Tag Archives: science education

Science: More Electricity

Hey, I finally updated the list of posts on the science page which is on bar above.  In case anyone was curious.

We spent a second week exploring electricity, though without the same depth as the first go around.  For this week, we looked at more complicated circuits.  We started by just looking at the light switches and I showed them the electrical box in the basement, which was more exciting than I would have imagined.  Then, we dove into real experiments, drawing again on the book Power Up that we used the week before.

We started with lots of extra “wires.”  Just like last week, these were just strips of foil lined with tape and folded over.  I put down a line on each end of the table in tape.  On one side, I put the battery and on the other, I put the little 2.4 volt bulb.  I told them to make the bulb light without letting the bulb or the battery cross the lines.  There was just enough foil wire to make it work and they got there after some experimenting.

Next, I left the bulb and the battery, but I took away more than half the wire and told them they had to do it again.  This time, they could go find anything they wanted in the house to get it to work, except more foil wire.  They had to get really creative.  They also had to remember how to test and see if something is a conductor or insulator.

They had to get pretty creative to make it work.  They started with little chains of paper clips and then moved to scissors and finally raided the kitchen for giant spatulas and the like.  I had to show them to some tape to hold their crazy circuit together and we talked a little about insulation around wires.

After they had gotten it to light, we talked a little about how electricity is usually generated.  The Magic School Bus book about this topic was especially useful because it covers generators.  Then, we undertook a complicated project: building a tiny generator.  You can see the plans for this project here.  Essentially you use wire and wrap it around a big magnet, then spin it and make a teeny-tiny bulb light up.  I cut the cardboard and did more than one Radio Shack trip to get the materials (which weren’t that expensive).  Below, you can see them winding the wire.

Well, cut to the chase.  We couldn’t make it work.  Grrr!  And then I was called out of town so I couldn’t really fiddle with it myself over the next few days to make it go either and I haven’t gotten back to it.  I feel like it was a really worthwhile thing to try and the kids were really into it.  It just didn’t work for us.  I’ll let you all know if we update it what the trick was.  I felt like I had followed the directions pretty well.  I guess if we’re ever stranded without electricity in some post-apocalyptic world, then I will not be the person building the generator.

Science: Me and My Shadow

Really, we had so much fun with shadows that I thought it deserved its very own science post.  It’s just one topic in the heading of “light” but it was one which turned out to have lots of fun applications.  We mixed most of this in with light, but I think shadows get to be the introduction to light because they’re such an easy way in.  So more on light next week, but first, Shadows!

There are two unexpected children’s books that we read which I simply adored.  The first was photographer Tana Hoban’s Shadows and Reflections.  I’ve long been an admirer of Hoban’s children’s books, which are mostly wordless collections of her photography along a theme (her book More, Fewer, Less is probably my very favorite preschool math picture book, which is really saying something).  This book is exactly what it sounds like, but the conversation it can inspire, about what reflects and what distorts, about where the light comes from, about the relative size of things, and so forth, is just great for this unit.  There is another book which is similar to this called Guess Whose Shadow by Stephen Swinburne, which also uses photos to show the interaction between objects and shadows.  The second book is a wordless fiction picture book called simply Shadow by Suzy Lee, who also created the amazing book Wave.  This whimsical book uses shadows to reflect a young girl’s imagination, changing them and eventually letting them interact with reality.  It’s not science at all, but it was such a perfect fiction go along that I had to mention it.

For other books, Let’s Read and Find Out has a nice, simple title called What Makes a Shadow, which actually has surprising depth for a level one book in this series.  But even better was the book Me and My Shadow by Arthur Dorros.  This book was very much like the Let’s Read and Find Out title but with a lot more detail.  It tied shadows into the broader topic of light much better, especially by highlighting how the earth is in a shadow every night and how when we watch the moon wax and wane, we’re watching a shadow.

Finally, there’s a Boston Children’s Museum Activity book about Shadows called Shadow Play.  I adore this series, but we didn’t end up doing much from this book this time around, but I had it out from the library and I was appreciating it so I thought it was worth the mention.

For activities, again this week, I give most of the credit to my awesome friend who took over science activities while I was swamped with other stuff.  Also, again, I have a lack of cool pictures in part because I was tending a tiny baby and in part because I’ve gone through two phones in the last month and lost most of the pictures I took as a result.  The first and last thing the kids did that afternoon was to measure their shadows outside by each standing on one rock then placing another rock at the tip of the shadow.  Later on, they went back up there and measured again.  They could see that their shadows had lengthened over the course of a couple of hours.  And while it may sound trivial to us, it was pretty exciting to them.

In fact, while all our science topics have carried over into daily life, where we can talk about things like energy transfer and wave motion, this topic carried over especially well.  The kids played with their shadows and noticed their shadows all week.  Later in the week, they roped their friends into a game of “shadow tag.”  They were also so fascinated by the shadows created by the theater lights when we set up the stage for The Tempest that I really recommend getting several bright lights in a room (such as those traditional desk spotlights) and playing with them to create multiple shadows.  That allowed us to talk about umbra and penumbra, the two different shadows that are created when a light shines on an object.

The other big science activity we did with shadows was to make shadow pictures using sunprint paper.  There are other brands, but I stole the image here from the brand we used, which was Sunprint.  The kids gathered items from outdoors and arranged them artfully on the blue paper then allowed the sun to make a shadow.  When you rinse the paper in water it will reverse the colors, which is fascinating to watch.

Finally, if it’s not obvious, the best way to explore shadows is with a shadow puppet show.  Take that desk light and shine it onto a sheet suspended in a doorway and let the kids cut out shapes to make shadows for shadow puppets.  Or just use their hands to make more traditional shadow puppets with the shapes of their fingers.  Mushroom and BalletBoy have been at that for the last couple of weeks with a new excitement, thinking about shadows.

Science: Music

Music is a science topic?  Why yes it is!  Understanding music is part of sound, right?

Of course, this one should start with the videos.  And the very best video for music would be Disney’s classic film about music, Fantasia.

I’m a bit surprised that was on Youtube, to be honest.  We own the movie and especially liked the beginning where they introduce the instruments.  Of course, for a more scientific look at music, Bill Nye also has an episode about music.  And it contains the very best (and that’s really saying something!) Bill Nye music video of the entire 100 episode run of the show.  Watch as Bill takes on Rocky Horror:

Of course, there are books too!  We found a lot of them about instruments, the history of music, specific genres of music and more.  There were several older treasures at our library, including a lovely remnant of the 1950’s with old cut outs…  But I digress.  My top picks were probably the widely available Meet the Orchestra by Ann Hayes and the lesser known The Magic of Music by Lisl Weil.  Many of the sound experiment books geared toward younger kids are heavy on the music experiments.  We especially liked Neil Ardley’s The Science Book of Sound for ideas.

On to the activities!  The kids, aided by friend the science teacher extraordinaire, did a bunch of things with just playing around with sounds by using all the various sound makers on hand.  They had fun just making a racket, but also discovering ways to change the sound by using an instrument in a different way and by exploring all the various options.  They played with a bunch of different instruments, such as a basic xylophone as well as these cool contraptions called “percussion tubes,” that showed how the size of the percussion instrument has a big effect on the pitch.

As the kids talked about different kinds of musical instruments, they got to see the real thing.  Obviously, children’s musical toys tend toward the percussion end, but my friend produced a guitar for them to try as well as a real trumpet.  Getting everyone to make a proper sound on the trumpet was a challenge and BalletBoy needed several goes before he got anything other than spit everywhere.  This was all very much like the symphony’s petting orchestra which often makes appearances at various local arts events.  I think it seems very obvious that you strum or pluck a guitar, but actually getting to try and see that if you hold the string down it changes the pitch is something else.  And there’s nothing like trying to play a brass or woodwind instrument.  The term “blow” just doesn’t really tell you anything until you try it.

Finally, the kids had a chance to make their own musical instruments by putting rubber bands on tissue boxes (the best part was discovering that to make it twang, it needed a bridge).  They also made cool like percussion shakers by stringing together lots of bottlecaps.  Ah, bottlecaps.

Apologies again for the lack of art in these science posts.  We’ll get back on track with a few more pictures in a couple of weeks.

Science: Sound

Sorry I didn’t get around to writing up science last week.  The reason was that I spent most of the time (or, at least, it felt like I spent most of the time) yelling at the kids, and not because the topic was sound and I wanted to teach them about raising your decibels.  The afternoon after science, it felt like it had been a colossal failure and my throat was a bit hoarse.

Well, turns out I was sick, or rather, pre-sick.  A couple of days later, the flu hit me like a ton of bricks, as they say.  Later on, I made a small list of all the stuff we had actually done that day and realized it hadn’t been a colossal failure.  It wasn’t a perfect science day, but it wasn’t too bad either.  Still, in the intervening time, my partner in science (the mother of the other two lads who take their science lessons with us), and I had a little talk, so next week we’re shaking some things up.  More on that next week, I hope.

But first let’s start off with some resources about sound.  All our favorites have good stuff about the topic of sound.  The Let’s Read and Find Out title, Sounds All Around by Wendy Pfeffer is perfectly fine.  “The Magic School Bus Inside the Haunted House” is also a good introduction to the topic.  Of course, the Bill Nye episode “Sound” didn’t let us down.  For additional videos, we found a couple of good options.  I especially liked this very old classic filmstrip video about sound, though it’s a bit on the long side.  The kids really liked this cartoon, which is incredibly short (you can find a link to the second part afterward though).  We also enjoyed this segment from NASA Connect, which has several short videos like it on various topics.

There are more experiments for kids with sound than you can imagine.  We had five books of just experiments out from the library, not to mention all the various experiments I found on the internet.  Sound is obviously a topic that can be easily explored in multiple ways by kids.  It can’t all fit into one day of experiments.  I tried to organize some of my thinking about ways to begin to explore sound.

The first concept to explore was that sound is a wave or a vibration.  We began by putting out hands to our throats and feeling that vibration.  The kids made different noises.  I had them slide their voices and they made their own noises and described what they felt.  Next, we tapped and banged various drums with paperclips on them to see how the vibrations on top of the drum can move something with very little mass like a paperclip, even when it seems like there’s no movement.  We plucked various rubber bands as well and watched them vibrate.  Finally, I had the kids make paper bangers.  You can find instructions for how to do it here.  I thought this was brilliant.  The origami was pretty simple, but the kids struggled to make theirs bang.  I could do it easily, but they had trouble flicking them just right.  Supposedly, these are much easier with newsprint, so I recommend doing it with the largest, lightest paper you can find.

For the final experiment with sound vibrations, we made a small sound cannon.  We used a coffee can and punched out a hold the size of a tennis ball in the metal bottom.  You can find alternate directions here if you don’t have a coffee can.  We hung small strips of tissue paper from the mantle and took turns firing our cannon to see from how far away we could make the tissue sway.  You can see BalletBoy trying it below.

The next idea, I wanted to explore was how sound waves can bounce.  We made megaphones from stiff cardboard and played around with those for awhile.  Then the kids went around trying to make their sounds bounce even more by speaking them against different surfaces, such as walls, glass, wood, and metal.  We talked about how these are echoes.

I wanted to follow up on that concept and explore how different materials conduct sound waves differently, but this was the point at which the afternoon seemed to be falling apart, so we didn’t really get there.  Instead, I decided to finish up with what I hoped would be the two most exciting activities.  First, we made a real, honest to goodness tin can phone.  It worked quite well – so well that I jumped back a little when I first heard BalletBoy’s voice through it.  We used nice kite string, which I suspect was an important component.  If you know nothing about tin can phones, here’s a simple set of instructions.

Finally, we did a version of this experiment, where you try to demonstrate that light (what we see) moves faster than sound (what we hear).  Mushroom stood more than halfway down the block with a balloon full of flour.  It decidedly did not work.  We saw the flour explode and heard the pop of the balloon nearly simultaneously.  I’m still working out how to counter the misconception that arose from that.


Science Week 13: Engines and Cars

On the one hand, I didn’t want to skip engines.  On the other hand, there was less in the way of actual experiments to do for this particular topic.  There’s just not so much you can get first graders to do with engines and cars.  Also, apologies for the lack of pictures this week.

Most disappointingly, all our usual resources failed us on this topic.  There’s no Bill Nye, Magic School Bus or Let’s Read and Find Out title about engines.  Since engines are such an omnipresent fact of life in our world, I found this a little surprising.  The best book I found on the topic was the book Car Science by Richard Hammond.  Much of the information was above the kids’ level, but glossy pictures always helps.  We also enjoyed a simple easy reader called Cars by Nancy Smiler Levinson, which told a brief history of the automobile.

Luckily, the online video resources for this topic were much more plentiful.  We found a whole bunch of great options.  The best video was probably the one from How Stuff Works that I’m embedding below, which used the simplicity of a potato canon to introduce engines.  Potato canons are apparently very funny to children, so this video went over very well.

We also enjoyed the video from Newton’s Apple, which is here.  You can also find some other good resources and activities there.  This video about the history of the automobile was also a good summary.  Finally, we enjoyed this demo of an old Watt Steam Engine.

We began by talking about what an engine is and what combustion is and writing down the definitions in our notebooks.  We brainstormed all the different types of fuel we could think of and I reminded the kids what we had learned about energy earlier in the year.  I was thrilled that they remembered that the energy in coal or wood originally came from the sun because they were originally plants making their own food.  Kudos to the kids for understanding energy chains.  To demonstrate fuels, I set a whole bunch of things we had around the house on fire.  We burned a candle, a small oil lamp, some paper, some wood, and I also demonstrated a lighter for them.  BalletBoy, who has apparently developed a recent phobia that I’m going to burn down the house, ran to take refuge in the kitchen.

I started the stove and we talked about natural gas a little bit.  We boiled a pot of water with the lid on and watched the steam escape from the pot and rattle the lid.  This worked pretty well to get across the idea that burning a fuel can start a chain that leads to movement.

Next, we talked about engines in our world and the kids cut out pictures of things that run on engines from magazines for their notebooks.  BalletBoy found a cool picture of a giant digging machine that makes tunnels in an old National Geographic. We talked a little about why engines are hurting our environment.  Finally, we went out and looked at the car and checked out what it looks like under the hood.

However, the most exciting part of the day was when we pulled out the Putt Putt Boats.  If you’ve seen the wonderful movie Ponyo then you’ll know what these are.  They’re tiny steam engines.  The boat sucks in the water, heats it with a tiny oil lamp or candle and then propels itself forward.  Despite the frigid weather, we set up a kiddie pool at our friends’ house and sailed the tiny boats.  As they go, they go putt-putt-putt-putt-putt, which is how they got their name.  The cold made it a short demo, but I’d like to take these out in the spring again and get them going on some real water, maybe in Rock Creek.  If you’re interested in learning more about Putt Putt Boats or buying one, you can find information here.

Science Review and The Box of Science

We absolutely did science this week, but I’m swamped with Tempest rehearsal stuff and life in general, so I thought I’d do a couple of other things instead of posting about our week.

First of all, this lesson wraps up the first section we covered in our spine The Usborne Science Encyclopedia.  This unit took up half the year and covered the section called “Energy, Forces and Motion.”  In case you’re interested, here’s the links below to all the sections and how we covered them:

Energy Parts 1 and 2
Heat Parts 1 and 2
Forces and Motion Parts 1 and 2
Simple Machines
Sinking and Floating

Engines (to be posted next week!)

Looking back, I feel pretty good about how we covered these topics.  Obviously, there are things I see that we could have done better (things other than just me realizing that I accidentally misnumbered the science weeks…  oopsie).  But overall, it’s good.  Coming up next is our second half of the year unit: “Light, Sound and Electricity.”

And just so you don’t feel like this post was all links to other posts (don’t you hate that?) I thought I would share a little about our science organization.  At the start of the year, I looked at a lot of the experiments I wanted to do with these topics and began gathering the materials we would need into a single box so that I wouldn’t need to think about things like, “Hey, do we have any ping pong balls?” every week.  I couldn’t keep absolutely everything on hand, but I’m so glad I did this.  And having see how many of these common household items are used over and over again in experiments, such as the ones in the Janice VanCleave books, I want to keep up our Box of Science so that it can continue to be a one stop spot for experiments.  I had a few things in there that were specific to our units, such as the wacky whirlers I mentioned last week and the putt putt boats that I’ll tell you all about next week.  However, the vast majority of stuff was just common items that I might have forgotten to have around if not for two elementary school science students.

Here’s what we’ve got:

  • balloons (regular and water balloon size)
  • rubber bands
  • magnets
  • one large pickle jar and one small baby food jar
  • straws
  • marbles
  • ping pong balls
  • beach ball
  • magnifying glasses
  • string
  • modeling clay
  • two liter plastic bottle
  • paper clips
  • duck tape and Scotch tape
  • scraps of cardboard
  • tin foil
  • baking soda
  • vinegar

Wow.  The Box of Science is a bit of a mess now that the unit is over.  Must refresh and get it ready for our next unit.

Science Week 10 and 11: Floating and Sinking and Flying

I got seriously behind on science, in case you didn’t realize so prepare yourself for a mega-sized Science Friday post.  We do our science afternoon once a week with another family and the holidays as well as a million other things conspired to make us miss it for a long time.  The kids and I kept watching videos, reading books and exploring science informally, not to mention with one of our co-op groups, which has been pretty science focused, but it’s nice to get back to a proper sequence.

First up, our last class before the holidays was about floating and sinking.  As I somehow put off posting about it for so long, I don’t have much to say.  The Bill Nye the Science Guy episode about buoyancy is a pretty good one.  There’s a clip here.  There’s also a Magic School Bus episode about floating and sinking which isn’t bad.  We took out a number of books about ships, but none were especial standouts.  We happen to own the book shown here, which is a fun pop up book about ships that the kids especially enjoyed.  It’s nothing deep, but there wasn’t anything especially insightful at the library on ships either.

Floating and sinking meant a bunch of of activities trying to float and sink various items in a big tub of water.  I was pleased by how focused on scientific discovery we were that week.  Both our activities allowed the kids to test and discover.  First, we played an extended game of “Will It Float?”  The kids ran all over the house and picked out items to test.  They had to find two things they predicted would float and two things they predicted would not.  Second, I gave each of the kids a lump of modeling clay and challenged them to make it float.  This is a pretty classic experiment.  As a ball, the clay sinks, but if you mold it just right into a boat or bowl shape, then it will float easily.  You can see them working on it below.  To finish us off, I did this experiment where you float and then sink an orange by peeling it.  The discussion about why this works was a good one.

This week, we picked up again with the topic of flying.  This was an excellent one with lots of good book and video resources.  I probably won’t even begin to list all the excellent possible places you can look to learn about airplanes and flight, but I’ll try to give a sample.

First up, the Let’s Read and Find Out book How People Learned to Fly by Fran Hodgkins was excellent.  It was part history lesson and part aerodynamics.  We had a number of other books about airplanes, but we especially enjoyed The Airplane Book by Cheryl Walsh Bellville.  It was a little older so the “new” planes it talked about weren’t that new, but this book gave a succinct history of flight with photographs and explanations of the technological innovations through the history of flight.  It explained not only how older planes like the Wright Brothers’ flyer worked but also how jets and newer planes are different.  Plus, for any kids out there who are focused on specific models (that’s not Mushroom and BalletBoy, who couldn’t care less), this book gave a lot of specifics about different airplanes.

For videos, both The Magic School Bus episode about flight and the Bill Nye the Science Guy were excellent.  While the highlight of the Bill Nye episode for me personally is probably that the video parody is “Smells like Air Pressure” (no, really, it’s hilarious!), as always Bill summarizes the main points really well in this one.  We also found some great quickie Youtube videos, such as this one about how airplanes fly.  However, the best loved video for the kids was probably this one that I’m embedding below, which showed early, failed flight attempts then ended with footage of the Wright Brothers’ flyer at work.  It was funny, but we also talked a little about why these ideas didn’t work and why people initially thought they would.

Many of our activities were inspired by the Magic School Bus science kit Soaring Into Flight which we owned and did well over a year ago when it was fun, but difficult for Mushroom and BalletBoy to understand the concepts behind.  I kept the experiment booklet and drew from it for these activities.

We began, as we usually do, with our science journals.  The kids drew images of things that fly and showed them off to each other.  They also put down that air pressure is what allows airplanes to fly.  Then we highlighted four forces at work when an airplane flies: lift, thrust, drag and gravity.

Since air pressure isn’t something we can see, we explored it in a couple of ways.  First, we drank from juice boxes and explored how we could effect the air pressure in the juice box.  Next, using two ping pong balls attached to the table with string, we explored how blowing between the balls creates a low pressure area since fast moving air has lower pressure.  The balls move together if you blow exactly between them.  Even with a straw, BalletBoy had trouble aiming his air, as you can see below.

Next up, we explored drag with some classic parachute drops.  The kids each picked a different toy and we dropped all of them from the top of a tall step stool.  The Lego minifig worked much better than the stuffed animal Mushroom chose, by the way, so we talked a little about why that was.

For the next activities, we explored thrust.  First, we had a paper airplane contest.  The kids chose different models or made their own and we tested them to see which plane went the farthest.  We also went back to basics and talked a little about energy transfer and how these planes got their energy from us throwing them.  Then, we did an experiment that we did when we were exploring forces.  I strung up a long string with a straw on it through the house.  Then I blew up a balloon and we taped it to the straw and let the force of the air propel it forward.  The picture isn’t that great, but you can see the kids are trying to race the balloon through the dining room to the living room.  They wanted to do this activity half a dozen times, if I recall.

Our final experiments dealt with lift.  I gave each kid what I consider to be one of the best 75 cent toys money can buy: the wacky whirler.  I put a picture of it at the left so you can see it clearly.  You just twist, let go, and up it flies.   The kids played with them for about an hour outside.  Thank goodness it was a warmish day for January.  Below, you can see Mushroom watching his intensively, perhaps in the hope that it not get stuck in the neighbor’s yard and have to be retrieved by climbing over the fence like BalletBoy’s did!  (Shh…  no one tell the neighbors!)

The Wright BrothersYou might think that was it, but we had the pleasure of going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum the following day, where we checked out the Wright Brothers’ exhibit as well as many of the old planes we had read about in the books.  Then, we saw a Discovery Theater puppet show about the life of the Wright Brothers.  It was a musical where they made the kids get up and dance.  Usually, that’s not my kind of thing, but this was extra well done.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a performance and museum dovetail this nicely with a lesson, so I felt like this made for an auspicious start back for science.