Hi Readers!Â We’ve come a long way since the days when you could buy your kid a chemistry set with radioactive ores. Maybe too long. Â When science is no more exciting that watching oil and vinegar separate, we end up with bored kids. That means a few years later we end up with an ignorant population, easily conned. We need EXCITING, slightly dangerous science, argues Theodore Gray, author of Theo eisbhnysty
Gray’s Mad Science — Experiments You Can Do at Home But Probably Shouldn’t. (A title he says is totally accurate.)Â Here’s his nice essay about how we overemphasize the dangers of science compared to, say, the dangers of most school athletics. He also points out, somewhat bitterly, that The Dangerous Book for Boys is completely devoid of danger. Anyway, at the bottom of his essay is a link to his book.
And while on the topic of books, I do feel holiday-compelled (tick tick tick) to remind you that Free-Range Kids is available for your gift-giving pleasure, too, in hardcover, audio download and Kindle format.
Happy reading! And exploding! — Lenore
The Discovery Channel TV show Mythbusters tries to show the exciting side of science, often as an excuse to have explosions and destroy things. From watching that show I knew that the balloon boy story was a hoax because they had already showed it would take several thousand balloons to lift a small child.
P.S. I’d like to see a list of other free range gifts for the holidays.
My friend used to have a set that allowed us to melt lead, pour it into molds and make toy soldiers. Hot enough to melt metal and toxic fumes with no adult supervision — those were the days.
Actually, we still melt lead in my preschool class. The kids are always sure that metal won’t melt, then they’re blown away when it is.
If you’re interested in putting together a good chemistry set like they used to sell in the old days, check out Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science) by Robert Bruce Thompson. In the book, he tells you how to set up a decent home chemistry lab, as well as detailing a bunch of good basic chemistry experiments.
Too funny… I was just searching for episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy on youtube. Loved that show. Grandson is nearly old enough to at least find him entertaining, if not actually absorb anything. Although, I remember his mother doing density experiments in a bucket in the backyard at age 4 thanks to Bill…
Once I had a kindergarten parent who came into my classroom to tell me that I had messed up their Christmas. She had placed all kinds of plastic toys on lay-away. Her son had informed her that all he wanted was a stereoscope like the one in the classroom. She couldnâ€™t believe he wouldnâ€™t want the toys. I had to explain that a Montessori education aims to give the child the world. Hereâ€™s to giving the children the world!
One â€“ A Compass
There are a couple of things to be aware of when purchasing a compass. 1. You want a base plate compass. 2. The little ball ones and the ones on zippers are only decoration. 3. Make sure the arrows are easy to read.
Two â€“ A Magnifying Glass
Looking at the tiny patterns in things helps children find relationships and mathematical patterns in the world around us. Check out a sewing store. They have really good, DURABLE ones. Things to keep in mind: 1. glass is optimal â€“ just like in cameras, but it scratches and breaks easier than plastic 2. Go for 2.5 or 3x magnification.
Three – Backpack â€“ that gets messy
Kids need a backpack that can get dirt in the bottom and mud in the zippers. The school backpack can not do double duty. Requirements: 1. It must be made to get drug through the street with a load of rocks or dropped 20 feet from a tree. 2. It canâ€™t be waterproof so don’t do plastic. You donâ€™t want to even go down that road. It doesnâ€™t need to be fancy â€“ 2 zipper areas and off we go.
Four â€“ A Pocket Knife
As Gever Tully of the Tinkering School believes that the ability to wield a knife in life is a powerful step towards independence. And how. In our family there are two school of knife thought: 1. Swiss Army and 2. Leatherman.
Five â€“ Rope
You want a length of nylon rope. Get more than you think â€“ 20 ft. is pretty good. You want nylon because it is relatively wear and water resistant. Just make sure it could support their weight. You may want to demonstrate how to seal a nylon ropeâ€™s end (burn it). You may want to stop by your local book store and find a knot tying book so you donâ€™t have to buy more rope for a while.
Six â€“ Plants and Insects Audubon Guides
Being able to name something provides kids with a sense of ownership and responsibility for it. It also helps children know when to rationally be afraid.
Seven – Trust
It may be a few gray hairs for you. Those hairs are nothing compared to the greatest gift you can give your child. I didnâ€™t have any of the other items on this list growing up. But I did have this. I am very grateful for my parentâ€™s gift to me.
Thanks EV for the list. :o)
EV… man I wish my kids could have gone to Montessori! Do-overs with the grandson are kind of great. All those ‘if I knew then what I know now’… well, I do. I’m inspired to get him his own magnifying glass now.
My husband teaches 8th grade science at our parochial school. His favorite lessons are the ones when he gets to blow things up and set things on fire with his class. I’m so glad he’s still allowed to do that!
My favorite day in a science class was in fact the very first day of 10th grade, in Chemistry. The teacher brought out a heavy-duty metal pitcher (with its bottom dented out about 2 inches) and filled it with water, then put it in the hood. Then he gets a dipper and fills it with something grey and lumpy, holds it over the pitcher, drops it, and runs.
It turns out that water + elemental sodium ==> sodium hydroxide + hydrogen gas + enough heat to detonate the hydrogen gas… oh, and 26 kids who now understand exactly why the teacher said not to combine things even if you think nothing will happen, unless it’s in the lab guide!
Explosions are educational, who knew? 🙂
EV that is a fantastic list. Next year’s birthday and solstice I’ll pick those up, though I think my son could use a magnifying glass now. 🙂
BPFH: Great story!
I think the decline in science experiments is strongly linked to the decline in well qualified science teachers. I remember in high school we did a lot of experiments in physics and chemistry that involved explosions, fire and other fun – then in my final year we lost a physics and a chemistry teacher. Neither of the two replacements were actually qualified to degree level in the subject they taught and the quality of the hands on classes deteriorated markedly (the non-hands on too, but not by as much). Safety may be a factor too – but I suspect well qualified teachers who are passionate about their subject would be much better able to stand up against that sort of pressure.
I definitely agree with Gray that kids need to do the experiments themselves not just play some video game – and I love the comparison with sports.
The way science is presented to children and adolescents is the bane of my existance. It’s FUN. mean, many grown men and women get to spend their days a)blowing things up, b) crashing things into each other or c)playing with animals, and then laughing hysterically about it and high fiving each other. How can you argue with that?
My elementary school had “science days” in which we basically got to design our own experiments to find out about cool stuff. Not quite Montessori, but hey, it got a lot of kids excited about science. My junior high school, on the other hand, treated it like it was an inherantly boring subject that the students *had* to be subjected to (much the way they treated math). Hello? What’s this? All you’d have to do is browse cracked.com’s science section or tune into an episode of Mythbusters to see how silly that is. The sciences have this potential to get people to go “Oh, cool!” like nothing else, and yet that potential is often completely ignored in favour of rote memorization of the names of all the hormones (in my case, without needing to know what they did except in a few really obvious cases). Because that will really raise a generation of scientifically minded people.
I think you got it in one with the “ignorant, easily conned population” thing, too. Science is primarily a method, after all, for weeding out bad information and fallacies, and using rational thought and observation to arrive at the best possible conclusion. Imagine if everyone did that? (chaos in the streets, I know. ;P)
I did a paper for one of my classes about the overprotection of children, and one of the best points I included in that paper was a quote that came from Tim Hunt, a cancer researcher, scientist, and joint winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Medicine:
“We get graduates coming into our laboratories who do not know how to weigh chemicals, measure liquids or take samples. They should have been taught these techniques in school but havenâ€™t because they are not allowed to go near chemicals, because of all the safety paranoia. So we have to teach them.”
Kids going into college in a scientific field are losing valuable education time because their professors are spending time going over the things they should have learned in high school. So not only do these overly paranoid parents and school administrators deprive children of the fun of science, they are hampering them in their education. It’s just pathetic.
Hey now, science shouldn’t get all the fun. My kids built the city of London when we learned about the fire and set it on fire so they could see how fast the fire spread due to the houses being connected. They also broke off the end of the houses to see how the firefighters eventually helped to quench the fire. They did that while the houses were on fire. It is still their most talked about project and it was a history lesson!
This year for science we are studying forensic science. It might not be dangerous but it’s gross, does that count? I have to stage a shooting so the kiddos can analyze the blood splatter pattern. Gotta love homeschooling. We still get to do all the fun, gross (and dangerous!) stuff we want.
Just kidding Lenore, but did they made the audio version for the parents who felt that turning pages was too dangerous?
I loved science until we stopped being able to play with the stuff.
Re: Mae Mae’s comment – You don’t have to home school to do experiments at home. Just want to encourage people to have a go with their own kids.
The advantage to a school doing this stuff in science class should be access to well qualified science teachers (passion and knowledge can be inspirational) and equipment individuals can’t normally afford for themselves – I do think it’s kind of scandalous if schools are getting worse at this instead of better.
School administrators should hide their heads in shame if what Theodore Gray says is true – this over-emphasizing the dangers of science and curtailing experiments more dangerous than those in the baking soda and vinegar category. I hadn’t realized it had gotten that bad – another sad commentary on the state of public education.
I was thrilled that Mr. Gray pointed out the dangers of football are far worse than doing science experiments.
I’ve always been amazed by how blind school officials seemed to be to the serious nature and frequency of sports injuries. I have a feeling this blindness is like parental blindness to the dangers of riding in an automobile. Neither group wants to consider curtailing their involvement with these statistically high potential dangers. Cars and Sports are, after all, cultural symbols. They are not to be tampered with… So instead, we focus our fears on things the general public can live without – like science experiments that “might” be dangerous, or the remote danger of being strangled by the cords of Venetian blinds, etc.
Back in high school, one of our sons did an independent science experiment (at home) which involved using about 30,000 volts of electricity. I do remember being more than a bit concerned that he might electrocute himself and burn down the house. But I’m happy to say he’s alive and well. Perhaps my point is that in spite of poor schools, students with parents who really care about helping them grow will allow them to explore – will allow them to follow their own interests so they can inspire themselves to do great things in science or whatever field they choose.
I was fifteen in 1957 when the Russians beat us in putting the worldâ€™s first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. Unfortunately, our own effort, the Vanguard only made it about three feet above the launch pad when it exploded.
These were the big events of the day and, of course, this prompted kids like me to get out our AC Gilbert chemistry sets and come up with some kind of fuel for our rockets.
Check out this website to see a â€œRealâ€ chemistry set:
Of course, we had to make our own rockets from whatever we could scrounge, because thatâ€™s what you had to do back then. You couldnâ€™t go to the store and buy a nice, safe, ready-made model rocket.
I spent a lot of time researching at the local library and experimenting in the basement, which usually resulted with the house filling with acrid smoke. My parents were very tolerant (most of the time). Finally, I came up with a good fuel consisting of powered zinc and sulfur. Both of these items were included in my chemistry set. Since the chemistry set contained only a few ounces of these ingredients, I soon used them up. Luckily, I was able to order larger quantities from our local drug store. Try doing that today!
I had a few successful launches from the backyard. When things didnâ€™t go as planned, I had to figure out why and that was very interesting. I learned that failure is necessary to find out what will work.
A few years ago, I found out that my friends and I shared the same interests as Homer Hickam, who grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia. He is a true, â€œRocket Man.â€ Did you see the movie, â€œOctober Sky,â€ which came out in 1999?
Check out his bio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_Hickam
It seems to me that kids today do not have to use their imaginations to create things as we had to. For the most part, so many things come ready-made. I think kids today share the same interests as I did, but there are so many restraints in place that maybe itâ€™s like, â€œWhy bother?â€
Thatâ€™s how I see itâ€¦..
After being very disappointed by child-safe chemistry sets with my two older kids, I got smart the 3rd time around. One of my 10 yo’s Christmas gifts is a set of real lab equipment, complete with alcohol burner (to be used ONLY with an adult present), and Janice VanCleave’s “Chemistry for Every Kid”. The experiments are still “safe” but at least he won’t be doing them in plastic toys.
I wish this topic had come up a week ago; I would have ordered the “Illustrated Guide” book mentioned above instead. But my library had it available, so that’s now on it’s way also.
Jen C: I’ve thought of a way to put pressure on school districts to stop this kind of destructive behavior, and also to make sure that they teach real biology (i.e. acknowledge evolution): hit ’em in the sports programs. We need to persuade the NCAA that biology classes without evolution or chemistry classes without lab experiments should not count as academic core courses for purposes of determining college athletic eligibility (they’re really anal about the core course thing; I remember the story of one basketball player who had to sit out his freshman year because as a high school freshman he was in an ESL class; his family were Russian immigrants). That way, athletic scholarship prospects will have to spend their summers taking community-college classes to get up to snuff rather than attending sports camps. That’s the sort of thing that riles up school officials and leads to actual turnout in school-board elections.
Also, high-status universities like the Ivies should consider not accepting watered-down science classes in their admission requirements.
For some reason this reminds me of one of my six year old son’s favourite tv shows. Brainiac: Science Abuse is a British show that I think was shown on Discovery Channel for a while.
My boy loves the idea of science experiments because of this show – even if most of them are hilariously bogus.
There is a show called “Dude, What Would Happen” on Cartoon Network (of all places!) that is like a kid’s version of “Mythbusters.” My kids (11-yo son, 9-yo dau) love both shows. We have never had them ask to do these things, but constantly hear, “wouldn’t it be cool if we…” When my son was presented with the 4th grade list of science projects, he opted instead to build a trebuchet (similar to a catapult) to experiment with.
As long as the teacher is qualified and the kids are taught proper respect for chemicals + how to use safety equipment, if the experiments aren’t too complex there is NO reason why they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to experience their world.
This sort of thing is exactly why we are considering sending our son to a private math and science academy for high school!
Okay, a bit off-topic, but not quite. You know all those safety regulations everywhere that make it so difficult for you to change the batteries on toys? Well, out of lazyness I allowed my kids to use the screwdriver on their own since the eldest hit 4. Not only because I didn’t want to get off my lazy butt, but because their being so clumsy would give me 15 more peaceful minutes.
Now we keep the non-electric tools beside the kids’ toys. When they break one, they get the chance to try and put it right again (so far, they haven’t, though). And the 18 mo. old looks sooo cute trying to put in charged batteries in her toys…
(Oh, and we also got them a manual battery-charger, so they spend most of the afternoon turning a wheel instead of playing noisy tunes on that darned electronic keyboard)
My son needed to re-do a simple experiment at home that he had missed in his 4th grade science class. It was just a volume/mass sort of exercise that used corn syrup and oil and food coloring.
The teacher was explaining it and I said, oh yeah, no problem. Immediately I was questioned “Do you even have such things in your house?” Of course I do!
It’s not just that kids don’t have the materials, it’s that parents don’t! People who are eating all processed foods don’t even have baking soda and vinegar at hand. You don’t need those for microwave cookery.
2009, MAKE blog/magazine commissioned a terrific writer/educator named Charles Platt to write a beginners electronics book that would actually teach logically and had Platt test and photograph step by step everything he described. The book’s called MAKE: Electronics: Learning by Discovery. “Burn things out, mess things up-that’s how you learn.” So far, the reviews I’ve seen have been very positive.
I have corresponded with the author and asked him some technical questions and can attest that he’s really good at explaining hard stuff in an easy way but that isn’t patronizing. The book is just out and I see it listed on Amazon and you can see some sample pages there too.
Marcy – it may be true that some parents don’t have the things that were houshold items a generation ago, but they have other stuff. Just because the same experiments aren’t as easily supported doesn’t mean that others couldn’t take their place. There are some great things you can do with mirowave ovens – not that I actually want my kids trying most of them on my microwave!
Check out the Gummi Bear-exploding Joanne Manaster:
I’m with Jen C. — I was in advanced chemistry class in high school, and we barely got to do ANYTHING — we had more fun in 8th grade physics because we actually got to make rube goldberg devices using simple machines. It wasn’t until AP Chem in 11th grade that we actually got to do anything cool. Same with advanced biology; until AP Anatomy nothing cool happened. No dissections, no passing around animal body parts, nothing. Even in 7th grade we dissected owl pellets — which was disgusting but at least it was SOMETHING.
It’s not just science, either; you wouldn’t believe (okay, you would, but the general populace wouldn’t) the problems students I tutored in College English Composition had with writing, with forming arguments, even with following directions.
I agree that college professors shouldn’t have to do this — and after all that’s why there are free tutoring services and skills labs at colleges — but given that the “precious little snowflake” effect has extended to the first two years of college, I think professors are starting to realize that it’s easier to just do it for the kids than make them learn.
I have a three year old. Everything I’ve just said worries me.
Wow…I got to see how sodium reacts to water, how phosphorous reacts to air and how to dissect a frog, all in high school. Times have changed.
Mythbusters is a staple at our house. My kid has called it ‘blowing up stuff’ since he learned to talk.
Anybody remember Thingmakers? Creepy Crawlies? You heated a metal plate filled with plastic on a plugged in platform, burned your fingers taking it off the platform and burned them again taking the plastic spiders and centipedes out of the molds? The toxic fumes! The second degree burns! That was childhood!
“When science is no more exciting that watching oil and vinegar separate, we end up with bored kids. That means a few years later we end up with an ignorant population, easily conned.”
I can’t help feeling that an easily conned population is very convenient of you want them to do what you want, or get scared, or spend money, or ignore big issues, and generally be pliable and docile, so government and business can do what they want.
Not that that would happen, of course
When I was in school, we all thought the point of chemistry was to blow things up! It didn’t help that we had a “absent-minded professor” type of teacher, who never noticed when chemicals disappeared, and didn’t realize that whenever he said “you must NOT mix this chemical with that one” it meant that was the first thing we did. Lots of splats on the ceiling. Don’t remember any injuries though, maybe a bit surprisingly. But on the other hand, I do actually think science is about more than blowing things up. One of my favorite science books as a kid was “science experiments you can eat”, which I bought for my own kids. Much more than just vinegar and soda. Now I am a scientist myself, and my motivation is not at all bangs and explosions, but wanting to know how the natural world works.
Andy: the real problem is that government and business will be run by members of that easily conned population. Mmmh… this reminds me of the way the Spanish government came to be in office.
Sorry about that, now back to FRK topics…
a dream which will be realised sonn!
If you need some real science, try the Golden book of Chemistry Experiments. It is banned, and therefore legal to download (though not legal to buy) Best part is, it has a section on common household chemicals that can be used for these experiments. My kids love it (though we have set a couple of fires, make sure you have an ABC rated extiguisher).
As a dyed in the wool science geek, I have spent the last 9 years making sure my house was full of microscopes (I still have mine from childhood), binoculars, magnifying glasses, vinegar, baking soda, cornstarch, and all manner of other things to experiment with. But the most important tool for encouraging scientists is a tolerance for mess. I see a lot of my kids’ friends who live in beautifully decorated, million dollar homes. But due to the amount of money that has been invested in these homes, messes are just not to be tolerated. So the kids are in front of the Wii, or allowed to do only carefully controlled experiments while a parent hovers 3 inches away lest they spill. I’m not saying you need to be a slob, but to really let kids experiment, you have to be willing to put up with some amount of mess and chaos.
Andy – I don’t think business, for the most part, is happy about poor science education. Science and engineering is the USA’s competitive advantage. When businesses can no longer innovate they know they’ll lose out to those who can. Of course they also want low taxes – but they’d like the taxes that are taken to be spent on science education.
BMS – I hadn’t really thought of that. I guess tolerance of mess is a free-range necessity. What with letting kids get wet and muddy and letting them mess up the house with their trial and error parents who want to be in fashion or architectural magazine spreads are not going to have an easy time.
What, nothing about what happens when you dump a full tube of Mentos into a 2-liter Diet Coke? Just go to Youtube for that one as well. Not sure what principile is at work here, but it is a lot of fun.
From the organic chem side – about 12 years ago Pine Tree Garden Seeds (“King of Remaindered Garden Books”) in Maine was closing out a wonderful kids’ gardening book called “Gardens For Growing People.” I bought several copies for friends’ kids, just a great little paperback that I think I paid about $2 @ for. One of the experiments was teaching kids how to determine the clay/ sand/ humus content of the soil in the garden. Equipment required? A glass of water and a spoon and a ruler. Just one fantastic page out of many. Someone who knows a publisher (hint, hint, Lenore) needs to bring that one back. Best kid’s gardening book I’ve ever seen.
Here is my favorite place to look for hands on experiments for the concepts I’m teaching at School.
When I was in junior high, way back in the early eighties, our school had a fairly new and very well stocked chemistry lab that only got used a couple of times a week. I persuaded the science teacher to let me have free run of the lab and got to try all kids of things with real Bunsen burners and real chemicals – with a couple of different dissections thrown in. The only thing he asked of me was that I run things by him first.
Now, many years later, I volunteer as a science fair judge where the kids can’t bring in any living material whatsoever – including lowly beans that were sprouted to compare growth. Makes their presentations a lot less exciting when it’s only pictures. One kid even lamented not being able to show me his actual specimens and asked me why it was safe to do his experiment at home but not to take it into an auditorium. I still have no answer to this.
The athlete thing is so frickin spot on. Do you know the kinds of life altering injuries you can get just from football? And we let 8-year olds play it! We don’t let kids go down the street but we give them pee-wee football?
@vedrfolnir – don’t get me started on kids getting pushed into sports. Ballet moms are mild compared to jock-sniffer dads. Even worse – a dad who was a mediocre bar-band bass player who is convinced his 8 year old son is the next Stevie Ray Vaughn. “No, son, you can’t go play because you need to practice your scales so you will be famous the way I should have been.”
This is a not-so-funny subject for our homeschooling family. Our state considers laboratory glassware to be a controlled substance, and a permit from the Department of Public Safety is required to purchase it and keep it in our home. Needless to say, neither I nor any homeschooler I know is interested in putting our family’s name on a DPS list of people possessing potential “drug paraphernalia,” especially given the draconian narcotics laws in this state, and the state’s record of enthusiastic enforcement.
Addendum: If you’re curious which state has such a level of “every home a potential meth lab” hysteria that I have to be cautious about buying erlenmeyer flasks, see Lenore’s blog entry above this one.
o.h. – Did you check your states homeschooling regulations? Ok, stupid question, I’m sure you have. My point is, in my state the school district is required (if I’ve read them right) to allow homeschooling families access to things like science labs or the equipment used therein. Might be worth looking into.
You can still buy radioactive ores through United Nuclear, http://www.unitednuclear.com. For the life of me I can’t understand how anyone expects kids to be able to make intelligent choices on science if they aren’t allowed to learn about it?
In our state, homeschools are defined as unaccredited private schools. The public schools and homeschools have nothing to do with each other; allowing us to use labs, sports, or other public school facilities is completely out of the question. Generally, homeschoolers here prefer that arrangement, on the theory that we don’t use any public funds, materials, or facilities, and the state doesn’t get to test us, look at our curricula, or even ask us where our kids are being educated. Completely hands off in both directions.
I’m getting your book. I’m very curious about the idea letting children explore on their own more (as I did as a child).
And thank you!
Oh, yeah. A pet peeve.
Seriously, you seem to be hitting mine on the head today. Granted I’ve been out of the loop for a week or two.
I learned to love science with a chemistry set and a microscope and all that lovely paraphernalia that kids got forty years ago.
Now, I homeschool my kids, and even with an MD, I can’t even BUY the equipment I need to set up labs. I have to resort to “Virtual” chemistry laboratories. HOW MUCH FUN IS THAT???
How can our kids learn how much fun science is if they never get to blow anything up?
Thank the deity of your choice for MYTHBUSTERS.
To take this off topic – I see lots of people touting Myth Busters. And I have to think – Really? Myth busters? I only watched a couple of episodes because it seemed so *unscientific*.
Horrible experiment design. Wildly inaccurate conclusions. And the presenters played into the most boring stereotypes.
Did I just hit a couple of rouge episodes, did my dislike of the presenters affect my judgement of the program or was expecting too much?
EVâ€¦ man I wish my kids could have gone to Montessori! Do-overs with the grandson are kind of great. All those â€˜if I knew then what I know nowâ€™â€¦ well, I do. Iâ€™m inspired to get him his own magnifying glass now.
Well it’s nothing new. All we know that some science subjects are not only boring but useless.