Friday, October 05, 2007

At-Home Science Activities

If you’re a kid, you’ve probably never heard of Mr. Wizard. And you’ll never know the thrill of owning a genuine Mr. Wizard chemistry set. Mr. Wizard, otherwise known as Don Herbert, hosted TV’s first science show, back when kids were encouraged to go out and experiment with chemicals, rockets, and other exciting phenomena. But because times have changed, a company that recently tried to update the Mr. Wizard chemistry set had to settle for balloons, clay, and laundry starch instead of the chemicals included in the original set. And it’s not just toys that have changed: even some schools are cutting back on chemistry labs. As a result, one classroom chemistry expert told Wired Magazine last year, “Kids are being robbed of the joy of discovering things for themselves.”

But doing science at home is not a lost art. It may take some effort, a willingness to get messy, and an eye towards safety, but many of the materials needed for exciting at-home experiments are still available, if you know what to look for. And as usual, the Internet can help. With projects for everyone from the faint-of-heart to the foolhardy, you’re sure to find something on the websites below that send adults and kids alike rushing to turn your kitchen or workshop into the family laboratory.

Mr. Wizard famously inspired a generation of scientists, teachers, and science showmen, and leading the pack right now is Steve Spangler. Remember the Diet Coke and Mentos craze? That all started with a video segment Spangler did for his local Denver NBC affiliate. His website has tons of uncomplicated video and written experiments in categories such as States of Matter, Light and Sound, or All about Air. There’s so much good content here, I don’t even mind that it’s primarily an online catalogue for Spangler’s science toys, kits and supplies. (And by the way, the products -- aimed at elementary school age and younger -- are excellent.)

Science educator Robert Krampf, who takes his live high-voltage electricity show to schools for Florida Power and Light, also offers nearly 30 fun and easy science video clips on his website, just a fraction of the 300 plus at-home explorations you can read. They may not be as dramatic as a traveling million-volt Tesla coil, but they’re still pretty cool. Join Krampf’s YahooGroup to get an Experiment of the Week emailed to you or just browse the archives. Like Spangler’s experiments, Krampf’s activities are simple enough for younger kids, but they include suggestions for continuing the experiment at a higher level.

Want more of a challenge? Hila Science Camp in Ottawa, Canada has online directions and videos for such projects as a lemon battery, a two-tone alarm with a paper cone speaker, a printable star finder, and a medieval trebuchet for storming castles. The graphics on Teacher Slater Harrison’s Science Toy Maker website may look out of date, but the projects -- a Bangladesh toy steam boat, an air rocket and launcher, and an electronic lie detector -- are exciting and kid-tested. There are also lots of links to other science activity sites, too, such as the video search engine Science Hack, which promises that every entry is screened by a scientist. Finally, if Danger is your middle name, you’ll love SciToys. Not just because the Fresnel Lens marshmallow cooker starts flaming within seconds, or author Simon Quellen Field will email you right back with the answer to a question about building it. It’s because the projects have scary names (the Plastic Hydrogen Bomb is really a high-tech squirt gun), and they work. The SciToys catalog is also a good, cheap source of materials used in projects.

Don Herbert passed away in June at the age of 89, but his spirit lives on. So release your inner science nerd, take the family outside and drop a tube of Mentos into a bottle of Diet Soda today!

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