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An orange scrub brush gives a family science activity a boost of jack-o-lantern-inspired fun and leads to a great robotics exploration.

Brushbot hands-on Halloween robotics science activity

Ever since the new Brushbot family science activity launched at Science Buddies, with electronics components conveniently bundled in a multi-project kit from the Science Buddies Store, I have had it on my "must make" list for my kids.

Thinking it would be cool to couple trick-or-treat month and the robotics project, I decided we would make a Halloween-themed Brushbot. Intent on tying our bot into October's mix of pumpkins, ghosts, and ghouls, I dug around online until I (finally) turned up a small scrub brush that seemed just right in terms of color. (It is harder than you might expect to find an orange scrub brush! Plus, for this project, you need a scrub brush without a handle.)

A Simple but Successful Build

On a roadmap of robotics projects, the Brushbot is a stepping stone early in the path, right there with the friendly toothbrush head Bristlebots. Despite the googly eye charm of the sample shown in the Science Buddies activity, with its simple circuit and limited number of parts, I worried that it might be a bit too easy of a build (compared to working with a breadboard) to capture my student's interest.

I was wrong!

A Blueprint for Success

The steps of the Brushbot activity are very simple to follow. There are a limited number of pieces involved in hooking things together, and the activity does an excellent job of providing easy-to-follow directions (with photos).

In minutes, my son had the circuit complete and was wriggling the cork onto the motor. A few minutes after that, he was able to flip the brushbot on and see it go.

Unfortunately, after a few seconds of scuttling to one side, the brushbot fell over. He set it upright and let it loose again. It fell over. Time after time, the brushbot fell over almost immediately.

Rather than being a stumbling block or a "fail" in terms of the science activity, his brushbot's initial lack of stability was actually a wonderful fulcrum for exploration. He had positioned his cork the way the directions instruct, but he was seeing unexpected behavior from his brushbot.

He hypothesized why he thought it was falling over—and he started testing to see if he could improve and stabilize the movement of the bot.

A Robot in Hand

Contrary to the basic bristlebot and the light-tracking bristlebot, both of which we made last year, the brushbot is chunky. It is hand-sized. Its few and large parts are also easy to tinker with. The positioning and placement of the cork on the motor, for example, offers ample room for experimentation and testing that offers immediate, clear, and visible results for a young robotics engineer. How fast does it move? Does it move in one direction only? Does it stay upright? Does it move in a circle or in a line?

My student tried a number of positions for the cork, noting how the bot's movement changed each time. He also experimented with adding a good bit of extra electrical tape to secure the motor more firmly to the brush. (This did improve the balance and movement of his brushbot.)

Even after the initial "project" was over, throughout the day, he picked the brushbot up again several times, watched it scuttle around on the floor, and tinkered a bit more. He tried more than one cork (they vary in size and thickness), too, to see what difference those variables might make.

Great Introductory Robotics

Because the circuitry is less complicated than other bots we have built, there was less need to worry about the intricacies of the electronics components and the circuit. Instead of making the project too easy, this seems to have invited my student to spend more time tinkering with the brushbot and putting the engineering design process in action.

We didn't have googly eyes on hand. But we improvised some pumpkin-shaped eyes and mouth on pieces of duct tape that we attached to the front. (Admittedly, this was more important to me than to him. Your success with decorating your bot will vary based on your student!)

No matter how you decorate it or what color brush you use, the brushbot has potential to have a lot of personality and individual pizzazz, but it also offers a lot of hands on engineering satisfaction for students--and fast gratification.

There is not much that can "go wrong" with a robotics project like this one, which makes it a great entry point project for families and kids just beginning to experiment with robotics and electronics.

Extend the Fun

If your students enjoy making the Brushbot, be sure and check these other posts and projects:

Support for resources and Project Ideas in robotics is provided by Northrop Grumman, Symantec Corporation, and the Best Buy Foundation.



We go DIY with molecular gastronomy and family science as we make our own popping boba using the Spherification Kit from the Science Buddies Store.

Spherification popping boba

When it is hot outside, my kids love to pit stop at the nearby frozen yogurt shop where they can swirl frozen yogurt into an oversized paper bowl and load it up with toppings of their choice. Favorite toppings vary, but one kid's heaping concoction always includes little slippery, fruit-flavored balls—popping boba.

Popping boba are similar to the boba found in bubble (or boba) tea, but the small spheres have a very thin exterior skin, are filled with juice (or something similar), and "pop" in your mouth when you squeeze or bite them. In my house, the fascination with popping boba is so strong, and the availability at the yogurt shop so variable, that we ended up ordering popping boba in bulk.

We now have close to thirty pounds of the little liquid-filled balls sitting in giant plastic containers at the house!

Cool Home Science

Just about the time I was unpacking all that boba, the Spherification kit became available in the Science Buddies Store. I knew the molecular gastronomy spherification process is used in a human biology project that lets students explore how blood clots. In that science project, students use spherification to simulate and explore the clotting process—and to better understand what happens when clotting doesn't work properly. But I hadn't realized when reviewing the project on hemophilia and clotting that the same process used in the Science Buddies project to help students better understand a core biological process is actually a technique more commonly used to make something edible—tasty treats referred to as "spherification caviar" that can be eaten alone, added to desserts, or even used in drinks.

From juice-filled spherification caviar to spheres of sauces, honey, and even solid foods, many cooks use spherification to add something flavor-filled and unexpected to their dishes.

As I read the product information describing the Spherification kit and took a look at the brand new Serving Spheres for Supper: Use Molecular Gastronomy to Change the Shape of Your Food project that involves spherification, I realized that what students make in the project is very, very similar to popping boba.

Making Boba

My fifth grade student was excited to try making boba at home. We didn't do the spherification project as a science fair experiment, so we were not running trials based on the amount of sodium citrate added to our liquid solution (our "filling"). Even so, we knew from talking about the spherification project and process that not all liquids respond to spherification the same, in part because of their pH. Since fresh squeezed orange juice is what my student wanted to try for our foray into boba making, pH was a definite concern. The typical pH of orange juice is low, around 3.5, which makes it fairly acidic. (Tip: research the pH of other juices and drinks with your kids to find out how they compare! You can learn more about the pH scale here.)

For the spherification process to work with orange juice, we knew that we might need to lower the acidity of the juice by adding small amounts of sodium citrate to the mixture and seeing how well the spheres formed. (We also knew that even if spheres didn't form, we could inject strings of solution into the calcium bath and fish out something similar to gummy worms! Nothing you drop into the calcium bath is really going to be wasted... it just may or may not make a sphere.)

With that in mind, we got out our ingredients, opened the Science Buddies project up on a tablet for reference, and got down to some serious boba-making business.

Sizing Boba

Our spherification attempts were lots of fun, and as is often the case with home science activities, we tried a number of things, observed what happened with each change we made, and branched out and tried some unexpected things as well. We were amazed to see that dropping a drop of juice from the syringe into the calcium bath almost instantly formed a sphere. Excited by our immediate spherical success, we dropped several in (one by one), waited the 60 seconds, fished them out, and put them to the taste test. Because we hadn't rinsed them, they were a bit saltier than we expected (but still totally safe to eat). But, they worked! They were very much like popping boba—and filled with fresh orange juice. Very cool!

They were tiny.

Seriously tiny.

But they were juice-filled spheres, and they did pop in our mouths.

Using the syringe, we made several bowls of homemade popping boba. We played around with our solution, experimenting to see what difference differing amounts of sodium citrate might make. We made some gummy worms.

And then we got creative. The biggest disappointment for us was the small size of the caviar spheres. How could we make them bigger? What would happen if we dropped our juice into the mix by something larger, like a very small measuring spoon? We experimented with several differently sized spoons and techniques, and, voila, we ended up with larger boba.

The process was a huge hit, and we will definitely try spherification again. We have other questions we want to answer, and using a different kind of juice or drink will let us see how the process changes based on what food or liquid we use to fill our spheres.

Try It at Home

If you have kids who love kitchen science or who are enamored with popping boba, spherification is definitely something to try at home. The kit from the Science Buddies Store contains enough materials to make quite a bit of boba (or other spherification caviar), so this is a project you can pull out on a rainy afternoon, with a group of kids after school, or any time. You will need some regular household supplies on hand, including bowls, access to a blender, spoons, and your filling (e.g., juice), but the process is fast, and cleanup is easy.

Here are a few tips and pointers, based on our experience, for home experimentation:

  • Your juice (or filling) should be refrigerator cold before you begin. Many spherification recipes also suggest refrigerating the sodium alginate solution for several hours (to remove air bubbles). If you encounter problems making your boba, keep this in mind as something to try.
  • Mixing up the juice with the sodium alginate took some doing. We tried a handheld milk frother rather than a blender, for convenience. It may not have been powerful enough, and the sodium alginate did want to clump in the liquid rather than mix. Keep at it! You want to get the solution as thoroughly mixed as you can. If you have an immersion blender, you may find it just the right tool for the task!
  • Fishing the spheres, especially the super tiny ones, from our calcium bath was not easy using a regular spoon. If you have a small strainer-type spoon, or a spoon with very small slots or holes, you may find it easier to fish the balls out.
  • Rinsing the balls before eating them helps remove the salty taste.
  • Experiment with the angle at which you hold the syringe and how quickly you release the solution into the bath (or how forcefully you push the plunger).
  • If you decide to try larger spheres, experiment with the speed at which you drop the solution into the bath.
  • Keep in mind that boba made this way should be eaten shortly after making them. They will continue to harden!

If your home trials lead your kids to ask further questions about boba and how companies make lots of boba, you may enjoy watching a video like this one, which shows a tool that can be used to create uniform spherification caviar in batches (see screenshot below). You may also want to look around online at some of the many cool and exciting recipe ideas you will find for spherification caviar. Juice is only the beginning!

Spherification caviar maker / screenshot from video

Reverse Spherification

In your research on spherification and molecular gastronomy, you will also see "reverse spherification" mentioned and noted in some recipes. This is a process used when trying to encapsulate foods that contain calcium. Stay tuned for a Science Buddies project on making "yogurt ravioli" using reverse spherification!



An unusual caterpillar brings lots of "eeeews!" and one contribution to a citizen science project. Discover how anyone can collaborate on serious scientific research.

Acharia stimulea, larva -- Gerald J. Lenhard
Above: Acharia stimulea, larva, Gerald J. Lenhard, Louisiana State University, Bugwood.org

What do you picture when you think of a caterpillar? Green and hairless? Or perhaps black and fuzzy? Recently, I found a caterpillar on my car bumper, and its distinctive looks made me stop in my tracks. With crazy green and brown coloring, horns at both ends, and little spines everywhere, it looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss' book! I decided that this was definitely a look-but-don't-t ouch situation.

After taking a picture, I immediately went online to see if I could figure out what kind of caterpillar it might be. A little sleuthing helped me discover that it was most likely a saddleback caterpillar, or Acharia stimulea, that is native to where I live. Although this wild-looking creature will morph into a decidedly boring brown moth, I was right about not touching it—those spines secrete poison!

Citizen Science Lets Anyone Contribute to Our Knowledge of the World

I enjoyed sharing my photo with friends and family, and I later learned that I could go one step further and share my discovery on a "citizen science" web site called Butterflies and Moths of North America . By submitting my photo and information about where it was taken, I was contributing to the available knowledge about this particular species. How cool that information I collected may be used by scientists in their research!

Butterflies and Moths of North America is just one of many existing citizen science projects. Do a quick online search, and you'll find collaborative projects related to pollinators, astronomy, chemistry, the environment, and much more. These projects offer families and classrooms a simple but meaningful way to participate in scientific research. What a boost for kids to know that their efforts can have an impact outside of their home or school! You can find more detailed information and inspiration about animal-related citizen science that is fun for the whole family in Loree Griffin Burns's book, Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard. )

Science Right Outside Your Door

My caterpillar hung onto the car bumper for two days. Figuring that it would be happier living on a food source instead, we very carefully moved it to a plant in the yard. When we checked back later, there was a hole in the leaf, but the caterpillar was gone. Perhaps to start building its cocoon?

Do you have an interest in caterpillars, butterflies, or moths? If so, take a look at these Science Buddies Project Ideas:

  • Does Temperature Affect the Rate of Butterfly Development?: Using painted lady butterfly larvae, explore the relationship between temperature and the time it takes for pupae to complete metamorphosis. Why does it matter?
  • Build a Better Moth Trap: Will Different-colored Lights Affect How Many Moths You Catch?:
    Ever wonder why moths are attracted to artificial light? Learn more about the theories behind this phenomenon and discover which colors of light catch their attention best.
  • Butterfly Wings: Using Nature to Learn About Flight:
    How can delicate butterflies migrate thousands of miles? With a fan and a few other simple materials, create your own butterfly flight simulator to investigate the subtleties of wing position and smooth flight.
  • The Touch Response*: How do different animals use sensory structures, such as skin or antennae, to learn about their environment? Using gentle touches with a toothpick, compare the sensitivity of your skin on different areas of your body. Try the same experiment by gently touching each end of a (non-poisonous!) caterpillar with a toothpick.

Finding Science at Home
Next time you step outside, look and see what sort of "creepy crawly" life you can discover!



From Wooden Train to the Magic of Maglev

For a third grade student with an interest in science and pinewood derby cars, the Maglev Train project combined a fun DIY activity with engaging science. A levitating train is science kids can see!

Family Maglev Train Success Story

Family Science is Fun!

Alex and Lisa, pictured above, built and explored the Magic Bullet Train kit from the Science Buddies Store. Alex's train turned out great, and we love the gold paint! For more family science inspiration featuring the maglev train kit and project, see Magic Train Puts Kids on Track with Physics of Magnetism.

The science of magnetism often has strong pull with elementary school students. Couple a seemingly innate interest in magnets with an interest in trains, and you have the makings of a winning science project for school or a creative science exploration for a rainy day at home.

In preparation for spending summer time with her eight year old stepson, Lisa scoped out a number of projects and activities that would be both fun and educational. After spotting mention of the Magic Bullet Train project at Facebook, Lisa checked out the project at Science Buddies and quickly added it to her list of growing list of possibilities.

"I thought that Alex would enjoy it because he is very interested in science. He has also done pinewood derby cars with the Boy Scouts, so I knew he would be familiar with the shaping and painting skills we would need to make the train."

Along with supplies for other summer projects, Lisa ordered the Magic Bullet Train kit from the Science Buddies Store. When Alex arrived for a summer visit, she had plenty of great "to do" options to show him, from a pyramid excavation kit and a hydraulic crane set to snap circuits and a laser maze. The bullet train science kit was an immediate hit.

"Alex was excited about this kit right away. He knew that he wanted his train to have the shape of the one shown on the side of the Maglev train box," says Lisa. With a plan in mind for customizing his train, Lisa and Alex headed to the store to buy sandpaper, primer, and paint.

Because the project involves both designing and shaping a small train from a block of wood, assembling the magnetic railway, and then doing hands-on testing to see the train in action, the Magic Bullet Train project is one that kids can work on over several days. For many kids, the creative energy spent fashioning and personalizing the train makes them even more invested in the project.

"Alex worked on shaping the train with the sandpaper for a little while every day for about a week," says Lisa. "He was excited when it was finally time to paint it." Using blue, gold, and white paint he had picked out, Alex transformed his shaped wooden train into a model of a real train with gold sides, a blue roof, and a painted windshield and windows.

Throughout the project, Lisa says she and Alex talked about the science behind the project and behind real-world Maglev trains. "We discussed what 'maglev' means," says Lisa, "and talked about magnets and the meaning of the word levitation."

When the train and track were complete, Alex got the chance to see the train glide across the rails—without touching them—because of magnetic levitation.

As both a teacher and a parent, Lisa believes doing hands-on science with kids is important. "It's a great way to bond with kids, to explore a new idea together, and to get kids talking about what they think. I love to hear kids explain how they think the world works."

As a third grader, Alex is interested in science, the Civil War, rocks, and Dr. Who. Right now, he looks ahead to the future and says he wants to study geology or physics in college.

His hand-painted Maglev train will always be a reminder of a summer with his family—and of how much fun science can be!

Science Buddies in Action

Read more stories about student, teacher, and family success with hands-on science projects and activities. Have a story of your own? We would love to hear about your experience!



Homemade Compass: Weekly Science Activity

Make a Homemade Compass Physics Activity and DIY Project  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a physics-focused family science activity that can help everyone in the family get a better sense of where you are—or in what direction you are heading. In this activity, students make a small, working compass using part of a cork, a needle, and a magnet. Once the compass is created, students can put it to the test. Does the direction the homemade compass points match up to what another navigational device or app says? Families can experiment with other versions of the same type of compass made using different kinds of magnets—or even a leaf instead of cork! How does a homemade compass work? What does a compass have to do with the Earth's magnetic field? And what kinds of problems might alter the effectiveness of a homemade compass? This is fun hands-on science for young explorers, mapmakers, and those curious about magnetism.

Families can make their own compass using the Science Buddies activity at Scientific American:

For another fun hands-on science project involving magnetism, see the following project and blog post at Science Buddies:



Tie-Dye Using Permanent Markers Chemistry Activity and DIY Project  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a chemistry-focused family science and craft activity that lets students explore the concept of solubility while using permanent markers to decorate a T-shirt (or piece of fabric). Permanent markers are designed to be lasting, so what happens when you add water? What happens when you add alcohol? Does the marker ink react the same to both water and alcohol? Put these questions to the test in a fun hands-on science experiment. At the end of the project, students will have designed a cool tie-dye piece, too. This is science you can wear!

Permanent marker-based tie-dye is a fun spin on traditional tie-dyeing and a lot less messy! (But do be careful, permanent markers are called permanent for a reason.)

Families can explore solubility and marker-based tie-dye in the following Science Buddies activity at Scientific American:

For additional science exploration related to markers, the dyes in markers, and tie-dye, see the following projects at Science Buddies:



See tonic water glow under a black light  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a chemistry-focused family science activity that puts light energy, ultraviolet light, and visible light on display. With ordinary tonic water and a black light, families can learn more about ultraviolet light. What happens to the glow when you add a bit of bleach to the tonic water? Put it to the test to find out!



Stay up late, or get up really, really early to catch nature's annual fireworks display. Students and families can extend Perseids fun with a hands-on science exploration of parallax. How far away are the things we see in the sky?

Stargazing parallax science activity / Hand-on STEM experiment

Each August, a much-anticipated nighttime show plays live in our skies: the Perseid meteor showers. This annual event offers you the year's best opportunity to see meteors streaking across the sky, so long as you are willing to be awake well after midnight!

Cosmic Collisions Make for Great Light Shows

Why does the Perseid meteor shower happen each August? Because that's the point in our orbit around the Sun when we are crossing the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Comet Swift-Tuttle travels through space, it leaves behind bits of rock and ice called meteoroids. Some of these fast-travelling meteoroids burn up when they hit Earth's atmosphere. The bright light that we see when this happens is called a meteor. You may have heard some people call these "shooting stars," but meteors aren't stars at all, just burning space debris!

While it is possible to see a meteor on any night, so long as you are looking in the right place at the right time, the Perseids are special because as Earth crosses through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, lots of meteors are likely to be visible in the sky, so many that it is called a "meteor shower."

Maximize Your Chances of Seeing a Meteor

Most years, scientists would recommend that you view the Perseids during the "peak" of the showers, which is the time when they expect the most meteors to be visible in the sky. However, this year the moon will be so bright during the expected peak days of August 12 and 13, that scientists are suggesting you head outside in early August.

Your best chance for seeing meteors is in the few hours before dawn, as far away from city lights as possible. Although a blanket or reclining chair will keep you comfortable, the only "tool" that's required is patience. Good things come to those who wait!

Sky Science Connections for Students

Students and families interested in the Perseids, in stargazing, or in astronomy in general can ask space science questions and experiment with Science Buddies astronomy science projects and family science activities.

For example, with a hands-on backyard setup using hula hoops, students (and families) can explore the relationship between the distance of an object and the perspective from which the object is viewed. The way an object appears to move or shift when you look at it from two different positions is known as parallax and is an important concept in understanding how astronomers determine how far away things are in the sky. Both a student science project (suitable for a science fair) and a shorter family science activity are available:

These family science experiments don't require the night sky or a telescope, but by exploring parallax, students can better understand how scientists measure how far away things are in the sky.

For more fun family science that connects with this month's Perseids, see Meteor Science: Weekly Science Project Idea and Home Science Activity Spotlight. For added inspiration for student astronomers and space enthusiasts, see the Galactic Curiosity: Fifth Grade Student Charts a Science Course for the Stars student science success story. The Satellite Science: How Does Speed Affect Orbiting Altitude? project idea based on the student's fifth grade astronomy experiment is now part of the Science Buddies directory of free project ideas!



Holey Porous Rock Science!

Examining rocks can be a springboard for a fun family science exploration. With different kinds of dried beans, plastic cups, and water, kids can model rocks and observe the way different sized particles in rocks affect how much water a rock can hold.

Rock porosity science project with rocks modeled from cups of dried beans

What do rocks and sponges have in common? Rocks may be hard, and sponges may be soft, but both have pockets of empty space. Surprised? It may be easier to see the pockets in sponges since most sponges are covered with holes, but if you toss a pumice stone in water, it will float—because it has many pockets of empty space, just like a sponge!

Some rocks are more like a sponge than others though. It depends on their porosity.

Porosity is the word we use to talk about the volume of empty space in an object compared to the total volume of the object. When the particles of a rock are small, they may be packed together closely with very little space between them. Such a rock is defined as not very porous. When the particles of a rock are large, there may be more space between them because they don't fit together as tightly. This makes the rock more porous.

Science Activities Mean Fun for the Whole Family

Porosity is a concept that may be hard to imagine, but with the quick and easy How Particles Affect Porosity science activity, students can make a model of a rock to observe firsthand what porosity means and how it works.

That's what Sherry Smith, a Science Buddies mom, decided to do when she was looking for a fun science activity that would appeal to both her 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old nephew.

"Both of the kids are interested in rocks, and the techniques of Science Buddies' porosity activity seemed fairly simple," said Sherry, "so I thought it would work with my young nephew."

To build their model, the kids filled one plastic container with large dried beans and another plastic container with small dried beans. In the project, the different-sized beans represent different sizes of rock particles. Each container becomes a model for a "rock." The next step for Sherry and her students was to carefully measure how much water they could pour into each container. Which model rock holds more water? Why?

On their first try, some of the water spilled, says Sherry, so they had to start over, but in the end, their experiment was a success. The kids were able to see how the difference in the porosity of each model rock made a difference in how much water each cup held.

Learning on Different Levels

Overall, Sherry thinks that the porosity project is a great way for kids of different ages to share a memorable science experience. "While my nephew perhaps had trouble understanding that the beans were modeling porosity, he enjoyed acting like a 'real scientist' and was very careful pouring the water on the second try."

Sherry's daughter, on the other hand, was able to connect the concept of porosity to what she had learned about the rock cycle in school, particularly that the porosity of a rock can change over time due to pressure.

Modeling Rocks in the Classroom

Like Sherry and her family, students and families can experiment with porosity using the procedure in the How Particles Affect Porosity classroom science activity. Teachers looking to replicate this hands-on geology experiment in the classroom will find step-by-step guidance, including downloadable educator and student guides. The activity only takes about twenty minutes, including teacher prep time, and lets students explore how and why some rocks really soak up liquid while others do not.

Check out Science Buddies' new Science Activities for All Ages area to discover more fun science experiments and activities for the whole family! Teachers can also browse additional classroom activities.

A Deeper Look at Porosity

Students looking for a geology science fair project related to rocks can continue the exploration with the Porosity and Particle Size project idea.

Support for Geology resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies is provided by Chevron.



For families living in drought conditions, careful monitoring of water usage is especially important. With hands-on science and engineering projects, students can investigate water-saving strategies and science and engineering related to water conservation.

Folsom lake drought 2014
Above: The effect of drought can be seen in the above photo of Folsom Lake. Image: California Water Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey.

Remember "Ring around the rosie" and "Rain, rain, go away"? Familiar with the "jinx machine" saying? You may recall these singsong chants from your own childhood or from watching your students on the schoolyard. Kids grow up repeating lots of songs and fun sayings—rhymes that, for better or worse, stick.

Today's California kids have added a new one to their repertoire—"If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." It's catchy and a bit gross. It's got all the markings of classic potty talk. But these kids are talking about flushing strategies at school—in the name of water conservation.

When my elementary school student came home last year spouting "if it's yellow," it was new to me. It was a startling rhyme, but it does stick with you. As California's drought continued to worsen and the threat of a real water crisis grew, I started thinking more about the saying and discovered it is actually more than playground potty talk. As one strategy for helping reduce consumer water usage, the "if it's yellow" approach may have statistical merit.

Today, California's drought situation has gotten even drier, so much so that the state will soon be fining consumers for certain kinds of unnecessary water usage. Washing cars, spraying off sidewalks, and watering plants are all culprits for excess water usage. You probably won't find kids running through a free-flowing sprinkler system this summer in many California neighborhoods either.

Smart family water practices, like smart family electricity practices, can make a difference. Beyond flushing, there are lots of drips and drops of water in a typical day that the average family could save, and small-scale, house-by-house changes can add up to significant savings.

Water-saving Science

The threat of running out of water may seem distant and hard to fathom, but scientists are predicting California's drought is far from over. As families and schools talk with students about water conservation, it is important to think about household practices. Even tweaking simple routines like brushing teeth can make a difference. Do you leave the water on when you brush your teeth? How much water might you save if you turned it off while brushing and then turned it back on at the end?

These kinds of questions can lead to fun, informal science investigations at home or school and pose engaging real-world math problems for kids to work through. Collect the water during a normal teeth brushing session and measure it. Then collect the water during a session where the water is turned off during most of the two minutes of brushing and measure it. Multiply the amounts by the number of times a day each person in the house brushes. Multiply those numbers by days and then weeks.

Map of US drought 2014 July

Innovative Engineering and Design

California's water crisis is mounting, but California is not alone in its water shortage. The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that roughly a third of the country is currently experiencing some level of drought.

As everyone from state officials to families to local farmers look for new approaches to improve water usage efficiency, stories of innovative solutions highlight the ways in which applied engineering and technology can make a difference at home and around the world. For example, in May, NPR reported on an unusual bamboo structure called the WarkaWater designed to gather water from the air.

You can keep extrapolating by multiplying by households or city populations. How do the numbers compare? Then do some research to give those numbers real-world meaning. You might compare how many gallons of water your toilet uses per flush, for example, to the water being used brushing teeth. How do baths and showers compare?

As you and your kids take a closer look at how you use water in the house, think about things like indoor plants, running the dishwasher, rinsing dishes, washing clothes, filling the coffee pot, boiling pasta, and making ice. How much water do you really use? How many times is the water running unnecessarily or for longer than it should? Is there anyway to capture and reuse some of the household water that is otherwise wasted?

The following science and engineering projects guide students in thinking about and exploring different aspects of water conservation and drought:

For more information about strategies you can use at home, see the Save Our Water site's collection of tips for indoor and outdoor water conservation.

Making Connections

Students in California (and in many other places in the U.S.) are hearing a lot about drought, but water is still available. In some areas around the world, access to water is even more seriously limited. Exploring water conservation, filtration, and decontamination strategies through hands-on science projects helps students better understand local and global water supply issues.

Projects ideas like these guide students in investigating strategies for decontaminating and desalinating water:



Sauces and marinades kitchen and food science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a food sciences family science experiment that investigates the way different ingredients make a difference in how well a marinade sticks to food. In this science activity, students simulate the process of soaking a food in a marinade by doing a controlled study with tofu, food dye, and four different ingredients that might be found in a marinade recipe. Setting up a set of standards for what the tofu looks like when soaked in different levels of dye concentration makes it easy to evaluate how well the test marinades made with different ingredients stick to the tofu. Based on this kitchen chemistry experiment, cooks of all ages can make more scientific decisions about how to best mix up a marinade or tweak a favorite recipe for even more sticking flavor!



When you combine your circuitry know-how with fabric, you can, literally, wear your electronics on your sleeve.

Red, white, and blue monster soft circuit patch
Above: this little monster is a fun and kid-friendly electronic textile patch that lights up red, white, and blue!

There will be plenty of loud, booming, and colorful nighttime celebrations for this week's 4th of July. Even before the sun goes down, the sounds of fireworks begin, sometimes starting days in advance of the official holiday. The Discover the Flaming Colors of Fireworks family science activity is a great way to get hands-on with a science investigation that helps kids hook science to the anticipated fireworks finale, but you don't have to set something on fire to create a portable burst of celebratory color and light!

While you wait for your local Independence Day fireworks display to start, you (and your kids) can create your own red, white, and blue light-up display, one you can wear, wave, or carry. With a needle, some conductive thread, and a few electronics parts, you can sew your own lighted soft circuit to show off your national pride.

The LED Dance Glove project guides students in creating an introductory soft circuit. Also known as a wearable textile, electronic textile, or e-textile, this kind of fabric- and thread-based electronics project approaches wiring and circuitry from a new—softer—angle. Sew the components in place, being careful not to cross threads and keeping positive and negative traces separate, and you can add electronics to clothing or other fabric items.

The glove in the project can be used to create cool light effects in the dark. (See the project background information to learn more about competitions involving LED glove light shows!) Change things up a bit, and you can create your own gloves for the 4th of July using a combination of red, white, and blue LEDs or white gloves. Or, use the same general e-textiles approach and add an LED soft circuit to a backpack, a jacket, wrist band, or hat.

The LED Dance Glove project at Science Buddies features a simple circuit with an on and off switch, a coin cell battery holder, and some Lilypad LEDs. The project requires no programming (the lights are either flipped on or off), so the project is a great first step in designing and sewing wearable electronics. Sew the elements of the circuit in place, flip the switch, and wear your science with pride!



Fireworks displays are fun to watch and a tradition accompanying many community celebrations. With a simple family science activity, the mystery behind the dazzling night-time sky show can be explored. This is colorful hands-on summer science—minus the "boom" of fireworks explosions!

Fireworks / science activity to see what makes the colors

What makes all the great colors you see during a fireworks display? Experiment with a fun backyard family science activity to see firsthand how different chemicals produce different colors when burned.

Find other great hands-on science activities for families to do together in the Science Buddies Science Activities area.

Do you and your family head out each 4th of July to watch fireworks in your neighborhood? Do you tune in on New Year's Eve to watch fireworks that herald the start of the new year? In cities big and small, many hours of planning, preparation, and staging result in awe-inspiring fireworks displays designed to dazzle watchers with the biggest, brightest, and best bursts of color and light.

If the skies are clear, fireworks are sure to elicit oohs, ahhs, and cheers. From big explosions of color to subtle pops that splatter the sky with colorful trails, fireworks displays are full of amazing effects. Do you have a favorite fireworks pattern? Maybe you really like the Chrysanthemum, the Willow, or the Spider? Or maybe you love a good Saturn Shell or ring?

The shape (what it looks like when it explodes) of a fireworks effect varies, as does the height at which the fireworks climb before they explode. But part of what makes fireworks so mesmerizing is their color in the night sky.

Making Science Connections

You and your students can experiment with hands-on science to better understand what causes the colors you see in the sky during a fireworks demonstration. The Discover the Flaming Colors of Fireworks science activity is a fun way for you and your family to do science that ties in with popular July 4th celebrations in the US this week (or for Bastille Day celebrations later this month, or to better understand fireworks that happen any time of the year!).

The hands-on activity guides you and your students in experimenting with two different readily-available chemicals to see what colors these chemicals produce when burned. One of the chemicals you will use is ordinary table salt (sodium chloride). The other, copper sulfate, can be obtained from a pet store. These two chemicals will produce flame colors that are clearly different from one another, making this science that students can easily "see"—even in the dark!

More Chemicals, More Colors

For students wanting to investigate the colors of flame produced when other chemicals burn, or for students interested in turning this science activity into a full-scale science project, the Rainbow Fire kit from the Science Buddies Store contains the chemicals required to do the more comprehensive set of flame tests described in the Rainbow Fire physics project idea.



Explore surface tension with a small raft and soap science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a physics family science experiment that investigates the dynamics of surface tension. Surface tension may keep your soda from spilling over the cup when you fill it a bit too full, but can surface tension also be used to propel something? In this science activity, students build a small, lightweight raft and experiment to see how surface tension—and some dish soap—can help move it across the surface of water.



Compare finger prints within families and fingerprint science  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a genetics and genomics family science experiment for Father's Day. Fingerprints are unique, but do family members share fingerprint characteristics? Are there patterns of inheritance that come into play when it comes to fingerprints? Put the question to the test with a visual examination of fingerprints among siblings and between different family members!



Explore how gases contract and expland  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a chemistry family science experiment that guides students and families in an exploration of how gases behave, especially when they are cooled or heated. Many gases are invisible, but they are everywhere around us. By trapping gas in a balloon, you can investigate how the kinetic energy of a gas changes in response to temperature and how the change in the motion of the gas molecules makes the balloon shrink or expand. With some hands-on measurements, a bit of air spent filling up some balloons, and some chill time for a few of the filled balloons, students can "see" what happens!



Science Buddies has added a new "activities" section to its award-winning science education website. The new science activities complement the existing library of science fair project ideas but bridge the gap between science "assignment" or "independent project" and doing science just for fun at home or in the classroom. These new activities appear just as summer break begins for many students, making the timing perfect for families looking to keep kids engaged with science all summer long.

New Science Activities at Science Buddies / hands-on science for the whole family

Science Buddies is excited to announce a brand new section of the website devoted to hands-on science activities. With a focus on short-term, family-friendly science and engineering experiments, these activities bring fresh new flavor and simplicity to Science Buddies and help families more easily make science a part of their time together at home.

In-depth Science Buddies Project Ideas for science fair projects and school assignments have been a key part of Science Buddies since the organization was founded in 2001. With a bit of ingenuity and reading between the lines, parents can adapt many of the more than 1,200 Science Buddies Project Ideas for home use, but the new dedicated science activities area makes it even easier to plan and lead a fun and engaging science experience at home.

The new activities help guide hands-on science exploration by providing simplified step-by-step procedures, key questions to think about or important observations to make, and information about what families can expect to see happen and why. In addition to a materials list, overview, and guided steps of the experiment, each activity includes explanatory information to help contextualize the activity and the science behind it, as well helpful links to relevant careers that help students make the connection between cool science and possible future career paths.

The science activities area is broken down into categories designed to help guide families in choosing a science activity to explore: All About Me; Build it Better; Crafting and DIY; Kitchen Creations; The Natural World; Outdoor Fun; Try It Out; and Whiz, Bang, Boom. As the section titles indicate, the new science activities area aims to help kids and families uncover and explore the science in everyday activities. Science really is everywhere, even in fun activities like throwing Frisbee at the park and making ice cream!

According to Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist at Science Buddies, "Most of the Science Buddies staff are parents. We understand the realities of balancing family time commitments, fun, and learning. So during the development of these activities, we continuously went back to three questions: Is it fun? Is it easy to do at home? Will kids learn something neat about science or engineering? I think we've succeeded in striking that balance across all 40 of these new activities. We hope our users will enjoy these activities as much as we have with our own children!"

Science Anytime

In the new Activities area, you will find great hands-on science ideas like these:

  • Theme Park Science with Jell-O® Loop-De-Loops: what do you get when you fill cups with Jell-O, put a marble in each one, and sling them around your head like a lasso using a homemade centripetal force generator cup? Answer: a cool look at centripetal force and Newton's Laws of Motion!
  • Make an Alka-Seltzer Powered Lava Lamp: can you simulate the behavior of a retro lava lamp using empty bottles, vegetable oil, food coloring, water, and Alka-Seltzer®? This no-power lamp won't give you any light, but it may produce lots of oohs and aahs as you watch the groovy movement of the bubbles and explore the chemical reaction that happens when Alka-Seltzer combines with water.
  • Build a Gumdrop Geodesic Dome: with gummy candies and toothpicks, you can build a simple geodesic dome that lets you explore how the dome is made out of a series of interconnected triangles—and how the dome shape can support a surprising amount of weight!
  • Make Your Own Marshmallows: with sugar, corn syrup, and gelatin, you can make homemade marshmallows. How you vary the ration of sugar to corn syrup will make a difference in the texture and taste of the marshmallows though, so be prepared to taste test!
  • How Much Mass Can An Aluminum Foil Boat Float?: that heavy boats made of steel float in water can seem mind boggling. Shaping boats from aluminum foil lets kids see how the size and shape of a boat relates to how much weight it can hold and still float on water.
  • Color-changing Cabbage Chemistry: what can you learn about acids, bases, and the pH scale from boiled cabbage juice? This project may be smelly, but when you add lemon juice or vinegar to cabbage juice, you will see the purple color of the cabbage juice change. As you experiment with combining different foods or solutions to cabbage juice, you will be exploring the pH of those foods—and seeing the pH register in front of you by the color the juice turns!

Support for development of the new Science Activities area at Science Buddies was made possible by Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Make and explore the geodesic dome with one made from gumdrops and toothpicks science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a civil engineering family science experiment that guides students in building a simple geodesic dome from candies and toothpicks (or tubes made from newspaper) and then exploring the shape. How strong is a geodesic dome? How much weight can it hold? Where in nature and architecture can you find examples of dome shapes?



A Super Science-filled Summer Break

Ready or not... into the summer break we go. With school (almost) out for the summer, take stock of some great science activities and challenges that are perfect to help keep kids engaged and actively learning during the break. Science may be even more fun when it is "just for fun"!

2014 Science Buddies Summer Science GuideThe long summer break can feel bittersweet for parents who worry about their students whiling away countless hours on the couch or in front of a screen and losing academic ground. Beyond the buzz of vacations and camps, and after the novelty of sleeping in and staying up late wears off, the summer sprawl can even begin to feel, at some point, a bit amorphous for students. There are a lot of hours to fill!

Luckily, there are loads of engaging science and engineering activities that can be done at home for fun or as independent summer projects and can tie in with other summer pastimes and hobbies.

Great Science on the Schedule

Every year, we pull together suggestions for summer science activities and experiments. Our roundup lists from the last two years contain many wonderful suggestions for projects kids can do during the summer and ways parents can inject a bit of science into summer planning.

This year, we will be unveiling a new area of Science Buddies in June that will be a great resource for family summer science—and family science all year long! But there are lots of projects at Science Buddies that students can enjoy even when they don't need to do a "science fair project" or complete a science project assignment.

As you look ahead to summer, remember, doing science doesn't have to be for school! You and your kids can earn an A++ this summer by exploring science and engineering at home.

Here are some of our picks for this summer:

2014 Summer Science Guide: Art Bot Robotics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rainbow Fire Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Putty Polymer Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Soft Robot Gripper Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Paper Dolls Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Electromagnet Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Grape Soda Chromatography 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bird Feet Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rock Candy Crystal Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Cabbage Grow Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Water Float on Water Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Ant Barrier Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Hydroponics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Electrolytes Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Hummingbird Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Ice Cream Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bristlebot Toothbrush Robots Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Carbonated Soda Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Bubble Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Biosphere Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Milk Carton Boats Science Project

More Great Choices for Science at Home

Don't miss these other roundup lists of great "what to do over the break" science, technology, engineering, and math projects as well:



Use a pinwheel to explore wind turbine power and energy science experiment  / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an energy-focused family science experiment that explores the relationship between the potential power of a wind turbine and the source and location of the wind. Using a pinwheel, students create their own horizontal-axis wind turbine and experiment to see how the pinwheel spins when the wind comes at it from different directions—and how this translates into how much weight the wind turbine can lift. A pinwheel is a simple example of a wind turbine, but with this hands-on experiment, students can see the affect of the wind direction in how many small items the pinwheel can lift.



Joints give paper dolls added life and let little fingers manipulate characters as they play out their roles in an imaginative storyline. But joints also add potential hot spots for damage. A plastic toy figurine may lose its arm, head, or hair, but the life of a paper doll may be even more short-lived! A new hands-on science activity helps kids experiment with paper dolls by putting the durability of certain design and materials choices to the test. Once the best approach is scientifically determined, kids can make and decorate a paper doll with greater understanding of how the materials affect how well the doll will last.

Paper Doll Lisa from paper dolls materials science project Paper Doll Vincent from paper dolls materials science project
Above: Paper Doll Lisa and Paper Doll Vincent were made by students testing the new paper dolls materials science project.
Paper may not be the most durable of materials, but kids have been playing with—and making—paper toys and creations for generations. From paper sailboats to paper pirate hats to paper planes, paper gets used in all kinds of creative ways to let kids explore design and construction, experiment with science and math principles, and occupy little hands with active and imaginative low-cost play. Paper dolls are a great example of a paper-based toy that kids make, use, and enjoy. But paper dolls are also a good reminder of the ways in which a toy made from paper may or may not last well, stand up to repeated use, or survive rough play.

Choose Your Own Character

Paper dolls are a low-tech, inexpensive, and open-ended activity at home. With a bit of paper, some coloring tools, and imagination, kids can turn any character into a paper doll. You can find examples, templates, and inspiration online for all kinds of exciting paper dolls, from ninjas, robots, and fairies to dragons, pirates, and mermaids. The possibilities are endless, but not all paper dolls are constructed the same and, as the saying goes, not all paper dolls are made equal.

Choose Your Materials and Design

Some paper dolls are made from single pieces of paper. These dolls sometimes are designed to fit into a stand, and kids make costumes and wardrobes that can be attached using tabs, tape, buttons, or bits of Velcro. Other paper dolls kick construction up a notch and are articulated or jointed. These dolls may only have one set of clothing, but they contain moving parts like arms and legs. The number of moving parts may vary. You can certainly find paper doll creations with numerous jointed parts, but you can also make a basic articulated paper doll that only has movable arms and legs.

Articulated paper dolls offer more flexibility for positioning the doll during storytelling or play, but having multiple moving parts also makes the dolls subject to different kinds of wear and tear.

Paper doll materials science project template for articulated paper doll
Above: What method of attaching the arms to the paper doll body results in the most durable paper doll? Students put it to the test in a new science project at Science Buddies!

Testing Paper Doll Construction

In a new materials science project at Science Buddies, students (and families) can turn paper doll-making into a hands-on science project. There are a number of ways that the joints of an articulated paper doll may be assembled. Do the various approaches to constructing a paper doll affect how well the doll will last? How much wear and tear can the joints take? In addition to articulation, there are a number of other design options that may make a difference in how well a doll lasts or how durable it is.

The Get Crafty—Create Your Own Durable Paper Doll project focuses on the issue of articulated joints and explores two design options, the weight of the paper you use for the doll and what you use to attach the arms. The project guides students in doing a quantitative test of the various combinations to see which is strongest (or which can support the most weight before an arm is ripped off the doll). This quantitative approach helps students see the value in doing an assessment that can be measured rather than just doing a subjective assessment. After doing a scientific experiment with dolls made from two kinds of paper and with joints attached using two different methods, students will be able to see from their data which approach was most durable.

Making Connections

A hands-on project like this can be used to talk with kids about design, engineering, materials science, and the value of scientific product design and construction testing. Even when it comes to toys, science can be used to explore what works and what doesn't work and to come up with solutions and improvements that will lead to longer-lasting toys—and happier kids!



Assembling a simple wooden train and track with cleverly placed magnetic strips lets kids experiment with a train that levitates off the track and zips effortlessly from one end to the other when pushed. What happens when you add a bit of weight? Put the science question to the test in this fun hands-on science activity and experiment.

maglev train experiment family science project

maglev train experiment family science project

The allure of a magic trick is something pretty cool to most kids. The quarter pulled from behind the ear. It's a classic sleight of hand passed down by generations. The finger that appears to be separated into two parts at the knuckle, able to be slid side to side. (That one has been used to gross out and entertain plenty of kids.) Card tricks. Bunnies from hats. People that vanish from a cube. Magic appeals to us on some level where suspension of disbelief wars with our intellect, our logic, and our puzzle-solving skills. Part of enjoying a trick may, in fact, be trying to figure out how it was done, how it is possible, what really accounts for what we saw, and how to do it ourselves!

That science is full of everyday things that seem magical is a cool twist on sleight of hand and illusion. The more you understand science, the more you can explain what is going on in a process that seems "magical."

In the Harry Potter books, the train that transported the kids to and from school each year involved walking right through a wall to reach the 9 3/4 platform at King's Cross Station. That's a special kind of magic—the fantasy kind. Science can't explain it. The train on the other side of the wall, the shiny red Hogwarts Express, appears to be fairly normal, a fast-moving steam locomotive on tracks.

But there are other real-world kinds of trains that may seem to have a bit of magic to them. Maglev trains are ones that seem to hover or float above a track rather than rolling across it. Maglev trains may look similar to monorail trains, but a maglev train specifically levitates and is powered by electromagnetic forces. Plus, a maglev train doesn't have wheels!

It may look like magic, but it isn't. A maglev train is lifted by the way magnetic fields positioned a certain way repel one another. As the fields push away from each other, the train lifts off of the track and floats above the rail. Because it floats, when the train moves, there is no friction of train wheels against train tracks, so a Maglev train can go faster than a traditional train that rolls on wheels. There are still air forces (like drag) to take into account, but some maglev trains are capable of speeds greater than 300 mph.

Bringing the Magic Home

Studying magnets and magnetism is often exciting for elementary students. The way magnetic fields can be oriented to repel or attract one another can provide lots of entertainment value as students explore magnetism and learn more about how magnets work. You can extend magnetism discussions with a wide range of hands-on science projects and activities that can be done at home or at school. From testing the strength of an electromagnet to building a simple motor, students can explore magnetism with projects that remove the "magic" but still have plenty of "wow" factor.

For a different spin on magnetism, building a simple Maglev train is a fun way to couple a creative project with a science activity. The Magic Bullet Train kit, available in the Science Buddies Store, is a great way to get kids talking about and actively exploring magnetism and the real-world application of magnetic fields in levitating trains. Two generic magnets on a table may push away from one another, but they probably don't move far. That the same principle can be used to lift a train is pretty cool science!

Using the do-it-yourself maglev train kit, students first make their own bullet train by sanding down and painting a wooden block that will be the "train" in the experiment. How far you go with this step is up to you and your kids. It isn't easy to sand the rectangular block into something that really looks like a bullet, but spending time sanding, shaping, and then painting, decorating, and personalizing the train is part of the fun of the project! Just be sure that you don't sand the "bottom" of the train. You want to leave the bottom edge untouched.

All Aboard for Magnetic Science!

When using the Magic Bullet Train kit as a family science activity, the "building" of the train is the bulk of the activity. The small directions booklet that comes with the train kit walks you step by step through assembling the wooden rail system, adding the magnetic strips, and attaching the girders to your painted wooden train. Be careful during assembly to line things up as shown, to adhere the magnetic strips on the proper sides of the wooden rails and train, and to attach the girders as low to the bottom of the train as you can to ensure the train hovers as high as possible above the wooden rail.

Unlike a real-world maglev train, the wooden train kit relies on the standard magnetic field between the magnetic strips. There is no electromagnetism adding to the field, so don't be surprised if the train doesn't hover as high as you expect—or does not seem to hover the first time. It can take some fiddling with the placement of the girders to ensure the train hovers properly. But once you get things set up properly, a simple push of the train sends it gliding smoothly across the track. Your kids will see and feel the lack of track friction as the train glides across!

It looks like magic!

Having built the system, your young engineers will be in on the trick and able to explain how the magnetic strips work hold the train off the track. You can talk, too, about the design of the train and what holds the train "on" the track and why certain aspects of the train's design are important so that it won't fall off—design factors that help prevent accidents.

Because of the small size of the experiment and the limited number of parts (just the train and the track, once assembled), this is a great science experiment to take to school and show off. Check with your teacher first, but chances are that a small demonstration of magnetism in the form of a maglev train will be welcome and can be squeezed in during some part of the day.

Building the train is a great hands-on experiment in and of itself, but if there is a science fair assignment on hand, a student can use the train kit as the basis for a full science investigation. The The Amazing Floating Train: How Much Weight Can a Maglev Train Hold? project at Science Buddies guides students in an exploration of the relationship between weight and a maglev train's ability to levitate. It makes sense that a floating train will have maximum weight limits. But what happens when those limits are exceeded? In the The Amazing Floating Train science project, students put it to the test with their own maglev train and plastic cups filled with varying amounts of water.

You might find other ways to vary the project, too. Could you experiment with stronger magnetic strips? What would happen if you did? The "Make It Your Own" tab also contains a challenge to student engineers—install a magnetic "brake" system at the end of the track!



Make bath bombs and explore the chemistry science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a family science experiment that promises fizzy fun in the tub (or in a big bucket of hot water). Bath bombs are easy to make at home. You can mix up your own using your choice of additives with the core ingredients. But what makes a bath bomb "fizz" when it hits the water? In this science activity, students experiment with the recipe for making a bath bomb and investigate the role of corn starch and citric acid in the process. What is the chemical reaction that happens when the dried bath bomb touches the warm water? What ratio of ingredients makes the fizziest bath bomb? Mix up a few batches to find out! Once you have found your favorite formulation, you can make bath bombs to give as gifts—or just use them yourself!



Sports Science project exploring basketball dribbling and energy / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a sports science that looks at the physics of what is going on when you dribble a basketball. After you push the ball to the floor, the ball meets the floor or court and then returns, but it doesn't necessarily return to the same height. What does the surface of the floor have to do with how a ball bounces when dribbled, how much effort a player has to use to keep the ball dribbling uniformly, and what is going on with the energy of the ball in motion? Put it to the test with a fun hands-on sports science project that lets you observe and measure how balls bounce differently as a result of what's on the ground.



Food Science project exploring ice cream making / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a food science family science experiment and independent student science fair project that takes a deeper look at the chilly process of making ice cream. You can make your own ice cream using one of a variety of shaking or rolling processes, including using a baggy to hold the ingredients! How does adding salt to the ice mixture used to freeze the ingredients affect the process? Make your own ice cream to find out!



The ping pong catapult is a great device for independent student science projects, but this is a tool you can use again and again—even as the basis for a fun afternoon or weekend family science activity. We put the rubber band catapult to use with a bag of plastic eggs for some high-flying family physics fun!

Ping Pong Catapult with Plastic Eggs experiment / family science activity

The Ping Pong Catapult has been used as the basis of a number of innovative science physics, math, and sports science projects at Science Buddies. If your student has an affinity for medieval lore, you can imagine using the device as catapults were once used—for siege—and explore the physics of trajectory through a hands-on simulation. In the Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult project, students aim for a simple container target (e.g., shoe box), but for fun, you could create a castle from blocks, LEGO® bricks, or random household items or recycled containers, and either aim to knock the structure down with your ping pong ball attack or aim to launch over the structure (e.g., village walls) and into a target container (e.g., the village square or main castle). (See Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls for a project like this!)

Is your student more sports-minded than medieval? With a makeshift footfall field goal in place, you can explore kicking science, or, turn the catapult on its side and do an experiment related to baseball swings instead.

There are plenty of math and physics questions to ask and investigate using the Ping Pong Catapult (available in the Science Buddies Store). With all of these projects, keeping track of the data for every launch, hit, or kick is an important part of the exploration. Teachers and parents can easily turn the results of even informal ping pong catapult launches into a way to talk about statistics, including creating a histogram to plot results.

Before or after the school science project, however, you can use the catapult as a great indoor or outdoor science toy. My kids couldn't wait to get it out of the box and start launching balls through the house. (Be careful that they don't end up "lost" in the living room before your project or science activity starts!)

Portable, No-mess Science Setup!

Unlike some science activities, there is virtually zero setup with the catapult. Remove the pin, unfold it, replace the pin, slip a rubber band through the holes, and clamp the catapult to the edge of a table or chair. We were not planning to experiment right away, but my students were really eager to see how the catapult worked. Immediately after opening the kit, we cleared a table edge, clamped the catapult in place, and played around with the wiffle and ping pong balls and got a feel for how the catapult works, how you change the launch angle and pull-back angle separately, and how the use of the rubber bands can affect the way the object flies.

With just a bit of hands-on exploration at the dining room table, we were all set for some serious egg-flying fun. Plastic eggs, that is. (Your mileage and mess with real eggs may vary!)

You Don't Have to Have an Assignment

The great thing about family science is that you don't have to follow all the rules, do dozens of trials, or write a report at the end. You can take your family science as far and as deep as you want and tailor the activity to fit your students' interests, the time of the year, the materials on hand, or other parameters.

Easter is this week, so we decided to use the catapult with plastic eggs—much as you would experiment with the ping pong ball in the Bombs Away project. We spruced up some of the eggs we have collected over the past dozen years with zany permanent-marker faces and got ready to let the eggs fly.

We first did our launch trials indoors. Instead of using a big table, we clamped the catapult to a small wooden chair. As they quickly realized, getting the egg into the target "basket" is harder than it looks! But tweaking the angles is all part of the exploration, and with each change you make, you can immediately see what impact the change makes (if any) on the flight, trajectory, and distance. After experimenting with pullback and launch angles, they started tweaking the number of rubber bands. This resulted in eggs being hurled full force into the wall (well beyond the basket). They thought that was funny, but it prompted us to consider taking the project outdoors the next day and experimenting in a bigger space.

We packed the small chair, a basket of eggs, and the catapult in the car and headed to a neighborhood park. There were birthday parties going on in the grassy area, but the basketball court was unused. We set up our catapult (still using the wooden chair) on the court, put the basket a distance away, and let loose. The dynamics of outdoor flight were definitely different, and the breezy day made controlling the flight difficult. But it was still super fun!

Your Own Ping Pong Catapult Experiment

To experiment with the catapult for a science project or informal science activity of your own, see the following projects and ideas:

We would love to see your catapult in action! Share your photos with blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Materials Sciences project to test the strength of eggshells and arches / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a materials sciences family experiment and science fair project that asks you to rethink what you know about eggs. Are they fragile? Or are they strong? If you've ever accidentally stuck your finger through one in the kitchen, you may think you know the answer! But the shape of an egg can support a surprising amount of mass. It is a shape, in fact, that can be found in architecture. How much mass can eggshells hold? Put it to the test with a hands-on science experiment that lets you see how much mass you can stack on top of a set of eggs before they crack.



Family Egg Science

Egg science comes over-easy this time of year. Whether you are boiling eggs, dyeing eggs, or both, there are easy questions you can ask with your kids to turn the activity into a hands-on science experiment that everyone will enjoy.

Egg Science / natural dyes
Egg Science / hard boiledEgg Science / soft-boiling eggsEgg Science / Strength of an Egg
Egg Science / natural dyesEgg Science / tie dye eggsEgg Science / family project

In the past few years, the process of preparing colorful, hard-boiled eggs has taken on new and very scientific significance for me as a parent. In turning the seemingly simple act of egg dyeing into a hands-on science endeavor with my kids, we have asked a variety of science questions (one at a time) and experimented with various steps in the process of boiling and dyeing.

If you will be boiling, dyeing, cracking, or hiding eggs this week with your kids at home or students at school, I hope you find science-minded inspiration and support for at-home science in the following family science posts from Easters past:

This year, I am not planning to run kid experiments with dyeing or boiling. Instead, we got hands-on, ahead of time, with a bag of plastic eggs and the ping pong catapult. Stay tuned for a photo recap of some serious egghead-launching fun!

Don't Miss This Egg Success Story

This story of a fourth grader's science project and his experience using silk ties to dye eggs is a great science project success story to share with your students. You can talk with them about pH and even try tie dyeing eggs as a group or home science activity!



Ocean sciences density and salt water project to make an egg float / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an ocean sciences family experiment and science fair project. Some things float in water and some do not. Knowing the density of the object and the density of the water helps explain what is going on, and you can observe and talk about the buoyancy of an object. But adding salt can change what happens. Why? In this hands-on science experiment, you set up a series of dilutions to see at what point an egg goes from sinking to floating in salt water.



Microbiology yeasty beasties science project / Hands-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a microbiology-themed family science experiment and science fair project. What conditions cause yeasts to be most active during fermentation? You and your students can find out by growing yeasts in different conditions and then using balloons to trap the gas released by the yeasts during fermentation so that you can measure it.



Music science experiment - turn straws into an instrument / Hand-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a music-themed family science experiment and science fair project. With a set of ordinary drinking straws, you can create a group straw "oboes." Can you play them? Sure! By blowing air through them, similar to the way you play a reed instrument, you can produce musical notes. At the end of the activity, you should have a set of straws, each of which will play a different note on a musical scale. What is the secret to changing the note each one plays? In this music science experiment, your students will get a chance to explore (and hear) the physics behind the production of sound!



Science Buddies has great ideas to keep your students engaged during spring break with cool science experiments they can do at home. Tweak our full science fair Project Ideas to challenge your kids to scientific spring break fun!

Ready or not... Spring Break is here again! Whether you are able to take time to be hands-on with your kids during the days off of school or need ideas for keeping them busy and engaged, Science Buddies has great science kits and fun project ideas and science activities that can help.

Each year, we single out a few new (or favorite) science projects and activities that make super family science or solo student experiments. This year, these new projects in the Science Buddies library stand out as great choices for spring break:

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Theremin music project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Baseball swing with catapult project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- centripetal force with marbles project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Make your own marshmallows project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LED wearable e-textiles electronics project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Build a simple motor Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- carnival games physics science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- candy waterfall physics

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- make and test a homemade respirometer science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- hovercraft Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LEGO tumbler physics project

More Great Science Activities

In addition to the ideas above, these posts on the Science Buddies Blog contain a wealth of great suggestions that can help parents plan Spring Break (or any other break) science activities and experiences for kids of all ages:



Zoology science experiment on habitats and environments for pillbug or sowbug / Hand-on science STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a zoology family science experiment and science fair project that encourages families and students to observe pillbugs or sowbugs up close by creating cozy but different microenvironments and seeing which the bugs prefer. Although they are frequently found in the soil, pillbugs and sowbugs are not insects; instead, these bugs are crustaceans and breathe with gills.Will this have an affect on which microenvironment they choose? Put it to the test in this easy indoor science experiment that encourages observation skills as students watch to see how the bugs respond to the different microenvironments they create and perform their own bug counts at regular intervals.



St. Patrick's Day Rainbow with milk, soap, and color science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a family science experiment that lets you and your children make a rainbow in keeping with St. Patrick's Day! What happens when you put drops of food coloring in milk? What happens when you add a bit of dishwashing liquid? Put it to the test in this science activity for a fun, colorful look at the role of a surfactant and how it changes the surface tension of a liquid.



Serving up Some Pi Pie for Pi Day

March 14 is Pi Day, so grab a slice, and your best memorization skills. How much Pi can you remember—which is not quite the same as how much pie can you eat!

Pi Pie by Kat M - great tribute to Pi day with number-topped pie

Celebrating Pi Day with Pie

A Google search or a Pi-focused look at Pinterest turns up all kinds of great Pi pie. The pie above, with the opening numbers of Pi cookie-cut and used as the top crust is a wonderful tribute to Pi! Image: Kat M.

Pi. Pie. When it comes to students of a certain age, there is often a very fine line between the two, and celebrating Pi Day often involves real pie as both a treat and a demonstration. Pi. And pie. There are a bazillion digits (and counting) in one and eight conservative or four generous slices in the other, but there is clear overlap beyond the fact that they both use a "p" and an "i" and are, grammatically speaking, homophones. They sound the same, but they also share an affinity for circles. Pi (π) represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and pie, typically, is presented in the form of a circle.

No matter how you slice it, you can use pie to observe Pi in action, which makes things handy when it comes to dishing up some tasty math. Speaking of pie, if you know the formula for finding the area of a circle, then you will understand this math joke "Pies are not square, they are round." (Confused? The formula for determining the area of a circle is A = πr2. Read it out loud to "hear" how it sounds. Then entertain your kids in class, in the car, or at dinner with your pithy math humor.)

Celebrating Pi

Today is Pi Day, and when I went looking to see what I said last year about Pi Day and the interminable decimal places of venerable Pi, the sequence that both enthralls and haunts many mathematicians, I discovered that no blog post exists at Science Buddies on Pi. 3.14159 what?

How can this be? I know the Golden Ratio has come up. I know Fibonacci has made an appearance. I know I've regaled the virtues of histograms and data collection and even the sorting and counting of M&Ms—for fun or for an exploration of survival and camouflage. I've shared a tale of a few hundred straws, hexagons, and a geodesic dome that almost didn't fit through the door. But no coverage of Pi Day?

It is completely irrational.

As is Pi!

For mathematicians, Pi Day is a day to pay homage to a serious number, a number that isn't really all that big when you think about the fact that 3 is smaller than 4. But Pi is a number that stands the test of time and a number that mathematicians have spent countless hours studying, memorizing, computing, and exploring. Like the Golden Ratio, Pi is an irrational number, a number that cannot be expressed as a simple fraction, a numbers whose decimal place digits continue endlessly without repeating. (According to the Mathisfun website, "People have calculated Pi to over a quadrillion decimal places and still there is no pattern.") Want to take a look at the first million digits? You can see them on the Pi Day site.

So how many digits of Pi do you know? We shorten Pi, all the time, to 3.14. When we multiply something by Pi (like r2 when solving for the area of a circle), we multiply by 3.14. But, really, with more than a quadrillion decimal places known, there is a whole lot more to Pi than just 3.14! There are competitions even to see how many digits of Pi people can recite. The Guinness World Records holder set the current record in 2005 by reciting 67,890 digits of Pi, a verbal feat that took more than 24 hours.

Making Connections

What's the longest number you know? A 9-digital identification number? A 10-digit phone number? A 16-digit credit card number? What's the max number of digits you can commit to memory and why?

Memorizing Pi to thousands of places doesn't necessarily have a purpose, but it is an interesting test of memorization technique and skill. Students can explore variables that may influence numeric recall in the How Many Numbers Can You Remember? project. This project can be great for an independent student project, fun as a class activity, or just good for family dinner conversation. You can use any numbers in the project, including randomly generated number strings, but this is a great experiment to do with the digits of Pi—even while eating pie on Pi Day!

If memorizing more than a few digits of Pi seems complicated to you, what happens if you explore the use of mnemonic devices? We often think of mnemonic devices as a way to help remember items in a sequence (like the planets) or a list of things, but people do come up with mnemonic devices to help with the recall of number strings, too.

To find out more about mnemonic devices and to put a few to the test, see the full Memory Mnemonics science project or check out our family-friendly activity version, part of Scientific American's Bring Science Home.

Have a great Pi Day 2014, and if there is pie, let it be circular and sweet.

Pi Day Pi Pie Screenshot from Google search
In looking at material for this blog post, a simple search of "Pi Pie" at Google let to an amazing array of Pi pie. The screenshot captures a few of the images that came up from all over the Internet. Clearly, there are lots of people inspired by Pi and happy to celebrate anything that involves pie!

More Family and Classroom Math

For suggestions on ways to integrate math into your everyday classroom or family activities, see Making Room for Math.



Carnival Games science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: a mechanical engineering experiment and family science activity that takes a scientific look at why a popular carnival game may look easy to win but may, in fact, be really difficult. How does the distribution of mass in the way milk bottles (or plastic bottles of colored water!) are stacked affect how hard or easy it is to knock the bottles over? Put the question to the test with your own home version of a classic carnival game!



Baking Up a Science Project

A batch of homemade muffins can easily turn into a great hands-on student science project. Grab some bowls and choose your variable!

By Kim Mullin

Student doing kitchen science experiment with muffins
Image: My son headed to the kitchen for a recent science project and found that using the scientific method, making muffins can yield tasty science.

Pumpkin muffins are a mainstay of our family's snack repertoire. I love that they are full of vitamin A, and the kids love that they have chocolate chips in them. My 12-year-old started making them by himself this year, and he's a very practical person, so it didn't surprise me when he decided to make muffins for his science experiment. "Mom, I can do my homework and make a snack at the same time."

Finding the Science in the Everyday

So how can making muffins be a science experiment? All you have to do to turn the process into hands-on science is try controlled variations (changing only one variable at a time) on the recipe or directions. For example, what happens if you bake batches at different temperatures? What happens if you change, substitute, omit, or add ingredients? My son chose to bake batches using different amounts of baking powder to see how the change in quantity would affect the height of the resulting muffins.

The Scientific Method in Action

For his school science assignment, he needed a control group and three different test groups. Rather than bake four whole batches, which would have given us 96 muffins, he chose to make four half batches. Happily, the recipe was easy to divide in two.

After gathering all of his ingredients together, he pulled four bowls out of the cupboard and labeled each one with the amount of baking powder it should contain. His control batch contained the regular amount of baking powder called for by his recipe, and the test batches contained 1) no baking powder, 2) half the normal amount of baking powder, and 3) double the normal amount of baking powder.

Throughout his experiment, he was careful to keep all other variables the same. Because he couldn't bake 48 muffins all at once, he chose to measure only the dry ingredients into each of the four bowls. He added the egg, vanilla, and other "wet" ingredients only when he was ready to put a batch in the oven. Of course, the oven was set to the same temperature for each batch, and he used a timer to make sure they all spent the same amount of time in the oven.

The Proof is in the Muffin

Once the batches were cooked and cooled, it was time to test his hypothesis about how changing the amount of baking powder in a recipe would affect muffin height. He cut each muffin at its highest point, measured it, and entered the data into a spreadsheet. Before taking the average height of each batch, he opted to throw out the shortest and tallest muffin in each batch—the outliers. What do you think his results were? I'm not letting on, except to say that they were awfully tasty!

Science Doesn't Have to Involve Lab Coats

Was this experiment "hard"? No. But it was a straightforward way to solidify the concepts of hypothesis, variable, control, data analysis, and conclusion in his mind. And, because his dad is a statistics geek, they were able to have interesting conversations about mean, median, range, and statistical significance—while enjoying a muffin and a glass of milk!

So many of the things we do everyday involve scientific principles. Help your kids make the connection!

Your Own Kitchen Science
If you and your kids are inspired to do a muffin-making (or cookie-baking) project similar to the one my son did, the Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? food science project contains a full procedure to get you started. For additional ways to "mix up" the experiment, be sure to check the Make it Your Own tab. If you are looking for a simplified version of this experiment, perfect for family together-time, see our family-friendly adapation for Scientific America's Bring Science Home.

For other food science experiments and family science activities for the kitchen, you might try one of the following:



Suspension Bridge science / Hand-on STEM experiment

In this week's spotlight: an civil engineering project that lets students and families experiment with bridge design. You may be familiar with famous suspension bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but how does a suspension bridge really work? How do the cables work to support the weight on the bridge? Can a suspension bridge carry a greater load than a beam bridge? With common household materials, you can put your own straw-based bridges to the test. How many pennies can your suspension bridge hold compared to a bridge without cables?



Science fair projects let students learn, use, and demonstrate important science and reasoning steps, and the benefits of hands-on and active exploration compared to more passive modes of learning or rote memorization are well-documented. So why do so many parents scowl at the science fair project assignment? What makes the science project a stressor for many families rather than an anticipated and positive learning experience? Is it simply a matter of perspective or an incomplete understanding of what a science fair project is and should be? There are many steps teachers can take to help transform the science fair project experience, but what does it take, at home, to transform the science project assignment from something parents dread into something parents celebrate as a critical and invaluable step in their student's learning?

Turning Turmoil into Terrific / Science Fair Project Display Board for parents

Better Understanding the Science Fair Project: Helpful Resources for Parents

The following resources and articles may help parents reconceptualize the importance, value, and process of a student's science fair project assignment:

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Social Media Lashes Out at the "Science Fair Project"

Have you seen it? The GoldieBlox Super Bowl ad, yes. The LEGO® Movie, yes. The tongue-in-cheek project display board bemoaning the science fair project process and citing a more than 75% dissatisfaction rate among students and parents, as measured by the number of students who cry and the number of parents who yell during the process? Probably.

You may have seen the project display board crop up on your favorite social media site. You may have been surprised to see it pop into your stream from distant corners of the country or globe, from parents and grandparents alike. You may have been surprised to see it crop up in the stream of a parent or friend who you know has a very engineering- or science- or technology- or math-oriented kid, a parent you know spends countless hours encouraging, lauding, and supporting her student's hands-on science and engineering projects—and proudly sharing those same projects with her friends and followers.

It happened to me. I first saw the "science project turmoil" project display board shared by the parent I would least expect to spare it a second glance, much less share it. The next morning, I saw the photo shared by someone else in a completely different part of the country, someone who doesn't even have school-age children. As friends of those friends weighed in with a comment or a thumbs-up on the post, notifications kept popping up (accompanied by a 'beep' on my system) letting me know how much "support" the photo was getting from other people who saw the photo and agreed enough to click 'Like,' or leave a comment, or share the photo on their own stream. I didn't see anyone rebutting the image or standing up on behalf of the virtues and values of hands-on science education—at least not in those two shares of the photo. Even from teachers, I saw "likes."

Puzzled by the near-instant wave of people latching onto the image and issue, I went to the source—the original photo posted in March 2011.

It is both fascinating and frightening to read through the comments on the original photo. There are, thankfully, some people who weighed in noting the positive nature of hands-on or active science education. There is, in fact, a comment by the board creator where it seems that, in part, her complaint is really aimed at the way science fair is presented in elementary school—at the fact that the "competition" aspect of science fair may overshadow the point of hands-on science and turn the science fair into something else, something that invites and encourages far too much parent involvement. Her comment (#48) is there, but as the turmoil board picked up steam anew last week, it appears that by and large, people saw the "turmoil board" and were compelled to join the wave of "why do a science project" comments, a tidal wave of anti-science education sentiment that took on new life with each new like.

Why Do a Science Project?

What gave the "turmoil board" steam when it resurfaced? What prompted people from all corners to share, reshare, like, and comment? If many of those people are people who actually support, encourage, and even enjoy hands-on science and engineering activities with their kids, you have to dig deeper to see what's really at issue here.

Take the science (or engineering) out of it, and the "project" stands alone, with the assumed "assigned" or "fair" being the silent partner in crime, the elephant in the room. The board creator even suggests that without a competitive fair, science projects could be approached differently for elementary school children, done more as family projects and explorations. In other words, it is specifically the school science fair project that is being projected as the cause of family turmoil.

The board, with its googly eyes overlooking the hand-drawn results diagram, goes on to explain why.

The photo got under my skin, maybe because it was shared (and liked) by people that I didn't expect to share (and like) it. It was shared and liked by people who I know value science education, people who I know are proactive and publicly involved in the education systems in their areas.

So why the widespread jump on the anti-science fair project bandwagon? What buttons did the "turmoil board" press?

Kids Doing Science

At Science Buddies, I am one of the non-scientists. I am exactly the kind of parent that might seem to fall into the "science projects cause family turmoil" camp simply because "science fair" isn't my forte—science fair puts me well out of my comfort zone.

Before Science Buddies, maybe I would have been drinking the science-causes-turmoil Kool-Aid. It is hard to know how I might have approached a science fair assignment before Science Buddies. I can't go backwards and manipulate the variables or set up a control to see how my family would have weathered science fair season without the benefit of knowing about the project ideas and resources available at Science Buddies.

Thankfully, there is Science Buddies.

As a parent of elementary and middle school children, I have, over the last few years, done and witnessed a wide range of science and engineering projects with my kids, ones that have been completed for science fairs and ones that we have done together as family activities.

My lack of engineering and electronics experience didn't stop us from tackling toothbrush robots, light-following Bristlebots, a crystal radio, pencil dimmer switches, play dough electronics, and more. That doesn't mean I didn't wonder with each project if I knew enough to guide the activity or help troubleshoot problems that might come up with the independent (science fair) projects. But, all in all, science fair projects in my house have gone smoothly and been positive experiences all around.

So, where was the turmoil?

There was much more angst with the "build a mission" project, a California History assignment in the 4th grade and a clay roof that took hours with a hair dryer to try and harden. There was plenty of angst any time an assignment to "dress up as your historical subject" came home. (We didn't happen to have Ben Franklin-suitable attire on hand.) Making a half dozen artifacts to go along with a history research project certainly took as much time as the science fair project. Indeed, there have been flurries and scurries with a wide range of creative and "craft"-oriented exercises and assignments.

So what's the problem with the science fair? And, more importantly, what does it take to turn a standard science fair assignment into a positive, successful learning experience for students and a positive parenting experience for the grown-ups?

Helping Students (and Parents) Enjoy the Science Fair Project

As I watched the fervor over science fair mount, triggered by a marker-drawn project display board, I wanted to pass out Science Buddies stickers to every person who clicked "like" or "share" or wrote a comment commiserating with the horrors of science fair.

I wanted to grab some markers and make my own Project Display Board of all the things I know that Science Buddies offers that can help remedy the problem, all the tools and guidance that can transform the science project into something students and parents look forward to as a fun way to get really hands-on with a cool science question.

If only all of those parents knew about Science Buddies, I kept thinking. Of course, I work for Science Buddies. So I have an inside view. I know that more than fifteen million other people, including students, teachers, and parents also know about Science Buddies and count the non-profit and its free, online resources as a trusted source. I know they visit the site each year when science fair rolls around.

I can only assume that the "turmoil board" creator may not know about Science Buddies and may not know about the Topic Selection Wizard.

We need Science Buddies stickers. We need a badge kids can sew on to a troop uniform. We need to go viral in the same way that the "turmoil board" went viral.

Science Buddies and the Student Science Fair Project

Science Buddies has a whole set of keys that can help transform the science fair "turmoil" into a successful experience for students and parents. In part, parents have to get beyond their own fear of science and their own assumptions about science fair. You don't have to be a science expert to help an elementary student do a school science project. But you do have to have the right idea about what a science project is, what it can be, and how to approach it to maximize the learning experience—and enjoyment—for your student. You also have the right to expect that a science fair project isn't simply a homework assignment, something sent home with a due date several weeks in the future and not integrated at all in the day-to-day classroom.

For science fair projects to be successful, teachers have to ensure that projects are integrated into the classroom learning and monitored with clear schedules and check-ins that help students stay on track and also teach students how to break a big project down into doable parts. Science fair projects should not be done the night before they are due. Ever.

There are a number of ways in which teachers can (and should) help smooth the science fair project experience. But in responding to the "turmoil board," the following reminders for parents and students can make a big difference in how the process goes at home:

  1. Plan ahead. This is a big stumbling block for many students and parents. Waiting until two days before the project is due to select a project or buy supplies is a guaranteed recipe for disaster (and family stress). Plus, waiting too late in the process limits what kind of project your student can do. The project your student might be most excited by might take weeks to complete. That doesn't necessarily mean it is a more difficult project, but projects in certain areas of science may take more time—plant biology projects, for example, or setting up and testing a microbial fuel cell for an environmental science project.
    Note: proper scheduling of the project and assessing a student's progress throughout the project window is a teacher's responsibility and can really help alleviate science project stress, procrastination, and confusion. When properly scheduled and managed with in-class due dates and timelines, parents should not suddenly learn from a panicked student that the science fair project is "due tomorrow" and has not been started. (See the Science Fair Scheduler Worksheet in the Teacher Resources area.) Parents can help students set up calendars and put time to work on various parts of the project on a schedule to help reinforce the time management and planning skills students are learning and using.
  2. Pick a great project idea. A half-baked project idea should not be the cause of science fair angst. At Science Buddies, there are more than 1,200 scientist-authored project ideas in more than 30 areas of science. Most of these project ideas offer background information to help kickstart a student's research and a full experimental procedure that has been tested and reviewed by a team of scientists.
  3. Hook into student interests. A student who does a project that fits in with an existing area of interest is far more likely to enjoy the science project process than a student who picks a project because it fits a parent's area of expertise or somehow fits what a parent thinks a science project "should be." This doesn't mean that your student needs to know if she is interested in biotechnology or aerodynamics. If she knows that, great. But if she doesn't, what are her hobbies? What does she like to do in her spare time? Are there issues she cares about?

    Finding a science project related to an interest may immediately set the stage for a more exciting and engaging science fair project. Not sure where to look? The Topic Selection Wizard at Science Buddies helps match students to projects they may really enjoy—even in areas of science they might not have initially considered. Respond to a few simple statements that help the Wizard better understand your interests, and the Wizard will show you a set of projects that you might like. From video gaming to sports to robotics and zoology, there are great student projects in every area of science.

  4. Think beyond the box about what qualifies as a science fair project. Your student is not limited to doing the same project everyone else does, the same project an afterschool program demonstrated, or the same project you remember from your own science class. There are an infinite number of possible questions your student might ask and around which a science project may be built. Students are not limited to exploding volcanoes or seeing whether plants grow better with this liquid or that one. Here are a few examples of great science projects that might not sound like what you expect:

    Those are just a few of the many, many projects that students might choose, projects that sound like a whole lot of fun!

  5. Pick a project that fits with the student's grade level/experience. Not every science fair project will results in a Nobel Prize-worthy conclusion or data set. School science projects are not supposed to be equivalent to what adult scientists are doing in the field or in research labs. Instead, a student's science project gives the student the chance to enact the scientific or engineering method and answer a science question. What is learned or observed by the student may be something small, but the student will have learned by doing, by putting the question to the test and gathering and analyzing data. Picking a project that is too hard is certain to cause problems, and choosing a project that is too simplistic for your student will not challenge her to really dig in and get involved in the process and project.
  6. Understand the role of the parent and the role of the student in the science project process. Your student's science project should not be your own project. Depending on your student's grade and age, you may need to be more or less involved in helping your student facilitate the experiment. But if an appropriate project is selected, your student should be able to work through the steps on her own. Your student needs to come up with the hypothesis (her words, not yours). Your student needs to decide what the project display board looks like and how the information gets presented. Your role may be that of driver (to the library) or buyer (materials, glue, and a project display board). Or maybe your role is to help your student talk out loud about what is happening in the project so that she is better able to understand and articulate what she observes, what problems she encounters, what questions she has, how her variables are related, or what else she may need to do in developing her procedure or analyzing her data. (For more information, see How to Help Your Science Student.)
  7. Review the basic steps of the scientific method or engineering design process yourself. Your student should be learning and reviewing these steps in class, but refreshing your memory about what is involved will help you feel more confident about the step-wise approach that most projects follow. Bookmark the Science Buddies Project Guide. It is your friend.
  8. Remember that being "right" is not the goal. A science project may not turn out the way your student expects. A hypothesis may not turn out to be supported by the experiment. It may seem like exactly the opposite of what your student thought was going to happen happened. This doesn't mean the project failed. If your student worked through the appropriate steps and learned something by doing the experiment, then the project may, in fact, have been a success. Teachers look to see that students have used and understood the scientific steps, understand what they were testing and why, and understand what the data showed—even if it is different than what the hypothesis predicted. Do not think your student has failed if the project takes an unexpected turn!
  9. Go to the science fair. Make an effort to go to the science fair to see your student's project on display, one project display board among all the others, and to celebrate the hard work and learning that went on as part of the project. Everyone who completes a science fair project deserves recognition for participation!

Here's to Science Fair Project Success in Your House!

Share Science Buddies with your student's parents, with your friends, colleagues, and family. Science Buddies can make a difference in how students and families perceive the science fair project.

While your students finish preparing their science fair projects for this year, I may work on a few project display boards of my own. As the "turmoil board" shows, you can certainly make a statement and communicate information about a project or a process using a project display board! That students learn to share their project results in this way is a great exercise at the end of the science project process!



Seasons science / Earth Axis Science Experiment

In this week's spotlight: an astronomy project that lets students and families use a simple homemade setup to better understand the way the tilt of the Earth's axis causes seasons. When a surface is titled, how does the light reaching it change? With a flashlight, a cardboard box, and some ordinary paper, you can get hands-on and experiment!



LEGO Movie Makes Engineering Awesome

The LEGO® Movie puts engineering on the big screen in the hands of an assortment of plastic master builders and superheroes from various time periods and realms who come together to challenge Lord Business and the superior threat of Kragle. What they engineer in their quest to stop the Kragle will inspire students, teachers, and parents. If you aren't singing the awesome virtues of engineering yet, you should be!

LEGO Movie downloadable social media cover from official site
Note: You can find out more about the movie and watch video trailers on the official LEGO Movie site or on the LEGO site.

If you've seen the LEGO® Movie, then you know, "Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team." And, maybe... everything is awesome when you trust yourself, build what you want, imagine what isn't already written in a manual, and see yourself as special.

With Engineers Week this week, the timing for the smash LEGO Movie feels pretty, well, awesome. The importance of strengthening and encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for K-12 students is an important topic of discussion, and on the heels of the great GoldieBlox ad during last month's Super Bowl game, a movie devoted to highlighting what is possible when you celebrate and combine ingenuity, innovation, and the spirit of engineering has all the makings of a blockbuster.

No matter what angle you approach it from, there is something to like in the LEGO Movie, even if a toddler seated behind you stands up the entire movie with his face wedged on the back edge of your seat and babbles throughout. There is something to like even if you think you have a toe a bit too far into teenhood to still play with LEGO. This is a feel-good movie that budding engineers, creative types, parents, kids, vehicle enthusiasts, and all fans of pink unicorn kitties are sure to enjoy.

Maybe you really love the fact that the first master builder who whirls into quick-as-a-flash building view is Wyldstyle, aka Lucy, a perfect big screen moment for inspiring and applauding girls interested in STEM. Maybe you love Batman's wry persona and his comment about building only in black, and sometimes a very, very dark grey. Maybe you like Emmet's morning routines, all by the instruction manual, including some pretty fierce jumping jacks. Maybe you really liked the appearance of a floating, dangling, glowing-eyed, Ghost Vitruvious. Maybe you really liked Benny the astronaut who can snap together a space ship out of whatever parts are on hand. Depending on where you live (or in which realm), maybe you chuckled over the overpriced coffee.

Or maybe you liked the aha moment when you finally realized what the "piece of resistance" really is in the context of the story.

The movie is full of great moments that may strike a chord with viewers of all ages in ways both obvious and subtle. As a parent, I liked the movie on many levels. We have zillions of bricks in the house from years gone by, and I fondly remember our days of "instruction manual" building as well as our days of free-form building. I loved the way master builders in the movie looked around at piles of bricks and pieces and saw, instantly, the different kinds of elements they needed, complete with the LEGO part ID numbers.

Watching the master builders in the movie quickly assess the problem, the moment, the dire necessity, and whip up something amazing from salvaged and reclaimed bricks was very cool. But Emmet's solution for the broken wheel axle during an early wagon escape scene was also right on track for the way engineers think on their feet (or with their heads) as they create and innovate needed solutions. His double-decker couch may have inspired some laughter, but in the end, it helped Emmet and a core group of characters escape, its real functionality emerging as an accidental discovery—something that happens in science and engineering all the time!

Ultimately, throughout the movie, viewers see the engineering design process in action. Things are built and rebuilt over and over and over again—with or without a manual. Engineering is fun and awesome.

Making Connections

If the movie inspired you and your kids and made you think about the buckets, bins, and baskets of LEGO bricks that have wound their way into the basement or storage or a closet, pull them out again and see what happens when you encourage your kids to take a fresh look and think and build beyond the instruction booklet.

The following science project ideas can be turned on their heads to give students new building experiences and challenges:

  • Building the Tallest Tower: this one is a vertical exploration, but what happens if you change the orientation? Or, by all means, build up! What do you need to do to keep climbing higher?
  • Mixing Mystery: Why Does Tumbling Sometimes Separate Mixtures?: use LEGO to build a science tool that can help sort out a mixture. If you love the kinds of ideas you find in a Lego Crazy Action Contraptions-style book, this one might be right up your alley!
  • Gears-Go-Round!: working with gears and understanding the relationship between the number of teeth and a gear's functionality will help students refine their building skills and strengthen their "how will this connect with that" know-how. What are all the ways you can reuse the collection of gears you have?

If your older kids are using LEGO Mindstorms, don't miss the great array of Mindstorms projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies.

Follow these, as written, or use the ideas as starting points for launching your own building projects and engineering or robotics investigations:

(These projects work with older Mindstorms kits or the new EV3 model.)

What you build will be awesome—because you build it!

Science on the Dark Side

Did the Kragle in the movie make your brain buzz? Did you spot the scene at the end where the humans are un-gluing structures that had been super-glued in perfect place? Did you cringe at the sad moment when Good Cop, Bad Cop's good face was wiped clean?

These moments invite all kinds of science questions about glues, adhesives, and solvents. Get started!

LEGO Movie - What will you create, build, engineer, innovate? Get started with Science Buddies



February brings us both Valentine's Day and heart awareness month. That's two great reasons to take a closer look at the hard-working muscle thump-thump-thumping in your chest!

Heart Science Valentines Science

A Day in the Life of Your Heart

Your heart is constantly thump, thump, thumping away, working hard to keep oxygenated blood pumping through your system. But your heart patterns change throughout the day, speeding up and slowing down in response to your activities, moods, and routines.

In the "A Day in the Life" hands-on science project, students track their own pulse throughout the day, getting a visual look at how heart rate varies at different times of the day. Over a span of days, what trends might you spot and what conclusions can you draw about the way your heart works?

Here's a subject that will really get your blood pumping: the human heart. Did you know that an electric current generated by your body causes your heart to contract over and over again—2.5 billion times during the average life span? This contracting motion keeps your oxygen-rich blood circulating to every corner of your body.

Matters of the Heart

While Valentine's Day might have you thinking about hearts of the sweet variety, there are many interesting reasons to learn about the science of your own heart. We've gathered a few ideas below to get you started.

Ending on a Sweet Note

Because chocolate and Valentine's Day go hand-in-hand, here are two projects related to the science of sweets:

Show Your Heart Some Love

Your heart is an amazing part of your body, so keep it healthy by exercising, eating right, and not smoking. It will pay off in spades!



Heart science / Valentines Day Science

In this week's spotlight: a human biology and health project that puts an important question to the test: if you exercise regularly, does your heart recover from exertion more quickly than if you don't exercise often? The heart pumps faster during exercise, which helps to keep the heart healthy. It is good to exercise frequently and to raise your heart rate into its target heart rate zone during exercise, but how long does it take for the heart to return to its normal rate after you are done and cooling down from a workout? How does this recovery time differ between athletes and non-athletes? Put these health questions to the test with family and friends to find out!



Environmental Engineering Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: an environmental engineering and Earth science project and hands-on activity that lets students and families explore what's happening when a landslide occurs. With a simple homemade model using a clipboard and pennies, students simulate how the angle of repose changes with different hill mass and slope surfaces. What happens when you change the materials used in an object sitting on a slope? What's going on with gravity on a slope? At what point does sliding begin and why? Get hands-on to find out!

Getting Hands-on with Earth Science in the Classroom
Teachers: A classroom-friendly version of this Earth science and geology science exploration is available! Science Buddies Classroom Activities offer both educator and student guides to help teachers integrate hands-on learning in the classroom. The Landslides: What Causes Rocks to Slip and Slide? classroom activity takes under 30 minutes to set up and perform—about 10 minutes of student time. A simple setup using pennies and clipboards brings the relationship between gravity, materials, slope, and angle to life for students as they learn more about landslides.

Support for this classroom activity was provided by Chevron, sponsor of Geology resources at Science Buddies.



Video and Computer Game Pixel Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a video and computer games project and family activity that lets you investigate how the number of pixels used to create a video game object determines how it will look in the game. If you compare older games to new ones, you probably see a big difference in how the characters look today. Which look better? Do you know why? The number of pixels used in creating the images has a lot to do with the differences you see. In this family science activity, you can get create your own video game characters and experiment to see how much detail an image has (and how it looks) at 8 pixels, 16, 32, or even more. What happens as you increase the pixels? Put it to the test with your own graph-paper drawings!



Electricity Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: an electricity project and family activity that takes the zap out of static electricity. What causes the buildup of static electricity and may cause you to get "shocked" when wearing, rubbing up against, or touching certain materials or objects? What does what the object is made of have to do with static electricity? In this project, you and your family can build a cool tool, an electroscope, to detect electric charges and test to see how different materials conduct electricity.



mammalian biology puppy warmth science Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a mammalian biology project and family activity that encourages families to talk about and explore why puppies and other animals huddle together for warmth. Does cuddling up really increase warmth? Put it to the test in this hands-on science experiment!



health exercise and sports sweaty science Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a sports science project and family activity that lets you experiment to find out how different activities affect your heart rate. Exercise is important, but do all forms of exercise make your heart work the same? Does your heart work as hard when you are walking as it does when you are jumping on a trampoline or playing a game of basketball? Which activities and exercises really get your heart going? What does it feel like when your heart starts working harder? Put these and other sports and health science questions to the test as a family science experiment!



The story of the next General Motors CEO may help change ideas about car engineering and gender and inspire future generations of female engineers.

Mary Barra takes over as CEO of GM / inspiring girls in science and engineering
Photo: John F. Martin for General Motors
What happens when a girl grows up loving to build, design, engineer, tinker, solve, create, and improve upon what's "out there"? What happens when a girl who loves those things gets encouragement, opportunity, and education that supports her interests? She might just take over as chief executive officer of a major company, just like Mary Barra is preparing to do at General Motors (GM) where she will lead the company and its more than 200,000 employees worldwide.

A recent writeup in the Buffalo News notes that Barra, who grew up in a Detroit suburb, "remembers pining as a 10-year-old for her cousin's red Camaro convertible and tinkering in the garage with her father, a die maker who spent four decades at GM."

Following in her father's footsteps, Barra started at GM while in college and has been there for thirty-three years. You (and your students) can read more about Barra, her history as an engineer, and the recent announcement that former CEO Dan Akerson is handing over the reins to GM in stories at Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and in this Stanford Alumni profile (Barra attended Stanford Graduate School of Business).

Engineering Keys to the Castle

Barra's interest in cars started with her early love of a shiny red Camaro, and when you read through the many news stories about Barra's recent appointment as CEO (see links above to get started), you will see recounted the dilemma she faced when buying her first car in the 70s—and what she chose instead of the Pontiac Firebird she wanted. Barra's love of cars was not only about exteriors, however. She was also interested in the nitty-gritty of engineering, and Barra has talked about the importance of her mother's support of her interest in science and math—even though these were not areas of expertise for her mother.

Support for Girls in Engineering

At Science Buddies, we encourage you to nurture your student's interest in engineering at every age and stage, and we frequently post information designed to help parents and teachers find and facilitate exciting and inspiring science, technology, engineering, and math moments for their students.

For female students, this can be especially important as early interests may sometimes falter in the face of stereotypes about gender and science and engineering careers. See "Exciting Girls about Science and Engineering" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers" for more information and links to related Science Buddies content.

Making Connections

If Barra's story inspires your family's dinner or New Year's discussions, or if you have a student who really grooves on cars, auto racing, the way gears go together in a toy kit, or how future design and innovation will need to be more and more fuel-aware and fuel-efficient, consider the following Project Ideas:

Careers in Engineering

For more information about careers related to engineering and automobile design and
manufacturing, see the following science career profiles:



Food science kitchen chemistry cornbread baking Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a food science project and family activity that explores the role of baking powder in baking. In this pair of projects, experiment to see the affect of baking powder on corn bread muffins for a clear visual look at what happens when you use more or less in your recipe. Does a light and airy muffin indicate one with or without baking powder? How does the density or weight of a muffin change in relation to the amount of baking powder used? What happens if you use too much? Or not enough?



As you prepare for winter break and lots of indoor time with your kids, consider scheduling some time for family science. We have suggestions for fun hands-on science and engineering activities you can do with your kids that might feel a lot like playing or crafting even though there is plenty of science at hand!

By this point in the year, you have hopefully nailed down any upcoming gift-giving moments and are ready to kick back with your kids, friends, and family and enjoy the final days of the calendar year. There are those who procrastinate, of course, and there are those who are still looking because they strive to find the most different, most educational, or most unexpected gift. To help those last-minute and discerning gift-givers, our staff has made lists in year's past of gifts they would like to receive from the Science Buddies Store and great "to do" gift ideas that are fun as a hands-on activity and as a science project. From tie-dye to a little light-sensitive grasshopper robot, there are all kinds of great science project materials and kits that you can feel good about giving.

Many of the kits in the Science Buddies Store would make an awesome gift for a young scientist or engineer!

Planning "To Do" Time

Last-minute gift buying and wrapping aside, many families are done with the flurry of holiday preparations and are looking ahead at the pending school break. There are a number of days to fill, and in many areas, cold weather may force everyone indoors for large chunks of time. What can you do to stave off kid cabin fever, keep everyone entertained, and have fun exploring something hands-on with your kids?

Winter break is a great time for family science and engineering. With the right projects and activities, you and your family can have a great time building, experimenting, and testing science questions together!

Consider these science- and engineering-based suggestions:

Passing Family Time with Simple Experiments that Use Everyday Materials

For easy-to-prepare and family-ready science experiments you can do with items around the house, consider these fun and creative options from our weekly family science activity spotlight:

We hope you have a great winter break with your kids—and plenty of time to explore something new together, to tinker, to play, to make, and to ask questions and seek answers through hands-on science!

Buying for a Specialist?

One of our staff scientists compiled a list of gift suggestions for biology enthusiasts. Check out her bio-inspired gift ideas in her "What to Buy the Burgeoning Biologist?" post on the Biology Bytes website.



 Human Behavior Memory Mnemonics Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a human behavior science project and family activity that explores memory and how using a mnemonic device can help you remember a string of words or the items in a list. Have you ever used the HOMES acronym to help you remember the names of the Great Lakes or ROYGBIV (or Roy G. Biv) to remember the order of the seven colors in a rainbow? In this science project, you conduct a controlled experiment to see whether or not a mnemonic device makes a difference in how well your friends, family members, and other volunteers can remember the list you provide. Does a mnemonic aid work? What kind of mnemonic aid works best?



Building light-tracking robots as a family activity lets you and your kids take next steps in electronics and circuitry!

Family Light-tracking robotics engineering project with toothbrush robots

My kids and I had a great time over the summer whetting our teeth on basic robotics and electronics by transforming toothbrushes into cute little Bristlebot robots that look and work very much like commercially-available nano or hex bugs. The basic Bristlebots robotics engineering project is a fun hands-on activity and one that works for a wide range of ages. You can read up on our experience and our nitty-gritty tips and insights after doing this family science activity (like using garden shears to snap of toothbrush heads) in the "Building Bristlebots: Basic Toothbrush Robotics" post.

For us, the basic Bristlebots were just a toe in the water. My plan, all along, was to build the much more sophisticated light-tracking bots with my kids, but I liked the fact that we could do the projects in sequence, thus building our skills and understanding of the principles involved. More sophisticated, of course, often translates to more complicated, and, indeed, the light-tracking bots project was a more challenging project. But, without a doubt it was also a more satisfying family project. We like a challenge!

Breadboard diagram for electronics engineering project

Meet Your Bread Board

The project at Science Buddies uses very clear and helpful diagrams like the one shown above to help guide students in placing their parts correctly.

Our red, green, and blue mini bread boards were super cute and cheerful, but only two of them had any numbers and letters printed on them, and one of them had the numbers and letters completely reversed from the diagrams in the project. The procedure at Science Buddies has since been updated to mention that breadboard layouts and on-board descriptors may vary, but it gave us something to talk about as we read through the directions and got ready to follow the steps of the procedure. Did it matter? Did we need to reverse the circuit diagrams on the one board? Tip: If your breadboard doesn't have the same (or any) numbers or letters, just follow the diagrams at Science Buddies so that your circuit visually matches the one shown in terms of placement for each element.

The basic Bristlebots are super cute, super easy, and fun to make, but with slightly older kids in the family science setting, the light-tracking bots proved an excellent choice for us. They take longer to build. They involve a circuit beyond just a battery and a motor. They have cool functionality that lets kids put their own or a parent's phone flashlight app to use. They can be used as the foundation for extending the project and learning opportunity by challenging kids to alter (or reverse) the functionality. And, maybe best of all, they sport a very handy on-off switch! Plus, they are very cute and have a lot of personality even in their barebones wires and parts. (Revving up the design once you get the bots working is not required but can add to the creative fun for kids who want to customize and personalize their bots.)

Cool Parts

I had never used a bread board when I ordered all my supplies for this project and then gathered the kids around the table a few days after we made our original Bristlebots. Doling out the required materials for three kids to work on building these little robots was exciting. There were lots and lots of resistors, three awesome kits of colorful jumper wires, photoresistors, MOSFETs, battery packs, switches, pancake batteries, and more. There was a lot going on, and we were excited to get started.

While I recommend doing this build start to finish, family science sometimes follows the stop-and-go patterns of daily life. We split our build into two sessions, working around an important game of laser tag. Before we got started, everyone read the full procedure, and then we were ready to get hands-on. We knew we were not going to finish in one sitting, but the kids worked through the first several steps of the procedure, enough to give me a sense of how well the kids were going to do with following the diagrams and pushing the small pieces into place. Tip: If you have to start, stop, and come back to finish, be sure you stop with everyone having completed the same step!

When we came back later, we picked back up where we left off.

Excellent Diagram-led Build

The procedure at Science Buddies for this project is excellent. The team did a great job guiding students through the steps and providing helpful diagrams and photos to show the circuit as it develops on the bread board. (See the sample bread board diagram in the sidebar at the right.) Going into the build, I didn't have any prior knowledge of drains and gains, and my own understanding of how the rows and columns of the breadboard were related to the drain and gain didn't form immediately. Even so, if you follow the steps, putting the elements in place on the circuit step-by-step, as directed, you can do (or lead) this robotics project! (Note: Students who are working on the project as an independent project for the science fair or for a school project will want to really dig into the meaty information in the introduction, but families and science moms can approach these bots just as a fun hands-on building activity. You and your kids will be learning along the way, but don't worry up front about whether or not the circuit diagrams make sense to you!)

Follow the Directions

While doing this project, your kids will need good fine-motor skills and close attention to detail to make sure they get things inserted in the proper slots and inserted firmly. Be prepared to help with some tiny parts and to help check and double-check that pieces are in the right spots. If, like us, you are not soldering but relying on twisting battery wires to jumper cables, be prepared for a process that may feel like micro surgery with the very tiny battery wires. (Note: An adult will probably need to do this, but twisting does work.) If everyone follows the diagrams closely, building these bots can feel a lot like building a LEGO® project!

Even when you are careful, however, things sometimes go wrong. It's good to keep that in mind going into any family science activity. Things happen! Learning to deal with problems that arise in a science or engineering project is part of the process, and when something goes wrong in an electronics project, there is ample room for tinkering and emphasizing troubleshooting and testing steps.

A Bit of Resistance

Resistors can look alike / be careful to choose the correct value!

Look Closely

We initially selected the wrong resistors from the multipack, and it took us a while to realize our mistake. Be sure to look carefully to make sure you get the right value resistor!

We ran into a few trouble spots in the process of building our bots, one of which almost completely derailed us. As a result, we got a lot of practice troubleshooting, and we learned a great deal from the mistakes we made. The "help" information in the project was a great source of assistance when things didn't work out with our bots. When one of our bots got super hot (even though it wasn't moving), for example, we got a crash course in the importance of ensuring none of the bare wires are accidentally touching. And when none of our bots "worked" after we finished our circuits, we spent a lot of time backtracking through the diagrams and double-checking to ensure we had every single thing exactly as shown in the circuit.

There was some frustration, mine included, when we could not pinpoint what was wrong. Our circuits looked fine, but we had three cute little bots and bedecked circuit boards that didn't work. Finally, we discovered our error. It was a simple error, but it was a critical error.

The kids were ready to give up and move on, their excitement a bit burnished, when we discovered the problem.

Because we were making several bots, I ordered the large multipack of resistors listed as an option in the project's list of materials. The pack of 500 includes resistors in varying values. Unfortunately, even though we thought we had carefully matched up and interpreted the band-coding used to identify the values and to pull out the one we needed, our inexperience with resistors threw us a wrench. It took us a very long time to determine that we had accidentally selected 47 kΩ resistors instead of the required 4.7 kΩ ones.

As you can imagine, with the wrong resistors, there was far too much resistance, and nothing was making it through the circuit. For a seasoned electronics project parent, it sounds like a silly error. But in the moment, and with no experience with resistors other than when a science kit (like the Crystal Radio Kit) comes with only and exactly the one you need, I had no idea I had misinterpreted the packaging of the resistors and values. (I had not even noticed that there was another very similar-looking value in the set.)

Once we swapped out the too-strong resistors for the right ones, we were in light-tracking toothbrush bot business.

Light-tracking Success!

Once we had everything on track, the light-following bots worked great and were super fun to lead around with cell phone flash lights or other lights. The kids were very excited to see the bots come to live once we swapped out the resistors, and they immediately grabbed a cardboard box lid, turned out all the lights, and started guiding the bots around with cell phone lights. There were some races and then some impromptu videos made of the robots they had made, bots that, really, look pretty impressive when finished and definitely warranted being shown off to friends and family.

This is a project I highly recommend you consider with your kids over the long winter break or for weekend fun. Don't be afraid of the "advanced" rating on the project in terms of difficulty. If your goal is simply to build the bots and not take a crash course in understanding circuit diagrams, you can do and succeed with this robotics project with your kids—without any prior electronics or robotics experience. You know your kids best, but I was successful doing this project with kids in the range of 8-13 years.

If you have a family tradition of giving things "to do" during the holidays or for other celebrations, consider boxing up the supplies for the "Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter" project for a special kid who likes to tinker!

Make Family Time Robotics Time

If you are interested in trying a robotics project with your kids, here are a trio of robotics engineering projects, from beginner to advanced, to consider:

The following blog posts and resources may also be helpful and inspiring for families interested in exploring robotics:

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Tastebuds Human Health Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a human biology and health science project and family activity that encourages you and your family to investigate the science of taste! Do your taste buds differ from those of your friends, siblings, or other family members? Probably! In this project, you conduct a scientific experiment to explore your taste threshold for things that are salty, sweet, or sour. Once you've analyzed your own taste buds, see how other family members and friends compare!

[Image: Wikipedia]



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Cranberry Sauce Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a food science project and family activity perfect for the holiday kitchen! Are cranberries a part of your holiday menu? Does your family like a wiggly, solid cranberry roll, or do you make a looser cranberry sauce. What causes the difference in consistency? In these hands-on science projects, you and your family can experiment to see how cooking time affects the natural pectin in cranberries.



During the holiday season, pies are front-and-center on the dessert menu. Become the pie-baking champion in your family with this tasty experiment.


Turning Family Baking into Family Science

In the "Perfecting Pastries" kitchen science project, students explore the role of fats in piecrust making. Different fats (and fats at different temperatures) can make a big difference in the texture of the crust. But what about gluten? If your family festivities involve gluten-free cooking, thinking about concepts in the "Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most?" science project can be a great addition to your piecrust testing. If you keep the fats the same and vary your flours to make a gluten-free version, what kinds of differences will you see in your crusts?

Pumpkin, strawberry, or all-American apple—do you have a favorite kind of pie? While pie consumers tend to think about the delicious variety of fillings there are to eat, many pie bakers spend a lot of time perfecting their crusts. Some people are so intimidated by the idea of making a tasty crust from scratch that they prefer to buy them, but with a bit of hands-on experimentation in the kitchen, you may find your own perfect technique for great homemade crust.

Getting to Golden Perfection

The ideal piecrust is light and flaky, rather than tough and chewy. But what is the best way to create a perfectly light and flaky crust? Usually, piecrusts are made with just flour, fat, salt, and a little bit of water. You mix the fat into the flour first, which coats the flour particles. Then, when you add the water, the resulting dough is slightly crumbly, rather than stretchy like pizza dough.

With so few ingredients, how can piecrusts vary in texture? For starters, you can use different types of fat—butter, vegetable shortening, or even lard. Different fats yield different results. Another variable is the temperature of the ingredients. Should the fat be room temperature when you mix it in, or should it be ice-cold? Chances are, the pie baker in your family has an opinion!

Grab Your Chef Hat and Lab Coat

In the "Perfecting Pastries: The Role of Fats in Making a Delicious Pastry" Project Idea, you take the lead in your own piecrust test kitchen! In this project, you will experiment with the type and temperature of the fats used in your piecrust recipe. Following the experimental procedure in the project, you you will make four different crusts, being careful to keep your bake time and oven temperature constant for all of the crusts so that you can really see the difference the variables you are testing make in how the crusts come out.

When your crusts are ready, gather friends and family to see how the crust crumbles! Which recipe creates a crust with the best texture and flavor? Everyone will have the chance to see and taste your crusts and voice their opinions.

Put Your Results to Good Use!

Once you have your winning recipe, you can prepare one last piecrust and fill it with something delicious! Success has never been sweeter!



Get Your Spud On with Potato Science

Potatoes make a great side dish, but they also make great subjects for hands-on science! Food chemistry, plant biology, and even basic electronics are all on the menu when you experiment with potatoes.

What is your favorite food on the Thanksgiving table? Turkey with cool cranberry sauce? Pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream? For me, it is creamy, smooth mashed potatoes, piping hot and dripping with extra butter!

Potato Science
A South American Treasure

South American cultures had been eating potatoes for thousands of years before Spanish explorers brought them to Europe in the late 1500s. Despite their high nutritional value, it took about 200 years for potatoes to begin appearing regularly on European dinner tables. Until then, they were mostly used to feed animals. Now, however, potatoes are a staple in cultures all over the world, baked, boiled, steamed, mashed, and especially fried.

What Can You Learn from a Potato?

Some people say that fish is brain food. Try one of these Science Buddies Project Ideas, and you may decide that potatoes are brain food too!

  • Potato Batteries: How to Turn Produce into Veggie Power!: Our bodies use food for energy, but is it possible to power a light bulb with a potato? Yes! This fun Project Idea leads young scientists through the basics of batteries and circuits. A convenient science kit is available from the Science Buddies Store!
  • Do Potatoes Regulate the Formation of New Sprouts?: Why does a potato have eyes? All the better to grow with! When placed in a dark location, potatoes can grow new stems from their eyes and eventually produce new potatoes. Do all of the eyes grow new stems? Investigate whether there's a limit to the number of sprouts that can grow from a single potato.
  • How Greasy is Your Potato Chip?: Traditional potato chips are fried in oil to give them a nice crunch. Newer recipes call for different cooking methods to make them more healthful. With a rolling pin and graph paper, see for yourself how much fat different varieties of potato chips contain.
  • Smashing for the Mash: The Science of Making Memorable Mashed Potatoes: Be the mashed potato hero in your home! In this hands-on experiment, you'll try a variety of cooking and mashing methods to discover how to create the most delicious potatoes for your dinner table.
  • Hey, Do You C My Potatoes?*: "Eat your veggies!" Grown-ups know that fruits and vegetables provide us with essential vitamins, but do cooking methods change the amount of vitamins that end up on our plates? Discover the best way to get the most vitamin C from your potatoes.

Plan Ahead for the Holidays

Thanksgiving and winter breaks are right around the corner. Skip the screen time and try some hands-on scientific exploration instead!



In this week's spotlight: a food science project or family activity that adds a dash of salt to questions about health and nutrition. The salt in your family's table shaker may be iodized because iodine is an important micronutrient that not everyone gets naturally in the foods they eat. To help prevent iodine deficiency, many salts contain added iodine (in the form of iodide). Not all salts are iodized, however. In this pair of projects, families experiment to see which salts contain iodide. The label should tell you if the salt contains iodide, but these projects let families use a visual test to observe the chemical reaction that occurs if iodide is present. Does what you see match what the label tells you?



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight /  Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a sports science project that invites students and families to examine the relationship between walking pace and height. Do you have to walk faster or slower to keep up with a friend or family member? How is that related to how tall each of you is, and why? Can you estimate how tall someone is by how many steps they take to cover a certain distance? Put this question to the test with a simple hands-on science experiment and learn more about special ratios that can be used to talk about the human body.



With its broad spectrum of free scientist-authored projects for K-12 students, Science Buddies wants ALL students to have a great science project experience—girls and boys. For teachers and parents looking for ways to engage girls in science, Science Buddies has plenty of suggestions. Finding a great project that taps an area of interest is one of the most important things to keep in mind when helping students select projects.

Girls and STEM: Better Understanding the 'Leaky Pipeline'

With support from Motorola Solutions Foundation, TrueChild is digging into issues related to STEM, gender, race, and ethnicity. See their STEM white paper report "Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls' STEM Attitudes & Participation?" for a summary of what's at stake, what's happening, and what TrueChild is learning from focus group studies they are conducting. According to TrueChild's research, girls may feel they have to choose between "femininity and STEM." See TrueChild's "Femininity & Science, Technology, Engineering, Math" section for links to other relevant studies and reports.

How to engage, excite, and retain girls' interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is an ongoing challenge and area of concern for educators and parents. Plenty of studies demonstrate that while many girls show enthusiasm for STEM subjects, and may voice STEM-related career goals, during early elementary years, there is a marked drop-off in interest in STEM that begins as early as grade 4 or 5 and continues to taper off through middle and high school. (Similar decline in interest in STEM subjects can also be seen in students in other demographics.)

Understanding "why" girls lose interest in areas of science and changing the dynamic has become a top priority for many who are involved in science education and, ultimately, ensuring a healthy pipeline between formative school years and the emerging job force.

Why Not Science?

The problem of "girls bailing on science" is not one with immediate and concrete answers as the convergence of a number of factors has likely contributed to what has become a broad-spectrum problem. There are no easy answers, but there are myriad steps that may help encourage and recoup female student interest. Increasing the visibility of female role models in science and in fields like robotics, engineering, and computer science, fields often associated with males, is certainly important. Girls looking to those fields need to find plenty of examples of female scientists to help them better envision both the field and their own potential place in such a field of work and study. Ensuring girls have access to (and encouragement for) a wide range of science-related opportunities both in school and through extracurricular and after-school activities is also important. Making clear to all students, through presentation, through teaching, through example, and through at-home discussion, that there are no "boy" and "girl" fields of science is a must. The stereotypes that surround certain fields of science, and the ways in which developing students respond to those stereotypes, may have much to do with the kinds of projects girls choose for their science class and science fair assignments.

These are all important steps, but they are only individual strands that feed into a complicated and multi-headed problem. No single approach can realign girls' perception of science, and change won't happen overnight. Rebalancing STEM so that girls see these fields as interesting, exciting, and viable, as relevant and possible for them, may take the proverbial village, but it also is going to take a lot of diligent and hard work on the part of teachers, parents, community members, and volunteers who are all committed to getting girls excited about science and to helping girls see that they, too, can be scientists and that there are many, many different areas of science to explore.

Finding a Science Project

So how do you get a girl student engaged in a hands-on science assignment, project, or activity? What project should you encourage? What project should she pick? The answer may be more simple than you think. She should pick a project that interests her or that taps into an area of interest.

At Science Buddies, we believe that all students, male or female, can perform any of the Project Ideas in our library of more than 1,200 free science projects when the project is appropriate for the student in terms of difficulty and available time. This is especially true if the project is one in which a student is interested.

A Project She will Love

This focus on the importance of student interest is the foundation on which Science Buddies' Topic Selection Wizard operates. After a student responds to statements about his or her interests in the Wizard's survey, projects that best fit the student's existing interests rise to the top as recommendations for projects the student may most enjoy. This does not mean there are not other projects that the student might find satisfying, challenging, and exciting. But students who use the Topic Selection Wizard are more likely to uncover and discover projects that really mesh with their interests—even in areas of science they may not have considered but that fit in, nicely, with an interest or hobby. We always encourage students to try the Topic Selection Wizard as a first step in locating a science project.

Some girls, of course, will gravitate to Project Ideas that center around subjects and topics that may typically be associated with girls. That's fine! Science Buddies offers a broad range of projects and experiments that meet that need. But many female students, based on their individual areas of interest, will find exciting and challenging projects that may capitalize upon their interests and skills and may open up areas of science, technology, engineering, or math that are unexpected or new to them but that they will really enjoy.

A Handy List of Girl-friendly Science Projects

We could post a list of projects that we know from experience are especially easy for girls to see and choose, but we feel strongly that in order to help change the dynamic, we want, always, to support the fact that the awesome new projects we are developing at Science Buddies are put together by our team of scientists to encourage an amazing science experience for a student—regardless of whether the student is male or female. Here are a few of our recently released Project Ideas that we think are super fun, exciting, creative, and have the potential to empower both girls and boys to further explore science and engineering.

Girls STEM explore blood clotting Girls STEM art bot robotics Girls STEM separating mixtures

Girls STEM candy chromatography Girls STEM grape soda dye Girls STEM electric play-dough

Girls STEM candy waterfall flow Girls STEM snow globe centrifuge Girls STEM milk plastic polymers

Girls STEM butterfly flight Girls STEM dance glove Girls STEM hula hoop physics

The Project Ideas shown above are just a tiny sampling of the wide range of projects students will find at Science Buddies (more than 1,200 projects in more than 30 areas of science). We encourage teachers and parents to have students first try the Topic Selection Wizard. (Sit with your student and look through the results together!) If a student is still uncertain about which project to choose, spend time looking though the library of Project Ideas, starting first with an area of science in which the student seems interested.

Supporting the Process

Parents and teachers play a critical role in how girls perceive and respond to science. Making science a part of the daily car ride or family dinner is an easy but important way to show girls that science matters and is relevant to them. We suggest parents and educators review the following resources, success stories, science history notes, and book reviews for additional encouragement and support in helping engage girls of all ages in science:

Keep in mind, too, that how parents talk about and respond to issues of science, technology, engineering, and math has an impact on students. There are many, many ways you can do hands-on science with your kids at home, after school, or on the weekends even if you are not a scientist. Family science should be fun! We highlight a family-friendly science activity every Thursday on the Science Buddies Blog. But we also frequently post stories of families who have tackled various kinds of science projects, including math, electronics, and robotics—with no prior experience!

Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.

Motorola Solutions Foundation



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight /  Zoology Camouflage Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of zoology science projects that let students and families explore how some animals use camouflage so they can better blend in with their surroundings. Does camouflage really make a difference when it comes to the relationship between predators and their prey? Give it a try in fun hands-on science activity using M&M® and Skittles® candies. If you are a hungry predator trying to grab a specific color of M&M, how hard will it be to find your prey if the prey blends in with its Skittles surroundings? Experiment to find out!



This Experiment is Totally Sweet

November is a great time to experiment with a kitchen science project. A cheesecake smackdown explores how subtle variations in cooking methods can create very different results!

By Kim Mullin

Cheesecake food science project

Make Cheesecake a Scienctific Part of Your Next Family Gathering!

Volunteer to make dessert for your next family event, and you can combine making a tasty contribution for after dinner with a kitchen science exploration! (Image: Wikipedia)

When is a cake not a cake? When it is a cheesecake! Creamy, sweet, and delicious, cheesecake is definitely a dessert, but it is a rich and dense custard instead of a spongy and light birthday-style cake. Mmm...cheeeeeesecaaaake....

Variations on the Cheesecake Theme

Traditional cheesecake recipes only call for eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a milk product such as sour cream, heavy cream, or cream cheese. This kind of basic recipe lends itself to creativity, so nowadays, you can find cheesecakes in all sorts of mouth-watering flavors: chocolate chip cookie dough, pumpkin pecan, and lemon raspberry, to name just a few. Yum! Search for cheesecake recipes online, and you'll find that anything goes.

When you head to the kitchen to make your own cheesecake for a family gathering or a weekend treat, all you need to do is mix up all of this sweet and creamy deliciousness and throw it in the oven for an hour, right? Not so fast!

Recipe Variations Equal Varied Results

When it comes to baking, there is a science to getting the results that you want. Professional bakers pay careful attention to measuring ingredients, controlling temperatures, and mixing at the right speeds. They know that the wrong variations can mean the difference between a baked good that's perfectly light and delicious, and one that's overly tough and chewy.

Cheesecake bakers want a nicely risen filling and a smooth, crack-free top, but there are three different recommended baking methods. Which one is best? The way to find out is to put it to the test!

The "Choice Cheesecakes: Which Baking Method is Best?" food science Project Idea lets you be the head chef in a delicious experiment! Always using the same cheesecake recipe of ingredients, you'll test all three of the recommended baking methods and then count cracks and measure the rise to see which approach gives you the best results. When looking at your data, think about why the different baking methods change the outcomes. Which method would you recommend?

Sweet Success

This is one science experiment that you are definitely allowed to eat, so when all of the baking is done, it's time to dig in! You'll end up with lots of cheesecake, so invite friends and family to enjoy the results of your cheesecake smackdown. You might even take an un-scientific poll to see which method makes the best-tasting cheesecake. You'll have everyone saying that science is sweet!



In this week's spotlight: a pair of physics science projects that invite students and families to explore the granularity of materials. Can you pour candy in a way that is similar to pouring water? What determines whether or not a material can "flow" in this way? Which variables affect how smoothly the material flows? With your Halloween candy bag at hand, you can put it to the test with your own "candy waterfall" in these hands-on science project and family science activities.

For other Halloween-related science suggestions, see: Time for Spooky Halloween Science.



Slime, Catapults, and Halloween Science

Inspire hands-on learning by getting creative. You can easily turn chemistry and physics science experiments into Halloween-inspired activities that your students will enjoy!

Ping pong balls for  Halloween catapult science fun

Setting Siege for Halloween Fun

A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can transform ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween fun. A dozen eyeballs anyone? Get creative! Mummies, ghosts, Frankenstein, pumpkins, bats, witches... decorate a set of ping pong balls with your kids and then have fun launching them into the trick-or-treat candy basket with the Ping Pong Catapult. Your kids will have fun experimenting with science and the physics behind successfully getting the balls to the target! [Image: Booturtle]

Halloween is tomorrow. Hopefully you've found, stitched, glued, or otherwise assembled all necessary gear for the big night of knocking door to door for fun treats. To keep you in the mood, we've got two more hands-on science suggestions, both of which are fun ways to tie science into the festivities, even after the fact!


To hook some kids, it's that simple. You need slime. For the rest of us, despite the gross factor, the science of slime, when you get right down to it as it oozes through your fingers, is chock full of squishy but fascinating chemistry! Mixing up a stretchy putty or experimenting with Oobleck, Ooze, or some other non-Newtonian fluid is classic, hands-on, tactile fare for the younger set. They love to get really hands on with their chemistry, because it feels good, or cold, or slippery, or bouncy, or some other wonderful adjective that a toddler or early elementary student might toss out to describe how a new mixture feels. But these substances offer excellent hands-on learning moments for older students, too!

Colloids and Polymers, Anyone?

Slime, especially glowing, green, the color-of-some-unearthly-snot slime, fits right in with the fun but eerie side of Halloween. So why not make your own, but turn the "making" into a fun science activity—one with a clear take-away, slime you can dig your hands into or bounce around.

In order to keep things shrouded in mystery, we don't want to tell you exactly which formula to use or how to modify one recipe or the other to achieve the best and slimiest consistency. Instead, we want you to experiment!

These two Project Ideas have the goods you need to know, including background information that will let you and your kids talk about polymers and colloids and better understand the properties of each mixture you try.

  • Bouncy Polymer Chemistry: use Elmer's school glue and Borax to mix up something like the classic Silly Putty. By experimenting with the ratio of your ingredients, can you make this slime-like? Or does it only want to be a rubbery, bouncy, putty? To make your polymer exploration extra spooky, use a colored Elmer's glue or try Elmer's School Glue Gel. (It's blue!)
  • Making Mixtures: How Do Colloids Size Up?: experiment with corn starch and water to mix up some Oobleck or Ooze. Colloids have interesting properties because sometimes they seem like a liquid and sometimes they seem like a solid. What kind of slime factor can you concoct?

You could mix up a batch of both mixtures, a putty and a colloid. Or, pick one or the other. Both are fun to make with kids. If you have some glow-worthy paint you can mix into the batch (try a small quantity), you might be able to turn a bit of family or after-school science into an awesome trick or treat moment!


Catapults have a long history of launching things, including fiery things, into enemy territory. Brought into the realm of hands-on science, a catapult is a super way to experiment with physics principles and the math that goes along with correctly launching something so that it goes where you want it to go.

Science Buddies has a suite of Project Ideas that use the Ping Pong Catapult kit, available in the Science Buddies Store: Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult, Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls, Bet You Can't Hit Me! The Science of Catapult Statistics, and Launch Time: The Physics of Catapult Projectile Motion.

These projects are all great explorations individually, but the suite allows students to use a single kit and experiment with multiple angles (literally!) related to similar physics-based scenarios and questions. How can you tie the catapult in with Halloween science?

No, not launching pumpkins! But what else might you try? How many individually wrapped small candy bars will come home Halloween night? Is there a game you and your students might make up to launch candies into a Halloween bucket, box, or bag? What might you explore about the difference in flight pattern and trajectory of different candies based on variables like size or shape?

Or, if you want to stick with ping pong balls because they are light, will only fly a certain distance, and won't be a concern if they wind up lost under the couch, grab a permanent marker and turn them into jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween creatures for added catapult fun—without the mess of pumpkin guts! (A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can uplevel ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween. A dozen eyeballs anyone?)

Warning: when using the ping pong catapult, especially if you are launching objects other than ping pong balls, be sure you have plenty of space and don't launch towards windows, screens, or other breakable things. This may be a science activity to take outside the weekend after Halloween and have some candy-launching fun at a local park!

Elmer's Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor of Science Buddies. For a full range of display boards and adhesives that can help as students get ready to showcase their science projects, visit Elmer's!



Time for Spooky Halloween Science

As trick-or-treat night approaches, we have plenty of suggestions for hands-on science you can fit in with Halloween festivities and discussions!

Halloween hands-on science

Meet your kids where they are—in the Halloween mindset! Science Buddies has great ideas for giving Halloween a boost of hands-on science.

Every year we highlight projects at Science Buddies that, when carved or backlit this way or that, can easily be adapted for Halloween and trick-or-treat fun with students in the classroom or at home. If you are looking for activities you can do with your students, for science-minded conversation starters for the car ride home, or for homeroom discussions before and after Halloween, consider the science activities and science connections highlighted in these posts on the Science Buddies Blog:

A Ghoulish Tradition on the Blog

This year, we've added a few new Halloween-inspired posts to our collection to highlight new hands-on science projects from our library of Project Ideas. If you missed these posts in recent weeks, be sure and add them to your reading list for great Halloween-infused science suggestions:

Have a great Halloween week!



With a new group of electronics Project Ideas and a cool kit from the Science Buddies Store, you can turn ordinary play dough modeling into a great hands-on electronics activity with your kids.

Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Since the trio of "electric play dough" projects launched at Science Buddies, I have wanted to give these hands-on science projects a try as a weekend science activity with my kids. The idea of rigging up an electronics-friendly batch of dough to some LEDs has undeniable allure. It just sounds cool, and the sample photos in the projects are very compelling.

Whether you love the tactile angle of working with a squishy dough, just like when the kids were little, or like the idea of an easy light-up electronics project, the "squishy circuits" approach invites users of all ages and backgrounds. The premise is simple—by making and using conductive and insulating dough, you can create your own light-up 2D and 3D sculptures. To get there, you follow the step-by-step, progressive, directions, and make some simple dough samples that will help you learn about open and closed circuits, series and parallel circuits, and short circuits.

Halloween Circuits

All of the samples for this project seem to be green, but with Halloween coming, we thought we would experiment with some ghost- and pumpkin-themed squishy circuitry. Our orange conductive dough came out nice. Basic color mixing theory with our red and yellow food dye worked as expected. My kids wanted to make our insulating dough black. I did caution that with the food coloring we had on hand, we might get brown, but even I didn't quite expect what we got. As you can see from the photos, our insulating dough came out a really gnarly, nasty, icky brown. Yuck! (Tip: the directions do not talk about adding coloring to the insulating dough. We decided this may be because the insulating dough is much drier in the bowl since you add the distilled water last. The coloring worked and did mix in, but you may find it best to add it after you've added most of the water needed to reach the desired consistency.)

We were not thrilled with our brown dough, but that's what we had, brown and orange. So, with ghosts, goblins, and jack-o'-lanterns in mind, we got started.

Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Read the Procedure

Especially because we were doing this as an informal activity, I knew the kids would not be following the experimental procedures verbatim. We didn't need to record data. We didn't need to turn anything in. We simply wanted to play around with the dough and LEDs. Before I let them loose with the dough, though, we pulled up the directions and each read through the background information for Electric Play Dough 1 and Electric Play Dough 2.

And then they were off!

They worked through the examples first and had great luck with series and parallel circuits. Then they started making their own sculptures. Both did more elaborate parallel circuit examples and then attempted 3D models.

Not everything worked. We had some misfires, some miswires, and even some dough structures that looked like they should work and never did. But we had a great time, and there was lots of hands-on learning going on—and lots of troubleshooting. Watching them process how to step back (or backtrack) and test at each stage of a circuit to find out where the trouble began when a more complicated design was not conducting electricity the way they expected was wonderful—and important.

It was a hot day, and our dough seemed to get a bit weepy in the warmth, starting to feel (and look) tacky and damp as we continued debugging our final projects. The two kinds of dough also tend to want to stick together, which led to some interesting discussions about what happens if, in fact, you mix them. Having done the "Sliding Light: How to Make a Dimmer Switch" project in the past, one of my kids immediately had a theory about how a mixed dough might perform. (It's an idea to put to the test sometime, especially with some of your used dough!)


I have no doubt that the kids now understand the concept of series and parallel circuits in a way that they didn't before starting. Me, too! I wish we had ended up with a great pumpkin to share, but when you do projects as a family, things often take an unexpected path. That's okay!

When a 3D project went awry, one of my kids decided to go for a play dough burger instead. It is 3D, though arguably it's really just a larger example of a parallel circuit. (I think it looks like a space thing.) With the disco burger in the works on one side of the table, my other son co-opted most of the remaining dough for his own pumpkin-eque project. While they worked, I played around with some of the scrap dough that was left. (There wasn't much!)

My 3D pumpkin proved to be a great electronics puzzle and gave me lots of time to experiment through trial and error as I tried to combine what we'd been doing into one conceptual example. In the warmth, and with the small amount of dough I had, my pumpkin kept collapsing. The more times I stuck the probes in it trying to troubleshoot and test the circuit, the more it collapsed. Finally, I left it flat. In the end, it's a pretty scary looking something. (The photo of it here shows it after I'd removed a number of LEDs during my testing.) Admittedly, I was the last one sitting at the table—and the one left to clean up.

Squishy circuits electric play dough pumpkin family science

We plan to experiment with the squishy dough again in the future, working through some of the challenges we ran into and conquering some of the design issues we had—and emerging victorious with something 3D. Maybe this time we'll aim for a slightly less tacky dough, too. I think drier dough would have helped us a lot.

This is definitely an electronics and engineering experiment worth repeating. Once you have a squishy circuits kit (available from the Science Buddies Store), you can reuse the components over and over with new batches of dough.

What will you create?

You and Your Kids Can Do Electronics!

Afraid to tackle an electronics project with your kids? Don't be!

The first two electric play dough projects are written as introductory electronics projects, projects suitable for even the youngest of elementary students. This makes them great for independent science projects, but it also makes them excellent for family science or even classroom science. No matter what your expertise, familiarity, or comfort level with electronics, chances are good that you can read through the background information for each project and come away with a solid understanding of the core concepts.

After that, you and your kids can start experimenting. What should you make? We recommend working through the first examples (e.g., lighting up a single light bulb), so that you see how the circuits work. As you continue to experiment and add more bulbs, you will build upon your knowledge of circuits and see the information about series and parallel circuits play out in the dough in front of you.

To get started, you really just need to be able to roll up three wads of dough—two conductive and one insulating. If you keep the two conductive ones separate, you don't even need the insulating dough to start, just stick the legs of an LED in the two balls and hook up the battery pack. The LED should light up. If it doesn't, check to make sure your long LED leg is on the same side as the red wire and try again. (You will have learned something important by doing that!) Once you've successfully lit up a single LED, try the same process with a couple of LEDs and watch the brightness of the LEDs start to fade in a series. Then roll out two dough snakes and experiment with parallel circuits. You will be learning more and more about circuits with each sample you make!

What next? Your imagination is the limit to what you can do with dough, but you will need to apply what you learned about circuits to make sure your LEDs light up. It can be a trial and error process, but it is lots of fun!

Where to Go

The projects:

The kit:

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Electricity & Electronics are sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / afterimages Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a trio of human biology and health science projects that invite teachers, families, and students to explore the way the human eye works. What happens when you stare at something for a period of time and then look away? You might continue to see the image, what is called an afterimage. We have versions of this exploration for an independent student project, a family activity, or a classroom activity!

Science Connections for Halloween

For another look at afterimages and thoughts on tying this hands-on science to Halloween and to nudging your students to experiment with Scratch to make a simple computer program to demonstrate afterimages, see: "A Trick of the Eye for Halloween."

Scratch is a great way to get kids started exploring computer logic as they create fun games or applications. (See the post for additional links to resources and Project Ideas at Science Buddies!)



If you are still thinking about what to wear this Halloween, you might find you can combine a science project and your costume needs to good, possibly ghoulish, effect!

My favorite Halloween idea this year is low-tech. I saw a "stick man" figure homemade costume, and I can't get it out of my head for its sheer simplicity—black electrical tape on a white shirt and pants. It is an unusual and fun twist on the classic DIY white tape skeleton costume and perfect for someone who loves to draw.

There are always a few kids at Halloween who explode out of the box with unexpected, cool, and definitely not-off-the-shelf, costumes. These are the ones I remember each year after the school costume parade. My favorite may be the girl who came as a salt shaker. I think another year she was a #2 pencil. In reality, though, these kinds of creative bursts are seemingly few and far between at Halloween, overshadowed by scads and scores of black capes, scream faces, blood-spurting masks, princess dresses, and character costumes from TV and the movies. (How many Harry Potter or Dorothy trick or treaters have you seen?)

If a roll of electrical tape falls in my lap, I may end up with a stick-figure shirt this year. But for you and your students, I want to suggest something much cooler... a science-project turned costume.

Combine your science know-how and your creativity to create an exciting costume this Halloween! The science involved in this LED glove can be applied to other parts of a costume. What will you make and wear?

A Science Project/Halloween Costume Combo

Really, when you think about it, this idea can be chalked up as a two-for-one special. The supplies you buy for the science project will also be used for the Halloween costume. It's a win-win. When you factor in the hands-on science learning that your student (or family) will gain from the science experiment, it's a win-win with interest!

Here are two suggestions for science projects from the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas that can be easily turned into a fun at-home activity that then becomes part of a cool and creative trick-or-treat costume.

  • LED Dance Glove: This brand new project at Science Buddies is an awesome way for kids to explore a cool new breed of electronics—wearable ones, also called electronic textiles or e-textiles. In the project, students learn how to use conductive thread and insulating fabric paint to turn a set of small LEDs into an awesome light-up glove. An LED glove is perfect for a party, true. But imagine using this idea as part of a costume! You could do gloves, or you could use the technology and wearable circuitry-knowhow to sew up some other light-up costume idea that is completely your own. Think about the possibilities! Forget carrying a regular glow-stick that will fade in a few hours. This Halloween you can make and wear your own glow!

  • How to Make the Boldest, Brightest Tie-Dye!: Tie-dye may be a classic summer camp or weekend family project, but the process of dyeing different kinds of fibers and exploring how fibers react to dye is a great science activity—one with wearable results. This science experiment can be perfect for a DIY Halloween costume! Whether you are making a groovy costume with 60s flair, prepping your own zombie or mummy rags, or making a groovy fan shirt for a favorite sports team, you can put your science tie-dye tests to use. Make part of the costume from one fiber (like muslin), and part from another (like a polyester-cotton blend), and have fun with the dyeing!

How Creepy is Too Creepy?

Whatever costume you pull together, you probably want to stay out of the "uncanny valley"—or maybe that is exactly where you want to be! Learn more about the uncanny valley and how it plays into how we respond to the characters we see in movies, or maybe the ones we run into on Halloween night, in the "That's Creepy! Exploring the Uncanny Valley" science Project Idea.



In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental science projects that help guide families in an investigation of different biodegradable and compostable items. Do all environmentally-friendly items decompose at the same rate or as completely? With a homemade indoor composter, you and your students can run your own experiment and see what happens.



A Trick of the Eye for Halloween

Exhaust your eye cones in just the right way, and you can enjoy the spookiness of seeing something that isn't really there!

Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program

The screenshots above are from a project a student created using Scratch to demonstrate afterimages.

Seeing something that isn't there can be spooky, right? That's what I thought one morning this month when I got out of the car after dropping my kids at school and saw a giant "phantom" in the basement window of the house next store to mine. After doing a momentary double-take, I realized that the creepy robed reaper wearing a face reminiscent of Edvard Munch's "Scream" had appeared overnight as part of my neighbors' Halloween decorations.


But I wasn't imagining it.

It was there, looking through the window at me and at several oversized pumpkins that must weigh a hundred or so pounds each.

Something you don't expect to see and suddenly do can be eerie. But when it comes to how your eyes work (and how your eyes and brain work together), what you see, at times, might actually be a neurological response—and not really there.

The science of visual perception can be fascinating, and you can have a lot of fun with your kids, students, and friends by exploring (or creating) visual illusions. (How many faces do you see in the tree? That's one that has been going around these days.) But an easy way to learn more about how the eyes work, and how "fatigued" different cones in the eyes may become when staring at something, is to set up a really simple test where you stare at a certain image for a period of time (like 30 seconds) and then glance over at a blank piece of paper. If you really focused your eyes on the initial image for the whole thirty seconds, you should see a version of the image reflected on the blank page—an image that isn't really there. Your eyes seem to be still seeing what they were initially looking at, just in a different color.

Maybe you have tried this with a giant colored circle—or even a small one?

Simple Science at Home

With Halloween coming, I made a mental note to corral the kids into helping with a ghostly version of the "Are Your Eyes Playing Tricks on You? Discover the Science Behind Afterimages!" project so that I could share a Halloween-infused version of the visual perception activity here on the Science Buddies blog. With younger kids, having them draw (or cut out) a large ghost or pumpkin and experiment with afterimages makes sense. My kids are a bit older, and as I thought about testing this with them for the blog, I realized that the directions for the activity (and the sample circle you stare at) at Science Buddies are online... this visual test works both with a digital images or with a sheet of paper in front of you. Given that, I started thinking that maybe I didn't need to force my middle schooler to draw a ghost.

I quickly spiraled down a path of having my student instead set up a digital simulation using Scratch as a way to show how afterimages work and as a way to encourage a bit of Scratch manipulation. Challenged to set up a simple program to demonstrate after-effects using a ghost image and a bit of computer logic to facilitate timing and the automatic changing of screens and display of information to the user, my student created a Scratch program and then took it a step farther, adding in the option for the user to choose an initial background color. This is a cool enhancement and lets you compare what colors you see as an afterimage depending on what colors are in the initial image. Note: in our Scratch version, you are staring at a white ghost, so you don't see a complementary color when you flip to a blank screen. So what do you see? And why? Questions for you to explore!

You and your students can certainly take the Scratch idea even further. You might have the user change the color of the ghost instead of the background. Or, you might add in different levels of color selection to really explore the complementary aspect of afterimages. Or, you could add a storytelling angle to the project: put a backdrop in place on the screen that appears after the user stares at an image, and you will create an interesting animation of sorts—one that partly isn't really there!

We had fun talking about afterimages, putting together the simple Scratch program, and testing it out. I hope you and your students are inspired to give afterimages a try and either experiment with your own Scratch program or make some construction paper ghosts, pumpkins, or bats.

For more information about visual perception, see:

For more information about using Scratch and encouraging kids to explore computer logic with a tool like Scratch, see:



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / falling objects physics Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of physics science projects that encourage families and students to put a classic question to a hands-on test. Does a heavier object fall faster than a lighter one if both are about the same size? What role do gravity and inertia have in explaining what happens when two objects of differing weights are dropped at the same time from the same height? Put it to the test!



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / bird feed adaptations zoology Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of zoology science projects that encourage families and students to use their observation skills to learn more about birds. What can you deduce about a bird's lifestyle or habitat by looking at its feet? More than you might think! Both the independent science project and the family science version guide students in an engaging bird feet scavenger hunt. The closer you look, the better, so pack a picnic lunch and head to a nearby park or pond for some bird watching! How many different types of bird feet will you spot?



A deck of cards provides a concrete look at probability and chance in a hands-on math activity that easily scales up and down in difficulty to match the experience of your students.

Family math probability card science

A Deck of Cards

Four suits. Thirteen cards in each suit. Twelve face cards. Four aces. Twenty-six red cards. Twenty-six black cards.

Using these simple facts about a deck of cards, many math questions and scenarios rise to the surface!

How likely is it that you will draw an ace from a full deck of cards? Depending on your age, this is simple math. But it is also simple probability. What are the odds that you will draw a face card? How about a two? One-eyed jack?

The interesting thing about probability is that it is exactly that, a measurement of what is "likely" based on the math of the situation. It is not, however, an absolute. Just because your odds of drawing a red jack are 1 in x, it doesn't mean that if you draw x cards you are guaranteed to draw a red jack. But, based on the math, it is probable, or likely, that you will.

Family Math

Over the summer, I set a few kids of varying ages up with a deck of cards each and put them to the task of "testing" what they know about probability in relation to a deck of cards to see how well the "chance" of drawing a certain kind of card holds up.

Because the goal was a short family math activity, we used the "Pick a Card, Any Card" project as a guide and foundation. The Science Buddies Project Idea is one with a low level of difficulty, a project geared toward younger students. There is also a family-friendly adaptation of the project at Scientific American in the Bring Science Home area.

Because of the age range of the kids I had on hand, and their differing levels of interest in, and comfort with, math, we talked first about what we already "knew" about the odds of drawing different types of cards (or specific card numbers), and they each marked their data charts with the odds of drawing each different number or type of card based on the pure math at hand. With a younger group of students, your approach might be different, and the entire activity might be revelatory rather than a proving ground.

For these kids, fairly well versed in games like gin rummy, spades, and hearts, the activity was a way of putting the math to the test. They knew that the odds of drawing an even-numbered card are 1 in 2 (if you count the face cards as odd or even based on their "number" in the sequence from 1-13), but does it really work out that way? Does it work out that way enough of the time to make probability make sense?

After each did their trials, we figured up the percentages and compared them to the mathematical odds we'd already deduced at the outset. It was a simple but fun hands-on activity and a nice foundational activity for talking more about statistics.

Looking for other hands-on math you can do with your students as a way of getting extra hands-on math into their days and into your family time? Check out the following Project Ideas or browse the full math area at Science Buddies:

What did your family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos you snapped while doing family science, we would love to see! Send one in, and we might showcase your family math, science, or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Winogradsky biosphere column Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental science and geology projects that let families and students investigate a biogeochemical cycle, a kind of reuse and recycling process that helps support an ecosystem. In either the independent science project or the family science version, students create and cultivate a miniature biosphere, called a Winogradsky column, to explore the relationship between available nutrients and the microorganisms that grow in a sample of soil.



Cooking Caramel: Family Science Spotlight

As this family discovered in their kitchen science activity, making caramel doesn't require much in the way of ingredients, but recipes vary, and timing and temperature matter!

Family Kitchen Science: Making Caramel Sauce
"My younger son wanted to make caramel sauce," reports the mom who sent in these photos. Sometimes a perfect science moment begins just like that!

When the mom told her son that they only needed sugar and water to make caramel sauce, he was surprised and intrigued. Only two ingredients? As he and his mom browsed online recipes, the student kitchen scientist began to wonder: if you only use sugar and water, what gives caramel its color?

At Science Buddies, the mom found "The Sweet Beginnings of Caramelization *," a hands-on science project that gave them a framework for a fun and tasty cooking and food science experiment. They tried more than one recipe, exploring the affect of different ratios of water and sugar on the consistency of the resulting caramel sauce. Like a classic fairy tale, they found one recipe they tried to be too thick, and one to be too thin, but as they experimented, they created taste test spoons at varying stages of the cooking process.

How does the color of caramel correlate with the taste? This family observed a clear relationship between the two—with many taste test spoons to prove it!

Cook up your own batch of caramel sauce and see what you and your students discover.

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project
What did your recent family science experiment or school science project look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send your photos in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook, Google+, and Twitter! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Rooftop Gardens Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of environmental engineering science projects for a hands-on look at the benefits of taking a rooftop approach to going and growing green. Can rooftop gardens help you keep your house cooler and lower your energy bill? Explore with a student science Project Idea or a hands-on family science activity:



As this mom discovered, with a bag of toothbrushes and some basic electronics supplies, you can give a group of kids a fun introductory robotics experience—no prior robotics expertise necessary!

BristleBot family robotics / multiple images

Since the BristleBots robotics project first appeared at Science Buddies, I have wanted to try these little toothbrush-head bots with my kids. The light-tracking robot project appeared shortly after the more ubiquitous brush bot. The light-tracking bot is more complicated, but I marked it, pinned it, and put it on my to-do list of hands-on science projects for my kids.

The regular BristleBots were first up.

Hacking for Parts

Initially, I thought I might be able to scrounge up motors from old phones for the BristleBots, giving our robotics exploration a healthy dose of recycling, upcycling, and reuse mentality. I was especially keen to do that when I realized the required motor wasn't readily available. (Note: Science Buddies is working to put in place a reliable source for these motors to make acquiring the parts easier.)

With the best of green intentions, I fished an old phone from the kitchen junk drawer to see if I could salvage a motor. Getting my old clamshell apart was far more complicated than I expected. As I started dismantling, I quickly realized I don't have the all-important Torx (star) tool! Given that, my methods were substantially more crude, but layer by layer, I got the phone apart. I finally unearthed the vibrating motor only to discover it had no wires. I needed wires, and I don't have a soldering iron (and wasn't planning to use one for the project with the kids).

After a surprising amount of brute force to break my old phone, I was back to square one with the motors and glad I had tackled the phone well in advance as I sorted out what I needed to order for our summer science.

I compiled a list of parts needed for the two robotics projects, ordered what I could, and stopped in at a local Radio Shack to pick up one final electronics piece (x3).

Shopping for Tootbrushes

Finding the toothbrushes ended up being almost as complicated as gathering the electronics supplies. I spent a lot of time scouring online sites and comments on blog posts to try and figure out what kind of angled brush heads were commonly used. For a full independent student science project, a student might explore the effectiveness of different types of heads and bristles. But as a parent coordinating two separate toothbrush-dependent, hands-on robotics activities for three kids, I needed nine toothbrushes. I was on a budget, and I wanted to try and get toothbrushes that would "work" so that the focus of our activity was on the electronics and basic wiring rather than on evaluating brush heads. I didn't want the type of brush to be an experimental variable. I went with slanted bristles.

If you plan to make toothbrush bots with a bunch of kids, make sure you note ahead of time that angled brush heads are not the cheap ones! Angled brushes may run, on average, several dollars a piece, so while BristleBots can be fun for a sleepover or a birthday party, you may need to buy in bulk, or else experiment with other brush heads before you buy for a crowd. Will a straight head work well or well enough for your purpose? (If you look carefully at the photos above, you will see the slanted bristles and the row of rubber tips on the outer edge of our bots—pretty common BristleBot fare!)

Home Robotics 101

Parts in hand, we settled in to make BristleBots. Having read the Project Idea several times, written about it several times, and watched the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories video, I fully expected this to be a project the kids would whiz through in about five minutes. Part of me was worried that it might be anticlimactic precisely because of the low-level of difficulty, but I wanted to do these BristleBot explorations back to back, the easiest one as a stepping stone into the more sophisticated light-tracking one.

I am not sure now what happened when I was ordering... but as we sat down to make the BristleBots, and I sorted out the supplies, I realized we had a pack of pancake motors but none of the oblong ones that the procedure specifies. This was definitely a parental "oops" moment on the supplies front, but working on a project like this with kids requires flexibility.

We plowed ahead.

Less than an hour later, we had three BristleBots that worked, on and off. We had to continually fidget with them to get them to stay on or come on. I was doing more of the tweaking than they were, but it gave us a chance to talk about what the problem was (not enough constant pressure on the battery with the wire on each side) and brainstorm ways to address it. We tried tape. We tried more tape. We tried pressing harder. We found that sometimes very light pressure worked best. These bots were a bit finicky. There was a lot of trial an error. We would get one working, let it loose on the table, and the next one would stop!

We finally tried something that worked wonders—a twist tie from a plastic bag. This helped us maintain consistent pressure on the contacts. Other solutions could also work, and finding your own is part of the challenge and the fun of a robotics or engineering project!

About the time we got our twisty ties solution in place, the first battery died. And then the second. Two brand new batteries died in under a half hour. Chalk that up as one less than happy parent with a bulk battery purchase!

But, the bots worked. The kids had fun. And, in the end, I was far more appreciative of the off-the-shelf bugs these bots simulate. I always thought they were overpriced, but there is a reality to the fact that when flipped on, they run!

Even so, making our own BristleBots was an awesome first-time, non-kit robotics experience with kids of differing ages and with varying levels of hands-on tinkering and electronics experience.

Tips for Your Own Robotics Activity

Here are a few pointers gleaned from our BristleBot building:

  • Big scissors. Snipping off toothbrush heads isn't easy! We ended up using some rather giant hedge shears. Plan ahead. Be fearless.
  • Trim with care. Be careful trimming your bristles. (Say this over and over to your young engineers, especially eager ones.) While some trimming can change the way your bot moves, you can trim too much and cause your bot to not be able to stand up.
  • Get hands on. Experiment before taping anything in place to see how the vibrating motor works. This is the basic electronics lesson of your activity! Put one wire on each side and press. It should vibrate. Don't worry, it won't hurt or shock you! Feeling how the wires get pressed to the battery to make the motor work will help your students better understand what to tinker with to make the right "contact" when the battery is on the bot.
  • Tinker. Test. Tinker again. If you are having trouble getting the motor to work on the bot, experiment with the placement of the wires on each side of the battery. You can tape and re-tape them as many times as you need to. You might also try securing them differently or more tightly. Just remember, to turn the bot "off," you will need to be able to "undo" the connection easily.
  • Keep the conversation going. Talk about what the bot does as it moves around and why. This is a pretty low-key and not overly-smart bot. But when it runs into something, it does gradually adjust and work its way to a clear path. Talking about what you observe helps your students practice articulating what they see and encourages them to think about and apply what they know.
  • Create a race path. How smart and how fast are your toothbrush-head bots? After the building is over, have the kids build a maze or race course to test and race the bots. Cardboard, recycled tubes taped together, wooden sticks, straws, even LEGO® can all be used to develop a cool pathway for the bots to navigate. As you and your students watch the bots move, you will find you have new things to talk about!
  • Personalize and customize! Once your bot works, it is easy to personalize it and make it your own. Add eyes! Add antennae! Add this or that to give your BristleBot your own style.

Have fun!

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Chemical Reaction and Temperature Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a trio of chemistry science projects for fizzy, science fun. When you drop an Alka-Seltzer® tablet into water, a chemical reaction begins. What influences the rate of this reaction? Explore the role of temperature on the reaction with the student science Project Idea, a hands-on family science activity, or a classroom activity:



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Full Moon Illusion Science Project for School or Family Science
(Moon rise image credit: Thomas Fietzek, Wikimedia Commons)

In this week's spotlight: a pair of human biology and health science projects to help students and families better understand the way our eyes perceive the full moon rising. If you have noticed that a full moon sometimes seems very big and then smaller as it rises, you have seen the full moon illusion in action. Learn more about Emmert's Law and experiment to find out why and how our perception of the moon's size changes based on where it is in the sky:

Take It Further

By the way, this week's full moon (on Tuesday, August 20) was also, technically, a Blue Moon, a label which has nothing to do with the color and a lot to do with the old adage we often hear and use of something happening "once in a blue moon"! Find out more about the history and science of the Blue Moon in this article at Space.com. See also: "When the Moon Is Full (Or Seems to Be)" and "Visual Illusions: When What You See Is... Not What's There?" on the Science Buddies Blog.

This cool video by photographer Mark Gee gives a great look at a few minutes of a stunning moon rise in Wellington, New Zealand. Will the moon look so big once it is fully risen? Did it actually change? That's what this week's science activity highlight is all about!

Full moon Mark Gee Video Screenshot



Family Math: M&M Color Statistics

What can you do with hundreds and hundreds of M&sM's? Family math!

MM's hands-on math family science activity

My family's lineup of summer hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math projects and activities included almost enough M&M's to bring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to mind. Maybe not quite that many, but summer was busy, and when I added three bags of M&M's to the list with this project in mind, I had in my head that we needed big bags of M&M's. When we sat down later with three kids, each with a family-sized bag of M&M's, and called up the family-ready activity version of the full Science Buddies M&M Math Project Idea, I realized we really could have used much smaller bags.

Undeterred (they are M&M's, after all, and not likely to go to waste!), we moved ahead. The activity calls for counting the M&M's in (at least) three different bags. This lets students analyze what is in a single bag and then compare those numbers to statistical data derived from combining and averaging the results of three or more bags.

I had three kids at the ready, so my plan was to have each tackle sorting, counting, and tallying a single giant bag. This way they each got to be hands-on, do their own math, get the results for their own bag, and then we would compile the data to get overall statistical information and see how each bag held up to the numbers.

The question in the project is pretty straightforward: which color M&M is most (or least) common in a bag of M&M's? I remember when I was a kid, and it seemed that the green M&M's were always rare. So before we started, I polled the kids. Two of them predicted a color they thought would be most common. One of them leaned toward thinking the colors would be equally dispersed, reasoning that a factory machine probably spits them out in relatively equal numbers.

Then we got to counting. There are many ways a student might approach this part of the project. One strategy that worked well at our table was to dump an entire bag of M&M's on a plate, and then sort them by color into piles on a large napkin. After the bag was sorted by color, the student started counting the M&M's of a single color and dropping them back onto the plate. All M&M's on the plate had been counted, and the piles remaining on the napkin were still to be counted. It was an easy way to keep track of the counting and the piles.

There was a lot of counting going on!

But it was immediately interesting to hear that the totals around the table were differing, sometimes dramatically, for each kid.

When they finished, they each did their tallying, finding out the total number of M&M's and the percentage of each color they had in their bag. Then we made a new chart, copied in all of the individual totals, and combined and averaged to get composite data.

The results were surprising, and not all of our bags held up to what the data told us should be true, which was interesting in terms of realizing that all bags are not created equal!

Sweet Success

In the end, this hands-on math activity was a lot of fun and worked well for a mix of age ranges that spanned elementary and middle school. I knew going into it that the math involved was on the easy side for the middle school kids. But as an exercise, the activity gave them a chance to get hands-on with statistics doing something that gave concrete and visual clarity and reinforcement to concepts they already know, like averages (mean) and probability, and introducing some potentially new terms like population and frequency. [Note: The Science Buddies M&M Math Project Idea guides a more detailed and comprehensive statistics exploration, including the creation of data charts and graphs. A student interested in this project and exploring statistics can take the activity further than we did for our family science activity!]

When finished, one kid made a pyramid of M&M's, which of course crashed and caused a great uproar from the disgruntled engineer. Another made a pie chart of the M&M's on the napkin, a work of art that was then, of course, unceremoniously dumped into a baggie during cleanup. The third bag of M&M's was put to very good use making Monster Cookies. It seemed to me to be a perfectly sweet way to end our hands-on science project and reward all that counting!

What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Meteors, Craters, and Astronomy Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of astronomy science projects perfectly timed for this year's peak Perseids meteor shower activity. Most meteors that pass through the Earth's atmosphere burn up before they hit the ground. But what happens when a meteorite hits? In this pair of hands-on science activities, students and families experiment to find out how the size of a meteorite is related to the size of the resulting crater.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Bugs and Insect Biodiversity Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects for buggy, backyard exploration. What does it mean for an area to be have a lot of biodiversity? Why is this important to the health of an ecosystem? How do scientists measure biodiversity? You can explore by doing a study of the biodiversity of insects in your own backyard using a homemade bug collector. This week's hands-on science project and activity guide either an independent project or a family investigation. How many types of insects will you suck into your bug collector?



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Fruit and Gelatin Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects from the kitchen. Is a gelatin-based fruit salad in your recipe book of family favorites? What fruit do you add? Will any fruit work? Put it to the test with this week's hands-on science exploration and investigate what the enzymes in certain fruits have to do with whether or not a gelatin will solidify properly when a fruit is added.



Science Project / Suspension Bridge from straws - multiple images
How does the Golden Gate Bridge or another suspension bridge work? Does the suspension design help it support more weight than other types of bridges? In the "Keeping You in Suspens(ion)" science project, students put these questions to the test. With ordinary materials—straws, tape, string, paper clips, and a small cup—students can quickly model a suspension bridge and test its weight-bearing capacity compared to a simple beam bridge made from the same materials. How many pennies can each bridge support? Comparing weight-bearing capacity using different kinds of string (cables) or across different widths adds to the science fun!

See "Building Bridges" for a roundup of Science Buddies' bridge-related hands-on science Project Ideas.

What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the one above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Basketball Science on the Court

Have a sports-oriented kid? Playing basketball can engage muscle power and brain power! For summertime fun, hit the courts to explore the science behind shooting hoops.

By Kim Mullin

Basketball Science

Better Basketball?

Can science help you improve your skills on the court? It might! Sports science projects let you explore the science and physics behind a favorite pastime. Shoot some hoops; score some science points.

Basketball season may be officially over, but it's a safe bet that lots of kids are shooting hoops this summer. With just a ball and a net, kids can engage their muscles, cardio-vascular systems, hand-eye coordination, and agility, all at the same time. Throw in a few friends, and you 'add teamwork and sportsmanship to the equation. Talk about a powerhouse!

Next time the kids head out to practice their shots, consider this: there are scientific principles involved in every shot! Trajectory, force, gravity, energy, motion, air pressure, percentage—injecting a little bit of science into summertime fun can be as simple as asking the right questions when you are out on the court and then putting a few of those ideas into action. Below you will find some Science Buddies sports science Project Ideas to help you and your kids explore the science behind the game.

  • Nothing But Net—The Science of Shooting Hoops: Doesn't every kid want to improve her shooting percentage? This Project Idea takes the scientific approach to the question of where your hands should be when taking a shot. Kids can apply the same ideas to other aspects of the game, such as whether or not to use backspin, or which is the best trajectory for the ball.
  • Under Pressure—Bouncing Ball Dynamics: If you drop a ball, how high will it bounce? What happens to the height of the bounce if you release some air from the ball? What about using different types of balls? This Project Idea offers a quick and easy way to explore the concept of air pressure.
  • How High Can You Throw a Baseball? A Tennis Ball? A Football?: Want to know how high you can throw a ball? There is a mathematical equation for that! Grab a friend and a stopwatch to test your throwing ability...and have some fun with physics!

Keep Your Brain and Muscles Fit This Summer

Whether you and your kids are on the court, in the swimming pool, or out in nature, summertime is a great time to remember that science is everywhere! Help kids explore new concepts, or let them show you how much they already know about how science fits into the equation. You all might just score an impressive three pointer! '



Math Riddles for All Ages

A new book brings math into the realm of bedtime stories. Whether you read it with your kids at night or during the day, Bedtime Math encourages families to talk about math every day—and to have fun doing so!

Talking About and Doing Math with Your Kids

We use math every day in countless ways. Don't be afraid to turn ordinary moments into math moments with your kids. It is good for them to add, subtract, and think about numbers and how they relate to real-world scenarios—and doing it as a family can be fun!

"The U.S. ranks 25th out of 34 countries when it comes to kids' math proficiency. One New Jersey parent wants to change that by overhauling the culture of math. An astrophysics graduate and mother of three kids, she started a ritual when each child was 2 years old: a little bedtime mathematical problem-solving that soon became a beloved routine. Parent friends began to bug her to send them kid-friendly math problems, too. Now Bedtime Math is gaining fans among children and math-shy parents around the country."--NPR

Do your kids love numbers, puzzles, and the challenge of a good brain tickler? Do you make it a point to incorporate math into everyday activities and scenarios with your kids so that the real-world application of basic math skills is tightly woven into things you do? When math is about more than rote memorization, many kids find it fun. Practicing math skills is always important and can help boost your student's number savvy and their number confidence.

A new book from Macmillan aims to help parents boost math awareness at home with fun and engaging math-based puzzlers for all ages.

Bedtime Math, written by Laura Overdeck and illustrated by Jim Paillot, offers parents clusters of related math puzzles, which Overdeck refers to as riddles, targeted at different age groups: wee ones, little kids, and big kids. With the three-legged approach to each story and set of math problems, Bedtime Math offers ease of use for parents (and teachers) and, in some cases, room to grow. Each riddle group shares the same general story line, but each difficulty level presents a new math question. With a multi-age group of kids or siblings, you can ask the riddles by age, or, with older kids, start with the "wee ones" riddle and then move on sequentially to the harder ones. They may find the "wee one" very easy. You might even get an eye-roll or two, but the stories are still fun, and by starting with the easy riddle, your kids may build momentum as they progress to each new level of difficulty.

Chapter 1 is titled "Exploding Food." Intrigued? The Bedtime Math video trailer (below) offers a glimpse into the book's fun style, clear language, engaging layout, and colorful illustration. You can view additional pages from the book at Amazon.com to get a sense of the clever stories Overdeck has crafted to draw students in. How many bites of Habañero peppers before you can't stand the heat? How many kids are screaming on the roller coaster? How many LEGO® bricks do you have left if the roof took x bricks from your starting number?

In addition to Bedtime Math (the book), Overdeck offers a free daily newsletter from (sign up on the Bedtime Math website) that delivers a tiered daily math challenge to your inbox. With kids home over the summer, you may find the newsletter, book, and Overdeck's blog, an easy and entertaining way to add a routine dose of math to your days and family time—or bedtime reading.

More Ideas for Family Math

How do you and your kids keep the math flowing during summer break? Check our "Making Room for Math" post for tips and suggestions for infusing summer days with easy doses of math. See also, "Weekly Spotlight: M&M Math" and the math area of the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas for science, technology, engineering, and math.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Hula Hoop Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects perfect for burning off some energy and getting your "spin" on. What is the secret to a good hula hoop? Experiment with the weight and size of different homemade hoops to see how each affects your ability to keep a hoop in motion. What's the best combination? Can you hula hoop longer with a lighter or heavier hoop? Why?



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Film Canister Rockets with Chemical Reaction Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that fit right in with U.S. 4th of July celebrations and let you get hands-on with "rocket" science at any time of the year. What happens when you combine vinegar and baking soda? A chemical reaction! If you contain the reaction in a small space like a film canister, you can get a high-flying blast from the combination—your own mini rocket. But how much of each ingredient do you need? Experiment with the ratio of vinegar and baking soda to find the perfect mix for the highest-flying fun as you and your family explore Newton's third law of motion, combustion, and chemical reactions.



Are there energy vampires in your house? There are probably more things sucking on your household energy than you realize! This summer, band together with your students to analyze your family's power usage—and to see what steps you can take to make a difference in your family energy usage footprint. From stereos to gaming systems to chargers for all of your devices, you might be surprised at how many things are plugged in—and how much energy each uses, even when it is just sitting around and waiting for your attention.

Energy Meter / Family Energy Usage Investigation

Power Usage You See and Don't See

How many things are plugged in around the house? How many of them still suck on power even when you are not using them? Many devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, even when you are not using them. If you add up all that phantom energy usage, is the amount significant in terms of your household energy bill?

Are there steps you and your family can take to improve your family's energy-efficiency and energy awareness? Set up a plan to target vampire power usage, and see if it makes a difference!

"When you aren't in the room, turn off the lights!"

"You all have to start turning off the lights!"

"It's sunny out, turn off the light."

"The lights are on in every room of the house again!"

"You don't need to turn every light in the bathroom on every time you walk in!"

Does the on and off of lights form a similar refrain in your house as you try and make your kids more aware of energy issues and trim corners on rising energy bills? The singsong of lights on and lights off is a buzz you will find in houses and buildings of all sizes. When we think of cutting down on the always-on energy, many people immediately think of lights. Have you been in an elementary or middle school and been surprised to find lights in classrooms off as the students work by daylight? Have you dutifully changed out light bulbs to more energy-efficient choices in hopes of saving an accumulation of pennies over time?

Lighting the Way

Attention to overhead and tabletop lighting may have some impact on your energy footprint at home, but the impact of your lights may be minimal in the context of the overall size of the print. Lights may be the most obvious culprit for a family's wasted electricity, but lights are likely only a drop in the energy bucket.

What else is running?

Some night when it is dark in the house, take a walk through the house and notice how many little lights you see, little green or orange or red or blue lights, signs that something is on, running, ticking, waiting for notifications, and otherwise sucking away at your power. Do you use a fancy single-cup coffee brewer that keeps water heated and ready to make an on-demand cup of coffee or hot chocolate? Do you use a digital video recorder to make sure you never miss a favorite show? These, and many other, devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, while they are sitting around and "waiting" for use. While many of the things plugged in may only use a trickle of energy when they are not actively being used by you, if you add up all the passive energy usage, you might be surprised! This kind of energy usage is sometimes called vampire or phantom power.

You may know when you glance at your computer that a blue light signals it is still on, and not in a suspended, hibernated, or "sleep" state even if it appears to be off. In another room, another computer may glow red for the same reason. Your gaming device may mean something different when the device light is red, green, or yellow. Devices and appliances with indicator lights are the ones you probably notice most often, but the lights you see probably only reflect a portion of the devices and appliances that are plugged in and possibly still running even when you are not using them.

Some devices give themselves away because they make more than their share of noise and/or because they kick in and out of activity, triggering lights and noise. The ever present hum of a digital video recorder or cable box, for example, may be a sound you notice when the house is quiet, a reminder that the TV is still active even when no one is watching. Gaming consoles, too, often whir in the background even when they are not being played. Even when flipped off, you may find that some devices seem to never "really" go off and may even kick back on when least expected, the disc insert slot lighting up at odd times as the system checks for and installs updates. It can be disconcerting when your kids are in bed, and suddenly the gaming system fires up and, with a whirring sound, starts spinning to life and drawing on the household power. But even the devices you don't think about, the subtle ones, may be hanging out waiting, and munching on a steady stream of energy.

How many devices have a digital clock face that is always on?

Summer Energy Investigation

With kids home for the summer, why not set up a student-led investigation into your family's power usage. With summer temperatures pushing some systems into cooling overdrive during summer months, energy bills may be on the rise, but with some detective work, some monitoring of energy usage, and some record keeping and basic applied math, you and your students can pinpoint engery-draining pitfalls and culprits—problems you may be able to tackle by changing how you and your family approach turning devices on and off.

Get the kids involved and see what a difference you can make!

The following Project Ideas offer a blueprint for carrying out specific kinds of energy usage analysis.

Bringing Energy Usage Issues Home

Consider these projects as a framework around which you can develop a family science activity. You will need to invest in at least one energy monitoring device, like the Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. (Investing in more than one would allow you to gather data about appliances and devices in multiple rooms at the same time, but you can track your energy with a single device over time.)

The Kill-A-Watt device helps you see how much power a device plugged into it uses. You plug an appliance into the Kill-A-Watt device, and then plug the device into the wall. With the electricity usage monitor in between your appliance and the power source, you can track how much energy specific appliances use. As shown in the " Killing 'Vampires'" project idea, you can use a multiple-outlet strip to measure the usage of a series of devices.

As you and your family get used to how the Kill-A-Watt device works, and what the numbers look like, you will have a better sense of what you want to test in your own home—and what times of day you want to take readings. (Someone may need to set a middle-of-the-night alarm a few times to get some important data about what always-on systems are doing while you sleep!)

A Whole-family Science Project

Your energy investigation will be specific to your family, your home, and your lifestyle. But here are some general tips for getting started:

  1. Get the last few energy bills out and show the kids how much power was used—and how much it cost.
  2. Take a field trip to the basement, garage, or exterior house location to show them the electricity meter and explain how the power company collects the data.
  3. Talk about vampire power consumption. This kind of continual power drain is also called phantom power or leaking electricity. What does it mean?
  4. Make a list together, as a family, of all the devices that are plugged in around the house. How many plugged-in things are there?
  5. Identify which devices are rarely, if ever, turned "off" (e.g., coffee makers with a heating device or clock, cable box, router system, etc.). Are there any devices plugged in that really don't need to be (e.g., a radio that is never used, a freezer in the basement that no longer works, etc.)?
  6. Work together to make predictions about which devices use the most energy.
  7. Set up a plan for what devices to measure. Let one of the kids be the record keeper for the project, or have each kid keep the data in a notebook so that everyone can "do the math" and see the data throughout the project.
  8. After making a list of which appliances and devices to test, first monitor usage of each appliance or device without making any changes. (Be sure and note your start and end usage on your household meter.)
  9. Be sure and run tests for active use as well as for phantom or vampire use on devices you think may be powering on, actively processing or making connections to a network, or otherwise staying "alert" even when not being immediately used.
  10. Run tests to see what difference there is between putting a computer to "sleep" and fully shutting it down. One may seem more convenient, but how do they compare in terms of energy usage?
  11. After gathering power consumption data about the various devices in the house, identify ones that could or should be completely turned off more routinely.
  12. Come up with a "green" plan for your house and family. Implement the changes you've identified. (Be sure to note the starting number on your household electric meter.)
  13. After a set amount of time, compare your results pre- and post-change. Did your changes make a difference in overall household usage? If you time your investigation to monitor usage for one month without changes and then one month after changes, you may be able to compare the bill, too!

Are there changes your family can make, long-term, that will make a big difference in the power you use? We would love to hear about your family's "green" investigation. If you wish to share how it went and what you discovered, email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of energy and power are supported by SAIC.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Where's Waldo Visual Exploration Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that investigate the science behind visual search. When you are looking for a specific car in a crowded parking lot, what makes it easier or more difficult to spot the car? What if you are looking for your keys, someone in a crowd, or something specific on the shelves at the grocery? Do you enjoy puzzles and seek-and-find style books and games that make a game or visual brain teaser out of "finding" something that is hidden in plain sight. like Where's Waldo or I Spy?

What makes some objects harder to find than others or some I Spy books more challenging than others? Explore the science behind visual search by making your own puzzles, either using an online tool or by making hands-on, cut-it-out and glue-it-down (or draw it with markers) puzzles that you and your family can enjoy! From the number of distracters to the colors and size of them, there are plenty of angles to explore. This is a great summer science activity for the whole family!



Birds, frogs, ladybugs, and butterflies—these are a few examples of species in which growing waves of scientists are helping contribute to a global knowledge base. You and your family can, too!

Image: University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science describes ongoing research projects that invite collaboration, often around the world, between networks of professional scientists and interested members of the general public. These projects often rely upon the contribution of firsthand observation or findings from participants that enables widespread collection of global data on the topic. Citizen science projects may emerge in any field of science, and while nature-, environmental-, and zoology-oriented projects are common, citizen science is not limited to the outdoors. FoldIt, for example, is a game-based citizen science project where players are helping solve "puzzles" related to protein folding.

Get Involved in Science

Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard is full of photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources designed to encourage kids (and their parents) to become active participants in ongoing field research. Citizen Scientists is an inspiring and engaging choice, one families will enjoy and, hopefully, be motivated by. When you send in your first ladybug photos, let Science Buddies know! And next winter, if you participate in a bird count, share your totals with us, too. We would love to hear your stories.

Searching for Ladybugs

In Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard, ladybug hunting is highlighted as a summer seek-find-and-identify activity (although where you live will determine which activities are possible and at what time of the year). If ladybugs are common in your area, consider getting involved! The Lost Ladybug Project website contains many helpful resources for ladybug hunters, including a printable field guide (2 pages) that describes some of the most common ladybugs you might find in North America.

For more information about citizen science, see Citizen Science at Scientific American.

Have you or your kids spotted a ladybug recently? You may have watched your student observe the ladybug as it crawled around in her hand. Maybe there was even a small observational habitat created, for a half hour or so to see if the ladybug might eat a leaf (albeit a leaf a hundred or more times its size). When no gargantuan bites appeared in the leaf, maybe the ladybug was gently released and sent on its way. But what kind of ladybug was it? Did you know that there are more than five hundred species of ladybugs in North America and more than 4,500 species of ladybugs in the world? So what kind of ladybug did you see? Maybe it was one of a handful of species considered rare and once feared "lost" in the U.S. Don't you wish you had stopped to take a photo, make a drawing, and spend just a bit more time with the ladybug?

Spending that extra time immersed in searching for, observing, identifying, tracking or tagging, and chronicling the appearance of different species is exactly what Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard aims to inspire—in even the youngest of scientists, your children.

Ready, Set, Seek, and Find!

Some kids are fascinated, from the start, with insects, birds, frogs, lizards, and other creatures that turn up underneath a rock, in the trees, or after a hard rain. But even those who shy away from certain kinds of animals or insects benefit from hands-on activities and projects that reveal the rich diversity and wonder of the natural world. Citizen Scientists takes things one step further and shows that kids are already in position to help scientists and be scientists themselves!

This large-format book is a treasure trove of inspiring stories, ideas, facts, and motivation for young naturalists and their families. Written by Loree Griffin Burns and illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz, Citizen Scientists does an amazing job drawing in readers of all ages. Burns' writing is clear, engaging, and accessible, and her enthusiasm about the fact that even kids can get involved and take an active, hands-on role in global field science—from home—is palpable.

Citizen Scientists covers four different citizen science activities. Because the prime time for each of these activities differs and varies throughout the year, the book is organized by season: Fall Butterflying, Winter Birding, Spring Frogging, and Summer Ladybugging. In other words, you can't pick up Citizen Scientists and expect to immediately run out and begin tagging Monarch butterflies simply because the book gets you and your kids jazzed about the possibility of catching, examining, and labeling butterflies in hopes someone else finds them at the other end of their annual migration. Your ability to dive in with one of the covered species depends on where you live, what time of year it is, and what species are common in your area. You might not live somewhere, for example, where frogs are all that common!

Don't let this dissuade you from Citizen Scientists, however, and the mission and possibility of citizen science. Citizen Scientists may be a source of get-off-the-couch and out-of-the-house inspiration at any time of the year. Each section of the book is introduced with a wonderfully-crafted first-hand account that puts you, the reader, right in the middle of the action, standing in the cold on the morning of a bird count, sitting in the dark at night listening for frogs, or barely breathing as you wait for a butterfly to land so that you do not startle it away. Once you are part of the story and hooked, Burns offers more detail about how tracking is being done and why, about how the different species move or migrate, and about how people, including kids, around the world are pitching in to help scientists learn more.

The book is full of great photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources to help kids find out more and get involved. Readers (and listeners and lookers) will enjoy the time spent with the book, and the book may catalyze family or student interest in either joining a large-scale project (like FrogWatch) or in creating your own small-scale nature-based investigation—just because.

No matter what species your family decides is of most interest, there is likely a great deal to learn. Starting at the wrong time of year, in fact, might be a good thing! With frogs, for instance, learning to decipher the different calls can be a huge challenge for citizen scientists, and there are resources you and your family can use to start familiarizing yourself with those calls, just as you might practice another language!

Encouraging budding naturalists to begin keeping notes, recording their observations, questions, and hypotheses, and even sketching what they see—either in the backyard or as they peruse field guides and reference material—is a great way to catapult kids into the role of active observers of the natural world and participants in global science.

After reading Citizen Scientists, you and your kids may, rightly, feel that you not only have a place in the world of science but have a mission and a responsibility to take a closer look at what is around you. Grab your gear, make some lists, and get started!

Making More Science Connections

If you enjoy Citizen Scientists with your students, you may also enjoy some of these outdoor and zoology-inspired science projects and activities this summer. Making a bug catcher is a great way to get started and see exactly what's out there in terms of backyard insects, but young birders will also find many ways to turn newfound or renewed enthusiasm for birds and other animals into hands-on science investigations, too:

  • Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity: how many different species will you suck up in your homemade collector?
  • What Seeds Do Birds Prefer to Eat?: different birds prefer different types of seeds and even different types of feeders. This project can guide and inspire a family's backyard science experiment even if you don't build a feeder from scratch.
  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences.: hummingbirds seek out the sweetest flowers as food sources. Do they see the color of a flower as a clue about the sweetness? Put it to the test by making and offering different colors of hummingbird nectar in this zoology science fair project, perfect for a backyard where hummingbirds are frequently spotted.
  • Can You Predict a Bird's Lifestyle Based on Its Feet?: get in the habit of close observation and recordkeeping by doing a survey of bird feet in your area. Whether you are watching in the backyard or at a local park or pond, see how many "feet" styles you can spot, identify the birds using a bird guide, and talk about what the feet tell you about the birds.
  • The Swimming Secrets of Duck Feet: different kinds of feet help different species of water birds perform different tasks related to their lifestyle and habitat. Your kids may not put simulated duck feet to the test as a family project, but after reviewing a bit about the different ways water birds use their feet, you might look at ducks at the pond differently next time and with greater appreciation of what their feet tell you about them!

Related blog posts that support science parenting and naturalist family science projects and enthusiasm:

More Science-themed Titles for the Read Aloud Crew

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas, written by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Jos. A. Smith, is a beautifully told and rendered story of the life of Gregor Mendel. This book chronicles Mendel's years of study and his becoming a friar, a move that enabled him to further his studies and to engage in scientific discussions of the time, including the quest for understanding patterns of heredity. As the book turns to his now-famous experiments with peas, Bardoe goes into detail explaining both Mendel's preparation for his cross-breeding experiments and the results, over several years, of his observation of subsequent generations. She does a nice job, too, of couching her summarization of Mendel's pea plant investigations firmly within the scientific method. Though accompanied by plentiful full-color illustration, this account of Mendel's experiment, procedures, and findings will engage older elementary and middle school readers and listeners as well with its story of a scientist who, in the first year of creating hybrids, pollinated close to three hundred pea flowers by hand and went on to grow more than 28,000 pea plants! Sadly, Mendel's achievements were not recognized during his lifetime, but this book does a nice job presenting his story and work—and some introductory genetics—for a young audience.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis, tells the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a naturalist and artist in the late 17th century. That, alone, marks Maria as unusual, but the context of scientific belief in 17th century adds to the mix. Maria was fascinated with insects and butterflies (some of which were then called "summer birds") at a time when insects, moths, and butterflies were thought to spontaneously generate from mud. Maria's careful observation and drawings helped reveal the pattern of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Summer Birds is a short read, but will certainly encourage lively discussion!

See also: "Sparking Interest in Science and Science History for the Read Aloud Crowd" and "A Picture Book Look at the Engineering Spirit."



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Shaking Butter Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that investigate the science of butter-making, a process you might even call butter-shaking! In these hands-on food science projects and activities, students make their own butter and investigate to find out what role (if any) temperature plays in the process. You and your family can shake up some butter to use with tomorrow's breakfast, but will you have better luck using cold or room-temperature cream? Get shaking to find out!



Boost your summer break with hands-on science the whole family can enjoy. From activities you can do with the kids in an afternoon, to projects you can set up as challenges for the kids to work on throughout the summer, summer science can help keep the summer doldrums—and summer brain drain—at bay.

Summer Science Ideas, Projects, and Activities for Home and Family Exploration
With its medley of lazy mornings, pool parties, crickets, and lemonade, summer break is here again. The hallmarks of summer break differ for every family, a recipe that gets tweaked year to year, a bit more or less of this, a splash of that, and a twist here and there. But one thing stays true for many of us—summer break means school is out for the summer.

Finding a balance of activities to keep students occupied during long summer days can be a challenge, but the summer break may also be a treasure trove of opportunity. Without school deadlines, school exams, and the trudge to and from school each day, students have more time to spend on areas of personal interest—and time to explore, pursue, and be exposed to potential new areas of interest as well. Of course, there is also plenty of time for the things they already love, whether that means shooting hoops at the corner park, playing video games, or perfecting skateboarding tricks.

It's all a matter of balance. But if left to their own devices (figuratively and literally), summer can be a slippery slope. You might look back and few months from now and see that the break melted away in a blur of screen time—a blur that brings with it the risk of brain drain, a measurable loss of academic learning, especially in areas of math and literacy.

Encouraging Summer Science

The good news is that finding ways to nudge, encourage, and empower them to do projects and activities that are both fun and enriching is easier than you might think. Giving a dash of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to some of your summer plans is a great way to occupy the kids with learning experiences and challenges that you can all feel good about. Plus, you might spark long-lasting interest that will carry them into the next school year—and maybe beyond!

The following posts are full of ideas for summer science activities and projects that make great choices for summer science, for the kids or for the whole family:

Summer hands-on science suggestion

Summer hands-on science suggestion / robots

Summer hands-on science suggestion / books

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hula hoop

Summer hands-on science suggestion / dinner table science talk

Summer hands-on science suggestion / make a collection

Summer hands-on science suggestion / m & m math

Summer hands-on science suggestion / towers

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hovercraft

Summer hands-on science suggestion / polymer putty

Summer hands-on science suggestion / marble run

Summer hands-on science suggestion / geodesic dome

Summer hands-on science suggestion / flower pigment

Summer hands-on science suggestion / capillary function

Summer hands-on science suggestion / grow crystals

Summer hands-on science suggestion / math

Elmer's® Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies. Many of our summer science activities and projects involve Elmer's products!



With a bit of planning, you can stock up on materials your students can use to create a cadre of cool robotic animals, bugs, and creatures this summer. Upcycled vibrating motors may be your best friend for inspiring hands-on engineering with your kids, but there are plenty of ways to turn off-the-shelf bots and the Mindstorms® kit you may already own into a foundation for fun summer science with a friendly "critter" twist.

Bot style / critters and cute robots for introductory robotics engineering
With school out, there are even more free hours in the day for young engineers to tinker, to make, to wonder with their hands, and to innovate. Robotics enthusiasm has been brewing in my house in recent weeks, a hybridization of interest in RC helicopters, recycled art, Iron Man, and robots in general. We have always had an undercurrent of robotics interest, but recently I have watched the youngest sit at the computer and pull up videos of various kinds of robot projects, sifting through what's out there and synthesizing what he is seeing into a better grasp of what is possible. At nine, he's got big ideas!

Planning Summer Science

As I iron out plans for hands-on summer science activities and projects to both engage and occupy my kids during long summer days, I have been watching the stream of new and exciting Project Ideas being added to the Science Buddies robotics area. Bristlebots are a must-make for us this summer. It's a logical starting point, and it turns the familiar hex- and nano-bug concept we already know into a DIY activity. We can make them.

Jumping in with Bristlebots

Bristlebots are a great way to start kids off on a simple robotics engineering project—one you can pretty much guarantee will succeed. There is minimal wiring, a minimal number of parts, and for parents who worry about not having expertise to guide a robotics project, there are minimal steps where you (or the kids) might get off track. When it boils down to it, make sure you have one wire from the motor touching the top and one wire touching the bottom of the battery, and you are all set. If you decide to get industrious and salvage vibrating motors from the junk electronics drawer in your house, you up the challenge a notch (you might have to attach the wires), but the level of difficulty is still minimal—and the fun and sense of general robotics accomplishment pretty big.

Bristlebots, first introduced by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are a great launching point. A Bristlebot doesn't take long to make, and once made and set loose on a table, these little bots will take off on their bristly legs and be bounced around and redirected by hands or makeshift habitat walls.

But once those bots are scuttling around, chances are that you—or, more to the point, your kids—are going to want more.

You can extend the life of your bristlebot exploration by experimenting with different brush heads (as our Project Idea suggests), or by constructing ramps, mazes, and tunnels. But older elementary kids will surely want to kick things up a notch. They are going to have ideas about solar panels, about adding more brushes, about giving the bot more power, and about enabling remote control. Encouraging their thinking and innovation is important, and having some additional related projects up your sleeve to satiate and encourage their curiosity and desire to tinker, build, and make may find you and your kids breezing through a robot-inspired summer.

Robot Critters

Bugs, critters, pets, pals... call them what you will, but many student robotics projects generate small bots that skitter around, much like an insect.

Artbot from a plastic cup gets added personality with googly eyes!
Some builders will prefer the nuts and bolts look of a bot, admiring the visible circuits, the tiny breadboard, or the familiar look of a LEGO® Mindstorms® creature. Others prefer to spruce things up a bit, creatively masking a bot's hardwired construction with costuming that softens the edges and makes it "cute" or "friendly" in appearance.

How you and your kids customize a robot is completely up to you. If one day your daughter really wants a bristlebot that looks like a ladybug, it's doable. The same bot can be re-dressed another day to look entirely different. What's going on beneath the costume is where most of the exciting hands-on construction happens. But customizing a bot to make it "just right for its creator" is a step that brings hands-on engineering full circle for some creative-minded kids.

Here are a few robotics projects you can adapt to do with your students this summer as hands-on science and engineering activities at home:

  • Art Bot: Build a Wobbly Robot Friend That Creates Art: this bot is built from a plastic cup. Adding googly eyes to give the artist robot personality may be just the beginning! The full project has students explore how to guide the movements of the bot by adjusting the weights on top of the bot's head. For summer family fun, a basic art bot might be enough to kick start interest. (Grades K-3)
  • Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!: an introductory exploration of bristlebots, this project walks you through the basics and sets the stage for future bristle-based bot experiments. Masking the bot's toothbrush origins isn't covered in the project, but that doesn't mean you can't turn yours into something uniquely your own! (Grades K-3)
  • The Frightened Grasshopper: Explore Electronics & Solar Energy with a Solar-Powered Robot Bug: this exploration uses a ready-made bot, but it gives students the opportunity to investigate solar energy—and whether or not artificial light works for solar-powered critters and devices. With what your student learns in this project, she might have ideas for taking another basic bot in a new, sun-friendly, direction. (Grades 4-5)
  • Take a Hike: Train Your Robot Dog to Walk with a Virtual Leash: this project involves building a LEGO® Mindstorms® robot and programming the bot's sensors to respond to light so that you can "walk" your pet by controlling a light source, like a flashlight. If you already have the Mindstorms system, this is a great programming-based challenge for your builder. (Grades 6-8)
  • Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter: transform a regular bristlebot robot into a bot that you can guide around with a flashlight. This robot uses two toothbrush heads, two motors, and two light sensors and involves a more sophisticated circuit using a small breadboard. Bring on the tinkerers! (Grades 9-12)

The projects above are arranged in order of difficulty because when it comes to engineering, electronics, and robotics, your students will often learn in a stepwise manner, building upon skills introduced and used in one project when they move on to the next, slightly more difficult, project. All kids differ, but the general grade range for these projects are noted. Tinker-savvy kids can still enjoy the less difficult projects, and with adult involvement, younger students can certainly join in on projects pegged as appropriate for independent science fair engineering projects for older students.

Why not try them all!

Show Off Your Bots!

We would love to see the bots you and your students create this summer. Send us a photo, and we might share your bots on the blog or one of our other community spots!

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering are supported, in part, by Symantec Corporation.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / M&M math and statistics Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that put statistics in the palm of your hands. In these hands-on math projects and activities, students investigate to find out how often each color of M&M appears in a bag or group of bags. Have a guess as to which color appears most often? Put your guess to the test! What is the likelihood of pulling a yellow M&M from a brand new bag? After this activity, your student will be able to give you the odds—with some statistics to back them up!

Tip: These math-based activities can make for great summer break fun! Extend the exploration with other kinds of candies or compare data from small samples and larger samples. Just be sure no one eats the samples before the counting is done!



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Hot Dog Mummification Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that bring the science behind Egyptian mummification into the kitchen or classroom. In these hands-on human biology projects and activities, students (and families!) simulate the process of mummification with a hot dog and baking soda. What does a mummified hot dog look like after seven days? After fourteen? Better yet, how does it smell! Experiment to find out what's really going on when something is mummified.



Science History: Mary Anning

Born on May 21, 1799: Mary Anning, fossil collector who found her first complete skeleton, an ichthyosaur, as a young girl in Lyme Regis. What "type" of fossils did Mary Anning find—and why? In the new "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology Project Idea, students learn about four types of fossils and get hands-on making cast fossils in different kinds of soil.

Fossils and the possibility of finding something prehistoric encased in soil or rock may excite students of all ages (and from an early age!). Whether your student's interest in fossils and paleontology and archaeology stems from a passion for dinosaurs or as an offshoot of fascination with King Tutankhamun, Mary Anning, as a female fossil hunter, is a great person in science history for students to know about. Introduce students to Mary Anning's story—and the world of fossils and paleontology— with books like these, many of which may be available at your school or local library:

Looking for books for older or adult readers? Consider The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World (Macmillan Science) (biography) or Tracy Chevalier's New York Times bestseller, Remarkable Creatures: A Novel (fictionalized account).

Hands-on Fossil Exploration

The new hands-on "Fantastic Fossilization! Discover the Conditions For Creating the Best Cast Fossils" geology project lets students explore "cast" fossils. Cast fossils are one of four types of fossils. As students will discover by doing the science experiment and making their own cast fossils using shells and plaster of Paris, certain types of soil are more suitable for preserving cast fossils than others. In addition to offering an excellent independent science project, this idea can be great for classes or family exploration!

Making Science Connections

Our "today in Science History" posts make students, teachers, and parents aware of important discoveries and scientists in history and help connect science history to hands-on K-12 science exploration that students (and families) can do today. To follow along, join us at Facebook or at Google+. These frequent science history tidbits can be great for class, dinner, or car-ride discussion!



Hands-on engineering doesn't always require high-tech materials. Armed with a stack of paper and the steps to folding a basic dart airplane, a volunteer leads a paper airplane station at a local science exposition and realizes, with surprise, that folding planes isn't something all kids know how to do! With guidance, paper airplane folding can lead to some far-flying—and fun—aerodynamics exploration.

paper airplane hands-on science / Mary Raven demonstrates basic dart folding at science fair
paper airplane hands-on science / student compares plane styles
Above top: Mary Raven demonstrates folding a basic dart paper airplane at a local Girls Inc. science fair. Bottom: Mary's daughter prepares to launch and test a different plane. How will it fly compared to a dart—and why?

Hands-on Science at Home, School, or After School!

Folding paper airplanes is a great way for students to experiment with core concepts like lift, drag, and thrust. The following science Project Ideas bundle hands-on aerodynamics exploration with paper airplane fun:

Along with origami fortune tellers and, these days, origami Star Wars finger puppets, paper airplanes are a seemingly eternal and archetypal pastime, a folding activity with a tangible outcome—a plane you can throw across the room or, accidentally, at a sibling. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.

When Dr. Mary Raven, Microscopy Facility Director at the Neuroscience Research Institute and Neuroscience Research Institute & department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, volunteered at her daughter's after-school program's annual science fair, she set up a paper airplane station so that the girls could experiment with the aerodynamics and physics of different plane designs. To get the most out of a hands-on comparative plane folding experiment, the kids folding the planes need to be comfortable with basic folding steps. Mary assumed most of the girls would have some history with paper airplanes. To her surprise, she discovered that folding paper airplanes was not something with which all the girls had experience. In the end, the girls that visited Mary's station at the Girls Inc. science fair got a crash course in basic folding, a fun dose of engineering, a nifty takeaway (paper airplane), and a great hands-on science experience.

Science After School

Mary's daughter, now in fourth grade, has been attending a local Girls Inc. after-school program since kindergarten, and Mary has been volunteering, each year, to lead a hands-on exploration with the girls at the science fair. According to Mary, science is typically part of the program schedule at Girls Inc., and when students request their top choice classes, engaging science-themed options like a Mad Scientist club are part of the available offering. But science really heats up with the yearly science expo when the girls get hands-on with a wide range of science and engineering activities.

"When you think science fair, you might think girls calmly presenting their projects" says Mary. "But the Girls Inc. science fair is more of a hands-on science show. Imagine 150 excited girls aged 5-12 running from station to station, and you have our Girls Inc. science fair."

At the science fair, various exploratory stations are set up for the girls to cycle through. This year, Mary says the stations included a math station, one focused on earthquakes, one on rocket launchers, one on hand washing (and visualizing germs with Glo Germ), a microscope-based station, and one featuring an iguana. The diverse offerings give the girls the chance to experience a number of different areas of science—who knows what might catch a young girl's imagination and spark lifelong interest—but as Mary can attest, 150 participants cycling through a hands-on science activity can be a challenge!

"I don't work with children for a living, and having one girl at home in no way prepares you for the experience of 150 excited girls asking every question imaginable," admits Mary. "I've tried several projects with the girls (prism optics, sun-prints, brain dissections), and I'm usually disappointed in my ability to share anything meaningful with a mass of swarming girls."

This year, Mary spotted a project at Science Buddies and thought it might be perfect for the science fair. "When I saw the experiment How Far Will It Fly? Build & Test Paper Planes with Different Drag posted on Science Buddies, I thought, 'hey, that looks like it might adapt to the wild of the Girls Inc. science fair.'"

Preparing for Hands-on Science with Kids

Having selected her activity for the fair, Mary spent time determining how best to convert the science "project" (something written with a single student performing a science experiment in mind) into a short-term hands-on activity that girls could do on the spot. When converting a full-scale project to an immediate and short-term activity, understanding both the audience and the main science concepts you want to get across is important. You want to craft the activity in such a way that the students are engaged and that there is a clear scientific takeaway.

Knowing in advance that girls would cycle through at varying times and that those at her station would all be in various stages of the activity at the same time, Mary planned ahead. She first made a poster that showed the basic steps for folding a simple dart plane. "I have learned the girls don't stop to read words," says Mary, "but I thought the examples might help."

She then gathered supplies: a stack of paper, a ruler, tape, scissors, and a clipboard for recording results. "I marked off the gym in 5 foot increments," says Mary, "and then with my poster board set up and papers at the ready, I waited for the girls to appear." Mary was ready, but she hadn't counted on the fact that not all of the girls had folded planes before. Even with the steps for folding a dart plane on the poster, folding the plane proved a challenge for some of the girls. "The first few girls trickled into the gym, and I quickly learned I was going to be walking the girls through folding the planes."

On the spot, Mary had to adapt and refocus her hands-on engineering activity. Testing multiple plane designs might not be possible; certainly, building three different planes with each girl was out of the question, says Mary. "I was a little surprised at how unfamiliar the girls were at folding paper. I was also a little disturbed to learn they called lengthwise folds 'hot dog' and widthwise folds 'hamburger,'" recalls Mary. Still, Mary and the girls stuck with it. "Some of the girls wanted me to fold [the plane] for them, but I think folding is a great 3D spatial skill, and using their own hands was important."

Despite the rocky start, "all the girls were able to fold a plane with help," says Mary. Not only were they able to fold a plane, but they were excited when they finished their planes. The immediate satisfaction of the project was evident for the girls who struggled through plane folding at Mary's station. "They were thrilled at how well the dart flew once it was complete."

Putting the Science in the Air

Rather than building multiple planes each, each girl flew her plane three times, and they took measurements and determined the average. Mary then guided the girls in modifying their original plane. "We added flaps in the back, and I asked the girls what they thought the flaps would do to the plane. None of the girls were certain what would happen, but when they tested the plane, they quickly realized the plane didn't fly well at all," says Mary. "They were able to deduce that the flaps were somehow blocking the airflow, and some girls realized that unfolding the flaps restored the plane's flying capability. I thought that was a great result!"

"I think making the planes was empowering for the girls," says Mary. "It gave them a tool to experiment with. They were excited to try flying it and to determine the best way to launch it. As much as I like the data collection and analysis part of the experiment, my favorite part was how the girls seemed to understand the manipulation. The concept of drag wasn't something they had heard of, and it isn't something they were likely to pick-up from a diagram. Still, after a couple of plane flights, they had a mental image."

And that's what it's all about, seeing the science in action, the cause and effect, the principles of science, like drag, and realizing that changing just one variable can make a dramatic difference. For Mary, this year's event was eye-opening, but she is happy with how it turned out and happy with the project she used as the basis for her activity. "I liked the aerodynamics (activity) because it is mostly hands-on interactive time, and the girls had something they could keep (the plane). Waiting is a killer in this format, and they love having something to take home."

"Overall, I'm very happy with the results although I still haven't achieved my vision of somehow ordering the disorder at my science fair table. If I had 4 volunteers, maybe?"

The Importance of a Single Volunteer and Role Model

We can't wait to see what Mary tries at next year's science fair, but we are sure that the girls who passed through her station this year benefited from having an interested adult take time to demonstrate, explain, guide, and encourage them to explore, question, and hypothesize.

"I think it is really important that the girls have contact with female scientist and engineers (or any scientist/engineer)," notes Mary. "Girls are very influenced by the female role models in their life. If you ask them why they are considering the career choice they are exploring, it is usually a female role model or relative that leads them to consider the option."

Note: After the fair, Mary suggested to the after-school program that enrichment programs in origami or in plane folding might be a great addition to the offerings. Do your kids and students fold paper airplanes now and again? If not, or if you are not sure, open up the basic dart instructions and grab a stack of paper. There are planes to be folded!

Interested in supporting and encouraging girls in science and engineering at home, in the classroom, or at a local school? See also: "Girls Explore Engineering with Marble Run Challenge" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers."

Science Buddies Project Ideas in aerodynamics & hydrodynamics are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.




The above photos were taken during the creation of a geodesic dome as a family math and science activity over spring break. The dome resembles the dome created in the "Dome Sweet Dome" math Project Idea, but we used straws instead of newspaper, a different assembly process, and threw in some duct tape customization for visual effect.

A model dome like this can be made in any size (as long as you figure out the relative lengths of the struts). This one is pretty big! Getting it in the car was definitely a challenge. The dome didn't weather its time squooshed in the trunk very well—a reminder that inexpensive plastic straws bend and/or crack under too much stress. (Stress-testing the strength of geodesic dome was not really our ultimate goal.)

Building the dome was a great hands-on math exploration project, but it took a good bit of time to work through all the necessary steps to prepare the struts for assembly. Each of my kids enjoyed different aspects of the project, but watching it come together in the end was awesome!

What does your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (like the photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see and possibly showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Flower Pigment Chromatography Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of flower power projects, perfect for spring and Mother's Day! Paper chromatography is used to help separate a solution into its components. In these hands-on science activities, paper chromatography lets students see what makes up the "colors" of flowers. Are all red flowers the same in terms of pigment? Pluck a few petals and find out!


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