Tag Archives: science friday

Can This Really Be True?

The other day, while we were listening to Science Friday, someone cited a statistic that kids only spend an average of 6 minutes a day outside.  I went, whaaaa?  And BalletBoy actually laughed.  He said, probably about four times, because the more he thought about it, the crazier it seemed, that can’t be right.  It can’t be right.  It can’t be.  Six minutes?  Really?

Well, since BalletBoy’s (and my!) statistics suspicion was raised, I went to look it up and found a couple of studies.  In this one from 2003, the average time on “outdoor activities” was 50 minutes a week, so that’s a similar statistic.  But this one from 2009 found that the majority of kids spend a lot more time outside than that.  More than three fourths of the kids on that survey spent two hours or more outside on most weekend days and more than half spent two hours or more on most weekdays.

I'm always grateful for Rock Creek Park.  It's a wonderful oasis of nature in the middle of our fair city.
I’m always grateful for Rock Creek Park. It’s a wonderful oasis of nature in the middle of our fair city.

As I read more, I saw that some of the studies that counted such a low level of outdoor activity were only counting some number of designated outdoor activities.  So, presumably, running around in circles in the backyard wouldn’t count as an outdoor activity, and nor would collecting rocks by the river, playing pretend in a field, or chasing each other around a friend’s house with Nerf swords.  If your kids are like mine, those alone would knock out hours of weekly outside time from consideration.  This reminds me a little bit of the reading study from a few years ago that decried how little people read these days.  But then it turned out that newspapers, magazines, and even nonfiction books, regardless of literary quality or purpose of reading, weren’t considered in the survey.  Only fiction was considered.  This is not to say that reading or outside time aren’t declining, just that it’s not quite as dire as all that.

Looking up things like this is interesting.  BalletBoy looked very pleased that he was right that the statistic was suspicious.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted it to be true or not.  On the one hand, how depressing to think that only an average of six minutes is spent outside most days for children!  Assuming that time to transfer from place to place wasn’t counted (how could it have been with a number like that?) it would imply that the majority of kids have no recess, don’t play outdoor sports, don’t go into nature, and don’t ever play on playgrounds.  On the other hand, sometimes I worry that the kids and I don’t spend enough time outside and that would have certainly skewed my view of things in our favor.


Hey, you guys!  Science is back!  We did a bit of science over the summer, mostly reading books, being out in nature, and letting the everyday be our guide.  We had an especially excellent trip to Fernbank Natural History Museum in Atlanta where we saw a dinosaur so big that it could totally have stomped any of the dinos in the Smithsonian.  But now it’s time to turn our minds to a more organized approach, so here we go.  In case you’re curious, this year will be mostly earth science with a little chemistry thrown in.  You can find the list here.

For this topic, I really wanted the kids to understand that atoms are the basic building blocks of absolutely everything.  I wanted them to learn the parts of an atom.  I wanted them to understand that molecules are combinations of atoms.  Finally, I wanted to show them that atoms aren’t as simple as we like to make them seem.  They’re full of empty space and things at that level don’t behave the way things do in what we think of as the normal world.



Our first topic is atoms and molecules.  For a topic so basic, there’s a surprising lack of books about it for children.  There are a few series books out there, and so many chemistry experiment books that you could easily stack them to the ceiling.  However, there weren’t a lot of good introductory books for elementary school students.  We had one, from the 1960’s, called Biography of an Atom which had the sort of information I wanted, but which was obviously a bit out of date.  We also had two longer series books, Splitting the Atom by Katie Parker and Atomic Universe: The Quest to Discover Radioactivity by Kate Boehm Jerome.  Both were a little too detailed for this age and the latter book was focused more on radioactivity and X-rays.  There is a Rookie Read Aloud Science book about atoms.  However, the book I wish I could have gotten in time was The Adventures of Adam the Atom by Casey Waid.  That book looked perfect for this age group, but none of the libraries had it.  Overall, we didn’t find just what I wanted.

For experiment books, I drew ideas from Janice Van Cleave’s Molecules and the book Adventures with Atoms and Molecules by Robert Mebane.  Both had a lot of general chemistry experiment ideas, but this is a topic you have to help kids connect the dots.  After all, they can’t see the atoms and molecules.


Luckily there are plenty of videos for atoms and molecules.  First of all, there’s our two standards.  Bill Nye gives up the episode “Atoms” and The Magic School Bus gives us the episode “The Magic School Bus Meets Molly Cule.”  Plus, there’s two Eureka episodes for this topic.  First, there’s one on atoms, which I embedded below.  Next, there’s another on elections.  Both refer to atoms as “round” but otherwise seemed accurate, despite their age.

There were also a number of other good videos for atoms.  There’s this one from Khan Academy, which was a little too long for us, but probably about right for older kids (and grown ups!).  It starts by telling you that with chemistry you get to start with the most philosophically interesting thing, which pretty much sums out what I like about Khan Academy’s approach as well as studying atoms.  A much simpler introduction is this Ignite Learning video.  And this is an amusing little song about the history of the atom.  We also have a new Brainpop subscription that we got for a good deal and the older kids’ site has a whole section on matter with a number of good videos for this unit, such as this one about the atom.  You’ll need a subscription to see that one.

Below is one more that I really loved, from NOVA, which basically tears apart all your science textbook ideas about how to represent an atom.  I thought it was perfect.  And here’s a quick little excerpt from a longer documentary that explains the scale of atoms and might make you a little disturbed about just how much empty space we’re all made of.


We have brand new science notebooks, so order of business number one was to decorate them and put names on them.  For BalletBoy and Mushroom, we’re going to be printing out their narrations and taping or pasting them into the notebook.  Doing narrations about science is a new thing for us this year and I can see that it’s a challenge for the kids, but I’m excited to make it work.

I already wrote a couple of weeks ago about the quandary I faced with atomic models.  However, I wanted to start with some simple notes, so the kids copied a model of an atom.  We drew them for the sake of vocabulary, essentially.  However, at the end of our science time, I asked the kids to say what was wrong with the drawings and we finished by putting big cross outs on them.  You can see Mushroom’s notes and model with BalletBoy’s taped in narrations below.

It’s easy to see that you, your toys, your house and all the (seemingly!) solid objects around you are made of something, but I thought it was worthwhile to think about how air is also made of molecules and atoms, so we did a version of this experiment where you blow up a balloon and weight it on a balance with an balloon that’s not blown up.

Next, we explored some behavior that molecules help explain.  Each kid picked out an object that was made of atoms (they laughed about that command, which I hope means they get it) and we looked at it and noticed how different they are.  We talked about how the structure of the molecules explains why the fork is hard and the eraser was rubbery.  Next,  we made water flow sideways to think about how molecules like to cling together.  This is one of the cooler experiments I’ve done.  It had both a wow factor and a learning objective that the kids really seemed to get.  When I asked if it would work with a dry string, they immediately saw that it wouldn’t because the water would have no other water molecules to cling to.  One more thing I had planned was to spray perfume to see how molecules move and disperse, but I forgot to do it.  Next week!

Finally, we explored the space between molecules by doing an experiment with salt and water.  We filled a glass with water to the brim.  Then, we slowly added salt until the water overflowed.  The kids really got into this one.  You could see that a lot more salt fit inside the glass than seemed possible.  The reason is that the salt dissolves so that the salt molecules fit in between the water molecules.  This experiment came from the Janice VanCleave book and it had an additional suggestion to illustrate the idea by combining a glass filled with marbles (to illustrate the water molecules) with a glass filled with salt.  Each glass is full, but together they still only fill one glass.  This illustration really helped the kids get the concept.  At first, they didn’t know how to explain why the salt “fit” inside the water.  But after seeing the demonstration with the marbles, they get it immediately and Mushroom then made the connection that atoms are also made mostly of empty space, which is when we went back and marked out our original atom drawings.

Invention Books

We’ve been taking a break from our usually experiment heavy science this summer.  However, I didn’t want to give up science altogether, so we’ve been working our way through a pile of books about inventions, inventors, and how things work.  I thought this would be a nice way to back up some of the ideas about energy, forces and waves that we introduced over the course of the year in science.

So You Want to Be an Inventor by Judith St. George and David Small
A cute and short introduction to various inventors and invention approaches through the ages.  The book jumps around in time and theme to show different ways inventors have found success.  After reading it, BalletBoy immediately wanted to invent something, which turned out to be a shoe made of paper and spaghetti.

The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay
This book is so famous, it hardly needs an introduction.  Macaulay’s intricate illustrating style is at its most adorable in this volume, which explains with illustrations and easy to understand text about how common inventions work.  The book goes from simple machines to much more complex inventions like nuclear power plants and movie cameras.

See Inside: How Things Work
Usborne’s See Inside series is one of the few little text box book formats we actually really enjoy.  There’s just something so pleasing about opening a little flap in a book to see what’s behind it.  The topics covered in this book aren’t as wide ranging as the rest of these books (after all, when you have board book thick pages and a squishy cover, you’re limited to less pages) but this whole series has been a winner at our house, so I feel remiss not mentioning it.

What a Great Idea by Stephen M. Tomecek
This is a slightly wordy book that covers all kinds of inventions through the ages, beginning with things like letters and farming.  Everything is arranged chronologically with each invention getting two pages.  The illustrations are a little lackluster, but I really like the way the book is laid out.  Each invention gets a “how it works,” “impact” and “children of this invention” summary, which is wonderfully organized and well thought out.  This would be a great book to have on hand as a supplement for world history.

Accidents May Happen: Fifty Inventions Discovered by Mistake by Charlotte Foltz Jones
I have to raise a serious quibble with calling peanut brittle or the crack in the Liberty Bell an “invention,” but otherwise, I liked the lighthearted tone of this book and the little cartoon illustrations.  It’s not the best book about inventions, and it doesn’t make such a good straight through read, but it’s nice to dip into and read an entry or two to see that inventing isn’t always a straightforward process.

How Nearly Everything Was Invented by Jilly MacLoud
This book has an interesting format.  The illustrations and style will probably remind you of an Usborne book.  There are lots of tiny cartoonish drawings crammed into every corner.  It’s almost like a page of Where’s Waldo.  Each two page spread covers a different theme, such as travel or optics.  The pages then open up to reveal an interior four page spread.  Pages in between cover things like famous inventors or timelines of inventions.  I’m often not a big fan of nonfiction books with lots of tiny bits of disjointed text on the page (like DK’s Eyewitness Books, which I don’t think much of).  However, I really liked the thematic approach to inventions and the style of this book was very appealing.

Three Cheers for Inventors! by Marcia Williams
Marcia Williams has an offbeat cartoon style, with lots of humorous comments and sidebars.  These books are definitely for fans of the Horrible Science books style humor.  In this book, she covers many of the world’s most famous inventors and their various inventions with intricate cartoons.  Note that this book seems to have two editions with different titles, something I’m still trying to figure out.

Getting Science in Gear

Over the summer, we’ve been mostly taking a science break, though we’ve kept reading some books, focusing a little on inventions and how things work, which seems to be a topic that reinforces a lot of our topics from last year.

My friend whose kids did science with us all year and I got together and dreamed up a list of topics for next year.  Our plan is to cover some very basic chemistry and some earth science, which a focus on geology.  Like last year, I started with the Usborne Science Encyclopedia as our spine.  However, while the physics topics were mostly appropriate for young kids with a little tweaking, a lot of the topics in chemistry would be above the heads of kids who needed to review states of matter.  We ended up with a list of topics that went slightly further off the order that the encyclopedia presented.

  • Atoms and Molecules
  • Periodic Table and Elements
  • Rocks and Minerals
  • Solids
  • Liquids
  • Gases
  • Changes of State
  • Metals
  • Formation of the Earth
  • Geologic Time
  • Earth’s Structure
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Volcanoes
  • Mountains
  • Rocks and Minerals
  • Oceans
  • Weather
  • Climate
  • Earth’s Resources
Yes, I know “Rocks and Minerals” is on there twice.  That was on purpose to, you know, tie things together (or justify buying a big rock set).  Last year, I did the vast majority of the teaching, but we’re planning to split it up a little more next year.  We’ll see how it goes.

As I waited for new science materials to arrive, I had a sudden spurt of need to organize things.  Before materials for next year’s science come, I decided I should clear out all the various science supplies that have built up over the last two years and organize them a bit better.

There’s all our stuff, organized into little plastic Container Store shoeboxes.  I’ve had those forever and they keep getting used for different things, outgrowing their purpose, getting put away, then getting used again for something else.  You can see our Snap Circuits and our exciting microscope, which the grandparents generously gave the kids a few years ago for Christmas.

Okay, now that it’s in all these neat boxes, where am I going to put it?  Somehow I don’t think I can leave it on the dining room table.  D’oh.  I probably should have planned that part.

Science: Mirrors and Reflections

Hey, it’s a post where I took back over the science afternoons!  It was so good to get a break, but also so good to be back.  Perhaps because I was so psyched to be back, I did way more prep for this week than usual.  However, it may have just been because I had such a good book inspiring me.

Mirrors: Finding Out About the Properties of Light by Bernie Zubrowski is another of the Boston Children’s Museum Activity Books that I sang the praises of before after we used the one about waves.  I really wish I had discovered these earlier.  They are so amazing.  The author, Bernie Zubrowski, sounds pretty awesome too.  These books break free of the constraints that hold down so many of the science experiment books, even the good ones, to suggest ways to set up things so that kids can really play with scientific concepts.  Honestly, I don’t know of any other science experiment book series for kids that’s this good.  I’m in awe of them.  The only drawback is that they require more prep work from the parents than other books.  It’s one thing to gather some materials together beforehand and another thing to be called upon to make a big tank (as the book about waves asked) or to set up little mirrors on stands and create a big grid (as this book did).  It’s always a debate as to whether that much prep is worth it for an activity that will only take up a few hours at most.  Many times, for me, the answer is no.  We’ll do something simpler or make it easier somehow.  But so far, the activities from these books have been worth all the work.  Pretty much every single activity we did for this day came from this book and there were dozens more we didn’t do that were just as good.

Anyway, we started with journals, but we quickly moved on to simply exploring the mirrors.  To make these, I bought a very cheap wall mirror (it was less than $5), pulled it out of its cheap plastic frame, scored the glass and broke it so we would have smaller mirrors.  A glass scorer is also pretty cheap (the one I had was less than $3) and it’s pretty easy to do, not to mention quick.  Obviously, buying mirrors of about the right size (these were about the size of a greeting card) would have been easier, but probably more expensive.  To protect the edges, I wrapped them with a bit of Duck Tape I had on hand, which I also let become the backing of the mirror just in case any got broken (one did, but by me!).  In order to make them stand up, I just used old wooden blocks and rolled a bit of the Duck Tape onto the back of them and attached them.

The kids had a lot of fun just playing around with the mirrors.  BalletBoy kept saying that, “The floor is on the ceiling!” as he walked around with the mirror perpendicular to his forehead.

Next, I let the kids make patterns with the mirrors and the pattern blocks.  Every time I think we’re finished with the pattern blocks (you know, because they’re so “little kid” then we find another use for them.  If you don’t have any, you could use all sorts of other things instead.

I challenged the kids to use the mirrors to show their faces again and again.  How many times could they show their face?  2?  4?  12?  We looked a little at what angles the mirrors needed to be at.  It was nice to have two different kids trying it with the four mirrors so they could compare for this and see that it took similar angles.

Next, we made the Lego people repeat infinitely.  It was especially trippy and Tron-like on the grid I had taped down (more about that in a minute).

As a blog aside, when the kids were smaller, we had a trip to Paris, where BalletBoy poked his head into a small room in the Cite des Enfants and quickly popped back out exclaiming, “That room had too many BalletBoys!”  This is one of my favorite memories of Paris.

Okay, back to the present (or the more recent past anyway).  We played a game where the kids had to try and “find” each other in their two mirrors from across the table.  They began to see how their reflections could bounce across the table and therefore how light could too.  It actually came in handy that this was a dark, rainy day because we turned out the lights and watched the beam of light bounce through the mirrors too.

After a break, the kids came back and we played a game on the grid I had taped down.  This would work equally well on some posterboard or by drawing the lines onto newspaper that’s taped down on a table.  The grid I used had 120 2×3 inch rectangles, though the book suggested an even larger grid.  I made little cardboard squares that were 6 inches and stood them up by sticking little 2 inch cardboard squares into the bottom of them to form a T.  The kids each drew a monster.  For the first round, I arranged the cardboard into a little maze so that the monster was protected and told them a story.  The monster has been terrorizing the village by night.  During the day, he hides in his cave where he’s built a maze.  If you shine the light on the monster, he’ll be defeated because he’s allergic to light.  But you can’t move the light, the monster, or the cardboard that is the maze set up.

The kids had to use the mirrors to reflect the light onto the monster.  We played this game for each kid’s monster, meaning we did it four times over.  It was played in the dark, making it extra fun.

Then we played it again with all the monsters and they made the maze so that I could try and beat it.

And then they did it again!

To wrap up, we looked at reflections in spoons (and brilliantly, in an ice cream scoop that one of the kids thought to pick up).  They had done this before and introduced the idea of concave and convex, but I reminded them of how mirrors can distort images as well as reproducing them faithfully.  We went outside and found puddles (really, sometimes it’s good that there was a rainy day!) in which to see reflections.  Then we distorted them by putting waves into the water.  We also looked at reflections in the car and saw how the windshield distorted that.

Overall, it was a pretty great science day.

Science: Color

This was a great topic to explore and one where I learned some things and thought about some things that I either never really knew or never understood properly about how things look the colors they look.

First up, The Magic School Bus really got to shine for this one.  They have a whole episode about color, “The Magic School Bus Makes a Rainbow.”  They also have a book from their chapter book series called The Magic School Bus: Color Day Relay.  If you’re not familiar with the chapter books, they’re a series at about the same reading level as The Magic Tree House chapter books.  The writing isn’t great, but like the TV show and the original books, the science concepts are sound and are explored creatively.  The topics of the chapter books haven’t dovetailed well with our topics this year (like most science resources for this age, they’re mostly biology related) but this one did and the kids really loved it, even if I groaned a little at the writing.

Of course, the hands on activities begins with the kids using a prism to make little rainbows everywhere.  Then they went outside with the hose (even though this spring has been way too cold for this sort of thing!) and made rainbows that way.

They came inside and colored rainbows and talked a bunch about the primary colors of light versus the primary colors of paint, because they’re different don’t you know.  Then the kids did this experiment where you make a spinner by simply coloring the whole spectrum of colors.  They also tried to mix the colors by trying different color combinations on their spinners.  Coloring all that took awhile, but they were sort of collectively into it.  The trick really does work, by the way, and some of their combinations yielded interesting results.

Finally, they tried this experiment, where you use coffee filters to make the colors separate.  I’ve tried this one several times before and it never gives results anywhere near as nice as the ones shown on that link, but it did break down the colors a little.  I can’t figure out if to make this experiment work you just need really amazing coffee filters, really amazing markers or what.

For us, this was a journal updating week and the kids especially enjoyed putting some serious rainbows in their journals.  BalletBoy spent the next two weeks utterly obsessed with all things rainbow related.

Finally, I leave you with a little They Might Be Giants, for your listening pleasure:

Science: Light

Let there be light!

While I still think shadows was more fun, light was a fun topic to explore too.  It was a little less hands on, but there were a whole lot of good book resources to tackle it.  This is a double post today with Color, as we’re catching up with science finally!  Oh, and for anyone who might be interested, I compiled all my science posts into one handy tab up at the top of the blog titled “Science Without a Net” (as in, without a curriculum!).  It links to all the previous posts as well as lists in one handy spot our favorite video and book resources.

Book Cover

We had several basic books out about light, but as usual the Let’s Read and Find Out title Day Light, Night Light by Franklin Branley was the best.  My only complaint about it was that it said repeatedly that light=heat, which is only true to a point.  So to balance that, I was glad we happened upon the book Cold Light by Anita Sitarski, which was a long form picture book exploring concepts in fluorescence by looking at things like glow-in-the-dark stickers and various glowing animals.  The other thing that struck me was how many of the books we looked at expected the kids to be able to go see how hot a lightbulb gets within just a minute of being turned out.  Seeing as we changed out all the house bulbs to be CFL’s around the time Mushroom and BalletBoy were born and the other source of light they know best is probably the LED’s in their flashlights, the idea of the old fashioned incandescent bulb perfected by Edison is pretty foreign to them.  But the books were all at least a few years old.  So we took out the book The Lightbulb by Joseph Wallace to read as well.  This book told the story of why people wanted the lightbulb so badly (having just read Bill Bryson’s At Home, I was well brushed up on this myself!) and explained Edison’s journey to invent it as well as the future of the lightbulb (including LED’s and CFL’s) in some good detail.  Both this book and Cold Light were on the long side for a science book for Mushroom and BalletBoy, but just like they’ve learned to appreciate longer fiction books and history books, I think it’s good to push them a little with read aloud nonfiction titles like these, even if we didn’t quite read every word in either of them.

For videos, The Magic School Bus offers us “The Magic School Bus Gets a Bright Idea” which isn’t one of their best offerings but is perfectly fine.  Bill Nye gives us two options.  First, we have “Light” and then we also have “Light Optics.” I also stumbled upon the show DragonflyTV, which I had never seen before, but which is available free on PBS’s website.  This is a clip about light and color.

We watched a lot of videos about light bulbs.  Despite the fact that it was an ad where I skipped a bunch of the commercial parts, the kids really like this one by a company who makes CFL’s.  It shows the process by which a CFL bulb is created, which the kids found very cool.  Here’s another one, from the Discovery Channel about florescent bulbs.  Of course, you can also go with the more traditional option.  This is from How It’s Made about incandescent bulbs.

The kids did a bunch of very simple observations to go along with light:

  • They looked at each other’s pupils as they expanded and contracted depending on the amount of light.
  • They found things that reflected light and talked about the materials.
  • They found things that were transparent and opaque.
  • They found the darkest, completely dark back of the basement room to see what it’s like with extremely limited light.
  • They felt the heat of various light bulbs as they went from cold to warm.
  • They observed how light bends when it goes through things, such as by making a straw look “broken” in a glass of water.

I’ve been really appreciating how my friend, who took over science, gets the kids to slow down, ask more questions, and discover things like transparent and opaque for themselves.  It’s pretty cool.

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.

Science Friday: Phooey on Nature

We’re a bit behind on science and I’m even more behind on my science blogging, but to anyone who might actually be reading with interest on the matter, it will be back.  Maybe next week or certainly the week after that.  In the meantime, I wanted to share some (probably disorganized) musings on science instead.

I sort of hate nature.  Yes, that’s right.  I’m a nature hater.  Well…  I take it back.  Nature is fine.  I like hiking and we try to get out in nature as much as possible.  My kids certainly know our national parks around here very well and we’ve explored nature all over the place when we’ve traveled.  While they’re city kids at heart, I’ve shown them the swamp, the rainforest, the desert, the mountains, and the oceans.  But if I hear one more person say that all you should do for elementary age science is take nature walks and do a few leaf rubbings, then I may go nuts.  If you want to ignore science to that extent, then I don’t think it will ultimately harm a child.  And I’m sure some people have a plan where they ramp science up in the later grades.  I also don’t mean people who do a year of environmental science or biology with a focus on nature study as part of a larger science curriculum during the elementary school years.  However, just taking nature walks and drawing pictures of leaves in a nature journal isn’t a science curriculum to me.  It’s P.E. and art class, if it’s anything.  I grew up in the middle of nowhere, taking “nature walks” every day of my early childhood.  It instilled in me a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the beauty of nature.  It did not, by any means, provide me with a firm grounding in science or even a love or appreciation for science.

In fact, I don’t feel that I actually got a decent science education.  I remember being in nature, but can’t remember a single thing I learned about science in elementary school.  Nor can I remember anything about science from 6th or 8th grade – I can’t even picture the teachers or recall the general outline of topics, which is unusual for me since I could probably list dozens of things about my middle school math, English, drama, French or history teachers.  However, in 7th grade, the teacher made us do at least one lab every single week without fail and I remember a great deal about that class in vivid detail.  We dissected no less than 6 different animals that year to my memory: perch, grasshoppers, earthworms, starfish, frogs and mice.  I remember that the day we did the fish, the cafeteria also served fish.  A nasty coincidence.  This is just to say that the intense focus on scientific demonstration and experiment did have an effect on me.

However, it proved too little too late.  By seventh grade, I already had decided that science, as a rule, was boring.  I had already staked out my identity as someone interested in English and the arts.  I didn’t pursue science in high school and took no AP science classes.  After struggling through chemistry, I took the easy way out by avoiding physics the following year to take anatomy and physiology instead.  I didn’t take a fourth year of science so I could do extra English electives.  In college, I took geology, which was positive in a way because I did learn about a subject I knew little about, but still a bit of an easy way out because the lab component for the survey class was extremely simple.

It took me growing up and finding books about science to discover an interest in it.  Now, I love science and science books.  Physics, that subject I completely skipped at every level of my education, is something I’ve read about for pleasure many times.  So I desperately want to give my own kids the exposure to science that I lacked as a child.  Being taught mostly by humanities lovers and being naturally interested in reading and writing myself meant that I missed out on a lot of good science.  If they want to be grow up to be writers or artists, then that’s great, but I don’t want it to be because they didn’t have the right exposure to science.  So I don’t want to take the easy way out by hanging out at the nature center and walking around in Rock Creek Park and somehow imagining that it comprises a proper science education.  We do both those things anyway and they’re certainly a piece of an overall education, especially for two such urbanites as my boys are.  However, they’re not enough.  Nor would I ever say that they comprised a curriculum.  I’m glad we did biology last year and glad we’re exploring physics this year.  Next year, we’ll do earth science and I’m excited about that as well, but I won’t let it just be nature walks.