Families Geek Out! Try These DIY Experiments at Home

23:23 minutes

For science-savvy moms and geek dads, scientific experimentation isn’t a once-a-year-during-the-science-fair endeavor. It’s something to do with the kids all year round, using everyday materials you already have lying around your junk drawer. This hour, Bill Nye the Science Guy writer Lynn Brunelle and Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments author Mike Adamick join Ira to share simple and fun science experiments that parents and kids can do at home. Plus, click on the images below for more home science ideas:

Segment Guests

Lynn Brunelle

Lynn Brunelle is author of Mama Gone Geek (Roost Books, 2014) and an Emmy Award-winning TV Writer (Bill Nye the Science Guy) in Seattle, Washington.

Mike Adamick

Mike Adamick is the author of Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments and Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects. His family recipe book is due out this spring. He blogs at mikeadamick.com

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now that winter is officially here, comes the challenge of how to entertain your kids once cabin fever sets in. You know what I’m talking about it. If you’re not satisfied with the prospect of unending video games, tweeting, and texting, how about some cool do-it-yourself projects you can share with your kids. And if you’ve got baking powder, cornstarch, a magnet, few paper clips, you’ve got the essentials. You’ve got the makings of a snowy day experiment, no fancy chemistry sets necessary.

So for the rest of the hour, we’re sharing our favorite at-home experiments to do with the kids. If you or your kids have a favorite experiment, tell us about it– (844)724-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. Let me introduce our guests who are going to help us along these snow day science ideas.

And I have two veteran at-home experimenters. Lynn Brunelle is an Emmy Award winning TV writer for Bill Nye the Science Guy. No wonder she knows all this good stuff. She’s author of the new book Mama Gone Geek– Calling on my Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. She joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Good to talk to you again, Lynn.

LYNN BRUNELLE: Oh, thanks for inviting me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Mike Adamick is a writer and stay-at-home dad. His latest book is Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments, and he joins us from San Francisco. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIKE ADAMICK: Thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Lynn, you’ve always said that you’ve always been a geek. When did you realize you could use that geekiness in your parenting?

LYNN BRUNELLE: I embrace my geekiness is true. I think I realized it when we realized that as you’re going through the day, the more you get your kids to wonder about things, the more you get them sort of amazed by the things in the world. That’s really the basis of science because you’re observing.

You’re experimenting. You’re failing. You’re laughing. You’re figuring it out. And that is really what science is about. So it kind of became this kind of interesting old friend for me to lean on when you come into contact with some of the trickier things of parenting.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And of course, it comes in handy, right, when being a geeky person and when kids ask you those questions they’re going to ask you like, where do babies come from? How are they made?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah. And you get those. I get those in the car, and you’re driving, you’re like, oh, my god, this is now? We’re doing this now? But you know, when I get that question from my oldest, he’s like, OK, where do they come from? I’m like, hey, you know what? I jumped right to DNA. I was like, it’s cool. Half of the deck comes from mom and half of the deck comes from dad, and you shuffle them, and blah, blah, blah. And I was feeling so smug and feeling so proud of my geeky answer to this. And he’s like, yeah, but really.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Always that next question, right?


IRA FLATOW: Mike, how did you get started experimenting with your daughter?

MIKE ADAMICK: The same thing– the endless questions, the, wait a minute, how do mom and dad shuffle again? It’s just, the questions are endless. And you know, I have a daughter. She’s eight now. And I’ve been staying at home with her for the last eight years. And our science experiments are just kitchen sink science experiments that really come from the questions that develop throughout the day, whether at home or on a walk, and us just really wanting to explore the world around us. What’s going on with, you know, why is the sky blue? Where do meteors come from? That type of thing. So yeah, just lots of inquiry that we try to answer as best we can.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me ask both of you that. For parents who are not as geek-oriented, geek-enabled as you are, I mean, what is the biggest problem, the biggest mistake that parents make when these kids ask you these questions?

LYNN BRUNELLE: For me, I think the biggest mistake is thinking that you have to be a science geek in order to answer these questions, because honestly, we’re all stumbling through. We’re all trying to figure it out ourselves. So I think the greatest gift you can give to your kids is saying, Gosh, I don’t know. Let’s figure it out. Let’s look it up. I mean, you don’t come born with the answers. You come born, hopefully, with a curiosity to figure out what those answers are.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hm. Mike?

MIKE ADAMICK: That’s just such a great answer. And also the freedom to make mistakes– I think so often we can get on Pinterest or Martha Stewart and everything looks so perfect. And people might be hesitant to try that really neat experiment because it’s not going to come off in this social media sharing beautiful-ness of it. It’s going to be a big blob on your kitchen counter.

You know, kids don’t care. They just want to get their hands dirty, and they want to have fun, and they want to answer their question. So get in there, and give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, because this is science. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing something wrong.

IRA FLATOW: Should you have a place at home, one place, where you do your experiments? Or you know, like, this is our lab. This is where we’re going to do something.

LYNN BRUNELLE: We do it everywhere. And we’re all about the blobs. Like I mean, you don’t want to do on the living room floor, but you know, on the kitchen counter, out on the back yard. Wherever you can find a space for it, I say do it.

IRA FLATOW: And do you collect like a base amount of homemade homey stuff like I mentioned before– the paper clip, the other kinds of stuff, cornstarch, the magnet. So do you just keep that in stock all the time in case an experiment breaks out?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Well, I get in trouble from my husband all the time. He’s like, what is this? I’m like, oh, no, we need that because we’re going to make Borax snowflakes. And so he’s always trying to weed through. And I’m like, no, no, no, no, you’ve got save that. So I haven’t quite found the organization yet that works best for the harmony in our family. But, yeah, I keep everything.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to come back and talk lots more with Lynn Brunelle and Mike Adamick about these home things that you’d like to do. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking today about at-home experiments that you could all do, easy stuff that you can do.

We’re sharing favorite at-home experiments. Do you have one? Maybe you can share it with us. Did you ever make a gack or a leaf blower hovercraft? Give us a call (844)724-8255.

We’re talking with Lynn Brunelle, author of the book Mama Gone Geek– Calling on My Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. Mike Adamick, author of Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments, Dan’s book. Did Mom write one? We’ll find out. Our number, (844)724-8255.

We have tweets coming in already with some really interesting suggestions for simple at-home stuff. Tony Nolan writes, “With a black Sharpie, draw a line, a thick line, in a coffee filter. Dip one end in water to get chromatography.” Yeah, chromatography separation of dyes. That’s kind of cool.

20flekin says, “Frost on the side of a tin can. You have water plus crushed ice plus salt if you want to do that.” And some people are– Michelle Booz writes, “Extract DNA from fruits like strawberries and bananas. So easy and with household ingredients. Kids love it.”

Let’s see what else kids love. Mike, have you got an experiment, something? Let’s swap experiments. What about this straw rocket blaster you talk about?

MIKE ADAMICK: The straw rocket blaster is just one of my favorite go-to experiments. It’s stuff you’ve probably already got in your junk drawer or your art bin. And it really allows you to, if you want to, you start asking lots of questions. You can really dig in to Newton’s third law of motion, you know, that equal and opposite reaction.

What you do is you take a string, some tape, a drinking straw, a balloon, and some twine. And you’re going to take one end of the twine, and you’re going to wrap it on, let’s say, the top of a bookshelf. And then you’re going to run the other end of the twine through your straw. And then, tape the straw to your balloon, blow up the balloon, and then tape the straw to it. And you can let it go. And as air goes out of the balloon, balloon is going to go forward. And kids just love this.

There are so many variables you can do you. You can tie the string up a staircase to make it go higher. You can tie it to a tree limb outside. You can try to tape weights to the balloon to make your rocket carry a payload. It’s just really a fascinating thing. You can set up two of them and have a race. And it’s just a great way to have fun doing science.

And I really like to kind of wait for that teachable moment. You don’t want to really stop everything and say, OK, now we’re going to talk about Newton. But the questions are going to pop up, and you’re going to have that information to answer it.

IRA FLATOW: And there’s no dousing water anywhere on the furniture. Lynn, here’s one you did during a power outage. You made a lemon-powered clock.

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah, we had a seven day power outage. So I had a lot of experiments to do. But at one point, we had lemons. And if you take pennies and nails– the nails have to be galvanized because that means that they’re covered with zinc. And the pennies have to be before 1982, because they were copper before 1982, and not so much after 1982.

And you wrap copper wire around. So if you wrap copper wire around your penny, and you wrap copper wire around your nail. And then you stick them in two sides of a juicy lemon. You’re going to create an electron flow, because two things happen when you stick to the nail into the lemon juice.

The zinc molecules, the zinc atoms, come off. And within the zinc atoms, then the negative charges are drawn toward the copper on the other side of the lemon, so they kind of flow over to that, and then they flow out through the copper wire. If you attach the copper wire to like an LED light or a small– you know, those little clocks can work, too, those little small digital clocks. You can get enough flow of electrons to actually power these things, and it’s cool.

But let me tell you, after seven days with the kids, we woke up one morning, and they had wired up every fruit and vegetable in the house, and they were trying to hook up to the TV because they wanted to watch SpongeBob.

IRA FLATOW: Well, if you get a dozen lemons, can you hook them in series and really get a–

LYNN BRUNELLE: You can, yeah. In fact, that’s what you want to do is you want to hook up as many as possible, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Don’t get me started. Let’s go to Susan in– Let’s go to Thomas in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Hi, Thomas.

THOMAS: Hey, good afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

THOMAS: You know, I have a nine-year-old son. And for supervised science, nothing beats dry ice.

IRA FLATOW: Supervised science fun.

THOMAS: Yes, I had to supervise. But we can burn away hours of the rainy afternoon playing with dry ice.

IRA FLATOW: And where do you get the dry ice from?

THOMAS: It’s readily available at most grocery stores. I think you have to be 18-years old to purchase it.

IRA FLATOW: And when you say– what kind of things do you do? Give me the top five things that you do with your dry ice?

THOMAS: Well, I think maybe an early favorite is to break off a small chunk. And while you’re wearing garden gloves, press them to a quarter. I actually– you challenge them, say, hey, I bet I can– do you think I can make George Washington scream? And as it sublimates, it vibrates the quarter a very high-pitched sound. So that’s a good little entry experiment. Oh, you know, the common one, and one you can do kind of any iterations of is dry ice, drop in a little beaker or glass of water. You could add, of course, dyes to that or soap or bubbles.

IRA FLATOW: That’s what you always see, the spooky broth that they have on television and in the movies.

THOMAS: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Dry ice and water, right?

THOMAS: You know, if you can get a hold of film canisters, there’s so much you can do with film canisters and dry ice. You put a little piece in there with some water, and it’ll eventually pop off the top. And then another favorite is to drill sort of opposing little diagonal holes in a film canister and suspend it from a string. Then put dry ice and water in there, and it’ll spin it around very quickly.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, if your kids are young, you have to tell them what a film canister was once used for.

THOMAS: Right. It’s educational on many levels.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Thanks for calling. Good luck with those home stuff. Happy New Year. Lynn, anymore dry ice suggestions?

LYNN BRUNELLE: You know, there’s one really cool thing to do. If you get it in a– I use a Pyrex bowl. And you put warm water in and dish washing liquid. Dawn works really well, for some reason. And then you dip– you get a little cloth. So you dip it and get it wet. You wet the rim of the bowl, toss in your dry ice. And then take your wet cloth, your wet soapy cloth, and kind of scrape it across the whole thing, so that you create a film. And then you get this really cool like fortune teller’s bubble that just kind of blows up and fills with smoke. It’s really fun.

IRA FLATOW: Mike, of course, there’s the old standby, which everybody started with, which was the baking soda and vinegar. Call it what you will– volcano, fire extinguisher, anything like that.

MIKE ADAMICK: Right. The Brady Bunch, I think, really popularized that one in pop culture when, was it Peter, who created one that exploded all over Jan and Marsha’s friends. It became a big hit. We like to do something slightly different. I want people put the baking soda in first and then pour vinegar on it. And you’ve got to do it kind of quickly because it’s going to have– the gas is going to form really quickly, and, boom, there’s your little explosion.

What I like to do is first pour vinegar into, let’s say, a tall class or whatever you want to double as your volcano, and then wrap baking soda in toilet paper and then put a string around it. Then you can drop it into the beaker. And you’ve got a little extra time before the vinegar is actually going to eat away at the paper and then get the baking soda wet. So it’s kind of like a timed explosion of your volcano.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We used to do that with a fire extinguisher experiment. Get a beaker, you put vinegar at the bottom. You hang the hang the toilet paper with the baking soda in it. And then you put a cork on with whatever pipe you’d like to put on the outside. And when you turn it upside down, it mixes together, and it all come squirting out. And in fact, that’s how the old soda acid fire extinguishers used to work. Didn’t they? Basically, the same principle.

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah. I think so, yeah. And you can take that even further just by talking about the gas. I mean, the explosion’s always fun. But what’s also interesting to me is the mysterious gas that disappears, right? And it’s carbon dioxide that’s being produced. If you take your beaker or your glass after the explosion, and you can pour the gas over a candle, just the gas, just tip it a little bit, and it’ll extinguish your flame. And that’s kind of fun to see.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s cool, as we used to say. Let’s go to the phones. Susan in Bristol, Virginia– hi, Susan. Did we lose her? Let’s go to– where am I– Hannah in Rochester. Hannah in Rochester, Michigan– hi, Hannah.

HANNAH: Hi there.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

HANNAH: I’m actually not a parent. I’m about to be a teacher, though. And I’m so glad I’m listening to this gives. It’s giving me great ideas. But the one I was thinking about was, I’ve done with some kids I babysat before, was Metamucil and water, and you microwave it. And it turns into this– if you get like the orange flavored kind, it turns into this orange slime. And the longer you microwave it, kind of bouncier and more absorbed the water becomes. And it’s really interesting. And kind of quick if you have younger kids. Just two ingredients and it works really– it’s really fun. It looks like something you’d buy.

LYNN BRUNELLE: Hannah, I can’t wait to go home and try that.


IRA FLATOW: It’s just like Halloween slime, or something like that.

HANNAH: It sounds really gross, but it works really, really well. I was really surprised.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’m going to go home and try that, thanks.

LYNN BRUNELLE: I am, too. That sounds cool.

IRA FLATOW: Lynn, you have an interesting, very simple way to preserve snowflakes.

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yes. Well, there’s a couple things, right? Some things you need a little bit more equipment, some things you don’t, right? If it’s snowing out, take a piece of black construction paper out and look at the snowflakes with a magnifying glass. That’s amazing. You can do that with a black velvet, too, and it’ll hold the crystals.

But if you have a little microscope slide, you can bring it outside, keep it under cover. And then spray it with hairspray. And then walk out into the snow, catch a flake. You can use toothpicks and move it around the slide if you want. And then bring it back under, and let it sit. Let it sit under a protective place or in a cold garage. And you will be able to preserve the shadow of that snowflake forever because it’ll make an impression in the hair spray. And as the hairspray dries and as the water will eventually evaporate, you’ll get this cool sort of echo of a snowflake. It’s really fun.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And we actually have your instructions for preserving snowflakes up on our website at sciencefriday.com/homescience. And it’ll stay for indefinitely, that little impression of a snowflake?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah. Yeah, you can cover it with another microscope slide, and it’s not going to go anywhere.

IRA FLATOW: And when you look under the microscope, you see the real crystal structure?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Mhm. Yeah, isn’t that cool?

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. How about– I heard about this as a kid and never tried it, always wanted to. Maybe now that I’m a big kid, I can actually do it because I’m not making a mess in anyone else’s house. How about frozen bubbles?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Frozen bubbles are awesome. I discovered this by accident. I went to school in Maine, and it was freezing. And I went out on the fire escape with a thing of bubbles, in I blew them. And they held, and then they didn’t freeze. They bounced. And you could actually hear them clink on the ground. But I guess you’re getting it so thin, so you’re getting a several-molecule thin layer of water, and it freezes instantly in the cold– ping, ping, ping, ping. It’s really fun.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Lynn Brunelle and Mike Adamick. Mike, let’s talk about– this I find fascinating. I want to do this when next time it rains. This is to go micro meteorite hunting in your rain gutters?

MIKE ADAMICK: This is another one that gets you outside. I think a lot of people think, oh, it’s raining or it’s snowing, I’ve got to stay inside. But I think like with the frozen snowflakes, it’s fun to get out and explore the world. It look different to kids than it looks on a regular sunny day. And this is something that you can do, and you can scale it up, depending on the age of your kid and really turn it into like a big classification system. Or head down to your local science center and try to verify that, yes, indeed, I found a meteorite.

Well, what this is about is that all those shooting stars that you see– and in fact, there’s a big show tomorrow night or the night of the third going into the fourth– aren’t really stars, of course. They’re meteors– rock and dust particles entering our atmosphere and burning up, and we get to see a really cool light show. Well, most burn up and never reach Earth. And some actually do make it down to Earth.

And I think it was Cornell University came out with numbers that it’s something like 37,000 to 80,000 or so tons of meteorites go through the atmosphere. And not all of them are going to hit the ground, but some of them do– like tens of thousands of little ones do. And you can find them with a really powerful magnet.

Let’s say it rains. And all the rain swooshes the water off of your roof down into your gutters. Well, you can put a bucket with a magnet right where the gutter spout is, and all the water’s going to go in. And any little droplets that pour off the roof down the gutter and into the spout are going to go into the bucket, and the magnet is going to attract these little micro meteorites that you’ll have to sort through. When you drain your bucket, drain it a sieve and put it on some paper. And grab some toothpicks because they’re going to be really tiny.

And you’re going to want to try to take the little particles that are magnetic and separate those to one side, versus rocks and leaves and whatever else you have. And it’s really helpful to have a microscope for these because they’re going to be really small. And we always have to go online.

There’s a couple really great websites that help you classify these little micro meteorites. One is called Project Stardust. And some meteorites, they’re going to be magnetic. They’re iron, stony, stony irons so they’re going to stick to your magnet. So those are ones you’re really going to want to focus with on your microscope.

And some are going to look like really neat metal marbles. And some are going to look like jagged little asteroids like you might see in a Hollywood movie but scaled down, obviously, to microscopic levels. And it’s just really need to pick through and try to find these little micro meteorites and realize wow, the questions come up that Earth is going to go through–

IRA FLATOW: And you can find them. You can really find them, wow.

MIKE ADAMICK: Yeah. It’s pretty neat. And then you’ve got this little collection of micro meteorites.

LYNN BRUNELLE: That’s so cool.

IRA FLATOW: It is cool. You have to get a very strong magnet. I guess you can buy that online, too.

MIKE ADAMICK: Yeah. You can.

IRA FLATOW: Before– we have about a minute to go, Lynn. But I can’t let you go without telling us about in your experiment with a magnet– an unusual. Your experience, I should say.

LYNN BRUNELLE: My experience, yeah– the day before school, Kai was five-years old. The day before school started, we had a little party. And he was playing with his friends, and I heard this bloodcurdling scream. And I thought, oh, my gosh, he’s fallen off the bunk bed.

No. It turned out, they were playing kitty, and he had swallowed a magnet– kitty food magnet. And so, gah, we rushed to the hospital. And in an effort to– after I finished freaking out, I was trying to calm him down in the backseat. And I said, you know, this could be kind of cool. And he wasn’t buying that. And I said, no, it could be really interesting because they’re going to probably take an x-ray, and you can see what the inside of your body looks like.

And in fact, they did take an x-ray. Luckily, it was only one magnet. And he said, that’s fine.

The doctor said, you know what– he gave me a little plastic dish and a handful of little Popsicle stick tongue depressors. And he said, you’re going to have to sift through what comes out of him until you find the magnet. And I thought, gooh, that is not going to be great.

But it dawned on me that if you use a compass, the compass needle might be [SOUND EFFECT] able to point to where this magnet was. And in fact, that’s what we did. And thank god, because it took like close to 27 days for this magnet to make its way through.

IRA FLATOW: And you traced it by the compass all through those his little body until it finally came out?

LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah, and then we talked about intestines. And yeah, it was really fun. And then, yeah, when the needle didn’t move, we thought, aha, OK, culprit’s gone.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, what a story. I can’t top that, so we’re going to end the show. Well, thank you, Lynn Burnelle, the Emmy Award winning TV writer for Bill Nye the Science Guy, author of the new book Mama Gone Geek– Calling on My Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. And Nick Adamick is a writer– Mike Adamick is a writer and a stay-at-home dad. And his latest book is Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments.

Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We’ve got–


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We’ve got all kinds of stuff on our website, dozens of experiments you can find all year round at sciencefriday.com. Create a creature that walks on water, make chocolate crystals. We have all the secrets and all more stuff at sciencefriday.com/homescience.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies.

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