Experimenting with science at home: Feed kids’ curiosity with easy, safe projects they can do with common materials
FARGO – Start with water. Add a healthy splash of cooking oil, and just a few drops of food coloring.
Wyllie, an assistant professor of chemistry at Concordia College and coordinator of Concordia Science Academy, still remembers the “pivotal moment” that got him hooked on the field when he synthesized aspirin in a high school class by boiling willow bark and reacting it with acetic anhydride.
Now, he’s working to help give kids that same moment – and inspire their curiosity and passion for science – but the experiments he’s teaching youngsters through demonstrations at the Fargo Public Library and his work with the Concordia Science Academy won’t require any strange ingredients or dangerous chemicals.
Wyllie recommends parents help their kids try “kitchen chemistry,” real experiments that can be done with common things found around the home or at hardware or grocery stores.
“Sometimes, there’s some really spectacular science hiding behind what appears to be just simple, mundane materials,” he said.
Carrie Leopold, too, likes to help young people discover their inner scientist – even if they don’t realize they’re learning powerful concepts through the fun experiments at the Inspire Innovation Lab in the Moorhead Center Mall.
“My advice for parents would be to let the kids explore,” she said. “It’s OK if you don’t know the answers; it’s OK to learn with your children; but really, it’s OK for it to be unstructured.”
Here are some ideas from Wyllie and Leopold for at-home experiments that are simple and fun for kids to do at home, with parental supervision.
Or, search online or in books for more ideas – the search terms “kitchen chemistry” and “science for kids” should turn up plenty of helpful advice. Author and teacher Steve Spangler also has a website with ideas at www.stevespanglerscience.com.
Working with water
Try to explain the concepts of “hydrophobic” and “hydrophilic” interactions, and you just might find a bored, confused kid staring back. But use some Insta-Snow and Magic Sand to demonstrate the properties, Leopold said, to make the lesson entertaining.
Insta-Snow, available at craft stores and online, is a hydrophilic polymer, meaning it is highly absorbent – it’s the same absorbent material found in baby diapers.
When water is added to the white powder, it greatly expands to look like snow; pour salt into that mixture, and it will revert back.
Magic Sand, meanwhile, also is a polymer. However, she said it’s hydrophobic, meaning it will repel water – and any drops of water added to a small amount of the sand will instantly roll off or pool up.
Leopold said it’s easy to tailor lessons to a child’s interests and grade level by asking questions – why does it react this way? What happens if they add more or less? – for a real-world learning experience.
One of Wyllie’s favorite projects to teach is a “Chromatography Blossom” – a fancy name for something made with water-soluble markers, paper coffee filters and water.
First, draw small dots around the middle of a filter with several colors. Tear a small hole in the center, then roll up another filter and insert into the center, and place the creation over a cup of water.
The rolled-up filter sticking down into the water absorbs the liquid, slowly drawing it up into the other filter – causing the marker dots to spread around, creating an interesting flower-like pattern after just a few minutes.
Named after a Dr. Seuss book, the strange substance known as oobleck is a hit with kids.
Wyllie suggests combining two cups of corn starch and one cup of water; if it’s too thick, add more water, or add more corn starch if it’s too runny.
The combination creates what’s known as a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning it’s both a solid and a liquid. It will spread out to take the shape of whatever container it’s in, behaving like a liquid, but if it’s balled up in a fist, it will keep its shape like a solid – until the pressure is released, and it runs off hands like water.
Wyllie’s seen quite a few books giving ideas for at-home experiments, but one of his favorites gives the recipe for 100 different kinds of “slime.”
It might sound gross, and look it, too, but it’s easy, safe and fun for kids, he said.
Start by putting some school glue into a cup, and add a little water. Then, add a few drops of food coloring, mix it all up, and add the magic ingredient –Borax washing powder. The reaction causes the runny liquid to become a “special kind of slime” that can be modified by adding more or less water or glue.
The slime can make for a fun toy on its own, or mold it into balls or other shapes and let it dry out.
It’s simple, but the rainbow milk experiment is another fun lesson.
Leopold has the Inspire Innovation Lab kids start by pouring whole or 2 percent milk on a plate. Add a drop of three or four different food colors to the center of the plate, dunk a cotton swab in liquid dish soap and stick the soapy end into the middle of the milk.
The reaction is immediate – the colors are pushed to the edge of the plate, and when more soapy cotton swabs are used, the colors can be swirled around the milk. The secret, she said, is the food coloring allows us to see the hydrophobic and hydrophilic reaction between milk and soap.