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Fun with Science and Technology

You may remember as a child creating a “volcano.” In a way, it was as much a cooking experiment as a science experience, but it was fun. The ingredients: 6 cups of flour, 2 cups of salt, 4 tablespoons of cooking oil, and 2 cups of water. You will also need red food coloring (optional), vinegar, and baking soda, as well as a bit of liquid detergent. You don’t really “need” the dough (the mix of flour, salt, oil and water), but it’s much more fun to build a “volcano” outside the soda bottle so that it looks like the real thing. Get an empty soda bottle and stand it upright in a baking pan. Sculpt your volcano shape with the dough around the bottle, and then fill the bottle most of the way with warm water. Add about 6 drops of red food coloring, and about six drops of detergent. Now, add 2 tablespoons of baking soda to the bottle and finally – slowly pour in the vinegar. Eruption!

Since those days, science and tech experiments your children (or you) can do at home have become much more complex and sophisticated, from building complex robots to wiring an electric circuit.

But another experiment that’s relatively easy and while fascinating and a great learning opportunity requires few expensive materials: grow your own crystals. We did this with simple salt and water, but how about obtaining some alum and making a really great looking finished crystal?

Get a clear container, and think about ways in which you can suspend some nylon fishing wire into this container so that it’s not touching the sides or bottom. It can be as simple as tying it around a ruler and then balancing the ruler over the edges of a glass. Now, get another container, and add about a half cup of hot tap water to this container, and 2.5 tablespoons of alum to the water. There are many types of alum, and they’ll grow different colors of crystals – but the safest and easiest to obtain is the one you can buy right in the grocery store. Add the alum slowly to the water, stirring it constantly so it dissolves completely.

Cover the jar with the dissolved alum with a paper towel and let the mixture sit overnight. The next day, pour the solution into the second, clear container. You’re going to see some small crystals already forming at the bottom of the container. These are called “seed” crystals.

Now, get one of the largest of these crystals, and tie the nylon fishing line to it, and drop it into the second container, so that it’s covered by the liquid, but not touching the bottom or sides of the jar, and suspend it using that ruler. Again, cover the top with a paper towel – the object of this is to keep dust and other debris out. Now wait, and watch, as your crystal takes shape. You can keep doing this, each time taking your larger crystal, and moving it to another jar – each time making sure to only keep growing your suspended crystal. Small seed crystals will continue to form at the bottom of the liquid, which you’ll want to give their own container, or throw away, as they’ll be using the alum suspension to grow themselves.

Here’s one I’d love to try – it’s called a Da Vinci Bridge, and it can be made with pencils and rubber bands, and with just 8 pencils, you can support more than 6 pounds on your finished “bridge.” https://igamemom.com/build-pencil-da-vinci-bridge-stem-challenge/

If you want to explore the night (or day) sky, an app that’s great for locating planets and learning how to find constellations is SkyView. It installs on a smartphone, and by simply aiming it at any landmark star or planet, or the moon, you’ll get the name of the object, and where it sits relative to the horizon. You’ll even be able to detect man-made satellites in place hovering over the Earth.

Maybe your taste is for exploring nature in the woods? I always have my PlantSnap  app ready to go when I walk in the woods, or you might choose iNaturalist or Pl@ntNet. They’ll all basically let you focus your camera on a plant (usually a particular feature like a leaf or flower), and then you’ll be presented with probable matches. If you’re pretty sure you have a hit, you can learn more about the plant (or tree) in question, its properties and uses. RockCheck or MineralsGuide will perform a similar function for identifying rocks you come across on your rambles – and you’ll learn a little about Geology in the process.

Now, a good idea for anyone wandering in the woods with a smartphone is a solar battery for a recharge, or constant trickle charge, so that you don’t run out of battery power while you’re out on the trail. I’ve got the Solar Power Bank, which comes with a Qi Portable Charger, a dual flashlight and compass. But there are any number of solar batteries that can go out on your walks with you, and will give you a little extra time on the trail.

Whether you’re going to be spending some time in the “home classroom” with your kids, or you like to spend your play time exploring fun and educational activities, the Internet is a wealth of ideas that can take you far beyond the Home Volcano (though granted, they’re still fun to create!) or Crystal Growing of years ago.

Nancy Roberts