Solar Ovens, Water Rockets, and Other DIY Summer Science Projects
Schools might be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean the science fun needs to stop. Bill Nye the Science Guy writer Lynn Brunelle and Liz Heinecke, author of Outdoor Science Lab for Kids, share experiments that kids can try in places like the backyard or campsite, all summer long.
Liz Heinecke, a.k.a. The Kitchen Pantry Scientist, is on a mission to inspire kids and parents to get their hands into some science by making it fun, inexpensive, and easy. She’s written two books, Kitchen Science Lab for Kids and Outdoor Science Lab for Kids, and makes regular appearances on Minneapolis area TV stations. She says putting together a summer science kit isn’t difficult.
“You can never go wrong with baking soda and vinegar, of course. That’s always a good starting place,” Heinecke says. “For outdoor science it’s great to get a magnifying glass, some binoculars and duct tape always comes in handy.”
After getting kids some simple tools, the next steps, according to Heinecke, are to get them outside, get them curious about something, and then leave them alone.
“Push the kids out the door, give them an idea,” Heinecke says. “You can tell them a little background as you’re introducing the experiment. Say, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to go look for arthropods—those are animals with their skeletons on the outside of their body.’ But then get them started and let the kids take over because summer is really their opportunity to be creative and not have to follow directions.”
Lynn Brunelle, author of Mama Gone Geek and an Emmy Award-winning TV writer for Bill Nye the Science Guy, couldn’t agree more.
“The enthusiasm towards getting outside is great—getting away from the electronics is terrific and turning them on to something that can springboard into a science conversation,” says Brunelle, who lives in Seattle. “First of all I look for the enthusiasm. You know, it depends on the age of the kids but mud is always great. Anything smearing, anything hunting for insects and stuff like that.
“You get the enthusiasm first and then you launch into the science. I find it backfires with my kids to start with the science and launch into the enthusiasm.”
One experiment Brunelle suggests involves something as simple as an empty plastic yogurt cup and a little digging.
“Kids can, like real scientists, sample the arthropod populations in their backyard,” Brunelle says. “They can take a container and something to dig with out in the backyard and build sort of a booby trap for bugs that you can hide under a bush in the garden. You dig a hole bigger than the container, you set the container in it, get the lid of it flush with the dirt, kind of camouflage it, put some rocks around it and you can put a lid over it so if it rains your bugs don’t drown.”
“It’s a great way for kids to sample the insect population: insects, arachnids like spiders, and even crustaceans like isopods — you know like pill bugs that fall into their trap. They can look at it the next day, they can dump out what they caught, look at it under a magnifying glass. If they want to, they can try to identify it, they could draw it, they could take a picture of it. I would say just get them started and see what they do with it.”
A few other experiments Brunelle and Heinecke suggest include the following:
PIZZA BOX SOLAR OVEN
MUMMIFIED HOT DOG
—Elizabeth Shockman (originally published on PRI.org)
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.
Liz Heinecke, a.k.a. The Kitchen Pantry Scientist, is on a mission to inspire kids and parents to get their hands into some science by making it fun, inexpensive, and easy. She’s written two books, Kitchen Science Lab for Kids and Outdoor Science Lab for Kids, and makes regular appearances on Minneapolis/St.Paul television stations.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This school year is coming to and end. And that means more time with the kids. I’ll make no comment about that, except to say that those kids, perhaps, you’d like to do something for them or help them do other things this summer. Better to occupy their inquisitive minds than hours of video games and texting and social communities.
Well, my next guests are going to share projects that are going to keep your little scientists curious and busy all summer long. And you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. All you need are supplies you can find around the house and in the kitchen pantry. So let’s get right to it.
Liz Heinecke is the author of the new book, Outdoor Science Lab for Kids. She also writes the Kitchen Pantry Scientist website. She’s based out of Minnesota, and joins us from the NPR studios there. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
LIZ HEINECKE: Hi, Ira. It’s great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Lynn Brunelle is an Emmy award winning TV writer for Bill Nye the Science Guy. She’s author of the book, gone Momma Gone Geek– Calling On My Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. She’s an old friend of Science Friday. Good to see you, Lynn.
LYNN BRUNELLE: Nice to be here.
IRA FLATOW: And we want to ask our listeners, if they have a favorite summer science project. What do you do with your kids in summer science? We want to hear from you. Our number is 844-724-8255. 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us at @scifri. Liz Heinecke, your website is called the Kitchen Pantry Scientist. What are staples to stock up for these projects at home.
LIZ HEINECKE: Well, you can never go wrong with baking soda and vinegar, of course. It’s always a good starting place. But for outdoor science, it’s great to get a magnifying glass, some binoculars. And duct tape always comes in handy.
IRA FLATOW: Lynn, you agree?
LYNN BRUNELLE: I absolutely agree. That’s an essential kit.
IRA FLATOW: How do you make sure that the projects are fun, the kids get wrapped up– especially with the duct tape– in putting them together. How do you make sure that, Lynn, they’re really getting some science out of this also?
LYNN BRUNELLE: Well, I mean, I think, first of all, the enthusiasm towards it– getting outside is great, getting away from the electronics is terrific, and turning them into something that can springboard into a science conversation.
So first of all, I look for the enthusiasm. It depends on the age of the kids, but mud is always great. Anything smearing, anything hunting for insects and stuff like that. So you get the enthusiasm first and then you launch into the science. I find it backfires with my kids to start with the science and launch into the enthusiasm.
IRA FLATOW: Sneak into it backwards, yeah. Liz, any advice for highlighting the science of these projects?
LIZ HEINECKE: Oh, I would agree with Lynn. I think it’s great to push the kids out the door, give them an idea. You can tell them a little background as you’re introducing the experiment, say, hey guys, we’re going to go look for arthropods. Those are animals with their skeletons on the outside of their body. But then get them started and let the kids takeover because summer is really their opportunity to be creative and not have to follow directions.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Liz, let’s put you to work. Give us an idea, at the top of your list, like get the kids outside as much as possible. I know you have a project for making pitfall traps for insects.
LIZ HEINECKE: Yeah, so kids can, like real scientists do, sample the arthropod populations in their backyard. So they can take a container and something to dig with out in the backyard and build sort of a booby trap for bugs.
You can hide it under a bush in the garden. You dig a hole bigger than the container. You set the container in it. Get the lid of it flush with the dirt, kind of camouflage it. Put some rocks around it. And you can put a lid over it, so if it rains, your bugs don’t drown.
But it’s a great way for kids to sample the insect population– insects, arachnids like spiders, and even crustaceans like isopods, like sow-bugs and pillbugs– that fall into their traps. They can look at the next day. They can dump out what they caught, look at it under a magnifying glass. If they want to, they can try to identify it. They could draw it. They could take a picture of it. I would say, just get them started and see what they do with it.
IRA FLATOW: And of course, it’s a smooth thing. They can’t climb out of the yogurt cup.
LIZ HEINECKE: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: We actually have step-by-step instructions for the insect pitfall trap up there on our website at sciencefriday.com/summerscience. Lynn, you have an interesting way to make paint out of leaves.
LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah, this was an awesome discovery a few years back. I wanted to do something fun where you’d pound a leaf. And I thought that if you’d hit a leaf and you had paper, it would sort of explode out like a firework. So that was what I tempted the kids with. Let’s go and make cool firework paintings.
And so we got a pillowcase. And I said, we’re going to make something so we can go sleep in the woods. And I put a leaf on top of the pillowcase, a paper towel on top of leaf, and gave them a hammer. And they just went to town– hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer.
And then we lifted up that paper towel, it was miraculous. It looked like a beautiful print of a fern. It was exact. Everything down to the pores, down to the veins. And so this has become something that we’ve done– hunting leaves. You can have a white handkerchief, go hunting leaves.
If you go for a hike, you can gather leaves and then you can hammer them into your handkerchief and make it kind of a hiking bandana. And it’s a great way to launch a conversation about leaves and chlorophyll and making energy from the sun, or even veins and what you’re looking at when you see a leaf.
IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. Our listeners are checking in now. Jennifer in Palatka, Florida. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.
JENNIFER: Hi, I love your show.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you.
JENNIFER: Yeah, I boil red cabbage, drained off to tubes, soak coffee filters in it, and then cut that into strips. And well, I cut it after it dries and set out bowls of things from the refrigerator and safer things from underneath the kitchen sink and laundry detergent and such.
I told the children what was in the bowls. But then I just have them chart this is what color those paper turned with the apples, and this is what color the paper turned with vinegar and dish soap and such. And they came to some beautiful conclusions about what was acid and base and why all on their own.
IRA FLATOW: So you make litmus paper out of boiled red cabbage. Lynn, do you know about this one?
LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah, oh no, it’s great. It smells but it’s really good.
JENNIFER: Thanks a lot.
LYNN BRUNELLE: You can take it even further, actually. What I love to do is start with the science. And if the kids are interested in it, in dipping, if you took a round coffee filter and you dip the whole thing in the red cabbage and let it dry and then fold that into quarters, so you have almost a cone shape, and then you can dip the tip into liquids.
And it’s kind of cool to watch it spread up. And then you get this kind of beautiful little art papers. And you could turn them into bugs. We’ve done pH butterflies. So things that are more basic would be more on the blue end. And things that were more acidic, on the pink.
IRA FLATOW: Jennifer, thanks for that suggestion. Liz, you’re familiar with this?
LIZ HEINECKE: Oh, yeah. One variation we love is to use the red cabbage juice itself and put it in two containers. Add vinegar to one, it’ll turn bright pink because vinegar is an acid. You can tell your kids it’s acetic acid. Add baking soda to the other. And then, of course, you have to combine them, right.
So the one is bright pink, one is bright blue because baking soda is a base. You combine them and it forms carbon dioxide gas. You say, that’s a chemical reaction. You’re making something new. It foams over. Kids absolutely go crazy for it.
IRA FLATOW: That’s got to be the oldest science.
LYNN BRUNELLE: It never gets old.
LIZ HEINECKE: It never gets old.
IRA FLATOW: Everybody’s volcano or a fire extinguisher or something is using that thing. But this is a colorful version of it.
LYNN BRUNELLE: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Liz, you have a good project for kids and probably fishermen– how to collect earthworms.
LIZ HEINECKE: Yeah, you don’t even need a shovel. You can just irritate their skin by mixing about a third cup of ground mustard into a gallon of water. You mix it up. If kids are doing it in the yard, have them sort of measure out a plot so they can figure out how many worms are in a square foot of dirt.
And you pour the mustard water over the grass, the grassy dirt, and the worms will come up. And this was probably the most popular experiment. When we were doing the photo shoot for my new book, the kids just loved it. All ages.
IRA FLATOW: No worms were harmed in the conducting of this experiment.
LIZ HEINECKE: No worms were harmed. We let them all go. But I think people who study earthworms will tell you that we have more than enough worms. They’re actually causing some damage to some of the hardwood forests.
IRA FLATOW: Lynn, I know something that might come in handy on a camping trip is a solar oven made out of a pizza box. Tell us how you do that.
LYNN BRUNELLE: You can do this camping or in the park. So you get a pizza box. And then you cut a U-shaped cut in the lid so that that flaps up. You wrap that hole with Saran wrap or plastic wrap so that you could actually have this sort of air tight thing. And then you cover everything else with tin foil.
And then you’ve got this flap that can reflect and move. And you set it in the sun, and you angle it at the sun so that the sun’s rays are concentrated inside. Put a piece of black construction paper on the inside. And it actually works. It heats right up.
IRA FLATOW: It gets hot in there.
LYNN BRUNELLE: Yeah, I mean, you’re not going to be able to roast a chicken in it. But if you’ve got an hour or so, you can make an apple crumble. Or you could make nachos. Or a faster one is s’mores, because chocolate melts pretty good, and marshmallows, and that’s fun. And getting the kids to try and localize those rays to melt and burn the marshmallows is always really fun.
IRA FLATOW: Better than burning ants, I think, with a magnifying glass.
LYNN BRUNELLE: That’s marshmallows better than ants, definitely.
IRA FLATOW: Magnifying glass. Let’s go to the phones and take a call from David in Martha’s Vineyard. He’s on vacation or he lives there. Hi David.
DAVID: Hi, hi. Great to be on. I love this show. And so my story has to do with what Lynn was talking about– getting the kids outside. And then my take on this– you want to follow their lead.
They’re going to show interest in something if you give them the opportunity. And so I like using the Socratic method. You ask them a question. You see what they’re interested in. You ask them a question about it.
So I had seven kids in our home school cooperative on the backyard one spring day. And in minutes, they were all gathered around the peony bush, which was just about to blossom. So the buds were just hard and ready to go. And they were all covered with ants.
And so the kids were drawn to the ants, right. And so I asked the Socratic question, what are the ants doing. And they threw out a bunch of suggestions.
And one kid said, well, they look like the buds are covered with sticky stuff. And ants like sticky stuff. And I said, yeah, I think that’s probably right. I didn’t know. And so what happens when the ants eat off all the sticky stuff?
And they threw out some more concepts. And they came up with, someone said, well, the flowers blossom. And I said, wow, I bet you’re right. Let’s go find out. So we went to the local library, which is a great place to take kids any time.
And of course there was a children’s botany book. And there was a two-page spread on the symbiotic relationship between ants and peonies. So they learned on their own. I didn’t know. I just asked the questions and they came up with it all on their on.
IRA FLATOW: Lifelong learning. That’s a great tale. Kids, you never know what’s going to happen, Lynn.
LYNN BRUNELLE: You never do. And following their lead is awesome because that lets you learn new things.
IRA FLATOW: One of your favorite campsite projects, I understand, is mummifying a hot dog.
LYNN BRUNELLE: I have a thing for Egypt. I’ve loved Egyptian gods. And I love the idea. Yeah, really, exactly, you never know. They might be mummified.
IRA FLATOW: They might be.
LYNN BRUNELLE: And it’s really fun to do. If you have a little plastic Tupperware or any container, even a yogurt container will work, too, if it’s clean. You put a few inches of baking soda in it. You take your hot dog. We can name it– you know, Hot [? Dog-khamun. ?]
IRA FLATOW: OK.
LYNN BRUNELLE: And bury it underneath the baking soda and leave it for a week. And then come back and look at it. And then leave it for another week. And what you learn is that the baking soda actually extracts all the moisture. And when there’s no moisture, no microbes can break down and decay. So you actually end up with a mummified hot dog.
IRA FLATOW: It’s something every kid wants to take to school. They do. They keep it for the summer. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Lynn Brunelle and Liz Heinecke.
Liz is author of the new book Outdoor Science Lab for Kids. She also writes the Kitchen Pantry Scientist website. Lynn Brunelle is author of Momma Gone Geek– Calling On My Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. And I know you’re in New York City. You’re sitting right next to me. You’re going to be at the World Science Festival this weekend.
LYNN BRUNELLE: I’m going to be at the World Science Festival. It’s going to be so much fun down in Washington Square. We’re going to walk on water– cornstarch and water.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, I’ve done that.
LYNN BRUNELLE: It’s so fun is you come down and run on it.
IRA FLATOW: I’ve done that.
LYNN BRUNELLE: We have a 25 yard little trough for you to run on. We’re going to do pendulum painting, where we’re going to swing paint and see what patterns it makes. And we’re going do work with symmetry and reflection and do flying selfies.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And Liz, and just a few minutes left, I know there’s always a favorite. And one of my favorites from when I was a child is making a water bottle rocket. Tell us for all of us who had forgotten had to do that. How do you make the water bottle rocket?
LIZ HEINECKE: Oh, they’re super simple. We usually use a one-liter water bottle. You fill it, maybe, a third of the way, a fourth of the way up with water. And then we do it by cutting a wine cork in half and putting ball inflation pumps right through the middle of it. And then putting that needle on our bike pump.
So then you turn the rocket upside down, so it’s pointing away from you. And the bottom of the bottle is pointing up. You start pumping air in. The pressure builds. When it builds high enough, it shoots the water and the cork down, which obviously shoots the rocket in the opposite direction. And you can shoot those things really far.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, yeah, we’ve all had those. I love those. There are a lot of different ways of doing that. Liz, you may get one more call before we have to take a break. Let’s go to Deborah in Milwaukee. Hi, Deborah.
DEBORAH: Hi, can you hear me?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.
DEBORAH: OK. So I had an idea. You mentioned using the hammer to pound ferns, et cetera. But you can also do flower pounding. Irises are really good. They have a really strong blue. And have the kids get T-shirts, you can get white T-shirts for $2 at Walgreens and using flowers, make a pattern. And they actually last for several washings.
And also, they can write letters on birch bark. Don’t pick it off a tree. But that’s a good thing, send a card to someone. And then make a bird house out of a wine box. And you can cover it with duct tape or whatever. But I made one and it’s being used.
LYNN BRUNELLE: Cool, that sounds great. I’ll have to try that.
IRA FLATOW: Anything to get the kids away from just staying in and texting and doing social media all summer long.
LYNN BRUNELLE: They can do Instagram photos of their experiments.
IRA FLATOW: They could.
LIZ HEINECKE: Yeah, and there are lots of science projects, too, that they can use their devices for to report their findings.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we could collect them, trade them, swap them like we used to do, stuff like that. Is it hard coming up, Lynn, with new ideas, with things?
LYNN BRUNELLE: You know, it is. It’s not hard. You just have to remain open. It’s where you get led down these paths that you don’t expect to go. And that’s where you discover these little goodies. I find that there’s lots of goodies in the muck.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you like to play in the muck. Well, it’s where I am most weeks on this show. We’ve run out of time. I’d like to thank both of you. It’s been delightful to have Liz Heinecke, who’s author of the new book Outdoors Science Lab for Kids. She also writes the Kitchen Pantry Scientist website. What is that URL on that, Liz?
LIZ HEINECKE: It’s kitchenpantryscientist.com.
IRA FLATOW: Hey, that was hard.
LIZ HEINECKE: Super hard, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Lynn Brunelle, Emmy award winning TV write for Bill Nye the Science Guy and author of the book Momma Gone Geek– Calling On My Inner Science Nerd to Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood. She’s going to be at the World Science Festival this weekend. And you can also see instructions for Liz’s bug traps and all kinds of other activities on our website at sciencefriday.com/summerscience. Thank you, both for the taking the time to be with us.
LIZ HEINECKE: Thank you. It was so much fun.
IRA FLATOW: You too.