What do coins, a Wii remote, or card games have to do with science? More than you might think.

Scientific instruments are devices specifically designed to measure the subject of your research reliably and accurately. In many cases this includes specialized equipment like beakers, lasers, scales, and microscopes. Sometimes, depending on what you are trying to measure, your perfect instrument might be a deck of cards.

Though it may be surprising, scientists often depend on materials that you would be able to find around your house to conduct important research.

A team of scientists at the University of California were studying ways that we can improve the reasoning and decision-making parts of our brains, and they were able to learn a lot without the use of sophisticated equipment. The researchers asked kids to play games like those below that required them to use their reasoning skills (like Set) or abilities to make decisions quickly (like Blink).


Two types of reasoning games used in by researchers (Source: doi: 10.3389/frym.2014.00005)


The researchers found that the kids who played the reasoning games improved their performance on reasoning tests and the kids whose games required quick decision-making improved their speed. Using nothing more than games and a test, the researchers were able to measure which games developed which skills in the people who played them. Based on these findings, the researchers were able to ask even bigger questions about how practice at reasoning tasks can actually change your brain.

The first questions, however, came down to a game of cards.

Another group of researchers were studying the ability of humans to move to the beat of a rhythm. They needed a way to track the movement of a set of people and compare it to the beat of various types of music. In particular, they wanted to record the movement of one individual who could not track the beat and compare it to the movement of many others. Their perfect instrument turned out to be the remote control for a Nintendo Wii. The same accelerometer that allows you to play virtual baseball or swing a virtual sword allowed the researchers to study the movement of the test subjects and store the information for a more detailed analysis.


Using Wii remote to measure movement in research study about human ability to move to a rhythm (source: doi: 10.3389/frym.2014.00011)


When trying to understand how well people are able to understand probability – the likelihood that a particular event will occur – scientists from Princeton used the results of a coin toss. Test subjects were asked whether a given sequence of heads and tails was any more likely than any other sequence. Using colored chips, this research was taken even further to compare people with and without a formal math education. With these simple instruments, the researchers were able to conduct the same study with adults in Italy and indigenous populations in Guatemala.

What questions can you ask at home?
Remember that asking scientific questions does not necessarily require the most high-tech instruments, just the right instruments for the questions being asked. With just a ruler, eyedropper, and a few plants you could measure the effects of watering on plant growth. Compete with your family to see how playing certain strategy games can influence your ability with other games. Try changing the ingredients slightly on a simple recipe to see the impact of changes in salt, sugar, flour, or baking soda. Figure out the limitations on the remote control for your television – obstacles, reflections, distance – and see whether these can be overcome.

Your house is probably filled with light sensors, thermometers, dice, rulers, rubber bands, cell phones, remote controls, and other materials that just take you through your daily life. Just like a scientist, make sure you figure out what you are trying to study first. Then, think about the ways that you can measure, track, and compare your results to come up with new questions and hopefully some interesting answers.

Also, remember to ask your parents first.


Niebaum J and Bunge S (2014) Your brain is like a muscle: use it and make it strong. Front. Young Minds. 2:5. doi: 10.3389/frym.2014.00005

Phillips-Silver J (2014) So you think you can’t dance? (The mysterious case of the guy with two left feet). Front. Young Minds. 2:11. doi: 10.3389/frym.2014.00011

Fontanari, L., Gonzalez, M., Vallortigara, G. & Girotto, (2014) V. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1410583111

Callaway, E (2014) Humans have innate grasp of probability. Nature News doi: 10.1038/nature.2014.16271