Science for Kids

Can you recommend activities that our family can do to supplement science teaching in school? I’m not talking about these kinds of activities which demonstrate facts. That’s important, to be sure, but they get lots of that at school.

What I’m interested in is performing true experiments that reinforce the scientific method, at a level suitable for 9-13 years old (or slightly higher). Not so much that they can confidently define “hypothesis” and “observation.” I want my kids to experience the joy of discovering a truth by patiently and methodically inquiring upon nature - even if the truth has been discovered years ago.

An example of something I’m planning on doing with them is: Measure how choice of phrasing influences how people answer a questionnaire. Head out to the mall, gather data for the control group. Vary the questions, repeat. Ultimately form the hypothesis that questionnaire results can be engineered by using leading questions - but try to merely guide the kids (as well as follow their lead).

I’m trying to think of some cool experiments with physics, but most of my ideas are mere demonstrations rather than discoveries - although I intend to replicate one experiment from high school where you run a strip of paper with a weight attached through some kind of marking device, wherewith you can calculate acceleration due to gravity. We can then make a prediction and test it out.

All ideas welcome, from chemistry, physics, astronomy(!), psychology, biology…

Get them an acoustic guitar. Fun with sound waves.

Mebbe some ideas here?

One we did at primary school was to drop different objects from a fixed height and attempt to time the duration of the fall of the objects. Kind of repeating Galileo’s fabled experiment from atop the leaning tower at Pisa, really.

You could also perform another one of Galileo’s experiments, and attempt to discover the relationship between the length of a pendulum and the time it takes to swing a full arc.

My HS physics teacher taught us how to make an arc welder, in case we ever needed to break out of prison.

(Hint: all you need is something that plugs into the wall, and a pencil.)

One neat way to show that weight isn’t the determing factor in which object falls faster is to let a sheet of paper fall when held flat side down. The wad the paper up into a ball and drop it again. The weight hasn’t changed but the speed of fall has because of the reduced air resistance.

Another way to show this is to drop the paper and a book (paper smaller in area than the book) at the same time. They will, of course fall at different rates. Then lay the paper on top of the book and drop them. Both will fall at the same rate since the paper is now shielded from air resistance.

You could create a simple circuit, made from a battery, a few wires and a bulb to investigate which substances conduct electricity and which do not.

You could also construct your own mini meteorological station, with a thermometer, barometer, wind gauge, wind vane and rain collector. Have the kids try and keep a weather log for a few weeks and have them attempt to spot some patterns.

There’s also an investigation you can do into what causes rust. Basically, get three jam jars, three iron nails and a candle. Place one nail directly into an empty, fill another jar with enough water to cover another nail, and place the candle and nail in the remaining jar. Light the candle, and then put the lids back on all the jars.
Leave for a couple of weeks and then note the result. Try and explain it.

I loved science as a kid. The best thing you could do for any child that likes science is buy them a chemistry set.

Sorry- but I have to weigh in with this: I think it’s unlikely that your kids will ever experience the joy of discovery with you determining what it is they are to discover, the methodology, and, no doubt the interpretation of the observations. If you want your kids to be those kinds of kids, you have to be the right kind of parent - i.e. model and example. And not in a pedantic, didactic sense, but in a totally natural way. And you are not evincing such tendencies here. I’d recommend you read Richard Feynman’s address to the National Science Teachers conference from about 1964. You will see how a parent can create curiousity and insight in a young child. It’s not from designing some sort of home version of a conventional school science curriculum. You come across as a copter parent - hovering and pushing. You apparently think that somehow you can create the uberchild - someone who will on his own grab pencil, paper, and hypothesis and jump into the world exploring. It doesn’t work that way. Do your kid a favor. Back off. If you want her to gain an appreciation for nature, show some yourself. Look at cool things together. Investigate things that you both want to know about. Observe carefully. Reflect. The world is wondrous enough without having a parent determine what should be explored and how it should be done. When your child spontaneously asks a testable question, you can gently suggest that the question might be answered in a methodical way. But, still, often what kids want is an answer, not a science fair project. And, if you want to be helpful or supportive, how about going to a book store and offering to buy any three books about nature that your child would like to have? Or giving her a field trip to a local museum, complete with a purchase at the gift shop? You want Frankenchild? Keep second guessing the schools and trying to create your own Nobel prize winner. You’ll get there.

CC, your post certainly has an important nugget of truth - conjuring up the image of the poor kid at a science fair, trying to explain to the judge the thingy that daddy made for him, daddy off on the sidelines getting upset with the kid for not winning - or Beethoven’s father who would beat him because he was not a prodigy. For shame.

However, your post also demonstrates the human tendency to jump to conclusions without evidence, i.e. your characterization of the type of parent I am and my motives posting. The conclusions are incorrect, but more, there was no evidence to make such conclusions. This one of the reasons the scientific method is so important, and why I take seriously my responsibility to impart it and critical thinking to my kids - the ability not just to increase knowledge, but also to know when you don’t know something.

I trust the school and love my kids’ teachers. In addition to the excellent education they receive there, I wish to impart to my children the joys I experienced when caring adults took the time to broaden my horizon.

I guess I could cast them to the wind and just hope they don’t “discover” ghosts, UFOs, and astrology. I would rather equip them with the ability to think intelligently and to know confidently.

My former girlfriend once took off with my friend’s sailboat. When explaining why she said, “Someone invented and figured out how to operate a sailboat. I’m just as smart as whoever that was, so I should be able to figure it out.” She got into trouble and who knows what would have happened if my friend hadn’t caught up to her in his outboard hours later. She gets full marks for courage, curiousity, and confidence. But it was foolhardy to foresake the accumulated knowledge of the ages that culminated in the invention of the sailboat (then on to ocean liners, etc.)

Mrs. Call and I will continue to provide the best environment we can to both foster and allow natural curiousity. In addition we will be there to guide, instruct, and to the extent we can, deliver to them their birthright of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

One aspect of that is the scientific method, which brings us to this post.

What you’re asking about is called the inquiry, or sometimes investigative, method of science teaching. It’s probably the most fashionable method of science teaching in schools these days, but is rather difficult. I’m surprised it’s not being used to some extent in your school… maybe you should check with the teacher to see if s/he is using it already.

I can’t go into all the ideas for this, but basically anything can become an inquiry experiment as long as you’re not tied to guiding the child too much. In other words, let them decide on the question, let them decide on the methodology. Your survey idea is actually not very strong in inquiry because you’ve already determined the question for your kids. Let their imagination take the lead, and you provide help when needed.

By that age, students should be able to define hypothesis and observation. go straight for it, don’t dumb it down.
Finally, I could give you some ideas, because inquiry is my favorite teaching method and it’s what I use most in my own teaching. However, I don’t really have time right now to type that much, so I’ll just recommend checking these books out. Note that a lot of them emphasize how “new” inquiry teaching is, but it’s actually been around since the 1920s.

I seem to have flubbed that link.

Here’s some direct links to the results of that search:

That’s just a start. Search for “inquiry” and “teaching.”

Your kids ask science questions. I’m not stating this as a possibility or an if; all kids ask science questions. Let them ask the questions. Then, for each question they ask, devise an experiment. Maybe you’re not so great at experimental design, or maybe you’re not familiar enough with the question to know what sort of experiment would work: In that case, ask us for help with the specific questions, and let us help you. But by all means, let your children ask the questions. That way, they’ll be sure to be questions that they’re interested in, and they’ll see value in the experiments.

Just so, and I certainly do not know you nor your family nor your motivations. However, another aspect of the so-called scientific method is inference, several of which I have made in reading, and re-reading your post. And there is plenty to work from.

Weighing in as a K-5 science specialist.
Science begins with an “I wonder…”
Isaac Asimov said that "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

I’m not harping here. But to enjoy science, to enjoy the discovery, your kids have to lead you…not the other way around. What are their “I wonders?” Is it really to confidently define scientific terms? Or how to use the ‘scientific method’? To patiently and methodically do ANYTHING? Aren’t these 4th and 6th graders (or there abouts) we’re talking about?

Can you really see a pair of young learners thinking this is either fun, interesting or their idea? This is not the kind of active science most people, let alone kids, would gravitate to.

This seriously sounds like your deal, not theirs. You are directing their inquiries, deciding in advance what the results should be, proposing experiments with pre-determined outcomes, and overlaying it all with a patina of “scientific method”. If you are really interested in fostering your kids love of science…do more listening than you are now. What are they curious about? And how can you help them frame some good questions? And how can you help them investigate; they don’t have to find answers yet. Canned ‘experiments’ are not going to turn anyone on to science.
And just for grins…read this article, one of many, on the myth of the scientific methods
Just my opinion, of course; I could be wrong.

I highly recommend 700 Science Experiments for Everyone. This is a modern edition of the book that got ME interested in science at a young age.

Make hydrogen by electrolysing water. You need a 9-volt battery, some wire, a bowl of water, salt and 2 carbon rods. Finding the rods might take a little effort but all the other stuff is easy to find. Wrap the wires around the rods and attach the other ends to the battery terminals. Dissolve as much salt into the water as it will take and stick the rods in in (make sure they don’t touch each other). Hydrogen will rise from the anode and oxygen from the cathode but at their age they won’t know that so you can tell them that the formula for water is H2O, and write the half-equations for the ions becoming gases and ask them to guess which is which (since one terminal will produce twice as much gas). And then you can collect the hydrogen in a test tube and burn it. Fun for all!

I really didn’t like doing experiments as a kid. But this one was awesome. Anything involving sodium is bound to be a hit too, but it might be deemed too unsafe for little kids.

Nature’s Call, it’s nice that you want to do this. And CC has posted a most perceptive warning well worth heeding.

I’m a physicist, and I bet the questionaire project at the mall would have chilled my interest.

What I found most encouraging was playing with things, like a microscope (Celestron makes a splendid 40X scope for $70) or magnets or lenses or pipe fittings. We had a jug of mercury in the basement and I spent hours making spoonfuls of mercury - solder alloys over a propane torch (this would have been an environmental disaster today). I played with a drill press and with motors and wires and batteries. Play is perfect, because it’s the same thing as the real scientific method. Asimov’s “That’s funny…” quote is perfect.

If you must orchestrate experiments for them, perhaps you could bake a dozen small batches of cookies with different ingredient mix ratios, or build model airplanes with different dimensions, to see what is optimal. Or stand hundreds of feet apart and shout with walkie talkies to try to measure the speed of sound. These have fun sorts of bait built in.

I hate the calculation of gravity experiment in physics lab. In my introductory class, the lab book introduced a time unit called the “minisecond” as an intermediate tool to allow some of the calculations, and then somehow it conveniently forgot that our time unit was of unknown size. Following the recipe still produced the standard value for Earth’s gravitational strength, because of various oversights in the book. We complained and the instructor said “I know, I know, but you have to do it anyway”. I always wondered what the purpose of those standard lab recipies was. I learned a lot from them, but not about physics.

I agree with the above. I had a chemistry set in elementary school. I had expressed interest in such things before mom and dad bought it. Their part in the experiments was almost entirely “Don’t play with the chemistry set when we are not here to watch you. Do NOT drink the chemicals etc.”

The only experiments from school courses I enjoyed were complex, weeks-long programs in which we started with the very basics and went from there. Each experiment required knowledge from earlier ones, and in some cases required things we had built in earlier experiments or which were the product of earlier experiments.

My niece is going to be four next week. Along with other presents, I am giving her a pair of what are labelled ‘3-d Fireworks glasses’. There will be a short note on prisms. I will explain that the tiny prism in the glasses works just like the big prism Bubby and Zeyde have. Even though that one is big, heavy and made of glass, they work the same. The big difference, these glasses aren’t an antique and won’t break when dropped. Because I know she’ll immediately want to know why mixing colors of light gives you white light, but mixing paints gives you black, I’ll include a very brief and extremely non-technical comment on that.

What happens if you wear two pairs of glasses at once? She’ll come up with that question and its answer on her own.

What light sources do not produce full rainbows? Again, she’ll observe that on her own and I’m very curious as to what explanations she’ll come up with.

With a kid between nine and thirteen, I’d work with something they’re already interested in. Kid shows signs of developing mad leet skillz? It’s time to have some adventures in artificial life. Musically talented? It may be time to build a new and bizarre form of instrument.

First of all, my apologies to CC… Your post surprised me and caught me in a grumpy mood. I shouldn’t have jumped down your throat.

Secondly: Thanks to everyone for your sources and ideas. I am grateful.

[for the record]
I didn’t expect a debate on under what circumstances doing experiments at home was appropriate or how best to entice kids to get turned on to science - although the comments along these lines are perfectly logical. I just didn’t anticipate them and thus didn’t go into details as to motives, goals, etc in the OP. - just looking for the ideas.

I was yakking with a cow-orker today about our respective school experiences. Summary: each of us had great teachers and took much away from elementary/high-school, but the scientific method was merely mechanically performed and accompanied by some of the pitalls described in wonder9’s link (although neither of us had seen that link before). It wasn’t until University that really brought home the broad application of the scientific method in particular and critical/skeptical thinking in general. We wondered how to more deeply instill these skills earlier in a child’s education. I recalled a post on SDMB asking for ideas for an experiment to demonstrate natural selection, and I thought, “Hey, maybe Dopers can provide some ideas for home experiments that might fit the bill, then watch the ideas roll in.”

I wanted to include at least one example of an activity with the attributes I had in mind: the mall questionaire. In hindsight it sounds dreadful, but I was trying to seed the hoped-for ideas with something that featured a control and experimental group, introduced the ideas of statistical analysis, esp. correlation and significant differences, etc. I know my kids, and while our 9-year old would definitely be turned off, our 13-year old would get a kick out of the practical application the math (I remember the first time I hit equals after calculating a t-test - the rush that I’d “proven” something - a rush I’m sure I could impart to our 13-year old).

By jumping right in and asking for experiment ideas, the OP may well have left some with the impression Mrs. Call and I are about to convert our house into a laboratory with Jacob’s Ladders bzzzt’ing in the background and the kitchen table taken over by a variety of test tubes, bunsen burners and Erlenmeyer flasks - forsaking everything to do endless science activities. Far from it - I merely was after some ideas to put in our pocket to dust off at appropriate times.

wonder9 says “This seriously sounds like your deal, not theirs.” YES! This is absolutely correct. I’m not trying to coerce my kids to become scientists or even win science fairs. Whether they get turned on to science as a result of these activities is tangential (although I do not want to turn them off). My primary goal is for them to internally understand scientific method in a way that equips them more accurately to understand the world. We are already teaching critical thinking by example, by discussion, by other means. I was seeking to add to these other means a perhaps fun but certainly meaningful exercise of one way to get at the truth - the scientific method.

While it is important to engage kids’ interest while teaching, that is not to say that sometimes uninteresting work should not be part of learning too. If the only way one teaches kids is with infotainment, we rob them of an important aspect of a good work ethic. If we wait for a child to first show an interest in something before teaching it, we rob them of everything they may well have been interested in if only they knew about it. Sometimes expanding a child’s horizon challenges them, and sometimes it may not be “fun.” Yes, entertaining kids while teaching them is effective, but that’s not the same as saying it’s the only way to go. You gotta drudge through boring scales before you get to the sublime fun of playing a piano concerto.
[/for the record]

I’ve started following the links everyone has provided, and I’m excited by many of the books suggested. Thanks again.

Does anyone have any success stories working with kids on teaching skepticism/scientific method/critical thinking? What about not-so-successful stories?

Is there any way to salvage the dreadful mall exercise? An activity that explores a statistical significance between a control group and experimental group of measurements?

Doc Cathode said “The only experiments from school courses I enjoyed were complex, weeks-long programs…” This sounds exciting! Doc (others?) can you describe one of these programs?

Actually, Hydrogen will be given at the cathode and chloride gas is produced at the anode. The oxygen will combine with the sodium to form Sodium Hydroxide (aka lye).