinner clockwise and then counterclockwise as it spins. How does the spinner feel? Teachers can try this simple experiment and have students record their process and findings.

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Spinners are everywhere!

There are many other exercises that teachers and parents can try with their kids. You can further the experiment above by including several different spinners with different shapes, sizes, and mass, and comparing their behaviors. Record and compare things like spin time, how much they push back, how noisy they are, and any other behaviors you notice. Challenge the kids to come up with their own experiments. We have included a few links at the end of this story to help inspire you.

Think of ways to use fidget spinners outside of science class, too. We challenge you to come up with novel uses for spinners in teaching art, language, math, and social science. Let us know about your ideas on Facebook, or shoot an email to newsroom@leedaily.com.

As silly as some folks may think they are, and as distracting as they can certainly be in a classroom setting, fidget spinners nonetheless present many teachable moments. From a constructive point of view, they represent a veritable treasure trove of important concepts that, when skillfully explained, can stick with students for a lifetime. How better to deepen the bond between teacher and student, parent and child, than to show them why science and math really matter in the real world, and to do so using a trinket that they already love and most likely have in their pocket right now.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Fidget Spinner STEM Challenge Cards {FREE} – Preschool Powol Packets
http://preschoolpowolpackets.blogspot.com/2017/05/fidget-spinner-stem-challenge-cards-free.html

Nerdist.com – Physics Explains Why Fidget Spinners Are So Fun
http://nerdist.com/physics-figdet-spinner-toy-science/

“Physics of Fidget Spinners”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k2UB2bNJW8

“LEGO Spinner Fidget Toy Tutorial! How to Make 5 Different Hand Spinners!”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkRBEAwb-1M

“LEGO Fidget Spinner” – LEGO Ideas
https://ideas.lego.com/projects/9ce9a43a-6d5e-4ad5-b58a-fcc89d187fbc

Fidget Spinners in the Classroom STEM Project – Erintegration
http://www.erintegration.com/2017/04/25/fidget-spinners-in-the-classroom-stem-project/

REFERENCES:

1.  Luscombe, Richard; “As fidget spinner craze goes global, its inventor struggles to make ends meet”. The Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/03/fidget-spinner-inventor-patent-catherine-hettinger&gt; 5 May 2017. Accessed 30 May 2017.

2.  Davis, Wynne; “Whirring, Purring Fidget Spinners Provide Entertainment, Not ADHD Help”; NPR News Around the Nation. <http://www.npr.org/2017/05/14/527988954/whirring-purring-fidget-spinners-provide-entertainment-not-adhd-help&gt; 14 May 2017. Accessed 30 May 2017.

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