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Back when I was a kid and we walked for miles uphill in snow to school and back, holidays were not quite the avalanche of candy that they are today. Now I'm not complaining -- I love candy as much as the next kid -- but we really do seemed to be buried in candy several times a year. This year I decided to put some of it to good use and see what kind of science we can pull out of a basket of candy!
Anticipating snow and cabin-fever over the holidays, I planned our biggest experiment yet, which I called 'The Great Paper Airplane Experiment.' The goal of the experiment was simple -- does the length of paper influence how far a paper airplane flies? We invited over 60 kids from Annapolis to help us create the planes and gather the data we would need to test our hypothesis.
Beckett and I still talk about the earthquake that happened here at the end of the summer, probably because it happened on the first day of school. One of the things we talk about is building safety and how things move in an earthquake. This of course leads to discussions of gravity and how it affects everything. I wanted him to see how gravity acts on an object, so we came up with a basic demonstration and a magic trick to illustrate this mysterious force.
As much as Beckett loves science, he also loves magic. So we decided to combine the two and see what kind of science-based magic tricks we could have fun with. Remember that both science and magic is best done with adult supervision -- and adult participation!
After last week's project arranging blocks to understand crystal patterns, we decided to grow some crystals to see exactly what they look like. For today's project, we decide to grow salt crystals -- a fairly easy and rewarding project that can be tackled at a fairly young age with the proper supervision. I was particularly excited about this project because I did it when I was Beckett's age.
Not two weeks after we posted our little experiments on the different states of matter, science went ahead and discovered another state. Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on quasi-crystals. As I stated then and will re-state now, there are so many states of matter that didn't exist ten or twenty years ago that I hesitate to try to name them all. But Beckett and I did start talking and thinking about crystals. We decided to attempt a two part experiment: this week we will look at the structure that makes a crystal a crystal then next week we will actually grow some crystals.
This week we have a special guest in our house -- Beckett’s Aunt Melanie is visiting from Anchorage, Alaska. We thought it would be fun if she could help with one of our science projects, and since she is a chef, and very creative in the kitchen, we decided to 'cook up' some science. As creative as she is, her first suggestion was that we find out about poaching eggs and make Hollandaise sauce to learn about protein folding. Beckett liked the idea of learning about proteins, but wasn’t so excited about poaching eggs. So...we decided to learn about protein folding by making cookies. That's right. Science and chocolate cookies!
Last week when we were making our flubber and oobleck we noticed something a bit odd when we were looking at our photo-documentation of the experiments. The photos of oobleck and flubber all had a slight blue cast to them. That got us talking about colors in general which led to that classic question -- what makes the sky blue?
Beckett has been wanting to do some more 'hands-on' experiments, so we decided to revisit two classics and talk about properties of matter. Beckett's friend Ian came over to help out. Using common household materials we made two different compounds with some very unusual properties.
As soon as we finished cleaning up the mess we left on the front porch from our Earthquake experiments, we had to take everything off the porch to prepare for the hurricane! One thing we did last week and last weekend was watch hours and hours of news reports and satellite footage of Hurricane Irene churning counterclockwise up the coast. It seemed as good a time as any to talk with Beckett about huge weather events such as hurricanes and what shapes and directs them.
We had a very rare earthquake here in Maryland this week, and a pretty big one for us at 5.8 on the Richter scale. It turns out that there are over 100,000 earthquakes a year world wide that can be felt by people and almost 500,000 total that scientists can detect! Naturally, Beckett had a lot of questions, so we set up an experiment to help us better understand what was going on.
We decided to add some science to our vacation this year, and a whale watch seemed like the perfect choice. We drove up to Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Northeastern most point of Cape Cod and the sight of some really great whale watching. We headed out mid-afternoon and were rewarded with one of the very best whale watching days of the summer according to the naturalist on board.
Beckett's fascination with tiny creatures continues -- and his Science Grandma pitched in and gave him a ladybug habitat filled with Ladybug larva. It is a great way to learn about the ladybug's life cycle. Like many insects, Lady bugs (also called lady birds, lady clocks, lady flies, and lady cows) go through four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and imago.
Happy 4th of July weekend to everyone! Since our country achieved independence at the height of summer and we celebrate with fireworks and ice cream, we often say that no day is hotter than the 4th of July. But why is it so hot? It sure feels like the sun is closer some days than others, and indeed the earth has an elliptical orbit. But here's a question I put to Beckett -- when is the Earth closest to the sun?
We had a busy week around here -- Rowan turned three! Beckett, however, was doing his own science projects all week, and, at the last minute, after a long afternoon and evening of parties and cake, asked me what we were going to do for Science Dad. Sheesh! Since Beckett had already been independently working on creating a lemon battery, we decided to see if we could get the battery to function.
To be perfectly fair, Science Mom should be sitting here at the computer writing this, because when I came home the other day she and Beckett were planting herbs in the little pots I was planning on using for this post. Oh well, there can never be too much science in a house or too many scientists
As a parent, I often wonder (and worry) if any of these projects and experiments stay in Beckett's head. Yesterday, when he got home from camp, he told me that he had caught and identified a male Cabbage White butterfly. Now we haven't seen many Cabbage Whites this year and certainly haven't talked about them since last summer. Honestly, I didn't remember if the male had one spot or two, so I looked it up in his bug book and was very pleased to see that he was right. Science Dad didn't remember how many spots meant what, but Science Kid did! Also this week we saw and captured our first firefly -- which was perfect because I had been planning some activities to talk about luminescence.
Beckett got a new bike last week, a 'real' bike with gears and brakes. We've all been out several times already, including one near disaster in which Beckett crashed into me on a local bike trail. He was trying to learn how to use his gears, and I found it harder than I thought it would be to explain how they work. So, time for a science project to figure it all out! I decided to introduce him to a couple 'simple machines' to explain it all. Traditionally, there are six 'simple machines': the lever, the incline, the wheel, the screw, the wedge, and the pulley. The primary function of each simple machine is to use mechanical advantage to change the way work or force is applied.
Beckett has his last day of kindergarten today, so we decided to take the week off from science projects and experiments and take a look back at all the science we've done this year. And full disclosure: the project originally planned for this week hit a snag; the brine shrimp we are attempting to grow in our tiny aquarium have not hatched.
I found that trying to explain lines of sight took a lot longer than just showing it so we started with a basic demonstration. We pulled out a couple big sheets of paper and a long ruler. Beckett knelt at the edge of the table and we marked on the paper how far apart his eyes are. We put a Lego block at mid page with another longer Lego block behind it. Looking down the sheet of paper, first with one eye, and then the other, Beckett could see the first Lego block 'change position' relative to the second block. Why was this happening?
This week things will be a little bit different. While visiting the grandparents last week, Grandpa suggested a science topic for Beckett to think about! It took me about two seconds to invite him over to talk about science and give myself the week off. Science Grandpa asked Beckett how seeds moved around and were spread. They started in the backyard where we have a small Japanese Maple. It is in full bloom and has just produced seeds, which both Beckett and Science Grandpa call helicopters. They picked seeds off the tree and ground and fluttered them around -- the airfoil shape lets them float slowly to the ground in a whirligig fashion.
After we made the Newton's Cradle at Easter, we talked about Newton's laws on the Conservation of Energy. Don't worry, it was not an overly technical conversation for a six year old -- my memory and refresher course on classical mechanics only got me so far. But these basic laws govern sports like croquet, billiards and pool, curling, bowling, shuffleboard, and even marbles. They are easy enough to grasp, especially if you can play the sport or some version of it.
I would like to thank everyone that read last week's post and either commented or left a calculation or guess about how many M&Ms were in the 1/3 measuring cup. What I liked most about the many answers was how they collectively reflected the activity of science. Some started with guesses. Others tried to form a methodology for guessing. Several tried to find prior research to aid them. And some even tried to duplicate the 'experiment' -- although no one actually had M&Ms or my stainless steel measuring cup.
Last week I had the naive hope that explaining weight, mass, and density would answer most of Beckett's questions on the topic. Of course our discussion only led to more questions and questions that were more difficult to answer. Beckett was helping me get one of my bikes ready for riding again and noticed it did not have a kickstand. "Why not?" he asked. "Because I don't want to carry the weight up a hill," was my answer, although we live at sea level and the highest 'hill' around here is the 80 foot high bridge over the Severn River. "You don't have to carry it up the hill, it's on the bike," was his answer.
Beckett's bike has a slow leak in the back tire, so every time we go for a ride we need to pump it up. This has led to many interesting conversations for us about mass, weight, and density, so I though we could do some simple projects to help understand the difference between mass and weight and how density factors in. I decided to start with the easiest concept, density. When the tire is flat the density (pressure) of the air inside the tire is the same as the density of the air around it. Every time Beckett pushes down on the bike pump he is forcing air into the tire. This makes sense -- if you force more air in, there will be more particles of air in the tire than the air around it.
Beckett learned to ride a bike this spring, so we've been talking a lot about his sense of balance. Learning to ride a bike is one of those strange activities that you just have to do in order to do it. How do you learn to balance? You just do it. In the midst of all the conversations Beckett and I have had about balancing on a bike, he somehow hit on the one question that could tie it all together -- "Why do surfers hold their arms out?"
One of the great things about spring break at the beach is all the extra time. So much extra time that one morning I decided to make pancakes from scratch. Now, I haven't made pancakes from scratch in decades, but I thought I could handle it. What could go wrong, right? We had all the ingredients, I found a basic recipe on the internet... Wait, stop right there. An untested recipe from the internet. The recipe seemed ok. I hesitated when it called for two full tablespoons of baking powder -- seemed like an awful lot -- but Beckett and Rowan were sitting on their breakfast stools patiently watching, so I dutifully added two full tablespoons and started cooking.
This week we decided to put the measuring skills we learned last week to the test. Since we are at the beach for spring break, we decided to utilize our location for our science experiments. We wanted to measure two of the most difficult things to measure -- sound and light. We started with light, because even though it travels much, much faster than sound, it is actually easier to measure and calculate.
Beckett is studying measurement in school this week, so we decided we would take a closer look at what it means to measure something and some of the techniques used to measure things. It turns out that measuring things -- and agreeing how to measure things -- is very, very difficult! For thousands of years humans have been devising systems to measure things accurately, with varying levels of success.
Beckett and I have tried to make a paper cup phone before, just for fun, but this week, Beckett asked if we could do it for a science project. Our first challenge was finding the right materials. Cups and string are usually the kind of thing we have handy, but we finally had to resort to using soda cans and string we found in the shed. We measured out enough line to stretch from one side of the house to the other. Beckett tied his line inside the can and stretched it all the way to the other side of the house. We tried whispering, but that didn't work so well, so we talked into the cans with our normal voices -- and they worked!
It has been a rough couple of weeks around here, and our plans didn't quite work out the way we were hoping. First Beckett had a bad stomach flu, then Rowan, then I had a different type of flu, and Science Mom is working on her own version right now. I should do a science project on flu vectors! Luckily, Beckett and I had been working on something for a while...what we call indoor Paleontology. Instead of going to a museum, we headed out to some fairly common places. We're going to need all the help we can get with this project: we 'collected' the fossils by taking photos of them, but we'll need help identifying what we found.
Beckett has been fascinated by batteries for as long as I can remember, so his latest suggestion for a science topic should not have been a surprise. Beckett wanted to know how toys work. We talked about the mountain of toys he has and about the energy makes them work -- whether the energy comes from him pushing a car or throwing an airplane, or from batteries or rubber bands. This led naturally enough to a discussion about potential energy and kinetic energy.
Science Dad had two requests this week that could not be ignored: first, Beckett wanted to do a more hands-on science project; second, Science Mom wondered when she would make an appearance in this blog. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I decided to combine both! This week's experiment combines concepts learned in our leaf experiment and our water cycle project. As an added bonus, the results of the experiment will make a great Valentine’s Day gift for Science Mom.
Well, Punxsutawney Phil sure got it right this year. If the groundhog pops out of his hole and the day is overcast so that he can’t see his shadow, we will have an early spring. Beckett and I had planned an experiment to coincide with February 2, the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, which is also the day that statistically daylight and nighttime are equal. We were going to build a sundial and see if it could be used to tell time accurately on this special day. Unfortunately, the experiment was hampered by a lack of sun.
I don't know about you, but I am always surprised to see wildlife in the middle of towns and cities. The recent news from New York's Central Park about red tailed hawks Pale Male and Lola was fascinating, if not a little depressing -- Lola is thought to have eaten a poisoned rat or pigeon, and Pale Male has a new nesting mate. We occasionally see red tailed hawks here in Maryland, but lately my neighborhood has been all about foxes. What kinds of wildlife do you see in your neighborhood? What is the strangest animal you've seen in a city?
This may sound strange to you, but I feel lucky in my life to have studied both Latin and Ancient Greek. Not only for the cultural and literary aspects, but especially now, as the parent of two curious boys. Latin and Greek has helped me more than just about any other subject I studied -- possibly even including science, which is saying something, since I have two young scientists in the house. It started, of course, with dinosaurs. Dinosaur nomenclature sounds esoteric and exotic, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I don't know about you, but after last year's crazy weather, I'm already pretty tired of snow. It has only really snowed here once, and not that much, but when I look out my window, the world is cold and covered in white. And I heard on the news that every state except Florida had snow this week. Even Hawai'i had snow on top of a volcano! So as we drove to school this week on a very cold morning, Beckett asked the perfect question for a snowy day -- where does the snow go when it 'melts' but doesn't turn to water first?
Pop Quiz: What do dynamite, dinosaurs, and dentifrice have in common? Answer: Diatomaceous earth, that's what! Diatomaceous earth consists of the fossilized remains of diatoms, which are microscopic single-celled algae that use silica to form their bodies. Maryland has a large untapped fossil deposit known as Calvert Cliffs. Beckett and I visited the state park there looking for ancient shark teeth which can usually be found after storms at low tide.
A hundred and whatever years ago (it now seems like...) when I learned about the chemistry of fire, things were much simpler. Maybe because we were dabbing mud on cave walls and we were constrained to two dimensions, I learned that as a chemical process fire needed three things: fuel, oxygen and heat. This was often described as the fire triangle, and was just as often illustrated with the fuel on the bottom of the triangle and heat and oxygen making up the other two legs of the triangle. Simple and neat, the iconography of science back in its infancy was so much easier! Even Beckett, a newly minted six year old, could grasp it.
Beckett’s birthday is right around the corner, so we’ve been talking about birthdays a lot lately. Beckett has often asked about our dog Stella’s birthday. Now I am one of those dog owners who has no idea when the dog was born and for the longest time I had no idea even how old she was. Over 5 and under 10 was my usual answer. But little boys need details and real answers, and with his birthday around the corner, the need to know became even stronger. Most people have heard that a dog year is equal to seven human years. But why?
One of the hardest things to talk about and understand is the size of the universe -- even the size of the solar system. When a scientist at Yale announced this week that there were three times as many stars in the universe as previously thought, Beckett and I sat down to do the math. Writing down a one followed by dozens of zeros gives a glimpse at size, but still doesn't really get at how big something is. So we decided to start locally and build a scale model of the solar system to get a sense of the size of our corner of the universe.
Getting ready for Thanksgiving last week, Beckett and I noticed that our Hallowe'en pumpkins had ripened considerably since we first bought them. We decided to come up with an experiment to see if we could figure out some of what goes on after fruit and vegetables are picked. My goal for this project was for Beckett to learn a little bit about the scientific method: observation, collection of data, as well as organizing and understanding what we were seeing and learning. Since we didn't have room for dozens of giant pumpkins in the house, we decided to use bananas.
Well, Science Dad learned as much about parenting as he did science on this last project, and I have only one thing to say: manage expectations. Night after night, at Beckett's suggestion, we read science books together. Lately we've been reading books about space -- deep space, space flight, and space exploration. We talk about the Space Shuttle launches and the astronauts that fly them. So when I proposed the 'when a star is not a star project,' he was excited. My idea was to look at all the sky objects that looked like stars but were not actually stars -- galaxies, nebulae, planets, meteors, even satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).
Driving Beckett to school, I asked what topic we should talk about next. Probably because his school is located on the edge of a golf course and surrounded by trees, Beckett asked me: "Why do the leaves change color in the fall?" "Let's find out," I said, then headed home to do my own homework. I decided that we would go on an 'expedition' to gather leaves in the neighborhood, then, the next day, classify the leaves and prepare a poster.
I don’t know about you, but we still haven’t adjusted to Daylight Saving Time around here. Rowan, two and half, now gets up at 5:45 and tries to find a playmate. Beckett, almost six, and the budding scientist in the house, isn’t sleeping any better. He wanted to know why we have to change the clocks back in the first place. While I’m not a scientist, I’ve always had a keen interest in science. And with a budding scientist in the house (and another, no doubt following in his big brother’s footsteps), I get a science question almost every day. So when Beckett asked why we have Daylight Saving Time, I thought I could take a shot at an explanation.
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