real science for today's homeschooler

BLOG: Ideas for Elementary

Make Waves in the Tub

Make Waves in the Tub

Light waves . . . sound waves . . . it’s all pretty hard for a younger elementary student to understand. They can see light and hear sound, but the wave part just isn’t something they can perceive with their senses. A good way to begin to introduce the topic of waves is with water waves. A wave that is visible and moves slowly enough for them to observe the actual wave itself.

Use bath time as a way to introduce the topic of waves to your younger child. Here are some basic wave properties that can be observed in the tub:

1. Have your child make a series of waves in the water and observe. The highest point in a wave is called the crest. The lowest point is the trough. As you make waves toward your child, have him/her point out or try to catch a crest and a trough.

2. The distance between the crest of one wave and the crest of the next wave is the wavelength. Have your child experiment to find a way to make waves with a long wavelength and then with a short wavelength. Talk about what determines the size of the wavelength. (How fast the child moves determines the wavelength. All waves are caused by vibrations. The speed of the vibration determines the wavelength.)

3. The distance between the height of the crest and the midpoint of the wave (the water level if there were no wave) is the amplitude. Have your child experiment to find a way to change the amplitude of the waves. Talk about what determines the size of the amplitude. (Amplitude is actually determined by the amount of energy in the wave. The more energy your child puts into making a wave, the larger its amplitude will be.)

Through this bath time activity, your younger child will learn the basic parts of a wave and two fundamental wave properties. And, they will be a little cleaner, too! 🙂

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Understanding and Measuring Friction

Understanding and Measuring Friction

For elementary children, the topic of “opposing forces” can be hard to understand. Friction is an opposing force that children can “feel.” Here’s a lab on measuring and comparing friction that’s appropriate for older elementary children. You will need one piece of “science equipment” to get the most out of the lab . . . a spring scale. A spring scale with small increments will be easier for elementary children to use.

Here’s what to do:

1. Find an object that can be easily hooked onto the spring scale, that is fairly heavy (but will still read when hung from the spring scale), and preferably with a large, flat surface. A heavy block of wood with a cup hook works very well.

2. Have your child hook the object onto the spring scale and drag it across the smoothest possible surface you can find. While dragging the object slowly, have your child read and record the amount of force they are using to move the object. (Newtons is a measure of force, so the part of the scale marked as “N” is actually a measure of force.)

3. Next, have your child hunt for 5 different surface with as many different textures as possible. The surfaces must be large enough to drag the object across, just as was done in step 2.

4. Ask the child to predict what will happen when they drag the object across the different textured surfaces. They will most likely come to the conclusion that some surfaces will be harder to pull across than others. Ask them to come up with an explanation for WHY this is true.

5. Introduce the topic of “friction” by explaining that friction is a force that acts in the opposite direction from the force you apply to move an object. When they drag their object one way, the surface tries to pull it the opposite way!

6. Now, have your child predict which of their selected surfaces will pull more than others. Have them rang the surfaces in order from least friction to more friction.

7. Finally, it’s time to test their predictions. Have your child drag the object in the same way across each of the different surfaces. As they are slowly dragging the object, they should read and record the force they must use to pull the object.

8. Subtract the force needed to pull the object on the smooth surface from the force needed to pull it on each of the textured surfaces. This is a measure of how much more force the textured surface was putting on the object. The larger the number, the more friction force was applied by the surface.

To put it all together, remind your child that a force is just a push or a pull. So, when they put a force on the object in one direction, the surface will put a force on the object in the opposite direction. The more force applied by the surface, the harder they have to pull to get the object to move.

As an extension, relate this topic to the practical chore of moving a heavy object. Have them brainstorm ways that can be used to make sliding a heavy object easier.

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Learning about Earth’s Past through Creative Writing

Learning about Earth's Past through Creative Writing

Most kids love to be creative and make up stories. Use that creativity to research Earth’s past. Depending on the age of the child, you might want to first introduce them to the Geologic Time Scale. Here’s a good website with some basic information from Britannica Kids. For younger children, you might just help them pick a topic from Earth’s past, such as “dinosaurs.”

Next, help your student narrow down a specific time period (or topic) that sounds interesting to them. Help them research what the Earth was like during that time. Consider including the plants and animals that lived during that time, the climate, and what the land and oceans were like.

After your child has collected information appropriate for their age, challenge them to write a story about the time. Here are a few ideas to help get you started:

1. Write a first person story involving a time machine that takes them back to that time period for a week.

2. Write a story from the point of view of an animal that lived during that time.

3. Write a story about an alien who visits Earth during that time period.

If you give your child the freedom to make up their own creative story about their time period or topic, they are sure to have fun while learning quite a bit about Earth’s history!


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Calculate Speed While Encouraging Exercise

Calculate Speed While Encouraging Exercise

We all know that kids have a lot of energy. Put that energy to good use by combining a physics lesson, a math lesson, and some good exercise! All you’ll need is an energetic kid, a tape measure, a stopwatch, and a safe place for your child to run.

Calculating Speed

1. Pick out a “track” that your child can run safely. Select a distance appropriate for your child to run several times.

2. Help your child measure the distance of the selected track with the tape measure. You can measure with any units: yards, feet, meters, etc. Have your child record the track distance.

3. Measure the time it takes for your child to run the selected track. If possible, measure the time in seconds. Record.

4. Introduce the formula used to calculate speed:  speed = distance / time

Depending on the math level of your child, help them calculate their speed by dividing the distance of the track by the time it took to run it. Older children can calculate speed using long division. For younger children you may want to introduce the usefulness of technology by showing them how to get their answer with a calculator.

5. Repeat the run with the same track, or a different one as long as your child is interested and energetic. Challenge them to improve their speed with each run.

As an extension of the lab, students can compare their speeds when a) wearing different types of shoes, b) running on different surfaces, or c) running courses of different lengths. Any of these options will increase your child’s interest in the lab, as well as give them extra practice with division . . . and a little more exercise!

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Cotton Cloud Model

Cotton Cloud Model

If you’re teaching your kids about the different types of clouds, have them make a model to show cloud structure and the different levels of the atmosphere where clouds form. Here’s a good website that covers the basics of cloud classification. There’s a good diagram of different types of clouds and the atmospheric levels in which they form. For younger children you might want to let them use the image as a guide for their model. Older children will find it more challenging to only research information about the structure and level of different types of clouds and then develop their own visual model.

Whichever option you choose, provide blue foam board, plenty of cotton balls, school glue, and markers. Challenge your child to plan their model before beginning. Discuss the need to arrange the cotton so that it represents the structure of different types of clouds. And, the need to plan ahead to divide the poster into sections to represent the different levels at which clouds form. A black marker can be used to darken the cotton of the “rain clouds.”

Extend the cloud lesson by taking the finished model outside on different days to identify clouds in the sky. The model will help children understand that they are actually looking up through three different levels of clouds.

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Bug Collection – Go Digital!

Bug Collection - Go Digital!

Remember having to do a “bug collection” project when you were in school? There is a lot of value in observing animals in their natural environment and learning how to identify them based on physical characteristics. But, is it really necessary to catch, kill, and mount them?

If your kids are afraid of crawly things or squeamish about killing live creatures, why not have them do a “virtual bug collection”? Armed with a digital camera, kids can hunt for insects in their natural environment. Teach them how to approach the insect slowly and quietly so they can get a close up snapshot. These pictures can then be used to study the physical characteristics to identify common names or even scientific names for older students.

You can either print out the digital photos and preserve their virtual insect collection in a notebook, or help them make a PowerPoint from their collection to incorporate a lesson in technology!

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Red Cabbage as a pH Indicator

Red Cabbage as a pH Indicator

pH is a hard concept for younger children to learn. Add a little excitement to the subject of acids and bases by using a natural pH indicator. First, the science . . . an indicator is a chemical that “indicates” or shows the presence of a substance, usually by a color change. There are many pH indicators, each working for a different range on the pH scale. A wide-range indicator detects substances on the entire pH spectrum.

A safe and easy pH indicator for kids to work with is cabbage juice. When added to different household substances, it turns a wide range of colors, which children love! Here’s how to prepare the indicator: Pinch up the very red (purple) leaves of a red leaf cabbage. Put in water and boil until the reddish purple color comes out into the water. You can do this on the stove, but the microwave works well, also. A few hints . . . use a high cabbage to water ratio as you want the color as concentrated as possible. And, use soft water. If your water is naturally soft, tap water will work fine. But, if you live in an area with hard water, it’s worth the cost to buy some distilled water for this activity. Cool the cabbage juice before using. It will store for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Next, have your child collect different household liquids they want to test for pH. You can find a list of the pH of some common liquids here. You can also just search “pH of ???” on the internet to find the pH of just about anything. Testing liquids from a wide range on the pH scale will give the most colorful results.

Once you have all your test liquids, add about a tablespoon of each to a test tube. (If you don’t have test tubes at home, the cups of a white egg carton work great!) Then, add a teaspoon or so of the cabbage juice indicator to each test liquid. The amount isn’t critical. Just add enough cabbage juice to get a good color change.

For older children, make a list of the test solutions and their actual pH collected from the internet. Have your child create a color scale that can be used to determine the pH of an unknown substance. For example, here’s a pH scale for another commercial indicator:pH scale

Once your child has made a pH chart for cabbage juice indicator, provide him/her with several “unknowns” to test the accuracy of their chart.

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Edible Cell Models

Edible Cell Models

When teaching about the parts of the cell, increase your child’s interest by having them build an edible model of a cell. The type of cell and the type of model depend on the age of the child and your snack preference for them.

If your child is older they can research “parts of a cell” online to find many different diagrams of different types of cells. Help your child find a diagram at an appropriate level for their age and understanding. If you have a younger child, you may want to select the diagram for them. Children should then decide which cell parts they want to include in their model. Encourage them to find out more about each part . . . what does it look like and what does it do for the cell?

Next, decide on what type of edible model you want your child to make. Two popular choices are cookies and pizzas, but any snack that provides a flat surface to “decorate” will work. Whichever snack you choose, prepare the “base” (cookie, pizza crust, etc.), and collect a variety of toppings your child can use to represent the cell parts. A wide variety of shapes and colors will allow for more creativity and interest.

Children should select a topping that best represents each part of the cell they have decided to include in their model. Help them decorate the snack base to accurately model a real cell. Relative size, shape, and number of cell parts should be considered. Do stress to your child that the diagram they are using is just another person’s model of a cell and they do not have to look exactly alike!

Challenge your child to tell you the name and function of each cell part in their edible model before they eat it! You may also want to take pictures of the model before it disappears.

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Making Rocks Fun!

Making Rocks Fun!

Okay, I have to admit, rocks sound boring to most people. But here’s a way to get kids interested in the topic of rocks and minerals!

Kids (and adults) love to find treasure. Purchase a bag of “mining rough” and you have a ready-made treasure hunt for your kids. Mining rough is the left over material generated by the mining process. To a mine that recovers and sells gemstones, it isn’t cost effective to spend time going through the left over material to pull out the small gemstones. They bag it “as is” and sell it at very reasonable prices. Going through the bag is literally a treasure hunt and you can find some very nice samples of amethyst, crystal quartz, and other gemstones including small samples of rubies and emeralds. Nothing that’s really worth much money, but pieces that will excite your kids!

There are many mines that sell this “mining rough,” but here’s a link to the one I order from: Cold River Mining Company. They do sell wholesale, but this link will take you to their “store” where you can buy individual bags. If you have a cave attraction nearby, you can probably purchase bags of mining rough there.

You’ll also need a sieve to separate the dirt from the larger rock and mineral specimens. You can purchase one from the mine, but it’s much cheaper to make your own. I would suggest getting a 1-foot x 1-foot piece of window screen to use as a sieve. The fiberglass screen works much better than the aluminum wire screen. The cut ends of the aluminum around the edges can puncture the skin!

The mining rough is dirt and rock straight out of the ground, so it can be messy. This is a great outdoor activity when the weather’s nice! Put the kids in their bathing suit or old clothes you don’t mind getting dirty and wet.

Here’s how to mine for gemstone treasure:

1. While your child holds the screen, add a small amount of mining rough to the center of the screen.
2. Spray the rough with a garden hose set on a low setting. The dirt will wash off revealing the rocks and minerals. (You can also dip the screen in a bucket of water, but the garden hose is much more fun!)
3. Collect the large pieces from the screen and let them dry.
4. The bags of mining rough usually come with an identification guide that kids can use to identify their gemstone treasures.

Be sure to explain to your budding geologists that gemstones are rocks and minerals that formed deep inside the Earth. Because the Earth is always moving and changing, sometimes these rocks and minerals get pushed up close enough to the surface for us to dig them up.

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Getting ready for middle and high school science

Getting ready for middle and high school science

Parents decide to homeschool for many different reasons, but there’s one thing they all have in common . . . they want what’s best for their children. I teach college prep science classes to middle and high school level homeschoolers in my area. I’m often contacted by elementary school parents who are looking ahead, and their number 1 question is, “What background will my child need before (s)he can take your classes?” My answer usually surprises them.

As a middle school science teacher, the number 1 thing I want my students to come in with is a love for science and a curiosity about the world around them. When you get right down to it, science is about observing the world around you and looking for explanations about why things work the way they do. At the elementary level, if students learn to be observant and ask questions, they are on the right track to becoming great scientists!

My advice to you as a parent of an elementary homeschooler is, don’t worry about which curriculum you use and what science facts you cover. Just build in opportunities each day for your child to explore the natural world. Encourage them to ask questions, and then teach them how to find the answers to their questions. This will obviously look different at different ages, but the scientific process is the same. Ask good questions. Then look for valid answers to those questions.

The only other thing I would add would be to make sure you’re exposing your child to many different topics in science. They may be really interested in dinosaurs, but also make sure they are exposed to plants, atoms, forces, etc. Having a well rounded exposure to all things science will help your child develop a deeper understanding of “the big picture,” and how everything in science is interrelated.

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