Category Archives: Experimenting

Grow [LARGE] Alum Crystals

A quick search on the internet provided me with several sets of instructions for growing alum crystals, but none of them worked the way we had hoped. We kept ending up with big clusters of crystals, but not a single big crystal. After a little trial and error, however, we figured out how to grow some big ones!

What You Need:
alum (from the spice isle of your grocery store)
water
2 jars

What You Do:
DAY 1

  1. Pour 1/2 cup of hot tap water into a clean jar.
  2. Slowly stir in 2 1/2 tablespoons of alum, a little at a time, until it stops dissolving. You likely won’t need the whole amount – just enough to saturate the water.
  3. Loosely cover the jar with a coffee filter or paper towel to keep dust out. 
  4. Allow the jar to sit undisturbed overnight, or even for a couple days.

DAY 2

  1. The next day (or a couple days later,) pour off the alum solution from the first jar into another clean jar. (Do not pour the tiny crystals in with the liquid, yet.)
  2. You will see several small alum crystals at the bottom of the jar and along the sides. These are the ‘seed’ crystals which you will use to grow big crystals.
  3. Pick 1-3 of the largest ‘seed’ crystals and place them in the bottom of your fresh jar of alum solution.

EVERY FEW DAYS

  1. Repeat part 2, moving your growing seed crystals to the fresh jar. 
  2. Pick off any tiny crystal that have affixed themselves to your big crystal.
  3. If the alum water gets too low, make more solution and add it to the jar. (Wait until it cools.)
  4. Don’t be concerned if it seems like your crystal is not growing properly on one side – just turn it over and it will repair itself. 

When it is the size you want, store it in an airtight container.

You can see the size difference between our tiny seed crystal (left), and our finished crystal (right).

These crystals have gotten cloudy due to being exposed to the air for a couple months.

I hope you try this out and let me know how it worked!

Related:
Special Study – Minerals
Natural History Rotation

To Use the Scientific Method is Natural

 One of my children began reading a Christian Liberty Nature Reader this week.  So far I highly recommend this for early readers. One of the difficulties with a Charlotte Mason education is the necessity of finding very good beginning readers.  Our children have been hearing such high quality books from such an early age, so early readers have the potential to bore them. Thankfully there are good readers available, and it turns out that this is one of the gems. An added bonus is that it has a nature study focus.

The first chapter told how a mother Mud Wasps set up each of her eggs in a walled in nest. She puts several spiders within the nest, so the baby will have food when it hatches.  In the book there is a little sketched picture of the nest that really isn’t very clear, but my daughter found the description very interesting.

The morning following this first reading, she and I ran an errand, and out of the blue she made this sound of awe and disbelief.  I had missed whatever she saw, and had to wait until she could gather herself to explain. She spoke with amazement in her voice. “I can’t believe it.  I just saw it. There was a Mud Wasp nest on the wall in that tunnel. Will you go back?” I wish you could have heard the awe in her tone. It was like it was a gift set out just for her.  Of course, I went back and there is was. Just like she said.  I’m not sure I would have known what I was looking at, after all, the sketch had not been all that clear, but she could tell.

Once we returned home she looked up images of Mud Wasps nest, and sure enough, that is exactly what it was.

Now comes the good part. Sure, that was a pretty good part, but this is the science-y-blog good part.  After making these observations, she began asking questions: How does that mother Mud Wasp catch those spiders without getting stuck in the web? Does she have some kind of oil on her feet so she doesn’t stick, or does she swoop in like a helicopter, but not actually land? How does she collect several spiders and wall them in without them getting away? There were holes in those nests – is that from the baby wasps getting out? Are they little when they are born?

That right there is what we call the formulation of a question. (Well, several questions!)

A little later she said, “She might sting them, the spiders.” And another child said, “To paralyze them maybe.”

And there’s a hypothesis!

I was so good, (if I do say so myself,) because I casually responded by saying, “That’s a good hypothesis.” It’s so great when we can slip in correct terminology. Unfortunately, it requires knowing the correct terminology, and it’s better to say nothing than say the wrong thing, but I think I pulled it off this time.

So far there has been no testing or analysis, but just give it time!

I’ve been thinking lately that we really do a lot more experimenting than we realize, and if we are naturally experimenting, we are likely naturally using the scientific method.

To Experiment is Natural

Recently I purchased some grass-fed beef gelatin to make homemade jello. A friend told me that the best way to sweeten it is to use pineapple.  I thought pineapple was a no-no when making jello, but she was certain that it works great.  I gave it a try, and guess what – it didn’t set up. (It was yummy incorporated into a smoothy however!)

This made us ask why it didn’t work, or more precisely, why it did work for my friend. It turned out that the key was to use canned pineapple, instead of the fresh pineapple we had used. Canned pineapple is heated, which inactivates the enzymes that will prevent the jello from setting up. We read more about what precisely is happening when we make jello, and how fresh pineapple inhibits that. (If you are interested you can read more about it at chemistry.about.com)

Once we knew a little more, we tried again. We used the rest of the same fresh pineapple, but this time we heated it to 158°F first.  Good news! It worked great and we enjoyed a great dessert!

I share all of this because I’ve been thinking that we really do a lot more experimenting at home than we realize. We think that if we have not pulled out a book of chemistry experiments for young people, then we aren’t doing it right, but I would like to suggest that the opposite is true.

The first step in using the Scientific Method is to formulate a question. How better to start this process than to actually HAVE a question that you want to answer? When we open our book of experiments, we don’t have a question, we are just looking for an activity.

Start paying attention to the questions that arise while you cook with your children, clean, do nature study, play, whatever. Then notice how those questions get resolved.  Did anyone do any brainstorming or research that cause them to come up with a theory? (A hypothesis.) Did they do anything to test that theory? (An experiment.)  Did that confirm their theory or send them back to the drawing board? (Analysis.)

If you aren’t seeing this happen in your home, maybe it’s just because you’re not watching for it. It’s not necessary that you notice, but it might encourage you. However, if it really isn’t happening around your house, you may need to prompt things somewhere along the way. For instance, if you see that your child is left with a lot of questions, but never looks to find an answer, you might prompt him to research things he is interested in. If you see him looking for answers, but then always taking the “expert’s” word for it, maybe you should challenge him to test out these theories on his own to see if he gets the same results.

One last note. Please don’t take what I’m suggesting to the extreme and zap the fun right out of the adventure by forcing the process. This should be fun, inspiring, life.  Not another thing to check off their list.