Do You Science?

10 Jun

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letter big surprise: I used to be a middle school science teacher before I was a dentist. I know – shocker, right? So it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about the “school science fair.”

In fact, surprising though it may seem, my undergraduate degree has nothing to do with science. I was an elementary education major. (Long story. Don’t ask.) As I went through my program it became pretty obvious that smart as my fellow education majors may have been, and as cool as they though science might have been, let’s just say that science wasn’t really their thing. In a world where teachers need to worry about standardized tests , overpopulated classrooms, shrinking budgets and differentiating individualized instruction, it’s no wonder that come science-fair time the finer points of what science *REALLY* is tend to get lost in the noise.

At my kids’ elementary school students get their first taste of the science fair in 2nd grade (at the very end of the year when their attention couldn’t be less focused). “Science” as an entity looms large in our house, so when the assignment finally came Episode IV was all charged up and I, in turn, was all charged up to make this a *REAL* learning experience, rather than an end-of-the-year afterthought.

Kids that age think science is just something cool where some person in a white coat does something dramatic with dry ice, or liquid nitrogen, or giant 3-inch locusts (all of which I have done in their classrooms). That in itself is wonderful. It sparks their interest and gets them excited. But science isn’t a sideshow. Science is about asking questions, rationally collecting information, and then shaping our understanding of the world based on where that information leads us. From that perspective, the first thing kids need to learn is how to formulate a proper (testable) question.

mentos

Case in point, a real conversation at our dinner table:

“So, have you thought about what you want to do for the science fair?”

Episode IV thinks for a bit then, going for the gross-out factor, “How about we get a cow eyeball…” (we had talked about dissecting a cow eyeball for a classroom lesson) “and a human eyeball and dissect them both and see what the difference is!”

Gross, though not surprising if you know this kid. Clearly she was not in the right headspace and needed some proper instruction about what a real scientific experiment is. That sparked a great conversation around the table about control, and variables (two concepts that are most definitely within the grasp of a 2nd grader if presented to them properly) and how to formulate and test a hypothesis. We brainstormed for a while and eventually settled on an idea expanding on the tried-and-true mentos and diet cola experiment.

“CANDY AND SODA — Is there anything that makes it explode better than mentos?”

DorkDoggy got in on the action too

DorkDoggy got in on the action too

Now it should be said that I am also well aware of the “obviously-the-parent-did-this-science-fair-project” factor, and I was determined to let Episode IV do as much of the project as she could. But kids also need guidance and instruction. If someone doesn’t show them HOW to set up a proper experiment, and doesn’t show them how to rationally interpret the data, they’ll never learn anything. So from concept to presentation, letting her do as much work as possible without leaving her floundering, we definitely took a “let me show you how to do a proper science fair project” approach for this first foray into the world of science fairs.

Mentos and diet soda -- it never gets old.

Mentos and diet soda — it never gets old.

That Saturday morning I loaded Episodes IV and V into the car and off we went to the candy aisle at Target. There they picked out as many different candy types as they could get their hands on, and we cleared the shelf of 2 liter bottles of diet coke. Giddy at the prospect of exploding soda (and leftover candy) they bounced in their seats until the car pulled unexpectedly into the Home Depot parking lot. “Why are we here, Daddy?”

Jellybeans and soda... not so great.

Jellybeans and soda… not so great.

“Where else can you get an eight foot piece of border molding and a roll of black duct tape?” They blinked at me, incredulous. “Trust me,” I said.

We got back to the house and, eager though they were to tear into the candy, I made them watch/help as we used to duct tape to mark out two inch stripes on the border molding. “How are we going to measure the explosions if we don’t have something to measure it with?” I stood the zebra board up next to me and the light of understanding clicked on in both of them. We spent the rest of the afternoon gleefully exploding diet coke all over the backyard, taking pictures, eating candy, and writing our results down in a log.

truth

…and wouldn’t ya’ know it? We got a result that none of us were expecting (OK… maybe I had a suspicion, but they didn’t). It turns out that the thing that makes diet cola explode even more dramatically than mentos is a spoon full of BAKING SODA!!

After dinner as the kids were crashing from their afternoon-long sugar binge, drunk on science, sunshine and saccharine, we skipped the usual bedtime YouTube clip and snuggled into Mommy and Daddy’s bed to watch a TiVo’d episode of “Mythbusters.”

Baking Soda And Diet Soda -- Who Knew?

Baking Soda And Diet Soda — Who Knew?

Truly there is no show better suited to entertain the whole family, and joyfully illustrate the sound principals of the scientific method. That night my kids went to bed with visions of glorious science in their heads.

Addendum:

Fast-forward a couple of days. I was tooling around the internet when I discovered that the Mythbusters live stage show was coming back to our area. UnDorkMommy and I went to see it from the nosebleed seats a couple of years ago and it was great fun. We both agreed that it was totally family-friendly and perfect for a kid just about the same age as Episode IV.

mythbusters

So I went into high gear and found that there were still a scant few awesome VIP-level seats available. One swipe of the credit card later and Episode IV and I have front-row seats to see Adam and Jamie bust some myths live on stage in fantastic Mythbusters fashion. And if that wasn’t enough, the VIP level seats also come with “Meet The Mythbusters” access. That’s right. After the show Episode IV will get to go backstage and meet Adam and Jamie in person, the very guys who performed the definitive television experiment on mentos and soda.

When I told Episode IV about it she said to me “Do you think they’ll be interested in our experiment? Can we show Adam and Jamie what we did?”

“I know they will, sweetheart, and yes we can.”

 

-Dork Dad

5 Responses to “Do You Science?”

  1. kjysten June 10, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Awesome Dad! I did this with Josh when he was that age. Then I asked him what made it happen…his answer – from an eight year old….”uh, cavitation?” :>

  2. Ande June 10, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    My science fair “experiments” always sucked when I was in school. I think because I actually did them myself (or with a partner) and that whole bit about doing a proper experiment and responsibly interpreting data wasn’t fully conveyed to us.

    • dorkdad June 10, 2014 at 10:50 am #

      Nope. With a few exceptions I remember my elementary school teachers being as annoyed with and bewildered by the science fair as we were.

  3. Dadcation June 11, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    This is awesome!

  4. Matt Fluger June 17, 2014 at 7:26 am #

    I always make my children do their own science fair projects. I will get materials, help them do research and transport their big projects up to school for them safely. At first my kids thought it was mean, but now they really have a strong comprehension of science as well as an interest in discovering the answers. With my eldest now in middle school, this is a major advantage.

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