Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Weekend Scientists

We've been playing at weekend scientist, doing unusual things with everyday items like meat tenderizer, alligator clips, water, lemons, and galvanized nails. And some not-so-everyday items, like platinum-coated wire.

Some of these experiments, such as placing a white carnation in a glass of dyed water to demonstrate capillary action, make for good (if slow) theatre. There is also a straightforward explanation for the science that's taking place.

But other experiments we've done lack both clear explanation and theatre. The hydrogen fuel cell is fascinating, but the descriptions we've found for why it works aren't particularly good: the diagrams leave much to be desired, and the specificity of the narrative changes. Worse still, many of the descriptions for this experiment on the internet repackage the same original explanation: all searches effectively lead to the same place.

The experiment is also abstract. You only really know the fuel cell is working because of the reading on the multimeter. To an adult, that's real enough, but to a child, it's just a number that goes up and goes down.

We make it comprehensible by doing our homework, coming up with our own diagrams and composing our own narratives from the information we find. We make it tangible by modifying the experiment to power a low-voltage component. Walking this last mile is the best part: we understand the science better, we're not just performing it mechanically.

All this time we're spending may not give her the least bit of scientific encouragement. But if it makes her a little more aware of the things happening around her, it is time well spent.