Whether you’re just looking for a weekend learning activity or searching for a school science fair project, at home science can be meaningful and valuable to any child. Kids learn best through observing and interacting with our world—that is science!
You could buy an expensive, ready-made science project kit, but it’s easy to make your own. Projects don’t have to be complicated or expensive. There are lots of projects you can complete using dollar store items. Start in the toy aisle. Inexpensive toys carry a lot of potential and add an element of fun.
Take a close look at the directions sent home from school. There may be requirements that are not obvious to you. If your child may compete in the Austin Regional Science Festival (Feb. 17-20, 2016), be sure to check out the requirements at sciencefest.org.
Experiments vs. Demonstrations
Be aware: many science projects you find with a Google search are actually demonstrations, not experiments. There is a difference.
Solar system models and baking soda and vinegar volcanoes are not experiments; they are demonstrations. They show a scientific principal, but they do not use the scientific method in order to answer a question with controlled experimentation. The first step is to come up with the right kind of question—one that can be answered through experimentation.
Having a race with different toy cars is a demonstration. How can your child turn it into an experiment? Simple. Ask the question, “Does the angle of a ramp determine the distance three toy cars travel?” The answer may seem obvious, but you might find surprises. For example, if the angle is too great, does the car still go as far? How big does the angle have to be for the car to move at all?
Try, Try Again
It may take several attempts to get a project to work. Before your child starts collecting data, be sure that his setup is functional. Only then can he start taking measurements for the actual experiment. It is important to perform many repeat trials so he can find the average measurement.
Make it Fair
It’s important to control all possible variables. Have your child keep everything the same except the one thing he is comparing. For example, he might want to see how temperature affects viscosity by dropping pennies into syrups of different temperatures and timing how long it takes the pennies to hit the bottom. Be sure to use the same amount of syrup for each trial. Drop each penny from the same height and position. Repeat the trials so your child can get valid results.
Discovering how things work is an important component of the science project, and science fair judges want to see that your child knows why things worked as they did. If your child is having trouble determining the subject to research, ask the teacher for some search terms. For example, if the aim is to measure the height that different sized bouncy balls bounce, your child might look up elasticity or potential energy. To determine if freezing a cracked glow stick makes it last longer, your child can read about chemical reactions.
Once the data is collected and analyzed and conclusions are written, it’s time to put your child’s work on display. Photos are an effective way to document the procedure your child followed and demonstrate the findings. They also make for an interesting addition to the display. Be sure to find out how your child’s display will be graded, because the teacher may have specific requirements.
Science projects can be daunting, but with imagination and a positive attitude, you can help your child have a lot of fun while learning real science.
Jennifer VanBuren of Georgetown is an educator and mother of three.
You may know that gases contract when they get cold. But how much? Try this simple balloon experiment to find out.
First, blow up a balloon. Measure its circumference by wrapping a string around the balloon at its widest point and then measuring the string with a ruler. Now put it in the fridge and wait an hour. Quickly measure the circumference again.
Now try the freezer. Be a true scientist and note the temperature of the room, the fridge and the freezer. Repeat the trial with three different balloons.
Extend the experiment and fill balloons with water or helium. Does a liquid contract like a gas? You might be surprised at the results.