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The Scientific Method & Carnival Games



People have questions everyday about how or why things work the way they do. Scientists or others using the scientific method have a special way of answering questions. Instead of just guessing at how something works, the scientific method uses certain steps to answer a question or gain understanding. We can use the scientific method (also called scientific thinking), too, to help us solve problems and answer questions.

In this article, we will apply the scientific method to determine how to approach a carnival game at our favorite county fair.

The Milk Bottle Toss:

If you have ever been to a carnival or county fair, you may have seen the milk bottle toss. The game may have other names, but it usually involves trying to use two or three heavy balls to knock down metal bottles that are stacked in a pyramid.

Our Carnival Game Problem

The carnival is coming to town and we want to win the largest prize in the milk bottle toss game. Because we only have a limited amount of money to win the prize, we need to be as efficient as possible to win.

Step 1, Scientific Method: Formulating a Question

Applying science begins with one simple thing, a question. When we create a question, we can reference an observation we have made. For example, how can I knock over the milk bottles at the carnival? When applying the scientific method, determining a good question can be difficult and affects the outcome of the process. In this case, we can formulate our question based on what we want to know.

Our Question

What is the best way to win at the milk toss game? Winning is defined as knocking down all three bottles.

Step 2, Scientific Method: Do Some Background Research

This step involves looking up and evaluating previous research from others. We also take time to consider our own experiences. If the answer to our question is already known, we can formulate a different question that expands on the first question. In this case, we can check the rules of the carnival to help us understand the challenge we will be facing.

Our Research

Milk bottle toss: The player tosses or throws balls at simulated milk bottles that have been stacked on a raised platform by the game’s operator. The player wins by either tipping over or knocking the bottles off the platform. The bottles may be constructed of wood, metal, or plastic or a combination of the three. Operators may vary the number of bottles and balls used in each game. Floating or loose weights in bottles are not allowed. The weight of individual bottles may not exceed 7 1/2 pounds.

Step 3, Scientific Method: Build a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an educated guess that is based on the knowledge gained while formulating the question. Some hypotheses are very specific, while others can be very broad. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment. So we want to construct our hypothesis in a way that we can determine if it is true or false; otherwise, it cannot be accurately tested. We can test as many or as few hypotheses as we’d like.

Our Hypothesis:

There is an optimum location to hit the stack of bottles with the ball in order to knock the bottles down.

Use Predictions to Help You Design your Experiment

This step involves determining the consequences of the hypothesis. Use one or more predictions to further testing.

  • Prediction #1: The best place to strike the bottles is the bottom of the pyramid to knock all the bottles down.
  • Prediction #2: The best place to strike the bottles is the top of the pyramid to knock all the bottles down.
  • Prediction #3: The best place to strike the bottles is the middle of the pyramid to knock all the bottles down.

Step 4: Test Your Hypothesis with an Experiment

The purpose of an experiment is to determine whether observations of the real world agree with or disagree with the predictions based on the hypothesis. If the observations agree, confidence in the hypothesis increases; otherwise, it decreases. Even if our experiment provides a result, it does not ensure that the hypothesis is true; future experiments may identify problems.

Our Experiment

By throwing a ball 100 times at our pyramid of bottles and recording where the ball struck when it knocked down all the bottles, we can begin to determine the most effective place to hit the bottles. If the ball failed to knock down all three bottles, the result was disqualified. We must be careful to design the experiment in such a way as to minimize the amount of error present in the data. In our case, the error could be in the form of the person throwing the ball. It could also be related to the distance and speed with which the ball travels.

Step 5, Scientific Method: Analyze Your Data

This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding our next actions. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to determine which prediction better explains the data.

Our Results

After conducting the test we determined that balls that stuck the pyramid of bottles near the bottom and at the center, are more likely to knock all the bottles down.

Step 6, Scientific Method: Conclusion

The conclusion is formed following a review of the data obtained from the experiment to see if the hypothesis is correct. There are generally two outcomes for each experiment. We may accept the hypothesis, or we may reject the hypothesis. Rejection of the hypothesis may not indicate that the hypothesis was bad, instead that the particular experiment was not adequate. A well formulated hypothesis will lead to a well-defined experiment, and a sound conclusion.

Our Conclusion

We accept our hypothesis that there is an optimum location to strike the bottles. This helps us answer our question. The best way to win the milk toss game is to strike the bottles in a certain location. However, we only investigated one variable. We might want to redesign the experiment to look at other possible variables within our system, which could impact our conclusion. For example, a good follow-on experiment might be seeing how hard we should throw the ball. We might also want to use a launcher to take away the variability of the thrower. We could define set criteria for when, where, and how to conduct the experiment.

Sucker Games

Our experiment helps us to understand that in a fair game of milk bottle toss, the best way to succeed is to strike the bottles near the bottom, in the center. However as many people have learned over time, carnival games are not always fair games. Some of the common ways games are made unfair are detailed below.

Balloon Dart Throw:

This game seems really easy: Throw a dart at a balloon, pop the balloon, and win a prize. Often though, the balloons are underinflated which deflects the darts. The darts may be lighter than standard darts and have their tips dulled or broken off. In looking at the board, there appears to be a lot of options for successfully hitting the balloons and popping them; however, this is a bit of an illusion. If we look closely, with the balloon moving around, which they naturally do, especially outdoors, the physical area where a player must strike a balloon is relatively small. This adds to the difficulty of the game.

Basketball Shoot:

This game looks like the classic basketball game. However, in most cases it is nothing like the classic game. Carnival hoops can be positioned higher than regulation and further away to make it more difficult to make a basket. Carnival basketball rims may also be smaller than normal or oval-shaped instead of round. The balls may be overinflated to make them overly bouncy. All of these factors influence how likely a person is succeed at this game.

The Ring Toss:

This game seems easy enough, especially when there are so many bottles to hit. A player tosses plastic rings toward upright bottles positioned in a large group. But, like the balloon game, this is a bit of an illusion. The rings are made of hard plastic, and they are just slightly wider than the neck of the bottle. This means that the target area for success is very small. To add to the difficulty of the game, the hard plastic material makes the rings bounce.


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