Ahoy there, matey, it’s pirate science!

By Deborah Lee Rose

Does your crew love to talk like pirates, dress like pirates, and read or watch swashbuckling pirate adventures? Then weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen—it’s time for pirate science! These STEM activities investigate how pirates and sailors found their way across vast oceans without GPS, sailed through hurricanes without radar, packed food for long voyages without refrigerators, got clean water to drink without cases of bottled water, and unearthed buried treasure without high-tech equipment to “see” underground. Add an eye-patch to your activity materials, give a hearty “Aaaarrrrrgggggghhhhh,” and you’re ready!

Right Eye/Left Eye: Land ahoy! Pirates and sailors spied land through a handheld telescope for one eye. Which of your eyes do you use, and why, when you look through a tube to sight an object?

Boat Building: How did huge pirate ships stay afloat? Discover buoyancy, Archimedes’ Principle, and how to build a boat that will float.

Maritime Munchies: “Hardtack” and “swanky” were foods that could last for a long voyage. Cook some up and compare them to what you eat today.

Testing Vitamin C: If pirates and sailors didn’t get enough Vitamin C, they developed a disease called scurvy. Use chemistry to determine which of two orange juice drinks (natural and artificial) has more Vitamin C.

Out to Sea with Zheng He: How did pirates and sailors find their way, far from land? Examine a map based on a real 15th-century explorer’s voyages, and make a simple compass.

Stargazing: Pirates and sailors navigated at night by watching the sky. Keep a night sky record by drawing constellations and the Moon, and noting weather conditions.

How Much Water Is in that Cloud?: Pirates and sailors got fresh drinking water when it rained. How much water is in a cloud?

Why Do Hurricanes Go Counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere?: Play a game with a ball to demonstrate the Coriolis force, to understand what pirates and sailors knew about hurricanes and typhoons.

Captain Cartography: How did pirates find their buried treasure? Make a map of an important part of your world.

Mint Your Own Coin: Pirates stashed away coins etched with the faces of kings and queens. Create your own coin that shows something special about you.

Fair Shares: How did pirates divide their “pieces of eight” into equal shares? named one of the Top 100 Education Websites of 2014! Our free-access collection includes STEM activities from leading science centers, universities, scientific organizations and science agencies across the United States and in other countries. For STEM learning on the go, download the free iPhone app from iTunes or the App store. Share with your family and friends via email and Twitter. This is one “pirate” treasure that shouldn’t be hidden!


Based at UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, is funded by the National Science Foundation with additional support from Oracle and the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

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