Category Archives: Science Experiments

Experiments – An Idea

As homeschoolers, the idea of doing science experiments can be something to look forward to for one person, and something to dread for another. If you are one who dreads experiment day, then I have some encouragement and an idea for you.

The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field or laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords.” Charlotte Mason, vol 6 pg 223

However, you do not need to do as many experiments when you homeschool using living books as the public school must do, because your students are experiencing the discoveries/experiments as they read living books about scientists. Many of these experiments, we cannot do (because we might die or at least be maimed in some way,) but because of the excellent narratives we read, we experience them on the edge of our seats, none-the-less.

One of my favorite historical science books is Robert Boyle: Founder of Modern Chemistry by Harry Sootin. In this book you are pulling for Boyle as he nearly kills a mouse and then saves it at the last minute, while trying to figure out what air is made of. You let out your breath with a strange mixture of let down and anticipation of a truth being discovered when the mouse does indeed die. There are sketches included within the book showing how Boyle set up his equipment and with the combination of that, and good writing, you have no difficulty “seeing” the whole experiment as it takes place on the page, and in your mind.

I say ‘experience’ advisedly, for the word denotes the process by which children get to know. They experience all the things they hear and read of; these enter into them and are their life; and thus it is that ideas feed the mind in the most literal sense of the word ‘feed.’ Charlotte Mason, vol 6 pg 40

Another reason we should not compare our syllabus to that of the public school is that they rely on textbooks and lectures, two things CM clearly says are sure to “destroy the desire for knowledge”. Hands-on experiments are the only hope for children being schooled this way. But there is also the matter of time. We allot approximately 2.5 hours a week to science, while they allot nearly twice that amount of time. To some degree, they need to do experiments to fill time. It can be a version of busy work.

So, we know that we must do experiments, but we do not need to do as many as the public school requires, which brings me to my idea. (With a little background as to how I came up with this idea.)

I recently attempted an experiment in the book Chemically Active! by Vicki Cobb. I like this book a lot for MS chemistry, and wish they would reprint it…with a few updates.  Here’s an example of why. I came to a section that says, “Set up your apparatus as shown in the drawing.” I must include the drawing here to see if you notice the same thing I did.

Do you see the problem? The test tubes are floating. Since I do not own levitating test tubes, I had to figure out what to do instead. There was also another problem. The book says to “use a carbon rod from inside a flashlight battery”. I didn’t think dismantling a battery was a very safe plan, so I had to look into another option for that as well.

I did a little searching on the internet, and found this excellent video that accomplishes the same thing, but uses a pencil, broken in half and sharpened on all four ends. They then use rubber bands around a plastic tub to prepare a scaffolding for the test tubs. Perfect!

My point in telling you all of this is that there was time involved in preparing for our experiment. We didn’t just break out the experiment “cookbook” and go to work. In fact, rarely can we just go to work, without some kind of prep involved. Even if it is simply making a shopping list a running errands.

It has taken me a long time to get to my idea, but here it is finally: I suggest that you assign your student the job of researching the experiment during your scheduled experiment time the week before you intend to do it. This way when it’s time to actually do the thing, your student is ready. They have the supplies needed, they know what work arounds might be needed, and they are mentally prepared because they have studied it for a period of time. They can accomplish an experiment every two weeks using this plan, which I think is plenty, and the responsibility of the whole thing is on your student, rather than being placed on you. Lastly, I hope this will alleviate the “just forget it!” syndrome which I tend to revert to when I am unprepared for a project.

Happy experimenting!

Related:
To Use the Scientific Method is Natural

To Experiment is Natural

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

Preserving Autumn Leaves

Last week we considered the Chemistry of Autumn, and tried to preserve some of the best colored leaves for our nature study wall/shelf.

First, we collected the most colorful leaves we could find – on our property.  We saw some prettier ones while driving down the road, but I decided that it was more important that this be part of our collection of leaves from our own property.

Then we prepared the recipe in a baking pan:
1 part glycerine (found at a local pharmacy)
2 parts water
We laid in a few of our favorite leaves from different trees, loosely covered it with plastic wrap, and then set a smaller baking pan on top to force the leaves down into the liquid.

 

We started checking them after a couple of days, wanting a supple feel, and then we blotted them dry when they were done.

If you compare the before and after pictures above, you can judge how well it worked.  The Tulip Poplar leaf turned out real nice.  The green colored Red Maple leaf kept a nice green color, but the red colored Red Maple leaf, didn’t keep its color.

It seems that leaves displaying a splendor of yellow and orange, might be the best for this technique, but the leaves with red don’t do as well.