Saturday, March 1, 2008

Science Experiments in the Kitchen

One of my treasured but regretted books of childhood was The Boy Mechanic published in 1960 by Popular Mechanics magazine. I do not know where or under what circumstances it was acquired but it was always there on the bookshelf. I used to love leafing through its pages filled with diagrams of things one could build, illustrated with those wonderful old blue prints, drawings and sketches of that era. A go-cart tank, your own cannon, a crystal radio - it had it all. Unfortunately all I could ever do was gaze at these marvelous projects. We lived in third world countries which undermined the opening paragraphs of each project. "Go to your local hardware store and obtain the following items to construct this . . ." Most places we lived either did not have a hardware store, or if it did, it did not have the things required. I loved that book and its projects but it was a vicarious and unrequited love.

In fifth and sixth grade I was living in Sweden and attending the Anglo-American School (now the International School) in Stockholm. We had a nice little school library, big enough for the basics and a bit more, small enough to never feel overwhelmed. Small enough also to never feel out of the direct eyesight of Miss White, the stern librarian. Once you got to know her, and particularly once she knew you liked the books under her care, she was very approachable and friendly but all of us were usually on eggshells in her presence.

From that period there are two library books in particular that I recall and which I regularly checked out and read; repeatedly. One was a bright orange book titled something along the lines of Can Pigs Swim? It covered all sorts of improbable questions such as whether pigs can swim or not, with the answers jocularly written but based on factual information.

The other book I can see so clearly in my minds eye and yet I cannot recall the title at all. Judging by my recollection of the accompanying photo illustrations, it must have been written in the late fifties or early sixties. The substance of the book was a series of experiments one could conduct in the home with readily available household products. The author described the materials required, how to conduct the experiment and then had a very short essay elaborating the underlying scientific principles. Whether it was well written or not, I don't recall, but it did deliver on that premise - the experiments were easy to do and the materials were readily available.

Whoever wrote it kept everything simple but infused each experiment with a sense of magic. One of the simple ones, which you can do at home right now if you want, involved only an egg and some salt. The author used this experiment to discuss granularity and friction but presented it as a magic trick. From recollection, the instructions were along the following lines.

Practice this on your own first before trying it with a friend. Obtain an egg and some salt from a salt shaker. Shake a small amount of salt into the palm of your hand then put away the shaker. Not too much. Keep your hand discreetly hidden so that the salt cannot be seen.

Find a subject upon whom to play your trick. Standing by a table or some other hard flat surface, hand your friend the egg and challenge them to make it stand up straight without breaking the shell. They might try balancing the egg a number of times but will soon abandon the effort as impossible. Tell them that it is easy. They will almost certainly challenge you to prove it.

Take the egg back from them. Lick the base of the egg and then cup it in the palm of your hand (the one with the light sprinkling of salt). Hold it out to your friend to show them how easy it is to make the egg stand upright. They will protest that that is cheating, that you need to make it stand upright on the flat surface of the table. Acting surprised, take the egg from the cupped palm of your hand. Make sure that there is a small, unnoticeable amount of salt adhering to the base of the egg where you licked it. What you will find is that as you carefully place the egg on the table, the small crystals of salt will act as a base for the egg and will support it upright. If you were suitably sparing in the use of the salt, it will not be apparent to your friend and you will appear to have done the impossible.

Literacy, numeracy and experience - three pillars upon which the intellectual and, later, moral, health of our children are built. Or to translate using George Orwell's counsel (Politics and the English Language ) to always use old Anglo-Saxon words in order to make it more concrete: Reading, counting and doing. If you can, one of the more fun aspects of bringing your kids along is the doing part. Whether it is hikes in the woods, visits to zoo and museums, building things or doing science experiments in the kitchen, they can be fun and illuminating. The trick is to keep it simple, especially with regard to finding the really simple experiments.

Even without knowledge or instruction, simply having chemistry sets around or Erector sets or Meccano or Lego gives a child the freedom to discover, to try things by trial and error, to build. I received a chemistry set when I was about six or eight years old and spent many happy hours with it. Sometimes I attempted to follow the instructions to achieve some end such as copper crystals or some such. Sometimes I just randomly mixed chemicals to see what would happen. Either approach was like as not to lead to an interesting outcome.

Letting the kids help in the kitchen as early as possible is a great way to build key skills they can later use for science. It takes invested time at first to supervise kids in the kitchen but they pretty quickly become almost useful for other purposes such as fixing a meal. But while they are in there, enjoying your company and the smells of the dishes and the easy conversation, they are also learning the rudiments of science; How to measure things; Why it can sometimes make a difference the order in which ingredients are mixed; The fundamental principles of thermodynamics (cooking things and freezing things).

It is not uncommon then, at an early age (four to six perhaps), for them to want to stretch their experimental wings and start trying to prepare food on their own. One of ours would spend many happy hours mixing the most improbable ingredients to come up with some threatening looking liquid, goo or dish of some sort, with the confident declaration (despite having tasted it) that it was delicious. This is about as safe an environment for the practice of experimentation as you can get (as long as you limit their access to sharp blades and powerful mixers).

Messing around in this safe proto-lab imparts far more knowledge than one can reasonably anticipate. It doesn't take much scratching around to find all sorts of kitchen experiments, whether intended or not. I have on occasion shared with the kids the story of Sally in the kitchen with a mixer to illustrate the concept of centrifugal force.

It was early in our marriage, maybe a Friday or Saturday afternoon/evening. Sally was in the kitchen baking a cake for some party. As she stood over a large bowl with a handheld beater, I came in to ask her a question. Half turning to answer me, she inadvertently raised the handheld beater out of the batter with unexpected but predictable results. When we moved out of that house a couple of years later we were still finding traces of batter in the nooks and crannies around the kitchen. Exhibit A for centrifugal force.

Below are a series of adequate books that can help serve as a catalyst for science experiments that can more or less easily be done around the house or in the kitchen. I am afraid I have not recently seen any that stand out as truly excellent or that are available in print. These are, however, useful as reference type books to get started with. If there are any books you would particularly recommend, please respond in the comments section below or by e-mail.

Independet Readers

101 Great Science Experiments by Neil Ardley Suggested

Science is Simple: Over 250 Activities for Preschoolers by Peggy Ashbrook Suggested

Science Projects for Young People by George Barr Suggested

Science Experiments by Jane Bingham Suggested

Bubbles, Rainbows and Worms: Science Experiments for Preschool Children by Sam Brown Suggested

Pop Bottle Science by Lynn Brunelle Suggested

365 More Simple Science Experiments With Everyday Materials by E. Richard Churchill Suggested

365 Simple Science Experiments With Everyday Materials by E. Richard Churchill Suggested

Science Experiments You Can Eat by Vicki Cobb Suggested

The Thomas Edison Book Of Easy And Incredible Experiments by James G. Cook Suggested

Science Project Ideas About Kitchen Chemistry by Robert Gardner Suggested

Creepy Crawlies And The Scientific Method by Sally Stenhouse Kneidlel Suggested

Science in the Kitchen Kid Kit by S. Meredith Suggested

Experiments You Can Do in Your Kitchen by Q.L. Pearce Suggested

47 Easy-To-Do Classic Science Experiments by Eugene F. Provenzo Suggested

The Ben Franklin Book of Easy and Incredible Experiments/Activities, Projects, and Science Fun by Lisa Jo Rudy Suggested

Secret Science by Steve Spangler Suggested

700 Science Experiments For Everyone by UNESCO Suggested

Chemistry For Every Kid: 101 Easy Experiments by Janice VanCleave Suggested

Janice Vancleave's 200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments by Janice VanCleave Suggested

190 Ready-to-Use Activities that Make Science Fun! by George Watson Suggested

Weird Science by Jim Wiese Suggested

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