March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Mold Gardens and Messy Mixtures


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Theoretical physicist and Nobel Prizewinner Richard Feynmann once defined “science” to a group of teachers as “the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Frustrating as that attitude may be to the aforesaid experts, it has fueled most advances in science and so is well worth encouraging in children.

The plethora of projects and experiments suggested in this handful of recent books offer just such inspiration. Rather than simply providing one bare recipe after another, the collections below combine tested sets of ingredients and clearly described procedures with specific explanations of the physical or chemical principles, relevant historical background, probing questions about results, and tantalizing suggestions for further, more challenging experiments. This approach is designed to give children both a stronger grasp on how the natural world works and a systematic method for reaching out to conduct enquiries of their own. More importantly, all the titles convey an enthusiasm for science that requires no intervention from parents or educators to prove contagious.

Reilly, Kathleen M. Explore Life Cycles! illus. by Bryan Stone. Nomad Press, 2011.

Gr 2-3-Covering stages and cycles of life in detail (yes, including death) these 25 interest-seizing activities and experiments range from making an underwater viewer from a can and plastic wrap to inventing classification schemes using various screws and other small hardware. The line and wash drawings are as simple and understandable as the directions, and each project comes with background explanations, vocabulary words and side facts. A fine selection of print and Web resources provides avenues for further investigation.

McGowan, Chris. Dinosaur Discovery: Everything You Need to Become a Paleontologist. illus. by Erica Lyn Schmidt. S&S, 2011.

Gr 2-5-Though his subtitle overstates the case considerably, McGowan does give dino fans hands-on experiences making “fossil” feathers, tooth impressions, and other style evidence, as well as a way to examine raptor-style claws (“For this activity you’ll need a friendly cat.”), and to demonstrate the strength of various skeletal structures. The 25-plus activities are illustrated with color photos of the easy-to-find supplies. Budding paleontologists will also appreciate spreads featuring live dinosaurs in dramatic poses with labels and notes highlighting selected physical features. The unusual approach will rouse passive browsers into exploring their prehistoric interests in a more active way.

Reilly, Kathleen. Food: 25 Amazing Projects: Investigate the History and Science of What We Eat. illus. by Farah Rizvi. Nomad, 2010.

Gr 3-5-Anchored by food-related activities—from making “ancient” hot chocolate to organizing blind taste tests of commercial and locally grown fruits and veggies—this delicious survey offers an unusual amount of background information about how food is produced, prepared, and preserved, food customs through time and around the world, nutrition, and marketing. The author doesn’t push a particular diet, but urges readers to consider their food choices as they create catalogs of nutritious alternatives to unhealthy snacks. Frequent side boxes add further historical and cultural notes.

Young, Karen Romano. Bug Science: 20 Projects and Experiments About Arthropods: Insects, Arachnids, Algae, Worms, and Other Small Creatures. illus. by David Goldin. National Geographic, 2009.

Gr 3-5-Presented as 20 “workshops” rather than individual projects, these hands-on invitations to explore the buggy world offer guidance (in the form of time frames, relevant science concepts, general purposes, useful materials, and savvy advice for the effective presentation of results) and enough background information for context, but leave it to young scientists to design their own experiments and to figure out how to construct necessary cages or other apparatus. A winning, well-organized springboard for serious science, with comical cartoon insects, arachnids, earthworms, and other creepy crawlies on every page adding lighthearted visual notes.

Brown, Jordan D. Crazy Concoctions: A Mad Scientist’s Guide to Messy Mixtures. illus. by Anthony Owlsley. Charlesbridge, 2012.

Gr 3-6-With alter-ego “Dr. Viskus von Fickleschmutz,” Brown presents instructions for about two dozen slime-tastic creations, from “Bogus Boogers” to homemade dill pickles. Some require trips to the drugstore and/or help from an adult “minion,” but not only are the end results guaranteed crowd pleasers, young experimenters will be exposed to hefty doses of scientific methods and principles, as well as historical background information. Better yet, the author(s) include a set of value added challenges at the end, such as making the stinkiest possible dip for chips. Cartoon illustrations supply both helpful hints and additional silliness.

Mercer, Bobby. The Flying Machine Book: Build and Launch 35 Rockets, Gliders, Helicopters, Boomerangs, and More. Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Gr 4-6-In a riveting book for budding inventors who love to fool around on their own, Mercer offers three dozen fliers, gliders, and launchers made from drinking straws, cardboard, rubber bands, empty soda bottles, and the like. Presented in a mix of step-by-step photos and written directions and hedged about with both discussions of aerodynamic principles and safety warnings, the models range from hands-on Frisbees to a “foot-on” stomped rocket launcher. Hours of strictly educational fun!

Cobb, Vicki. See For Yourself: More Than 100 Amazing Experiments for Science Fairs and School Projects, 2nd ed. illus. by Dave Klug. Skyhorse, 2010.

Gr 4-7-With the avowed intent of kindling a lifelong love of science, Cobb tucks in stimulating questions and observations to animate a broad array of easy-to-create projects from testing the strength of hair to creating photographic film. This redesigned version of the 2001 edition is charged with color illustrations and (some) new content but retains both its high-voltage energy and the subject, discipline, and difficulty indexes at the back.

Bardhan-Quallen, Sudipta. Nature Science Experiments: What’s Hopping in a Dust Bunny? illus. by Edward Miller. Sterling, 2010.

Gr 5-8-Besides being well supplied with wonderfully gross-out background information (“scientists estimate that twenty percent of a pillow’s weight is actually dust mites and their excrement.” Ewww.), these 13 projects and experiments are easier to create than they seem at first glance. Though the author invites young naturalists to build their own devices (e.g., a “Winogradsky column” and a “Berlese-Tullgren Apparatus,”), all use common materials—with the exception of a Venus flytrap in the final experiment. Some of the cartoon illustrations are more decorative than helpful, but directions are clear and specific, and each project offers both background and explanatory narratives.

Bardhan-Quallen, Sudipta. Kitchen Science Experiments: How Does Your Mold Garden Grow? illus. by Edward Miller. Sterling, 2010.

Gr 5-8-Along with “gardens” of mold and bacteria, the projects in this collection include mummifying a dead fish, observing marshmallows in a microwave, and making the classic “rubber egg.” Some projects require a microscope, multiple agar plates, or other not-exactly-household supplies, but all come with both introductory background and post-experiment explanations.

Caduto, Michael. Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun: 22 Super-Charged Science Projects for Kids. Storey, 2011.

Gr 5-8-Aimed at creating and inspiring young eco-activists, these projects all use or demonstrate recyclable energy sources. Ranging in complexity from making “sun tea” to constructing a power generating miniature windmill, each is accompanied by a list of materials, step-by-step instructions enhanced by color photos of young people at work, explanations of relevant environmental issues and scientific principles, and a “Bigger Picture” section of suggestions and ideas to ruminate over. Extensive lists of resources for students and teachers cap this well-designed, strongly focused outing.

Spangler, Steve. Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes: Unforgettable Experiments That Make Science Fun. Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2010.

Gr 5-8-Illustrated with photos of messy kitchen chemistry in action, these 29 demonstrations from celebrity science teacher Spangler are gathered into evocatively titled chapters like “Gooey Wonders” and “Don’t Try This at Home…Try it at a Friend’s Home!” Along with ingredients lists and clear step directions, the author provides both “What’s Going On Here?” explanations and suggestions for how to “Take It Further.” Most—notably the closing Mentos-and-soda bottle geyser—are likely not science fair fodder, but all offer experiences as exciting as they are educational.

Dobson, Clive. Wind Power: 20 Projects to Make with Paper. Firefly, 2010.

Gr 6-8-After a lengthy discussion on the history and physical principles of wind turbines, Dobson offers instructions for making more than two dozen models from paper or cardboard from a single piece two-blade pinwheel to a vertical axis “Squirrel Cage.” Rather than using step diagrams, he combines all of the measuring, cutting and creasing into one, sometimes dizzying, line drawing per project. However, the narrative instructions are helpful, as are the photos of finished models. This informative guide concludes with a generous list of print and online resources.

Gabrielson, Curt. Kinetic Contraptions: Build a Hovercraft, Airboat, and More with a Hobby Motor. Chicago Review Press, 2010.

Gr 6-9-Of particular interest to fledgling engineers and inveterate tinkerers, these 20-plus fliers, rollers, spinners, and pumps are made with recycled hardware or bric-a-brac and a small electric hobby motor. Gabrielson begins with a basic motor and battery on a stick and proceeds to switches, circuits, and an array of gizmos from a motorized soda bottle to a wave machine. All look distinctly ad hoc in the murky photos, but the author has plainly made them all successfully, and he offers troubleshooting tips to help motivated readers do the same. Some of these constructions require soldering or hot glue; all are battery driven.

And one (actually six) more:

Ebner, Aviva, ed. Earth Science Experiments.

—-. Engineering Science Experiments.

—-. Environmental Science Experiments.

—-. Forensic Science Experiments.

—-. Health Science Experiments.

—-. Physical Science Experiments. (Experiments for Future Scientists) Chelsea House, 2011.

Gr 5-8-Despite the pedestrian design, the content of these volumes will give parents and educators plenty of rewarding projects to share with students—from a mini volcano to an edible model of the phases of the Moon that uses split Oreo cookies. Each title in the series offers step instructions for 20 activities, with clear if utilitarian illustrations, leading questions about results, and expected outcomes in a section at the back. To encourage further study, some projects are open ended, and all conclude with reading lists. Back matter in each volume also includes matchups with National Science Content Standards and other educator-friendly resources.

Quoting Feynman once more (it’s hard to stop): “I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” How much easier it is to understand and retain knowledge when the “going” is fun, hands-on, and a little (or a lot) messy too!


The books and the activities above reference a number of Common Core State Standards. The list below is a sampling.

RI3.5 Use text features and search tools (e.g., keywords, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.

RI.4.3 Explain events, procedures, ideas or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

W.5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

RI.6.2 Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

RI.7.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.

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