real science for today's homeschooler

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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Invisible Ink as a Chemical Reaction

Invisible Ink as a Chemical Reaction

Kids love spy gadgets and mystery! Use homemade invisible ink to write secret notes, then teach your child the science behind the process used to reveal the hidden messages.

There are many ways to make invisible ink. To use one of the safest methods, just use a Q-tip to write or draw on white paper with lemon juice. Actually, any fruit juice that contains citric acid will work, but lemon juice tends to dry the clearest, keeping the message hidden until revealed.

To reveal the message, the paper needs to be heated in some way. Whether or not your child can do this by themselves depends on the age of the child and the method used. Below are several ways to made the message visible. Choose the one most appropriate for your child:
1. Hold the paper over a candle. This is a slow method, requiring patience, as the candle can easily scorch the paper if brought too close.
2. Hold the paper over a hot light bulb. This method is very similar to the candle, but it does heat a larger area. The bulb must get very hot. For example, a 100 W incandescent bulb. Fluorescent bulbs won’t work. Care should be taken not to touch the bulb!
3. Carefully iron over the paper. Gives you a quick reveal but for safety, this needs to be done under direct parent supervision.
4. Heat the paper for about 5 minutes in the oven (around 350 degrees). Watch carefully to make sure the paper doesn’t overheat and burn. Again, direct parent supervision is needed for this method.
5. Hold the paper over a toaster. The hot air rising from the toaster should be enough to reveal the message.
6. Direct sunlight on a very hot day will sometimes be enough heat to bring out the hidden message.
7. I have heard that a very hot blow dryer will reveal the message, but I’ve never had any luck with this method.

Here’s the science behind the reveal . . . Paper is made of cellulose, a starch that makes up the body of plants. Cellulose is a tough, fibrous molecule made of many, many glucose (sugar) molecules connected in long chains. The acid in the lemon juice naturally breaks down the cellulose, separating the individual glucose molecules, which is a chemical reaction. Heat makes that process work even faster, as raising the temperature almost always increases the rate of a chemical reaction. The heat also caramelizes the sugars now in the paper, turning them a brown color. So, the brown message you see on the paper is actually caramel!

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Dinosaur Tracks

Dinosaur Tracks

Scientists often have to use indirect evidence to infer information about extinct species. Children (and adults!) often find it hard to understand how a footprint can tell a scientist anything about the animal that made it. Use this “mystery solving” activity to help explain how information can be collected from indirect evidence.

You will need to do a little advance preparation for this activity. You’ll need some play dough or other soft modeling clay and some plastic dinosaurs. Dinosaur models of different sizes and different types of dinosaurs will work best.

  1. Roll out the modeling clay in a flat sheet. This represents an area of soft mud like you would find along a river bank.
  2. Use the plastic dinosaurs to make footprints in the clay as if the dinosaur were walking through the mud. Be sure to space the footprints out to represent the natural stride length of the plastic figure. Also, adjust the depth of the footprint to represent the relative size of the dinosaur. A larger dinosaur would weigh more and so would sink farther into the mud, etc.
  3. Adjust the complexity of the footprint pattern based on the age of your child. Keep the pattern simple for younger children with only a few different dinosaurs with tracks spread apart. For older children, add more dinosaurs and have one track cross over another, etc.
  4. Allow the clay to dry completely. Don’t let your child see the clay or the dinosaur figures until you’re ready to have them do the activity.

The activity:

  1. First, give your child only the clay model. Explain to your child that this was once soft “mud” that dinosaurs walked through. Over time, the mud dried up and turned to “rock.” The footprints are indirect evidence that a dinosaur walked through a long time ago. If your child is old enough you can introduce the term, trace fossil. A trace fossil is anything that shows a prehistoric organism was there, but it doesn’t show what the organism actually looked like.
  2. Ask your child to look at the field and identify how many different dinosaurs walked through the field. For older children, have them trace the path of each different dinosaur, explaining what happened when paths crossed, etc.
  3. Now, have your child look at each different track present. Ask them to tell as much as they can about each dinosaur based on their footprints. Allow your child time to develop ideas on their own. Here are some things to suggest if they get stuck:
    • Ask children to compare foot size between members of their own family. Lead them to recognize that larger people have bigger feet and apply that to the dinosaur tracks. Have your child put the dinosaurs in order based on relative size.
    • Did each dinosaur walk on two legs or four legs?
    • Discuss “stride length” as it relates to height. Your child has probably noticed that they have to take more steps to keep up with dad! Explain that taller people usually have longer strides. Have your child relate this idea to the dinosaur tracks. Can they tell which dinosaur was taller and shorter based on stride length?
    • Have them measure the depth of the track. Relate this to the weight (size) of the dinosaur, since heavier objects would sink farther into the wet mud.
    • Finally, if any of your dinosaur figures had distinctive features on the feet, see if students can identify these from the footprints. (This all depends on the models you use. For example, some models may be detailed enough to show individual toes, claws, etc.)
  4. After your child has inferred all they can from the footprints, bring out the models that were used to make the prints. Have your child match up the dinosaur to their footprint. Compare all the figures used and evaluate how accurate your child’s predictions were to the real thing.

To extend the lesson, do an internet search to see of there are any dinosaur tracks close enough for a local field trip or a stop along your next vacation route!

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Learning about Buoyancy in the Pool

Learning about Buoyancy in the Pool

Buoyancy seems like a simple concept, but to fully understand it on a scientific level can be a challenge for students. Introduce the concept to your younger elementary kids in a fun way while playing in the pool this summer!

Buoyancy is based on Archimedes’ Principle that states, “Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.” Very confusing language for kids! Here’s how to explain Archimedes in their language . . .

When you get in the pool, your body shoves some water out of the way to make room for you. Let’s say you could collect all the water your body moved out of the way and weigh it. Now, pretend that you lie down on the ground and have someone put all that water on top of you. You would feel the water pushing down on your body, right? That push you feel is a force. So, when you get in the swimming pool, the water you move out of the way starts pushing back. But instead of it pushing down on you, it pushes up trying to push you back out of the water. That force of the water trying to push you back out of the pool is called buoyancy!

Relate Archimedes’ Principle to what your child “feels” while in the pool. You feel lighter in water than you do out of the water because the water is actually pushing up on you . . . holding you up a bit!

If your child is able to understand the basics of Archimedes’ Principle, go a step further with the concept. If the weight of the water displaced is more than the weight of the object, the object will float. If the weight of the water displaced is less than the weight of the object, the object will sink. Ask them to explain why they sink in the water (when they don’t swim), but float when they lay on a float.

Finally, if your child swims well enough to “dive” for objects underwater, introduce a challenge. It’s them against the water! When they try to go underwater to get a object at the bottom of the pool, the water is trying to push them back up. The challenge? Who is stronger, you or the water? 🙂

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Teaching Kids about Consumerism and Conservation

Teaching Kids about Consumerism and Conservation

Let’s face it, the advertising world targets your kids every day. What child hasn’t been disappointed after saving for months for a toy, only to find it doesn’t measure up to what the commercial promised? In my science classes I teach my students how science can be used to objectively test claims made by advertisers . . . in other words, how to be wise consumers. Here’s a fun idea that actually came from one of my students. It combines a lesson about consumerism, along with a lesson about conservation.

Design an experiment to test which is more cost efficient, using disposable or rechargeable batteries. I’ll list some of the variables to consider below, but your child can easily design this experiment themselves for some hands on practice using the scientific method.

1. Pick comparable battery brands to test. If you pick a name brand disposable battery, don’t compare it to a cheap store brand rechargeable, etc.
2. Use the same size battery of each type.
3. Test the battery life in the same way. An example would be using the battery to run any small electronic device. Measure the time the device remains in operation. Use the same device for both types of batteries, and keep the device under the same conditions (temperature, volume, etc.)
4. Decide on exactly what you’re comparing. Are you comparing the amount of time each battery will keep the device running? If so, you may want to also test different brands of each type. Are you trying to determine which type (disposable vs rechargeable) battery costs less in the long run? In that case, you’ll need to also factor in how many times the rechargeable can be recharged vs how many disposable batteries would have to be purchased to get the same result.

Again, those are just some suggestions of things to consider when designing the experiment. Your child will have plenty of ideas of their own. Gently guide them into using the scientific method to design their experiment so their results are valid.

Extensions of this lab are limitless! Older students can research the amount of waste produced by batteries or the amount of nonrenewable resources are used in the manufacturing of batteries. Find battery commercials or ads for the different brands and types tested. Challenge students to evaluate the claims made by the manufacturers based on the results of their experiment. This will usually lead to a discussion about the accuracy of claims made about other products. Encourage your child to select several products that are commonly used in your home and put them to the test! Teaching kids not to believe everything they see and hear from the media, and teaching them that they have the power to evaluate these claims for themselves is a valuable life lesson!

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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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Slinky Waves

Slinky Waves

Have an old slinky collecting dust in the kids’ toy box? Pull it out and teach a quick lesson on the two types of waves.

1. Loosely stretch the slinky across the floor or long table with you holding one end and your child holding the other.

2. Create a transverse wave by shaking one end of the slinky horizontally across the floor or table. Continue shaking back and forth to set up a series of transverse waves that will move from one side of the slinky to the other.

3. Have your child identify the crests and the troughs of the waves.

crest and trough

4. Also explain that in a transverse wave the energy moves perpendicular (at right angles) to the motion of the medium. They can see the medium (the slinky) move side to side while they feel the energy being transferred from your hand to theirs. Help them to see that the motion of slinky and energy are in different directions.

5. To make a longitudinal or compression wave, make a quick shoving motion with the slinky toward the person at the other end. You should be able to see a compression travel along the slinky between your hand and the person on the other end. Continue making compression waves in the slinky for your child to observe.

6. Have your child identify the compression and the rarefaction (see below).

compression and rarefaction

7. Explain that in a longitudinal or compression wave the energy moves in the same direction as the motion of the medium. In this case, they should see that both the slinky and the energy from your push are both traveling in a straight line between your hand and theirs.

If you are trying this with small children it may be difficult for them to identify the motion of the medium vs the energy. At lower grade levels, just focus on the fact that there are two different kinds of waves and how they look different. If your child is ready for new terms, help them identify the parts of one or both types of waves.

Finally, for all children, extend the lesson to brainstorm where they have observed (or how they can make) transverse and longitudinal waves in different types of media (water, rope, air, etc.)

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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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Growing Crystals with Common Chemicals

Growing Crystals with Common Chemicals

Crystal growing is a fun activity for kids and it is relevant to several areas of science, such as chemistry, as well as mineral formation in geology. Schools often use commercial chemicals to grow crystals in the classroom, and these chemicals can be difficult, if not impossible, to purchase as an individual. Here are a few household chemicals that can be used to grow crystals at home:

Aluminum potassium sulfate (alum) can be purchased in the spices area of the grocery store. This alum is not pure, and crystals do sometimes turn out small. Purchasing a more expensive brand will often grow better crystals, but alum is fairly expensive.

Sodium borate (borax) can be purchased in the laundry section of many stores.

Calcium chloride can be purchased at home improvement stores and stores that sell chemicals for swimming pools. Even at a specialty store, this is a fairly inexpensive chemical to purchase.

Copper sulfate is the ingredient in products used to kill roots in sewer lines. You can find this at home improvement stores. Moderately expensive, but a container goes a long way. This chemical makes very large, beautiful blue crystals and is a favorite for crystal growing. But, do be careful with storage of the crystals as the chemical is poisonous and it can be mistaken for candy by young children!

Magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) can be purchased at a drug store or the pharmacy section of the grocery store. It’s fairly inexpensive.

Sodium chloride (table salt) grows very nice cubic crystals.

Sucrose (table sugar) is used to make “rock candy” crystals. There are quite a few recipes on the internet for making rock candy, and it is a favorite to make. However, these are the hardest crystals to grow, and it can be messy! I’ve tried this using several different methods and have never been very successful. If anyone has a good recipe and growing technique for making rock candy, please post! 🙂

How to grow crystals:

The trick is to make a supersaturated solution of the chemical. It’s best to start with distilled water, which can be purchased by the gallon at the grocery. Heat the water, slowly add the chemical, and stir until completely dissolved. In order to make a supersaturated solution, the water needs to be very hot and you have to dissolve as much of the chemical as possible. Continue to add the chemical a little at a time, dissolving thoroughly before adding more. When you finally reach the point where no more chemical will dissolve, pour the hot solution into the container you’ll use to grow the crystals. You can also add a little food coloring if you want to make colored crystals. Don’t add too much as you don’t want to dilute the solution.

It’s important to use a container with very smooth inside surfaces, like glass. Also, be sure to only pour in the solution that is completely dissolved. Let the undissolved chemicals settle to the bottom of the original container and don’t transfer the last bit of solution. Finally, suspend a string into the crystal growing solution to give your crystals something to grow around, and leave undisturbed. Depending on the chemical used, crystals usually begin to form within hours, but may take several days to grow larger.


Take care with the finished crystals and store them appropriately. Copper sulfate crystals are especially poisonous if ingested. Whatever chemical you use, do read the product label for safety precautions. The same precautions should be taken with the finished crystals! Remember, many candies are made to look like crystals and small children may not be able to tell the difference.

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