For hands-on summer fun and hours of discovery learning, invest in one (or all) of these try-it-at-home scientific experiment books*: Stomp Rockets, Catapults, and Kaleidoscopes: 30+ Amazing Science Projects You Can Build for Less Than $1, by Curt Gabrielson (Chicago Review, 2008); Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things (series), by Cy Tymony (Andrews McMeel, 2003); and The Way Toys Work: The Science Behind the Magic 8 Ball, Etch A Sketch, Boomerang, and More, by Ed Sobey and Woody Sobey (Chicago Review, 2008).
Caution: Some experiments involve electrical circuits and use of sharp hand tools or power tools. Parental Supervision is Necessary.
Stomp Rockets organizes its projects into six category chapters: Electricity and Magnetism; Sound, Light, and Perception; Mechanics; Fluids and Aerodynamics; Biology; and Chemistry. In the introduction, Gabrielson lists the tools needed for projects in the book. Most are household items—screwdrivers, scissors, rulers, duct tape—but some, such as a hot glue gun, hacksaw, vise, or hand drill, may need to be purchased, and Gabrielson encourages parental supervision when used. Most of the projects themselves can be constructed from recyclable materials or yard sale bargains. Gabrielson also offers common sense advice to parents on assisting and encouraging children without taking over the project or insisting on perfection.
Each chapter begins with a chart listing supplies and tools needed for the project, followed by a clear but brief overview of the basic concepts illustrated in the process of building a particular device. Detailed instructions for building the device, accompanied by black and white photos of each step in the process, guide the child through the project. Next comes a list of questions to prompt further experimentation and deeper inquiry, and finally, a more in-depth background section elaborates on the principles outlined at the outset, capitalizing on the knowledge a child has gained in the process of building and working the device.
Using a few simple household objects, children can see how electric circuits and magnetic fields make a miniature crane operate; how friction and sound waves produce music; how kinetic energy propels a rubber band racer; how the human heart pumps; how molecules behave in all states of matter. Gabrielson, director of the Watersonville Environmental Science Workshop, has field tested each project ten to thirty times over the past four years, ensuring that they “work,” when children follow directions carefully. He has built into each project several principles of chemistry, physics, geology, biology, and mathematics. He encourages innovative experimentation beyond the project itself and feedback directly to him on any “better way” children discover.
Stomp Rockets, recommended for children nine and up, is clearly and cleverly written and employs the principles of process-, discovery-, and inquiry-based learning. It is appropriate for gifted elementary children and all elementary and middle schoolers interested in how things work. The photographs accompanying the process, however, could be larger and in some cases more clearly focused. While Gabrielson stresses safety and parental supervision in the introduction, he does not always reinforce them throughout the steps involved in a given project. For example, in the chapter on building a crane with magnets and batteries, Gabrielson offers no precautions about sawing wood or drilling holes with an electric drill. And he poses the question, “What do you think would happen if you hook up a car battery to the electromagnet you made?” with no warning against trying such a potentially dangerous action. Also, his list of tools in the introduction should include protective eye wear.
Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things takes an innovative approach rather than a scientific one, though scientific principles account for how many projects work. Using predominantly common household items, Tymony explains how to make plastic or glue from milk and vinegar; how to make batteries from coins, paper clips, and fruit juice; how to find sources of electrical wire in your home or car; how to use ordinary magnets and batteries to activate electrical devices; how to make a radio receiver from a penny. His chapters on emergency survival and personal security employ principles of physics to build a fire without matches; make snowshoes and emergency flotation devices; gather drinking water from plants; make a compass; detect window and door break-ins; and protect yourself with coins or magazines.
Each chapter begins with a brief introduction to the gadget or device; a list of tools and supplies; instructions and diagrams; and references for more information, if applicable. A list of resources and a bibliography of further reading conclude the book, though most resources appear to focus on additional gadgets that can be made from common household items, environmental responsibility, and survival techniques rather than on scientific principles. In his disclaimer, Tymony stresses his purpose in writing the book as a source of “entertainment and edification,” not necessarily accuracy, and encourages readers to use electrical safety precautions and exercise responsibility and lawfulness in its applications.
While Tymony’s intended audience is not specifically children or even young teens, with supervision, Sneaky Uses and other books in the series (Sneakier Uses for Everyday Things, 2005 and Sneakiest Uses for Everyday Things, 2007) can be useful springboards for scientific inquiry. Most projects refer to scientific principles, such as friction or magnetism, in explaining how to make something work, but there is little explanation as to why, scientifically, something works as it does. The projects are appealing to children and preteens, and the instructions are clear and easy to follow, though the diagrams, particularly in the first book, in some cases are a bit confusing. The Sneaky Book for Boys (2008), however, assumes a children’s audience and contains clear instructions and diagrams, as well as a bit of basic scientific terminology, such as air pressure, gravity, and reflection, but again, no scientific explanations or questions for further inquiry. (The Sneaky Book for Girls will be available in the fall of 2008).
Tymony’s series is intended for fun and an understanding of basic scientific principles can also occur, but there is little follow-up reinforcement within the text. With supervision, it is appropriate for all elementary- and middle school-aged children.
The Way Toys Work operates from the premise of reverse engineering: taking things apart to discover the physics of how they work and then building a model from household or inexpensive hardware store items. Sobey and Sobey provide a list of tools needed at the outset, including basic tools such as screwdrivers and pliers, and more specialized items, such as a rotary cutting machine. The authors also provide an extensive list of safety precautions, including the use of protective eye wear.
Sobey and Sobey focus on fifty toys ranging from the complex (Nintendo Entertainment Systems and remote controlled robots) to the simple (yo-yos and hula-hoops) to the generic (stomp rockets, water pistols, and kaleidoscopes) to familiar games and toys (Rubik’s Cube, Operation, Etch A Sketch, and Erector Sets). For each toy, the authors provide a brief history, including the inventor and the toys evolution; a description of how the toy works, accompanied by photos, diagrams, and patent numbers; what you’d find inside the toy; how to build your own version from readily available items, if at all practical; further scientific experiments; and resources for further study where available, including books and web sites.
Children, teenagers, and adults can learn about friction and inertia using hula-hoops; air pressure and trajectory making stomp rockets; and electrical circuitry by dismantling the game Operation to discover its prototype and then making a similar game with original objectives. Anyone can build a simple kaleidoscope from 35 mm film canisters, microscope slides, clear rigid plastic, and beads or sequins.
Sobey and Sobey structure their book on the belief that children and adults learn more by doing, and that the process raises questions for further discovery. They encourage attention to the sense of awe and wonder that accompanies discovery learning, and their projects allow for collaboration, inquiry, processing, and projecting. The book is clear and well written, and the authors reinforce safety precautions throughout. Some instructions could use a bit more detail, and the black and white photographs and diagrams could be sharper in spots, but one the whole, the book is an excellent choice for gifted middle school students or budding engineers of any age.
—Sarah Boone, MA , MFA
Sarah Boone has a master’s degree in teaching and is certified in gifted education. She also holds an MFA in creative writing.