Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Window Sprouts Video

June 26, 2010

 Click here to watch my video on how to grow window sprouts with your kids, or read on!

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When I was growing up, we always had a vegetable garden.  My mom grew up on a farm and was appalled when my sister or I would throw a fit upon finding a tiny bug in our lovely, homegrown lettuce salad.  “Where do you think the lettuce came from?” she would ask, and we’d have to admit that it grew in dirt, outside, and that there are bugs out there.  It was an invaluable lesson and one I hope I can pass along to my kids.  Our world has become too sterile and disconnected from nature.  Like plants, we need dirt, sunshine, fresh air and clean water to survive.  Who cares about a few bugs?

 Today, I thought we’d start a few bean and pea sprouts in plastic bags.  It’s a perfect project for my three year old.  She’ll love to check them every day to see what’s happening, and when it’s warmer, we can transplant them to the garden!  I’m sure my older kids will plant sprouts of their own when they see their sister’s!

You’ll need a few plastic zip-lock bags, dry beans from your pantry (or peas and beans from the garden seed packs you can find almost anywhere ), paper towels and water.  Cut a paper towel so that you can fold it a few times and it will fit into the zip-lock baggie.  Have your child soak it with water and help them put it into the bag so that it’s relatively flat.  Then, give them two beans or seeds to place in the bag, near the bottom.  I had to stuff a little piece of paper towel into the bottom of the bags so that the seeds wouldn’t sit in the extra water at the bottom.  Let your child help seal the bag.  Leave an opening near the top so the plants can get some air.  Finally, tape the bag in a window with the beans facing you so that your child can watch them as they grow.  (I’d recommend finding a window where they won’t get blasted by hot sun all day, or they might fry.)


As you do the project, ask your child what they think plants need to grow  (Plants need light, air, water and nutrients, or “food.”)  Ask them how they think the seed can grow without the dirt as “food.”  Tell them that when a plant first sprouts, it gets its nutrients from the seed itself.  They can watch the seed shrink as the plant grows.  Have them draw the seed/plant in their science notebook as it changes.  Older kids can measure the plants as they grow.  Eventually, you should be able to transplant them to a cup with dirt, or directly into a garden.  You may have to add water to the paper towels if they dry out.  Play it by ear. 


Go ahead!  Plant a garden this spring, even a very tiny one in pots!  Let your kids get their hands in the dirt.  Help them nurture plants that will eventually nurture them. (Children are much more interested in tasting vegetables that they’ve grown themselves. ) It is one of the most rewarding activities you can do with your children, and takes only dirt, seeds and water!  Find your inner farmer and let your children find theirs- organic food is cheap when you grow it yourself!

Nature on the Periphery

June 2, 2010

My son insisted on bring his GPS to soccer last night to look for geocaches in the park.  I grudgingly agreed, thinking it would be easier for me to sit by the playground.

We followed him to the woods on the edge of the manicured fields where we discovered a world of damselflies and caterpillars hiding in the weeds.  He searched for the cache deeper in the trees while my four-year old pointed out beetles and found one “pink” damselfly among the hundreds of blue ones.

I love it when my kids lead me to places I never would have even thought to look.

My posts will be spotty over the next few weeks as we finish the school year and ease into summer.

Avocado Sprouts

May 17, 2010

When I was mashing up avocados with lime juice and salt the other day to satisfy my craving for guacamole, my kids asked if they could keep the pits.  I suggested we sprout them and showed them how to poke  toothpicks into the pits and balance them in a glass of water with the pointed end up and the round end sitting in the water.  I had no idea that our little science experiment would send me on a trip down memory lane.

As a kid, I spent my summers living in California while my dad did research at a physics laboratory in the Bay Area.  Around 1976, we spent an entire year there when my dad took a sabbatical.   We rode the ferry to Sausalito, feasted on hot fudge sundaes at Ghiradelli square and sat on the  Berkeley pier eating clam chowder from Spanger’s.  Every summer, we took backpacking trips along the coast of Point Reyes, fished in the Truckee river near Lake Tahoe and explored the High Sierras.   I was a lucky kid.

The funny thing is, what I remember as clearly as all those adventures is that we almost always had a glass with an avocado seed sitting in our kitchen window and now,  every time I look at our little science experiment, I think about my mom and the summers of my youth.  Maybe I’ll try to keep an avocado pit growing in my kitchen from May to August so that some day, one of my kids will show their own children how to sprout an avocado pit and remember our summers together.

Oily Experiment

May 3, 2010

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is devastating news to the already fragile and damaged ecosystems in the area.  To demonstrate how hard it is to remove oil from water, and what materials work best, I found this experiment online at and decided to have my kids try it.  It was messy and disgusting and oil got all over everything.  In other words, it was a great demonstration of how hard it will be to clean up the mess made by BP’s Deepwater Horizen oil rig, which exploded on April 20th.

Polyester scraps soak up oil.


You’ll need a clear bowl, water, yellow oil (vegetable, corn or canola will work,) cotton balls, cheese cloth, polyester cloth (the website said polypropylene, but I couldn’t find any,) feathers, and a spoon.

Help your child put some water in the bowl and pour in some oil.  I probably added a cup so it would cover the water.  Then, using spoons and the other materials, have them try to remove the oil from the water.  What works best? 

Oil is hard to clean off feathers.


We put our feathers in oil and then tried to clean them off using dish soap and water, which is how they clean off marine birds covered with oil following oil spills.

Polypropylene is a synthetic material made from Carbon and Hydrogen, the same elements in oil.  Oil is attracted to polypropylene, and both float on water, so polypropylene is often used in cleaning up oil spills.  You can also find it in gloves and sock liners. 

If one cup of oil is this hard to clean up, can you imagine the mess pouring into the Gulf of Mexico right now, at the rate of about 210,000 gallons a day (according to the New York Times?)  I’m attempting to find out if there’s any way to help, aside from travelling to the area to help clean off wildlife by hand.  As soon as I learn anything, I’ll post it here!  Here is a link to a map that is tracking the spill.

Sweet (and Salty) Lava Lamps

March 3, 2010

Pull out a jar, a bottle of vegetable oil, some food coloring, salt, sugar, and water to mix up this easy experiment! 

Fill the jar about halfway up with water and add a few drops of food coloring for contrast.  Add about half as much vegetable oil to the jar and watch it float to the top.  Now, a spoonful at a time, add salt to the jar.  The salt will pull some of the oil down with it, but will release the oil as it dissolves and the oil will float back to the top.  This will make your science experiment look like a real lava lamp.  Keep adding salt to make it keep working.  Now, try adding sugar or even sand. Kosher salt worked really well!

What worked the best for you?  Do you know why oil floats to the top of the water?  Email me your answers in the comments section at for a chance to win a tee shirt (size M.)  I’ll do a drawing for a winner in two weeks!

Fingerprint Valentines (plus a little science)

February 5, 2010


For this project, I thought that it would be fun mix a little science and a little art.  My sister told me that you could make cute Valentine’s cards using fingerprints.  I’ve also heard that it’s pretty easy to lift fingerprints using scotch tape, so I thought we’d give it a try.  For the valentines, you will need an ink pad, paper and markers.   All you need for the science part is paper, scotch tape and a pencil. 

VALENTINES: For the Valentines, have your children put ink on their fingers and make fingerprints or thumbprints together in the shape of a heart.  Of course, they will also want to make fish, bugs, and who knows what else?  I gave my kids some ideas to get them started and they went from there! They can decorate with markers.  It’s lots of fun!  We got our stamp pads at Creative Kidstuff, but you can find them almost anywhere.  There are few things better than a homemade Valentine!  Have your kids make them for the people they love!  Last year, my kids made them for everyone in their class.

SCIENCE:  On, I found a fingerprint-lifting technique that works well, even for very young children.  Simply take a pencil and scribble on a piece of paper until a small area is covered with the graphite from the pencil lead.  Have your child rub his or her finger around in the graphite until it is covered with gray.  Then, have your child carefully place their finger on the sticky side of a piece of scotch tape.  Have them lift their finger off of the tape.  A clear fingerprint should be visible.  Place the tape face-down on another piece of paper. 



Your child can then inspect the fingerprint under a magnifying glass, or just with their naked eye.  If you go to the wiki website I mentioned, your child can decipher whether they think their fingerprint is a whorl, a loop, or an arch.  It would be fun to have them trace their hand, fingerprint each finger and thumb, and tape their fingerprints to the correlating finger.  This would be a great addition to their science notebooks!  I’ve found that their notebooks are great keepsakes of their drawings and observations at different ages.  The kids had a lot of fun with this project and could do it unassisted once I showed them what to do.

Tie-Dye Milk Video

January 28, 2010

On Tuesday, my kids and I tie-dyed aprons and tee-shirts, which I will post about in the next day or two.  On Wednesday morning, I shot a video of how to make tie-dye milk and I would love to hear what you think.  This afternoon, I’m planning to do another version for my science-only website , that’s directed more at kids than parents.  (The goofy song at the beginning is obviously for kids.)

I shot it with an HD Flip camera.  These relatively inexpensive video cameras (I think they’re around $150) are easy to use.  The camera plugs directly into the USB port on your computer.  From there, it’s simple to crop and paste segments together to make a “movie.”  You can even upload directly to  Facebook or Youtube using the software that comes with the camera.  I was able to shoot the video and have it on Facebook in less than an hour!  We were given the camera to shoot the I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter video, but they aren’t paying me to review it.  I love the simplicity of the camera and the software.  With three kids, I don’t have time to take classes or mess around with video editing software.

Let me know what you think of my video.  If you have a video camera, try making your own family movie!  It’s creative and lots of fun!

Magic Bag

January 25, 2010

Your kids will be amazed when they fill a plastic zip-lock bag with water and poke sharp skewers through, only to find that the bag does not leak!  All you need is a ziplock bag, water and wooden skewers.  It’s another great project from the Dragonflytv website!  Just remind them to watch the sharp points.

Have your child fill a quart-sized ziplock bag with water and seal it.  Let them poke several wooden skewers completely through the bag, from one side to the other, avoiding the part with air in it.  See how many they can push through!

When they ask you why it doesn’t leak, tell them that the plastic makes a seal around the spot where the skewer is poking through.  The bag is sealed and contains very little air, so there isn’t much pressure pushing on the water. Now, let your child take the bag to a sink or bathtub and either push a stick through the part of the bag holding air, or remove the stick and they will find that the bag leaks like crazy!   

If they want to, let them draw a picture of what they did or record their results in their science notebook.  Have fun!

Snow Science

December 29, 2009

A fun fact from NGKids :

“Bet You Didn’t Know: Twenty inches of snow equals one inch of water on average.”


Try it!  Have your kids put some snow in a clear container, let them measure how deep it is and allow to melt.  Then, have them measure how deep the remaining water is.  Older children can figure out whether their results were consistent with the NG Kids fact (10 inches of snow* should melt down to around 1/2  inch of water or 50cm of snow* should melt down to 2.5cm.)  If the snow isn’t perfectly fresh, this experiment may have the added benefit of reminding them why they shouldn’t eat snow.

*I’m guessing that NG Kids was referring to unpacked snow.  Our kids packed the snow into containers and we go more water than we expected.  Ask your kids why they think packed snow melts to give you more water than unpacked snow.

Handwashing Lesson (Homemade Petri Dishes)

November 13, 2009


With all of the bugs going around at this time of year, I thought it would be a great time to remind your kids why they need to wash their hands.  Culturing microbes (bacteria and fungi) on petri dishes lets them test different surfaces for microbes and grow their own germs.  Even very young children will have fun helping with the Q-tips and seeing what grows in their microbial zoo.  It’s fun, easy, and you probably have what you need in your kitchen cupboard:

IMG_3658disposable containers to grow bacteria in (see below),  beef bouillon cubes or granules, plain gelatin, water, sugar and Q-tips.

For containers, you can use foil muffin tins, clear plasticware with lids, or real petri dishes to grow fungi and some bacteria.  We’re going to use clear deli containers so that we can recycle while we learn.  (They look like they will be heat-resistant enough to pour warm agar into.)  You’ll start by making microbial growth medium (or germ food, as we like to call it.)  Help your child mix together a little less than 1 cup water, one package gelatin, one bouillon cube (or 1 tsp. granules), and 2 tsp. sugar.  The next step is for an adult to do.  Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove, stirring constantly, or boil in the microwave, stirring at one minute intervals and watching carefully.  Don’t stir after the liquid boils.  Remove the boiling liquid from heat and cover it with aluminum foil.  Let the growth medium cool for about fifteen minutes.


Pour the medium carefully into clean containers, until 1/3 to 1/2 full.  Loosely place lids or foil over containers and allow dishes to cool completely.  The agar should make the growth media hard like jello.  When the agar has hardened, store the plates in a cool place, like a refrigerator, before using.  Plates should be used in 2-3 days.  When you are working with the plates, try to keep the lids on whenever possible, so that they are not contaminated by the air.  If you’re planning to use muffin tins, simply place them in a muffin pan, fill them with agar, and when they’re cool, put them in individual zip-lock baggies.  With other containers, put the lids on tightly once the plates harden. 

When the plates have hardened  and you’re ready swab, shake the condensation off the lids of the containers and put them back on.  Then, help your child draw a grid of four sections on the bottom of the plate with permanent marker. (If you are using muffin tins, you’ll just label each bag with the surface you are checking.)  Ask your child which surfaces they’d like to test.  It’s always fun to label one section of the grid “fingerprint” to let them see what grows when they touch their finger to the plate.  Label each section with the surface they want to test.   Be sure to label the bottom of the plate since the lid will move.  You should be able to see through the agar to see your lines and your writing.  If you want to, you can label a separate plate for each surface, but we had three kids and three plates, so we made sections.  TV remotes, kitchen sinks, computer keyboard, doorknobs and piano keys are great surfaces to check.  See the photo at the top of this post for a better picture of how your plate might look.


Now comes the fun part.  Have your child rub a clean Q-tip around on the surface they want to test.  Then, remove the lid from their plate and help them rub the Q-tip across the section of the plate labeled for that surface.  If they are gentle, the agar shouldn’t break.  If it does, it’s no big deal.  When you have finished, set the plates on a flat surface with thier lids loosely set on top (do not invert them, as I first suggested.)  I set our plates on a countertop where they won’t be in the way.  Have your children check their plates every day, and soon they will observes colonies of different shapes, sizes and colors starting to grow.


They will mostly see fungi (molds), but they may also see some tiny clear or white spots that are colonies formed by millions of bacteria.  Your child can record and draw how their plates look in their science notebooks.  Older children can keep track of how long it takes things to grow and the shapes, sizes and colors of the microbial colonies that grow on their plates.  If they want to learn more about microbes, help them search for the words fungi and bacteria on the website and it will give them some great links to microbiology websites.  Tell your children that microbes are everywhere, but that very few of them are harmful, and that many of them are essential for good health.


Have your children wash their hands after handling the plates, and throw the plates  away when you are done.  Remind them that if they wash their hands with regular hand soap for the length of time that it takes to say the ABCs, they’ll remove most of the harmful bacteria from their hands.  (For adults, a severe side effect of this experiment is the sudden urge to disinfect computer keyboards and remote controls.)  

Here’s what grew on our plate: The large, fuzzy colonies are fungi and the small, whitish ones are probably bacteria.  The grid with the most fungi was cultured from our piano keys.  The one with both fungi and bacterial colonies visible was cultured from our bathroom sink.  One grid has mostly small, white bacterial colonies and was cultured from a water-glass my son drank from.  The fingerprint grid has only a single fungal spot.  My daughter must have washed her hands before touching it!  Our other two plates were pushed too close to the under-counter lights in our kitchen and the agar melted, so we threw them away.  I’m going to clean off my piano keys now!