real science for today's homeschooler

Using Popcorn to Practice Scientific Method

Using Popcorn to Practice Scientific Method

This is a fairly common science fair project that I actually helped my grandson carry out for an elementary science fair. It’s definitely not a new idea, but a great way to let children work through the scientific method using a fun topic . . . POPCORN! The question to be answered is: “Does storage temperature affect how well popcorn pops?” Children will be storing popcorn in a warm environment, room temperature, cold, and frozen. Before beginning the experiment, encourage students to make a Hypothesis. Ask them to decide which storage method they think will work best, and why.

Materials: large bag of loose popcorn (not the individual “flavored” bags), baggies, paper lunch sacks, access to a microwave

Here’s the procedure we used, but it’s important to let your child come up with the procedure if this is to be a scientific method experiment.

1. Put 100 popcorn kernels in a plastic baggie and label as “warm.” Repeat with 3 more baggies, labeling them as “room temperature,” “cold,” “frozen.”

2. Place the baggies in the appropriate area. For example, store the “warm” bag under an electric blanket, the “room temperature” bag in the pantry, the “cold” bag in the refrigerator, and the “frozen” bag in the freezer. Select a specific time for storage, such as a week, a month, etc.

3. After the storage time is complete, remove the bags from their storage area at the same time. To test the storage methods, divide out the 100 popcorn kernels between 5 paper lunch sacks, with 20 kernels in each bag. Label each paper sack with the appropriate storage method. Repeat with all the remaining popcorn, being sure to label each paper sack with the correct storage method!

4. Decide on a specific popping time. Somewhere around 2 minutes works best, but any time will work if it gives the popcorn time to pop and you keep the time the same for all trials.

5. Put one of each sack of popcorn into the microwave at the same time. (In other words, place one sack that contains popcorn stored as “warm,” one sack with “cold” popcorn, etc. Turn on the microwave for the specified time. After the time has elapsed, remove the bags and count the number of kernels that popped. Record. Repeat until all the popcorn has been tried.

Data: Here’s a sample data table that can be used to record the results. For older children you may want to let them design their own table.

  Trial 1 Trial 2 Trial 3 Trial 4 Trial 5 Average


Older children can find the average of each type. For younger children who may not understand the concept of averaging, change to “Total” for the last column.

Analysis: Younger children can compare the totals to see which storage method resulted in more popped kernels. Older children can graph the results for a visual representation.

Conclusion: Have students state out loud, or write down, which storage method produced the most popped popcorn. Why do they think this method worked best? Also have them refer back to their original hypothesis. Was their hypothesis right or wrong?

HINT: Based on experience, don’t try to pop one bag at a time in the microwave. There will not be enough water in the popcorn to absorb the microwaves and the appliance will overheat! Mine actually stopped working for awhile! Popping four bags at a time worked well for us, but do feel the sides of the microwave after the first round to make sure it isn’t overheating. Take breaks between rounds if needed.

ALTERNATE METHODS: Children can also come up with their own idea of what to test, such as light vs dark, storage time, type of storage container, etc. The more children are able to make the experiment their own, the better!

BACKGROUND: Depending on the age of your child, You may also want to have them research WHY popcorn pops. Here’s a great website that explains the science of popcorn, as well as some interesting history:

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Yeast – Examining Living Cells

Yeast - Examining Living Cells

Yeast . . . it turns grapes into wine . . . it makes bread rise . . . but did you know it’s actually a living one-celled fungus? Yeast provides a safe way for children to observe a few of the life processes of living cells.

1. Living Cells Need Water – Add dry yeast to very warm water to activate them. Explain to children that the yeast must have water in order to carry out life processes. They are able to survive in a dormant state without water, but they won’t become active and grow until they have water.

2. Living Cells Need Food – Put some of the hydrated yeast culture in two small containers (preferably clear). Add sugar to one of the containers, but not to the other. Let children observe the differences they see over time. Does “feeding” the yeast cells make them more active?

3. Living Cells Produce Waste – The yeast culture with sugar will give off noticeable amounts of carbon dioxide gas in the form of bubbles. Explain to children that the cells are getting rid of waste just like they do . . . by “breathing” out carbon dioxide gas.

4. Living Cells Reproduce – If a microscope is available make a slide from a drop of the yeast culture with sugar. Look carefully and you may find a cell that is undergoing “budding.” Budding is the way yeast cells reproduce. First they double all the material inside the cell that’s needed to keep it alive. Then they separate out one set of the material and pinch it off in a little pocket on the side of the cell. The new pocket will eventually pop off and form a new yeast cell! Children enjoy seeing the “baby” yeast cells. 🙂

Extension – Make bread or another pastry that requires yeast to make it rise. Ask children to use what they have learned about the yeast cells to explain what is happening inside the dough. (The yeast is eating the sugar and using the water in the dough to grow. As it grows it produces waste in the form of carbon dioxide gas. The gas bubbles are what makes the bread rise. As the yeast reproduces, more and more yeast cells can produce more and more gas bubbles and the dough gets bigger and bigger!)

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What is my Ecological Footprint?

What is my Ecological Footprint?

Our children have a very egocentric view of life and, through limited life experience, they typically assume everyone has the same type of lifestyle as they do. While we talk a lot about conservation, how do we really measure up to other people? As you study ecology and conservation with your child, go online with them to take one of two Ecological Footprint Quizzes to reveal the size of your family’s ecological footprint. The first EFQ is very visual and fairly basic and simple and would be the best for younger children. The second EFQ is more in depth and would be great for older children.

The results that come up from the first quiz will reveal several interesting facts . . . and they may surprise you! How many acres of land are needed to sustain your lifestyle? How does that compare to the average person? If everyone had the same lifestyle as you, how many earths would we need to survive? The second quiz gives results about the number of earths needed to sustain you, and a breakdown of what areas of your lifestyle are consuming the most natural resources.

The first quiz is provided by an organization called “The Global Footprint Network” and the second by “The Center for Sustainable Ecology.” Besides the quizzes you can also find a good bit of information on conservation at either website. The quizzes are definitely eye-opening and can lead to some great discussions about protecting the environment and conservation of natural resources.

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Water Conservation

Water Conservation

How many times do you have to remind your kids . . . “Turn off the water!” . . . or, “Turn off the light when you leave the room!” Kids are forgetful and they sometimes need help developing good conservation habits. Here’s a simple activity that will make your kids aware of how much water they can waste simply by brushing their teeth!

1. Find a large bowl that will just fit into the sink to collect water running from the faucet.

2. Have your child brush their teeth as they typically do, leaving the water running the entire time.

3. When they finish brushing and rinsing, measure the volume of the water collected in the bowl. You can use any measurement that works for the tools you have on hand. Cups might be the best, as you can convert your final measurements into gallons. Students have a good concept of how much a gallon is when they think about a gallon of milk.

4. Repeat the process, but this time, have your child turn off the water when they are not using it to wet the toothbrush, rinse, etc. When finished, measure the amount of water used.

5. Have your child subtract the difference between the amount of water used when running the faucet the entire time and when only turning it on when necessary. Convert to gallons: 1 gallon = 16 cups.

6. Finally, have your child calculate the number of times they brush their teeth in one year. Multiply by the amount of water that can be saved at each brushing. The amount of water wasted each year by letting the faucet run is surprising!

7. To extend for older children . . . multiply that amount of water by the number of people in your household to see how much water the family could save in one year. Then, help your child read a recent water bill to determine how much your utility company charges per gallon of water. Use that figure to calculate the amount of money your family could save by turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth!

Disclaimer: If you follow this project through to the very end, be ready for your child to transform into the “faucet police”! 🙂 Once children “see” the results of conservation techniques they do tend to become aware of what everyone around them is doing!

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A fun way to teach kids about their skin is through an activity on fingerprints. The skin has two layers: the dermis and the epidermis. The epidermis is the layer of dead cells on the outside of the body that waterproofs and protects the living tissues underneath. The dermis is the living skin layer that contains blood vessels, sensory receptors, and the dividing cells that create the epidermal layer. The upper part of the dermis has finger-like projections that stick up into the bottom of the epidermis. These projections, called papillae, allow the sensory receptors to be closer to the surface of the skin. In some areas of the body (palm side of hands and fingers, and bottom of feet and toes) the papillary layer is much thicker, causing it to bunch up between the epidermis and the lower dermis layers. This bunching causes the ridges and valleys we call fingerprints.

Contrary to what most people think, identical twins do not have identical fingerprints. Although genetics does determine the basic pattern, conditions in the womb influence how that pattern actually develops. Factors like rate of bone growth, pressure in the womb, and contact with amniotic fluid all affect the development of fingerprints of the fetus. Since it is virtually impossible for all those conditions to be exactly alike for 9 months, it’s safe to say that no two people have exactly the same fingerprints. The tiny details, called minutiae, that are used by forensic scientists to analyze fingerprints found at a crime scene are slightly different for everyone.

But, there are some basic fingerprint patterns and your child can easily recognize. Here are the basic fingerprint patterns:
fingerprint patternsLet your child make prints of his/her own fingerprints and identify the basic type. To make really detailed, long-lasting prints, use an ink pad. The ink will stay on the fingers for a few days, but most can be removed with rubbing alcohol and a good hand-washing. For a less permanent way to make prints, rub pencil “lead” heavily on one spot on a sheet of paper. Have your child press their finger firmly into the mark and then transfer over to clean paper to make a print.

Extensions of the basic fingerprint identification:

1. Fingerprint other members of the family and compare and contrast the prints. Do you find similar patterns? Different patterns?

2. For older children, use a magnifying glass to examine prints for tiny details (minutiae). Examine two fingerprints with the same basic pattern and see how many differences you can find. Examining prints at this level provides practice with observation skills and attention to details.

3. Set up a “who done it” activity for your child. Fingerprint several “suspects” and then make one “crime scene” fingerprint. Label all the prints with the suspects name or “crime scene.” Your child will have fun matching the crime scene print to one of the suspects! Adjust the difficulty level to the age of the child. For older children, choose a crime scene print that looks similar to the fingerprints of multiple suspects. Provide a magnifying glass so they can find a match by examining the minutiae of each print.



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Seed Germination Lab

Seed Germination Lab

Children are fascinated by the fact that a seed can grow into a plant. You’ve probably already planted seeds with your child in order to watch them grow into plants. Here’s a slightly different way to show your child the actual process of germination that allows them to actually see the plant emerge from the seed.

Materials: seeds, paper towel, plastic sandwich bag, magnifying glass


1. Fold a paper towel so that it fits flat inside a plastic sandwich bag.

2. Soak the paper towel thoroughly with water. You want the towel very wet from end to end, but not dripping with excess water. Place the paper towel in the bag and lay flat.

3. Place seeds on the paper towel so that they are spaced out away from each other. Press each firmly into the wet paper towel. (Hint: Although any type of seed will work, small, fast-germinating seeds work best. Whole birdseed such as millet works very well.)

4. Seal the baggie to conserve water and place the bag in a place where it will be undisturbed.

5. Gently slide the paper towel out of the baggie each day and observe the seeds with a magnifying glass. Depending on the type of seed used, you should start to see the seeds germinate within a few days to a week.

6. Between daily viewings be sure to gently replace the paper towel into the baggie and reseal. Re-wet the paper towel if it begins to dry out. You should be able to germinate the plants long enough to see the first leaves develop.

Lab Variations:

  • When the seedlings begin to produce leaves, transfer to soil and continue to grow into a larger plant.
  • Prepare more than one baggie with the same type of seed. Place the baggies in different environments (temperature, sunlight, etc.) to see how environmental factors affect seed germination.
  • Prepare more than one baggie with the same type of seed. Put differing amounts of water into each baggie to see how different amounts of available water affect seed germination.
  • Prepare more than one baggie using a different type of seed in each. Compare germination times of different types of seeds.
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Growing Bacteria at Home

Growing Bacteria at Home

First, a warning . . . if you grow bacteria at home there is always a possibility you could grow large amounts of harmful bacteria that could make someone in your household sick. Always use proper safety precautions when growing bacteria! Some safety hints are included below, but always, always use common sense when handling any bacteria culture.

When bacteria cultures are grown in the lab the bacteria is grown in shallow containers (Petri dishes) on a layer of nutrient agar. These supplies can be expensive, but you can simulate this setup at home with substitute ingredients.

First, the containers . . . any shallow, disposable container will work. The smaller the container, the less base material you’ll need. Very important safety tip . . . the container should NEVER be closed up air tight! Some of the most harmful types of bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they grow when there is no oxygen present. Be sure your bacteria culture is always exposed to oxygen! Leave the lids of your containers loose.

Next, the nutrient agar. Agar is just a plant-based gelatin. You can buy it from science supply stores, or you can use a substitute. I’ve heard of people using plain gelatin powder from the grocery store, but animal-based gelatin melts at around room temperature. Also, some bacteria are able to produce a chemical that breaks down animal-based gelatin. So, I don’t recommend using plain gelatin powder like Knox, as you may come out with a watery mess!

Instead, look for “agar agar” which is a flake type gelatin made from seaweed. It’s used as a thickener in many Asian foods and it can usually be found in Asian grocery stores, or any large grocery that has an Asian foods section. You just dissolve the flakes in boiling water and then cool to room temperature to solidify.

Gelatin alone won’t serve as a food source to encourage bacteria growth, so you need to add some type of nutrient media to the agar agar when heating. I would suggest adding a beef bouillon cube. It adds a food source to your gelatin, and its high salt content will often suppress the growth of bacteria that is at home in the human body (and may cause illness). Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t grow a harmful bacteria, just that it helps lessen the possibility! Caution should still be used in handling the bacteria cultures!

A final note about safety . . . never, never allow someone to culture their throat or nose, or cough into a dish. A relatively “safe” source of microorganisms to culture for small children is soil bacteria and fungi. Dig up some dirt, add enough water to thoroughly soak the soil, and allow the mixture to soak for 10 minutes. Then pour a little of the water onto the growth medium and spread it around. Soil is full of harmless bacteria and fungi that will grow a very impressive culture in the container!

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Backyard Ecology

Backyard Ecology

No matter whether you live in the country or the city, your child can observe nature close to home. Help your child be a nature detective to discover the ecosystem existing right in their own backyard.

First, help your child identify what types of plants and animals they are realistically likely to see. If you have land in the country they’re likely to observe large mammals such as deer and racoons. If you have a tiny backyard in the city, help your child realize that they will be looking for small animals such as insects, lizards, birds, etc.

Depending on the age and interest of your child, prepare a plan to capture an image of the plants and animals they find. A digital camera works well, but if your child likes to draw they can turn the ecosystem hunt into an art project.

Over a span of a week or two, sit quietly outside with your child and observe nature. Have them find as many different plants and animals as possible. To find some of the more shy animals, help your child turn over rocks and other objects in the yard or on the porch. Try observing at different times of day, and even go outside with a flashlight at night to find animals that come out after dark.

For younger children you may just want to print out the photos and identify the different types of plants and animals found. They can make a collage or a notebook to display what’s living in their backyard. Older children may also want to research what each type of animal eats and design a food web based on that information. One method is to glue the images on a poster board. Then draw arrows going from the prey (or plant) to the predator. Older students can then examine their food web to infer other animals that might be a part of their backyard ecosystem that were never observed.

Whether you focus on the exploration or turn the project into an in depth ecology lesson, your child is sure to gain an appreciation for nature’s ability to sustain life anywhere!

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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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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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