real science for today's homeschooler

Cloud in a Glass

Cloud in a Glass

As you’re studying weather, take a few minutes to make a cloud in a glass to help explain the process of condensation and cloud formation.

What you’ll need: clear glass or jar, kitchen matches, ice cubes, small plate or pan that will completely cover top of glass or jar (metal works best), boiling or very hot water

1. Fill the plate or pan with ice cubes and have it ready to quickly place over the top of the glass when needed.
2. Pour enough boiling water into the glass or jar so that there is about 1/2 centimeter of water covering the bottom.
3. Light a kitchen match and hold it inside the top of the glass for a minute or so. Right before the flame reaches your fingers, drop the match into the water in the glass.
4. Immediately, cover the top of the glass with the pan containing ice cubes.
5. Watch a “cloud” form inside the glass!

What’s Going On?
The boiling water has enough heat energy to cause some of the water molecules to evaporate and turn into water vapor inside the glass. Those individual water molecules will stay in a gas state as long as they have enough energy. When the pan of ice is placed over the top of the glass, heat energy from the water vapor molecules is transferred to the bottom of the cold pan. The water vapor molecules no longer have enough energy to remain in a gas state, and they condense back to a liquid state. The smoke from the burning match is made of tiny particles which remain suspended in the air inside the glass. As the water molecules began to condense, they collect around the smoke particles, forming the tiny water droplets that make the “cloud” in the glass.

How do Real Clouds Form?
Clouds in Earth’s atmosphere form in pretty much the same way. As the Sun’s energy heats water on the surface of the Earth, it evaporates. As the moist air continues to heat up, it begins to rise higher into the atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere gets colder and colder the higher up you go. When the water vapor in the rising air gets cold enough, it condenses around “condensation nuclei” in the atmosphere. Condensation nuclei are tiny particles of dust, salt, and other solids that are suspended in the air, similar to the smoke from the match. When enough tiny water droplets form in the atmosphere, we see a cloud in the sky!

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Don’t Miss the Supermoon!

Don't Miss the Supermoon!

On November 14-15, 2016 we’ll experience a “Super Moon.” A full moon that is bigger and brighter than usual because the moon will actually be about 400,000 kilometers closer to Earth than normal. The last Super Moon occurred in 1948 and you’ll have to wait until 2034 for the next one. So, take your children outside tonight so they can experience their first Super Moon! For more information about the phenomenon, go here.

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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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Roadcuts – Windows to the Past

Roadcuts - Windows to the Past

The next time you’re traveling with the kids and need to stop for a break, look for a roadcut with a large safe shoulder to walk around. Call attention to the rock layers visible on the surface of the cut, and ask children for their ideas about what caused the layers. Depending on the age of the child, topics of discussion can include:


  1. the type of rocks and how they formed (most formed as sediments deposited as they settled out of water)
  2. fossils that may be found in the rocks (type of organisms give further hints about the conditions under which the rocks formed)
  3. the angle of the rock layers (sediment laid down underwater would form horizontal rock layers; if there are angled rock layers, how did they get that way?)

Help children understand that the farther below the surface, the older the rock layer. An analogy about building a brick wall may help younger children understand . . . the bricks at the bottom of the wall were put down first and the bricks at the top where added last. If fossils are present in the rock layers, talk about which of the organisms are older than others.

When you’re back on the road, encourage children to use their imaginations to draw what the area might have looked like when the rock layers were forming. If you found fossils, have them draw what the living organism might have looked like based on the fossil remains.

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Earthquake Waves

Earthquake Waves

The general properties of waves can be investigated through an activity on earthquakes. First, have your child research the three different types of earthquake waves. Encourage them to find the following information about each wave:

1. name of the wave

2. how quickly it travels compared to the other two

3. what part of the Earth does it travel through

4. type of wave, based on motion (compression wave, transverse wave, etc.)

5. does it cause damage to buildings

Help your child organize the information they find into a chart or data table. This can be done on the computer or by hand. Or, make a poster and add pictures and drawings. Use the chart to compare and contrast the three types of earthquake waves.

Next, have your child build a structure that will withstand the different types of earthquake waves. (Encourage them to look at the type of motion caused by each wave.) Use any type of materials such as building blocks, boxes, DVD cases, etc. In order to test their construction, have them build it on a surface that will be easy to move, such as a small table, board, etc.

Test the structure(s) by recreating the various motions of the different earthquake waves:

P waves – move the surface back and forth in a horizontal motion

S waves – move the surface up and down

L waves – move the surface in all different directions, including circular motion

Older children may then want to research how scientists are designing earthquake resistant buildings.

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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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Separating a Mixture

Separating a Mixture

A mixture contains two or more substances that are not chemically combined. Each substance retains its original properties, and can be separated by physical means. Challenge your student to design a method to separate a mixture into its separate components.

First, you’ll need to make the mixture that will be separated. A suggestion would be to mix salt, sand, pebbles, and iron filings. Home improvement stores sell “play sand” which works well for many science experiments, and you can order iron filings from the internet. The base of your mixture should be sand, then add the other substances in slightly smaller quantities.

Here are the steps of the experiment:

1. Have your child observe the mixture and guess the substances from which it is made.

2. Explain the scientific definition of a mixture and give your child a sample of each of the individual substances in the mixture.

3. Ask your child to brainstorm the physical properties of each of the individual substances. (If they don’t come up with these on their own, lead them to include that salt dissolves in water, pebbles are much larger than the other ingredients, and iron is magnetic.)

4. Ask your child to brainstorm how the physical properties of the substances could be used to separate each from the mixture. Depending on the age of the child, you may or may not have to help with this step. You can also lead them to experiment with the individual substances by seeing which will dissolve in water and which are attracted to a magnet, etc.

5. Once your child has developed a plan to separate the mixture, help them carry it out. Here are a few suggestions to successfully separate the four ingredients:

PEBBLES – Separate the pebbles either by picking them out individually with tweezers or fingers, or by straining them out. A colander or a piece of window screen works well as a strainer.

IRON FILINGS – The small iron fragments can easily be pulled from the mixture with a magnet. To keep the magnet clean, put it inside a plastic baggie. After you have collected the iron filings on the outside of the bag, pull the magnet away from the plastic and the filings will be released.

SALT – Pour the mixture into a container of water and stir well until the salt has had time to dissolve completely. Pour off the water. To demonstrate that the procedure worked, evaporate the water to reveal the salt left behind.

SAND – Once the other three ingredients have been removed, the (wet) sand will be left behind.

6. Emphasis that your child has proven that the original material was a mixture because the individual parts were separated by physical means.

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Take the Pluto Survey!

Take the Pluto Survey!

We all remember learning the nine planets of the solar system when we were in school. And just like that, there were only eight! Poor Pluto! In 2006 the IAU (International Astronomical Union) demoted Pluto to nothing more than a “dwarf planet” when another rocky body, similar to Pluto, was discovered beyond Neptune.

But, on September 18 Harvard University hosted a debate about the controversial classification of Pluto and it seems quite a case was made to reinstate Pluto back to its former planet status. Although you may have heard rumors that Pluto is now a planet again, the debate was informal and no official decision has been made. The IAU meets again in Honolulu, Hawaii in August, 2015 and no official change will be made before then, at the earliest. Still, the Harvard debate has stirred up quite a bit of emotions concerning Pluto!

I was very surprised to find that my students have very strong opinions concerning the fate of Pluto, with some believing it should be reinstated as the ninth planet of our solar system and some not. Which got me thinking . . . what a great topic to get kids involved in current events in science! So, I want to challenge you to get your kids involved. Encourage them to do some research on the pros and cons of classifying Pluto as a planet and come to their own decision. Once they have, please have them share their opinion through this one question survey. I’ll share the results of the survey when it looks like a clear winner has emerged! (The survey is completely anonymous and no information is collected other than the answer to the one survey question!)

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Measuring Volume

Measuring Volume

Many science activities rely on taking an accurate measurement of the volume of liquids and solids. Below you’ll find a reference for how to measure the volume of different types of matter. Activities in this blog that require students to measure volume will include a link back to this page for reference.


This one is easy . . . add the liquid to a container that measures volume! 🙂 One suggestion would be to find measuring containers that measure in milliliters (mL)and (L) so that children become familiar with metric measurements.


A “regular” solid means one that has a specific geometric shape whose dimensions can be measured accurately with a ruler. Here are some of the basic formulas used to measure the volume of geometric shapes:

formulasBe sure to measure lengths in metric units such as centimeters (cm) or millimeters (mm). All volume measurements will then be in cubic centimeters  or cubic millimeters.


The water displacement method is typically used to measure the volume of an “irregular solid,” a solid that lacks a regular geometric shape whose dimensions can be measured with a ruler. To use the water displacement method you will need a container that will hold the object to be measured, and that is marked in metric units, preferably milliliters.

1. Fill the container with enough water to cover the object.

2. Record the amount of water in the container, preferably in milliliters.

3. Insert the object to be measured, being careful not to let it “plop” in and splash water out!

4. Record the new water level in the container.

5. Subtract the two water levels to determine the amount of water that was “displaced” (moved out of the way) when the solid object was inserted.

6. Because 1 milliliter of water = 1 cubic centimeter of water, you can assume that the volume of water displaced in milliliters is the same as the volume of the solid object in cubic centimeters.

Many of the activities in this blog will require that students find the volume of different substances. This page will be linked so you can easily return for a refresher on measuring volume! 🙂


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Rotational Motion with a Pinwheel

Rotational Motion with a Pinwheel

Kids love to play with pinwheels. Whether you buy one at the store or make your own (pinwheel making tutorial), add a little Physics to the fun!

1. Use a string and ruler to measure the outside distance around the outside of the pinwheel.

2. Mark one spot on the pinwheel in some way. Use color, a piece of tape, etc. Just make sure the mark is very visible, even when the pinwheel is spinning.

3. Have your child practice watching the pinwheel in motion and counting each time the pinwheel makes a complete revolution. (When the mark on the pinwheel goes all the way around and returns to the same spot.) Move on to practicing counting exactly 10 revolutions. When your child has this down, move on to step 4.

4. Use a stop watch to measure the time it takes for the pinwheel to make 10 revolutions. Repeat 5 times, then average the 5 trials to get the “average time” for 10 revolutions.

5. Divide the average time by 10 to get the time for 1 revolution.

6. Calculate the speed at which the outside of the pinwheel was spinning by dividing the distance around the outside of the pinwheel (step 1) by the average time for 1 revolution (step 5). Your child has just calculated the rotational speed of the pinwheel!

To extend, repeat using different sources of “wind” to move the pinwheel at different speeds. Add a weather component by repeating on consecutive days to compare the wind strength. Older children may find it interesting to compare the actual wind speed (use a local weather app) to the speed of the pinwheel rotation. Look for patterns and mathematical relationships between the two.

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