Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 21, 2013

Science fun with hands-on learning

Walking the halls of a local elementary school recently, I found myself faced with a wide variety of interesting experiments ranging from the amazing — like floating eggs and bubbling volcanoes — to the downright scary: 30-day-old fast food that looked completely preserved.

There was a sense of wonderment in these experiments, and not just from the kids. Several wide-eyed adults gathered around to see what would happen with the same child-like excitement as the student demonstrators. It felt less like watching an experiment and more like watching someone having fun.

I have to admit, science wasn’t always something I found fun in school. I could handle things like Punnett squares and measuring the daily growth of my plant growing in the classroom window, but once you brought math into the science experiment my interest and grade got significantly lower.

The lowest grade I ever got in school was not in a math class but in chemistry because the unit we were doing relied heavily on math. Since math and science seemed to go hand-in-hand, I tended to avoid taking additional science classes like I avoided doing extra math at all costs.

You would think I would be a little bit more gung-ho about science given my parents. My dad is an engineer and for all intents and purposes makes his living out of math and science. One of the reasons my mother became a teacher was because of her love of science, experiments and praise from her science teachers.

Honestly, some of the best science experiments I did as a kid were not in the classroom but on the kitchen counter at home. Getting messy on the kitchen counters was always a fun bonding experience for my parents, my siblings and me but sometimes I wonder if my parents had children just so they could get their hands on the science kits sold at the local toy store.

A lot of times, these science experiments at home arose because our parents were trying to keep us entertained or out of trouble over the weekend or during those long summer months when they couldn’t ship us off to school.

One of the earliest science experiments I remember was when I was 5 and was really into dinosaurs. I found a wide variety of dinosaur “bones” cropping up in the backyard and on the driveway so my dad helped me plaster them together with paper mache just like the scientists did in my dinosaur book. With a popsicle stick for a tail, my dinosaur model was complete and lasted for a few years in the garage before falling apart.

Another time, my parents helped us set up a weather station on the back porch where we would frequently monitor things like rainfall, wind speed and temperature. We also grew rock crystals overnight on one of the kitchen counters.

Dad had a microscope from back in his youth that he occasionally set up for us. We would have fun looking at everything from our hair to leaf patterns to random household objects under the lens. Mom always made sure there were plenty of magnifying glasses in our toy boxes to use, though I’m sure the ants in the backyard wish she hadn’t.

Mixing baking powder and vinegar was another popular pastime. We made model volcanoes and blew up balloons with the mixtures. A pinch of red food coloring made the volcano lava pretty realistic.

More than memorizing elements on the periodic table or the difference between Newton’s laws, it was these experiments that really cultivated my early interest in science. It made me think of science as similar to learning how to put on your own magic show, seeing amazing things happen and then figuring out what it was that caused what you had just seen.

Getting to have fun with science at an early age is probably why I still enjoy reading about new scientific advancements, experiments and research beyond watching those “Mentos Meets Diet Coke” or “Will It Blend?” videos on the Internet. It also made me appreciate how important science is to every aspect of my daily life.

I may never reach any significant scientific break-through or understand a lot of the advanced math and principles that go into the experiments, but like most people seeing one of those paper mache volcanoes reminds me of how fun science can be.

Kate Coil is a reporter for the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.

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