Glittering stars overhead. The sounds of crickets and frogs. The flash of lightning bugs. The lack of cell phone signals. Ahhh... The great outdoors. Whether you like to rough it with a tent or prefer the comforts of cabin camping, summer may find you packing up your gear and heading for the woods. Time off the main road raises many opportunities to explore science. With a bit of advance planning, you can explore projects that turn your campsite into an outdoor laboratory.
Whether you experiment before you go and take the results with you, or whether you plan to put your procedures into action from the campsite, these project ideas will help open your eyes to the questions lurking just outside the tent.
- Mixing Your Own Marshmallows
For some, the quest to make the perfect s'more is as important on a weekend camping trip as learning to identify mushrooms or pick out constellations. With chocolate, grahams, and marshmallows at stake, it's hard to really go wrong. Still, just like roasting a perfect hotdog, melting the perfect campfire treat is part of the fun of roughing it. Plan ahead, and you can make your own marshmallows to take on the road!
In this science project, you'll explore the role of corn syrup, gelatin, and sugar in making marshmallows. Plus, in the process, you'll learn a lot about the chemistry of cooking and how temperature transforms recipes that have seemingly similar ingredients into treats as different as caramels and lollipops! (Difficulty: 5-6)
- Are You in Hot Water? Use the Sun's Energy to Heat Your Own Water
There's no denying the benefits of good fire-starting skills when the sun goes down. Many seasons of "Survivor" have shown that rubbing two sticks together to get a spark isn't necessarily easy! In between practicing your fire-making, brush up on the power of renewable solar energy and put peak sun during the day to use as you turn plastic trash bags into batch solar collectors and let the sun do the work heating the water. (Difficulty: 2-4)
- Which kind of wood burns slower?*
Different woods burn at different rates. To get the best results from your evening fire, you'll need to experiment to find out which wood burns longest. This abbreviated project idea can help get you started thinking about an experimental design either at home or at the campsite. (Difficulty: 5)
- Now You're Cooking!
For a more involved look at solar energy, use the procedure in this project to build a small solar oven. It can take twice as long to cook a meal with solar power, so leave plenty of time. (Difficulty: 5-8)
- Where Did All the Stars Go?
Part of the wonder of camping is the chance to sit under an expanse of nighttime sky, far away (hopefully) from the lights and sounds of the city. A perfect project for all ages, counting stars before leaving home and then again at the campsite brings "light pollution" into easy-to-see context. (Difficulty: 1)
- Finding Your Way
Last summer on the blog, we wrote about stepping away from high-tech positioning and location technologies like GPS and learning to "orient" oneself using natural cues and clues. Whether you turn to the trees or the stars, there are many levels of "mapping" available around you—you just have to know how to read the map!