Archive for August, 2008

Easy Steps to Science Fair Projects (Part I)

I’m working on a new sequence of science articles…
tell me what you think about the topic and content (is it any good?)


Easy Steps to Award-Winning Science Fair Projects (Part I)

(…first few paragraphs missing…)

Does this sound familiar?

KID: “I have to do a science fair project.”
PARENT: “Hmmm… what are you going to do?”

KID: (pause) “I dunno.”
PARENT: (eager to help) “What are you interested in?”

KID: (whining now) “I don’t know…”
PARENT: (getting annoyed): “Well, there must be something you’re interested in.”

KID: (still whining) “Like what?”
PARENT: (picking up a science textbook) “Well, how about one from here?”

KID: (rolling eyes): “Yeah, sure. Not.”

The trouble with picking up a textbook and doing a project listed is that they are usually finished projects – meaning that everyone knows not only the experiment but what’s going to happen. No scientist in their right mind would do a experiment if they knew the ending! You’ve got to take a different approach, but before we do, let’s take a quick look at common myths about science projects (namely, your personal expectations about one has to look like).

Your teacher just strode into class and announced that it’s nearly time for the Science Fair, and projects are due next week. You scope out the room and find Brian Brainiac inventing a new addition to the International Space Station… Corey Comet discovering a new species of octopus… and Darlene Dazzler built a transporter. Your head begins to spin like hamster wheel as you try to hit on the Ultimate Science Project that would make Einstein gape with awe.

The truth is, science fair projects don’t have to be glitzy, glamorous, or even work quite right… they just have to be yours. And they need to be science experiments, not jazzed-up science reports masquerading as projects. A science experiment is a simple question you want an answer to, such as:

“Do later bedtimes really make you sleep better?”
“Does eating high-sugar foods before bedtime make your dreams more vivid?”
“How many balloons will lift a kid into the air?”
“What kind of grass needs to be mowed the least?”

A science report are questions that don’t require any real testing on your part – all you have to do is research to get the answer. Topics like: What is acid rain? What is the sun made of? How does a power plant work? How does the human body work? Is overeating bad for you? We’ve seen reports win local school science fairs, but they don’t make it into the big time regional or national competition. And they aren’t nearly as much fun as doing your own experiment.

So, where do you start? Suppose you want to find out if listening to music during a test will help you get a better grade, and if so, which one works the best. You’ll need to first figure out which “thing” (variable) you’re going to change in your experiment to give you different results.

So first, you’ll need to take a test with no music, and record in your notebook the score you got, along with a few other things to help you figure out if it was really the music choice or not. Things like: the weather, your mood, when you woke up, the date, and how difficult the questions were.

A word of caution – don’t change more than one “thing” from one experiment to the next, or you won’t know which change is actually responsible for the new result.

Then you’ll need to test out as many bands as you possibly can, recording not only the stuff above, but also the beat, tone, melody, and how fast or slow the song was… and be sure you’re using the same kind of headphones, too, or that’s another variable you’ve got to keep track of (does sound quality matter?). Are you eating the same breakfast each morning, too? Do you shower each morning, or every other day? If this is starting to sound like it’s getting a little hard to track all the little differences and changes, well… welcome to science! Scientists spend years trying to sort everything out, track the changes and differences, and make sense of it all. You only have to do it for a week or two. And you can discard any variables you think don’t have a big effect on your results.

Can you imagine what kind of argument you could have at your fingertips if your hypothesis (“Beach Boys Leads to 12% Higher Test Scores”) was successful? Your classroom would never be the same.

Okay… that’s probably enough for now… I’ll leave some for Part II. Just let me know what you think.

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Green Flash at Sunset?

I received this question in an email, and thought I’d share my response with everyone, because it is such a cool thing to see (the flash, I mean… not my attempt to answer the question).

The green flash is very real, but it’s hard to see because you need very special conditions (like a very clear day at the Pacific or the Sahara) in order for it to be visible. Did you know that it can be blue or purple (violet) also? The human eye is tuned for green, so that’s the one we tend to see more easily. The green flash is usually a ray of green light firing vertically above the setting sun, although it can also be seen as a green band circling over the setting sun.

Why does it do that? You see a green flash because the sunlight rays refract (bend) when they zip through the air. But they bend in different amounts – violet bends the most, while red bends the least. At sunset, when the sun is at a very low angle, the sunlight is split into its spectrum of colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The red, orange, and yellow light are the first to disappear (absorbed by the atmosphere), leaving the violet light to be last one visible… but blue and violet light are often scattered/absorbed by the atmosphere, so the last light left is green. (This effect only happens for a few short seconds, so we call it a ‘flash’.)

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Cheaper Kids – Inexpensive Science Ideas

Well, after that last entry about microscopes, telescopes, and binocs, we had another flood of emails asking us about CHEAPER ideas. Here’s a sample:

“Thanks for the information – we’ll save this for when we’re ready. Is there anything we can do now that’s a little cheaper? I have four kids, and getting each of them their own microscope is not in my budget, let alone a telescope!”

Okay, so here are a set of ideas that range from FREE to under $100. While we still think it’s important enough to start a pickle-jar savings account for those higher-priced items, here are a few ideas to get you started when there’s too much month at the end of the money.

Encourage your child to make use of all senses in discovering the surrounding world. Stimulate curiosity about the feel of textures and materials, characteristic smells, sounds, tastes, weights and sizes of things. Train the child to look carefully and to see beyond the surface appearance of the environment.

Children are amazingly curious… encourage them to find answers to questions by observation and through references, either at home or in libraries and museums. Some museums are online, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco!

Let the child manipulate and learn about familiar objects: a dripping faucet, the household water system, a nutcracker, an old doorbell, discarded appliances, locks and door hinges, household plants and gardens. Start asking questions about how stuff works.

When making household repairs, servicing the family car or other domestic equipment, include your child. Natural scientific and mechanical skills can be discovered and developed in this way, and many scientific principles can be demonstrated in firsthand and practical ways, using the scientific method.

Subscriptions to scientific magazines: Scientific American, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and MAKE Magazine are fantastic. You can also check out Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines.

There you have it – ideas and projects to set your mind spinning and get you moving in science. Let me know how it goes!


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Water is found on Mars!

This is just too phenomenal to not write about… you can read the updates here:

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