Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Science Fun - It's Electric!

Whether we are destined to become scientists or not, understanding the scientific process is crucial to our ever growing complex world.  Think about all of the articles that report scientific findings on food allergy alone - how do you separate the wheat from all the chaff in how science gets reported?  Understanding the process will go a long way in discerning claims that are truly supported by evidence versus the many over-sold or outright unsupported claims frequenting our online communities.

As an introductory-level college biology instructor, I'm seeing way too many students coming into my classroom lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method - i.e. how do scientists make the discoveries versus what is established scientific knowledge.  For too long, curriculum has focused on what I like to call "biology history" as opposed to "doing biology."  Yes, you need to know a good amount of the "history" to get to the bleeding edge, but the scientific process can and should be integrated all along the way.  There is hope that things are changing (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education:  A Call to Action).
“Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.”
-National Science Foundation, Science and Technology Indicators, 2008.
In other words, teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish. There is just too much new knowledge being generated for any human to keep up.  I strongly believe that an understanding of the scientific method begins many, many, MANY years before getting into undergraduate level science courses.  It begins in childhood.  I have to say, I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing in children's programming - in one of JR's favorite shows, The Dinosaur Train on PBS, one of the characters, Buddy, routinely shouts, "I have a hypothesis!"  As a result, JR routinely goes around the house shouting, "I have a hypothesis!"  (Hypothesis = educated guess to explain observation).  Sweet, beautiful music to this Mom's (and Dad's!) ears.  The seeds of scientific understanding are being planted.

From Dinosaur Train on PBS.  The website has many more ideas for easy-to-do experiments, complete with recording data in a chart that even the youngest explorers can do! 
JR is fascinated by electricity and wants to know "how it works." Thus, we needed to find a hands-on way to safely make this happen for a 5 year old.  Outlets with 120 Volts AC were absolutely out of the question.  Enter the Snaptricity Kit by Elenco!  This is definitely a supervised activity for a 5 year old, but it is a great way to quickly, easily (and cheaply!) explore electricity in a relatively safe manner.  The biggest concern is snapping together "short circuits," which is a direct wire connection between the battery's positive and negative terminals.  JR now knows that "we don't make hot batteries because they might explode!"  Not terribly safe if a shorted battery gets left in place long enough, but a minor risk I was willing to take since we've come across those long forgotten toys with leaking batteries anyway.  (Brief video showing a shorted AA battery getting hot and leaking battery "juice").  Hey, at least for this allergic kiddo, the science doesn't involve food, right?!  A much bigger risk in my mind.
Snaptricity Kit by Elenco

My biggest piece of advice is to ask your kids questions about what they think is going to happen before they actually put things together.  This is forming a hypothesis.  Even if you, the parent, know the correct answer or what the outcome should be, be sure to bite your tongue if you know their hypothesis is wrong.  It is all about testing the hypothesis anyway.

Here is a great example from this past weekend.  One part of the kit contains an electromagnet (a component that becomes a magnet when an electrical current flows through it) and a compass so that you can see what happens to the direction the compass points when you turn an electromagnet on and off.  Granted my 5 year old doesn't truly understand the function and significance of these things yet, but that's ok.  It's not about understanding how it works before you even test it, it's about trying to figure out how it works by testing it under different conditions.

He actually came up with a hypothesis that when he snapped the compass into the circuit near a light bulb, the light wouldn't turn on anymore.  I bit my tongue and didn't say a word even though I wanted to launch into why his hypothesis was just plain wrong. Nope - I was going to let him test it all on his own.  Interesting thing happened, though.  The light actually didn't turn on!  So, he believed that his hypothesis was indeed correct - that the compass did cause the light to stop working!  Of course the real explanation was that when he snapped the compass into the circuit, he accidentally disconnected a different snap, which disconnected the batteries.  Thus, snapping the compass into place indirectly caused the light to stop working.  It was an artifact.  We just had him trace the pathway of the circuit; he saw where the circuit snapped out of place, reconnected it, and low and behold, the light turned on with the compass in place.  Hypothesis rejected.
JR having a snap-tastic time.
This got me thinking - how many times do we, at the bleeding edge of science come to a wrong conclusion because of something stupid happening in an experiment?  Just like JR at the bleeding edge of his own understanding came to a wrong conclusion based on one "experiment," scientists fall prey to artifacts, too.  And it can sometimes mean YEARS in chasing a line of evidence down the wrong research path.  So not cool.  Worse yet is when these scientific "facts" get reported to the general public, but then the general public never hears the "retraction."  Here is a recent case in point involving (not-so much) lead in imported rice.  This is the biggest reason for a major tenet of science - results must be reproducible.  Not any one study proves anything.  It is a combination of many studies under different conditions by different scientists.  Think about that the next time you read an article claiming "Y Causes Food Allergies."  As scientists, we are just like children exploring their world.  It is a slow process with as many failures as successes, but all along the way we keep inching forward in our understanding.  Eventually those failures, too, can lead to even greater understanding.  Snap to it, my friends!

PS - My thoughts and opinions on the Elenco Electricity kit are all my own, and I have in no way been compensated to endorse this product.  It really is a fantastic kit, in my opinion!  It allows quick, easy, relatively safe hypothesis testing.  There are many project ideas to get you started in their clearly illustrated booklet, which often leads to building off your own discoveries. 


  1. That is too cool! I remember my dad helping me make something like this for a science fair project in grade school. My son's birthday is next month and I was puzzling over what to get him (NO cheap toys that get broken or left on the shelf). This is perfect, and right up his alley! Thanks so much for sharing! Have a great night! ~Rebecca

    1. Yay! I love this kit! It's really fun and easy. I wish that I would have had this type of thing as a kid :). I hope your family likes it as much as we've enjoyed it. Thanks and you too!