Friday, January 27, 2012

Co-op Science Week 18

Chapter 2 of ACS Inquiry in Action

This week we tried to identify a mystery crystal.

We started off by giving the students 4 knowns:  sugar, salt, MSG, and Epsom salts.  I had written those 4 names in silver marker on the corners of half-sheets of black construction paper, which I handed out.  I also wrote the chemical formula for each on the board, and gave a bit of commentary.  I'm trying to get them used to seeing things like "NaCl" -- Thalia said that she absorbed an amazing amount through the years from just being exposed to us mentioning various concepts in the course of conversation.

For example, I told them I thought "maybe sodium was Na because that was short for 'natrum', which is what the Egyptians used to mummify -- hey, did any of you ever mummify a chicken? (blank stares from class) Really?  I thought that was a standard homeschool thing to do for history ...." etc.  In other words, the random prattle my kids have been subjected to for years, which has apparently worked as an introductory course in Random Stuff.

We handed out copies of the first activity sheet so they could follow along with the reading, and answer questions or draw pictures as they desired.

We also handed out magnifying glasses.  Our co-op has a bunch of plastic ones, so I have no tips on where to find cheap ones, although I'll note that CVS struck me as fairly expensive.  The salt, sugar and Epsom salts I had around the house (one girls was eager to share that they used Epsom salt to remove a stinger when her brother had a bee sting).  I used to have a little container of Accent (MSG) but had thrown it out years ago -- I wasn't even sure it was still sold -- does anyone actually USE this stuff?  But I found some at Target, along with a box of the unknown, which was kosher salt.  And the other mom and I walked around distributing small piles of the various crystals on their construction paper.

The kids really liked using the magnifying glasses on the crystals.  A few thought the mystery crystal was sea salt.  I asked how sure they were, and moved on to the next activity -- the hardness test.

(Although one boy was pretty sure we should try to identify the unknown by feeding all of the crystals to fish -- I assumed he was talking about doing an LD50, although there IS an aquarium in the room, so who knows what was going through his head.)

We talked a little about controlling the experiment -- how will you know that you're treating each crystal the same, without variability?  Really a pretty decent discussion -- the kids seemed really engaged in the necessity to think like scientists. I think this might've been the point at which I reminded them that Galileo just made do with the equipment he had centuries ago -- he didn't have the uber-accurate digital clocks, so he measured his pulse to gauge time (I'd brought this up last fall in class).  We distributed plastic spoons, and set them loose crushing crystals, recording their observations on the appropriate handout if they so chose.

Finally, the solubility test.  I gave a quick rundown on why we measure by weight rather than volume (this was outlined in the ACS handouts -- I used Rice Chex for my demo, and a bucket balance we had at home [probably for elementary math, although I really don't recall why we have it] -- as usual, the kids liked the part where I pounded the Rice Chex into little bits, although they were quite argumentative about whether we had the EXACT SAME AMOUNT afterwards).  I also drew a quick graph on how the amount of sugar that will go into solution varies by temperature, while salt pretty much remains the same -- this was also in the ACS material -- I asked the class if they were used to reading graphs, and again got the blank stares, but forged ahead based on the above-mentioned theory that they should be exposed to new concepts even if they don't know exactly what I'm talking about.

Also, when I'd looked up the chemical formula for MSG I noticed that the wikipedia article gives all sorts of standard info for it, which I showed them on the iPad.  Things like the melting point, the LD50 ("Oral, for rats.", "but why do they use rats?   Rats are really cool!",  "I know -- we have pet rats -- that's just what they often use for those experiments.") and solubility -- scientists have figured out this stuff and have this info around in charts to help them figure out new stuff.  Pretty clever, eh?

I demonstrated how to do salt and sugar -- dissolving them in hot water (I had taken hot water in a Thermos), swirling in plastic cups while the other mom counted out 20 seconds on her watch.  Then we formed 3 groups, I measured out the weight equivalent of 10 paper clips worth of each substance using the bucket balance so each group had samples of all 5 (salt, sugar, MSG, Epsom salt, unknown) which we put in tiny Dixie cups, handed out plastic cups, and had each group organize themselves.  The other mom counted out the seconds for everyone en masse while they slowly swirled their cups.  It was really a pretty cool experiment, and we discussed how the different things dissolved.

The final activity per the ACS curriculum involved re-crystalizing the water that had just been poured off of the crystals.  I knew we wouldn't have time for that in class, so I had done it at home the day before, and took the plastic cups of crystals in to show the kids.

And, in the end, the kids who guessed sea salt were pretty close in knowing what the mystery crystal was.  I really liked the more creative guesses, though, like Splenda and white sand -- I sort of suspect the kids who said "sea salt" just figured out how most of these demos-for-kids work ("okay, they won't have anything TOO weird for us to figure out") while the outliers will do better in a real lab some day.

Really, we barely had time to get through all of these activities in an hour, plus do a little clean up of the water we'd spilled on the tables.  I think we're going to slow down the pace a bit, since I feel like we're rushing through all of this helter-skelter.

I think the kids are learning a lot about how scientists work, though.  As I said, they seem really engaged in the process.  No clue if they're actually learning any chemistry.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Co-op Science Week 17

Oh, how proud and excited I was to have a curriculum all laid out for the next several weeks!  I started working through the next lesson several days ahead of time, happy to be so organized.

But then, whoops, I got sick.  To the point that I did NOTHING for several days.  And decided it was time to haul out Plan B.

When I started teaching this co-op science class I decided I needed to have a Plan B in case I couldn't be there, or I absolutely couldn't get stuff together to teach on some particular week.  Hey, weird stuff happens, and when you're in charge of a bunch of kids for an hour, it's nice to have a Plan B.

My back-up plan was Zoom Puff Mobiles.  Over Christmas I'd purchased one of those books of Lifesavers that has several rolls of the candy inside -- it had about 84 Lifesavers in total.  Opening up one of the rolls, I realized that our usual drinking straws were actually too big to fit through the hole, so I stopped by a dollar store and got some cheapy narrow straws.  Then it was a matter of printing out several copies of the pdf file (which is in the "Printable" section of the website), adding paperclips, scissors, tape and scrap paper to my supplies, and voila, instant busywork!

When we all arrived at class we talked a little about chemistry.  We discussed what we had done the week before (dissolving M&Ms) and I asked if anyone had tried any other experiments, like trying to dissolve the coating in sugar water.  No one had.  Then we discussed the Periodic Table of the Elements just a bit -- I wanted to get a feel for whether any of them had a clue what it was.  I borrowed Ellen McHenry's analogy  of the elements being like cooking ingredients in a kitchen.  Most of the kids seemed to be fairly clueless about the Periodic Table.

Then I said, "Okay, that's it for chemistry.  Let's do an engineering project!", and enlisted people to start handing out supplies.  A couple of kids asked if they could work as a team, which was fine.

We had a quick math lesson about how many Lifesavers would be needed for everyone in the class to get 4 vs. how many were in the packages I had, bearing in mind that some of the Lifesavers would be broken (and, indeed, the cherry ones seemed to be pretty fragile).

Also, BONUS, I brought extra supplies in case I had extra kids in the class, since this seems to be happening consistently in everything I do lately.  And, sure enough, there was an extra kid. But I totally expected to have an extra child that no one had bothered to tell me about ahead of time!  Yay me!  Take that, universe!  I'm on to your tricks!

The kids who have been in the class the entire time had a blast.  They worked fairly quietly (thankfully, since I sort of felt like laying down on the floor and taking a nap), and showed great co-operation in sharing things like tape dispensers.  Some of the new kids were a little timid about the entire thing -- I kept repeating that real engineers try an idea, see if it works, then sometimes need to try something new.  It's really okay to just dive in and try things. And it's okay to be shy.  Also, please take your creation with you, as I actually think Lifesavers are sort of repulsive, particularly after they've been rolled over a table several times.

I love seeing what they come up with on things like this.  We end up with great discussions on why some ideas work and some don't.  Our best sail design was fairly low-to-the-Puff Mobile, and was concave.

Of course, now I need to restock my Plan B supplies, probably with another Zoom challenge.  Hmmm....

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Random Snippet of Life

I've been sick with a cold.  The sort of cold that has your nose running and your eyes leaking ... overall, much liquid coming out of my face.  And much need to sleep.

Nothing incredibly serious as far as an illness goes, but it really sapped all my energy.  I've spent most of my time lately taking naps, and cruising the Well Trained Mind forums participating in vital discussions like "what song is going through your head right now".

So last night I was sleeping pretty soundly, having a rather noisy dream that somehow involved lots of crashing and booming and huge quantities of rocks going through plexiglass tubing.  All that noise subsided, replaced with a droning.  And then Rick woke me up by saying, "that's the tornado siren." Which I thought was pretty stupid, because the sirens are SUPPOSED to be tested on the first Monday of the month, so it was pretty silly to test them in the middle of the night, right?

But I went out in the hall to tell the kids, who were already gathering blankets and heading to the basement.  The cat came slinking out from under the bed and ran down with them, at which point it occurred to me that all the noise I'd thought I'd dreamt was actually a thunder storm and hail storm combo. And that the tornado siren was on because someone or other thought we might have a tornado forming.

Down to the basement, television on, we watched the storm pass quickly on the radar.  Then back up to bed, but couldn't get to sleep right away.  Rick suddenly got up, ran to the bathroom, and threw up.  Back to bed, more hail.  I must've dozed off eventually, because the other cat appeared on my nightstand meowing loudly at about 6:45am.

So.  I seem to be over my cold, although I think I could use another nap simply due to lack of sleep last night.  We're hoping Rick just has that 24 hour stomach bug that's been going around (as opposed to something more grandiose).  And that none of the rest of us get it.  Because it would be nice to have a day or two of predictable weather AND no one sick.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Co-op Science Week 16

Back to co-op after Christmas, ready to start our second semester.  This semester we'll be focusing more on Chemistry.

And we've also added 3 more kids to the class.  I knew about 2 of them, but the 3rd was a surprise (Didn't that just happen to me in Girl Scouts a few days ago?  Why, yes, it did!  Random extra kids are showing up at things I'm supposed to organize on a regular basis, it seems.)  I've gotta say, going from 11 kids to 14 kids was a leap -- lots of busy-ness, lots of noise.  The kids are all relatively good, there are just more of them now.

And when I got home a mom emailed me to ask if her 2nd grader could join the class.  Sigh.  I let that sit a few days while I pondered, but then I eventually said that I think we're running out of room in the classroom.  Plus I've noticed that some of the younger kids sometimes struggle more in a large group setting -- kids that are pretty bold and outgoing, and who would do just fine with the material in a small group (like in their own home with siblings) are falling right through the cracks when they're in a large group, getting lost and not keeping up.

But, anyway, my big find of Christmas break was the American Chemical Society's Inquiry in Action, which is a free chemistry curriculum for grades 3-5.  Wow.  Okay, first I found the ACS middle school curriculum, and I seriously thought about using it.  Really, any of the kids in the class could probably do the middle school stuff, particularly at home.  But I decided to go with the lower level because it looked simpler for me to implement, plus it involved M&Ms.  Yes, the candy.

"Can I have some of the M&Ms to eat?"
"You know, my family's prediction was that at least 3 of you would ask to eat the M&Ms today.  And my personal prediction was that YOU would be the first one to say it.  Glad to see you didn't change much over break."
Smile.  Hug.  Five minutes later, same child asks again: "Can I have some of the M&Ms to eat?"

So.  I downloaded the entire file onto my iPad, put it in Goodreader so I could browse through it, jotted down lists of stuff I'd need to take to class, printed out some of the handouts, and voila, class was planned.   It is AMAZING how much easier it is to have someone else plan what's going to happen rather than choosing a topic and coming up with all of the demonstrations on my own.

We did the first 3 activities from Chapter 1 during our class time.  We observed M&Ms dissolving on paper plates (I used the Solo brand plates that had sort of a hard finish on the paper rather than styrofoam or plastic -- I used the dessert size).  Everyone had their own M&M and plate for that.  Then we dumped the water and M&Ms (IMPORTANT TIP: It's easiest to slide the plate of water to the edge of the table and then tip it into a bucket or some other large container.  The container needs to be wide enough that you could easily fit the entire plate in, if needed.  I had taken a pitcher, but that was way too narrow, so I just dumped everything out of the 18 gallon plastic storage bin I'd used to transport all of the class equipment.  Also, the container should be deep enough to carry around without all the water sloshing out. Dump the water in the container, but keep hold of the plate -- you can wipe it with a paper towel and re-use it.)

Before class started I'd had the kids who wandered in early draw bullseyes on some of the plates.  We distributed those, and next judged whether different colors dissolved more quickly.  The kids were in 2 groups of 7, and each group had 5 plates to look at.  They did find some variability in the diffusion rates.  I wonder if that was partially because we ended up with various depths of water in the plates, and some of our M&Ms weren't totally covered.

Anyway, dump THAT batch of water and M&Ms, clean up, and, oddly, all the kids started packing up to leave.  ????  "Well, we were cleaning up, so we thought it was time to go."  No, we were cleaning up so we wouldn't have a huge mess at the end.  Also, the clock is broken in the classroom, so they had no clue.  Still time for another experiment!

"Okay, what do you think would happen if we put 2 M&Ms in the water fairly close together?"  I drew a couple of possibilities on the whiteboard.  "Would a yellow and a blue make a huge pool of green around both of them?  Would it look more like a Venn diagram, with a green overlap in the middle between them?  What do you think?"

This time they worked in pairs, with mild squabbling about which colors each pair wanted to try.  One pair ended up with 3 M&Ms, and we all figured, hey, maybe that'll be interesting.  I held up a ruler to show them approximately how much distance we mean by "2 centimeters".

They were VERY impressed by what happened next, and running around looking at each others' plates.  The plate with 3 was quite an item.  One of the kids was excited to realize that their end of the table wasn't level -- he had diagnosed it by looking at the water level vs. the height of the 2 M&Ms.  Then it became the fad to gently blow across the surface of the water to mix the colors.  I did a brief wrap up, saying that if we left these plates here for a day the colors would've eventually mixed.  Then a final clean up, and they were off to history class.

My thoughts:

We only made it half way through the demonstrations listed in this chapter, but I think it's enough.  The main point, I felt, was that we change ONE variable at a time when we're seeing how things work.  We'd already worked on that last fall, so I thought we were okay with just a brief review this spring.

The fifth graders in particular loved having the handouts.  They were making notes on them.  I've emphasized that as they get to middle school next year they'll be doing more lab reports; I think they liked having the practice available to them.

After I got home I sent an email to all parents with a link to the pdf of the science behind sugar dissolving in water, which they had the option of going over with their child.  I also pointed out the links to the 3 related experiments we did NOT do.

I also delivered a small Dixie cup of M&Ms to That Kid at lunch break, with permission of his mom.

How to do this without a sink in the room:

I took old plastic water bottles with me, and had the kids go to the water fountain in pairs to refill them as needed.  I had a pair of kids take the plastic container of waste-water-plus-M&Ms to the restroom, where they dumped it into a toilet and then flushed.

So far I would High Recommend the ACS materials for co-op use!  And I'm thinking about using the middle school chemistry for our own home science class for 7th grade next year.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cadette Girl Scout Amaze Journey, Session 2

You know, if Girl Scouts USA was smart, they'd have a website along the lines of or (websites in which crafters tell about their experiences with various patterns in sewing and knitting, giving tips to future sewists and knitters)  in which various people could post how their troop did various badges and sessions of Journeys and whatnot.  Then leaders trying to get ideas for how to do these things could just browse through and find the ideas that seemed to fit their troop.  It would make the badges and Journeys SO MUCH EASIER to do, and make volunteers' lives a lot more stress free.

But, of course,  the GSUSA Powers That Be seem to  be, um, less than competent, and definitely disinterested in making a volunteer's life any easier.  So, in the meantime, I offer up how our troop accomplished Session 2 of the Cadette Amaze Journey.

First off, we made our Peacemaker Kits.  I had a boatload of little tins from Altoid-type mints, and asked girls to bring in any they had at home.  Only one girl brought something in, but I had enough for everyone else (10 girls -- one girl was brand new and showed up without warning, but another girl announced she was quitting about an hour before the meeting started, so we were even -- by the way, isn't it annoying when you have something planned with the correct amount of supplies, and parents decide their kids can wander in unannounced?  So awkward for the kids in question, so frustrating for the person supplying the stuff.)

I also had various interesting scrapbook paper cut into 6x6 sheets, stickers, etc.  Annabeth had the kids trace around the top of the tin on the paper, then cut the paper to be a bit smaller than the lid.  They put ModPodge on the lid using those little spongey-type brushes (the ModPodge was distributed in small Dixie cups, and plastic put on the tables),  then stuck the paper on.  Some chose to put stickers on right away, others waited until the end.  I had supplied labels that said "PEACEMAKER KIT", visible in the picture below, for those who wanted to use them.  A layer of ModPodge went over the top of the paper.

And I had printed out the Girl Scout Law in 9 point type to be put in the inside lid, if desired.

I explained to the kids that these were to function sort of as mini-scrapbooks of the Journey; they'd be putting paper and mementos in them as they completed the various parts of the Journey.

Overall, the girls loved this part of the meeting.  Many asked if they could cover the tins' bottoms and insides.  Um, yeah, knock yourself out;  I'm really not hung up on how you accomplish this, gang.  Go home and hot glue thousands of Swarovski crystals on it (those are so stunning on stage, you know) (that's an Irish Dance joke) or whatever else strikes your fancy.

Also, it's possible to cover these tins in Duck Tape or similar duct tape, but, having experimented with the concept at home, I decided Duck Tape necessitates using sharp knives (eg, an exacto knife), and I really didn't want to round up a bunch of sharp knives and supervise their use.

Okay, on to the actual subjects we were supposed to cover.  First up, stereotypes.  I had girls give examples of stereotypes while I wrote them on a whiteboard.  Then we needed an activity, and, honestly, the ones given in the leader guide struck me as really dull.  So we played Party Quirks as a group game -- in other words, those who wanted to play (and it was okay to sit out) did it as a sort of interactive charades with lots of talking, with people really engaging in stereotypical behavior.  One girl was a Jedi, one was an actor, one was a "dumb blonde", etc.  What I learned from the experience:  make sure your first host has some imagination; also, consider having 2 people be the host at one time (they can circulate around the room separately or together).

Next, we looked at their list of what qualities they look for in a friend, p. 31 of their Amaze book. Then we did the activity suggested in the Leader book in which they drew a circle on a piece of paper, and wrote on the outside qualities they look for in friends.  On the inside of the circle they wrote what qualities they brought to a friendship.

 I did this with them by making my own and talking about it while I went along:  "Let's see, I'm a good listener.  Also, cake ... I can bring cake to a relationship, because cake is important."  Glancing at Annabeth's sheet, I noticed she'd written "horse" outside the circle:  "So, a person needs to own a horse?  Be a horse?"  "No, I meant horselover, I just didn't write it out." "That's 1,2,3,4,5 letters, and you couldn't be bothered?  Really?  That reminds me, I should write 'ability to deal with sarcasm' as a quality my friends need."  Overall, I was trying to keep the mood light. particularly since some of the kids seemed to get stressed about this stuff insofar as whether they're writing the "correct" thing and going to be judged by others regarding what they write.  After all, most of the girls joined so they could do crafts, play games, and go camping, not so they could attend conciousness-raising sessions.

Then I had them jot down something on a small piece of paper about what they'd thought about so far, and put that in their Peacemaker Kit.  I had printed out strips of paper with the writing prompt "For better relationships I will:" on it, and pointed out the various questions on p. 39 of their Amaze book, in case they needed inspiration.  I was hoping that by this point in the meeting that they'd caught on that it was up to them what they put on the paper -- I certainly wasn't there to judge.

Next we were supposed to talk about Peer Pressure.  I used the angle of how hard it is to be someone that you're really not, and introduced the game Bob.  Wow, it was a riot.  Some of the girls were excellent at it, some really not so good, everyone laughed a lot.  I wish we would've had longer to play, but they needed to write down another slip about what they wanted to remember about peer pressure.  So, back to the Amaze book, p. 52, and think about something to put in the Peacemaker Kit, using the writing prompt "I can resolve conflict by:" if desired.  "Hey, if you just want to write 'Bob' on the slip so you can remember playing the game, that's okay.  It's your scrapbook."

A different mom will be leading Session 3.  She was there to observe what we did during Session 2, which was clever on her part (the future leaders of future sessions weren't there, and I wonder if they'll have a clue what worked and what didn't).  Plus Session 3 looked like it had some fun games written in the leader's guide.

My impression of Journeys so far:  Expect to come up with your own ideas on how to make them palatable.  It can be a lot of fun, but the leaders need to really, really think about what will work in their group.  And don't expect any support from the GSUSA Powers That Be to figure out what that is -- they're busy spending your money revamping some of the Journeys that have issues .

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Co-op Science Weeks 13, 14, 15

Oops!  I thought I'd get around to writing these up over Christmas break, but I was too busy Christmassing.  And, alas, I seem to not have notes about what we did, which is annoying, because there were some things that were worth passing on to other people trying to lead a co-op class for this age group.

Week 13 was another class on Light, using experiments from a book series which, unfortunately, I don't have written down.  One of those science series that looks so good on the shelf, the photos are so cool and the directions so clear ... and the experiments don't actually work.  Such a fail.  Unfortunately we were doing the experiments on the fly during class since I thought that it would be a good chance for the kids to learn to read about and set up this stuff.  Wow, I didn't expect every. single. one. to fail.

I think this was the week that I lit a candle in a darkened room and we looked at it through 2 popsicle sticks held close together (idea I found online).  We also tried looking at it with our eyes squinted up so we were seeing it though our eyelashes.  Then I handed out refraction glasses I'd gotten cheap online (again, sorry, no memory of the vendor, but I got a box of 15 or 20 for a cheap price and quick delivery off of   Annabeth took a picture of our Christmas tree by holding a pair of glasses up to the camera.  For the record, our tree has white lights only.

Week 14 was on Sound.  I had tried several cool looking experiments from  the book on Sound from the above series ... again, failure.  Fortunately I figured this out at home, so I came up with some alternatives. I took in a slinky to show the difference between longitudinal and transverse waves; also, we could see the "echo".  

We set up dominoes to show the difference between sound going through a liquid and air (dominoes closer together represent a solid, farther apart represent air -- which group falls faster?).  The dominoes took FOREVER to set up, and about 10 seconds to knock over.  The girls in the group did okay with it, but the boys complained it was boring.  I also gave a brief discussion about how sometimes science IS boring, or at least seems that way -- you have to do all this detailed work to figure stuff out, and it can seem tedious at times.  

We blew across bottles (I had learned last year that plastic water bottles are tough to do this with due to the flimsy plastic, so I had collected both glass bottles and more rigid plastic bottles from sparkling mineral water, and took in a huge assortment).

We stretched plastic over a bowl, put blue sugar sprinkles on top, then made noise to make the sugar sprinkles jump with the vibrations.

And week 15 was the final week before Christmas break.  We had a half day of co-op, and a party starting at noon.  I suspected the kids were going to be a little wound up in our midmorning class, so we did an engineering challenge -- how high can you build a structure using uncooked spaghetti and mini marshmallows?  They worked in groups, usually on some sort of plastic tablecloth to help prevent marshmallow smashing into sticky messes on the table tops.

Wow, they LOVED this activity, and could've worked on it for hours and hours.  And it was so fun to hear their discussions about how to accomplish their building visions.  My biggest regret is that we did this in an upstairs room, so we couldn't easily show off their creations -- we needed to either make them on something that could be transported to the common area where we later held the party, or else have made them in that area in the first place.  For the record, the structures tended to sag over time.  Also, not only did kids want to eat the marshmallows**, they wanted to eat the dry spaghetti.

**"Okay, understand this -- you have a FINITE number of marshmallows.  You do know what 'finite' means, right?"  Oddly, several of them didn't. So we had to define that, then discuss the implication that if they ate a bunch of their group's marshmallows, they would not have as many marshmallows to build with, and thus probably have a smaller tower.