Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Homeschooling...

In 2007, the National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES), conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), determined that 2.9%, or over 1.5 million, school-aged children were being homeschooled in America.1 It is now thought that the number has risen to over 2 million (the same number that attend charter schools) and continues to grow. Between just 2007 and 2010 the number of children being homeschooled rose by 7%. (By comparison, over the same time period, children enrolled in schools increases by 1%).2

So clearly, homeschooling is an important trend, but who's doing it and why? Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that homeschooling families come in all races, religions, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, though the majority so still come from white, well-educated, middle-class homes. The top three reasons for home schooling given? In order of popularity: Concern about the school environment, to provide religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools.3

Debates rage about whether homeschooled students are socialized enough, are monitored enough, test well enough and are prepared enough for college. Generally, the public tends towards concern that homeschooling is not regulated in many states and the National Education Association has officially come out against home-based education. However, recent studies are starting to indicate that homeschooled students may have more of an academic leg up than previously thought. One recent study indicated that on average, homeschooled students scored 37 percentile points above public school students on standardized achievement tests, but it has been argued that there is no way to be sure if that is because of the students themselves of the way they were educated.4

Regardless, homeschooling has carved out its place in the American educational system, with every state hosting at least one homeschooling association and public programs cropping up more and more regularly.5 Through museums, theaters, clubs, sports, events, co-ops and other venues, today's homeschoolers have more support and more educational opportunities than any other time in history.

This is one reason Kaleidoscope is launching its Science and Math Cooperative this fall. We have many amazing homeschooling families in our community, and with the new coop we'll be able to create a wonderful opportunity for our homeschooled kids to learn together.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Welcome to the 21st Century

A while back, I was a member of an Educator’s Book Club at school. At the time we were exploring so-called 21st Century Skills – the skill sets our students would need for the shifting future of tomorrow’s job market. These abilities, as set forth by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, include creativity, innovation, communication and problem solving as well as the core subjects. But they also include information and media literacy, financial literacy and global awareness as important themes that students need to explore. 

Since several of us were also science and math teachers, it was natural to explore the connections between those sought-after skills and the current trends in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education.

The year 1991 marked an important turning point in the American work force. For the first time money spent on Knowledge Age goods – information and communication technologies – exceeded Industrial Age good – materials for agriculture, mining, manufacturing, etc. That $5 billion difference marked a shift in the U.S. economy from a world that was all nuts-and-bolts to one that was information-driven. The world had become high-tech, almost overnight.

The problem is that not much really changed in K-12 education to echo that tremendous shift. Sure there are more computer labs, and kids know how to use PowerPoint, but is that really any different than typewriters and shorthand classes of long ago? Has the thinking really changed, or have we simply updated the tools?

Elementary age students of today will face a completely different job market in their adult lives than the one our educational system is currently designed to support. They will be knowledge workers relying on digital tools, creativity and an ability to work collaboratively with people from all over the world. Out-of-the-box thinking will need to be their norm. They will change careers and companies many times over the course of their adult lives, which requires flexibility and adaptability, not to mention the ability to transplant what they have learned in one industry into a completely different one, with new rules and expectations.

That’s a perfect match to goals of good STEM education, where an innovative technological workforce is the primary goal. Critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration have long been sought after, especially in the sciences and in engineering. Now, however, the importance of such skills has become deeper and more urgent as we watch the world change more quickly than our textbooks can keep up with. The kind of thinking needed for solid science and engineering will be the kind of thought needed for many, many other disciplines, as well.

We can – and must -- create a system that supports the new world we’re already building. And that’s something that can’t come from the top down, with bureaucracy and administration. It can’t come through standard tests and budget cuts. It needs to grow from the ground up. We need to be the change – parents, students, educators. We need to embody the new world and passionately share it with others.

The future is already here. What are you going to do about?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Water Bottle Submarines!

This week's Science and Swim was a really fun project that explores buoyancy. We made submarines using recycled water bottles. When placed in water, the bottle fills with water, pulling it down below the surface, then, by blowing air though an attached straw, the water is forced out and the submarine rises again.

One of the things I love about this project is that is clearly demonstrates that both water and air take up space -- they have volume and can be displaced. Too often kids think of air as "nothing," or as "empty." This shows that to be untrue.

Also, it displays the importance of density: the bottle can be filled with water or air, but only with the denser water does it sink. You're filling the same exact space, but one is much heavier (i.e. it has more mass), and it is therefore a denser material.

All that said, let's get to the build! You'll need the following materials: a disposable water bottle, a drinking straw with a flexible neck, waterproof tape (I like duct tape), pennies or washers, rubber bands and scissors.

Start by using the scissors to place three small holes in the bottle along one side -- by the neck, in the middle and near the base. These will let the water in the submarine.


Next attach the straw. Place the end with the flexible bit into the neck of the bottle and secure with tape. Be sure that the straw is attached to the topside of the bottle, opposite the holes. Also be sure that the piece inside the bottle is aimed up, to allow the maximum amount of air to escape as the bottle fills with water. Bend the long part of the straw up, so that is can be used to add air. Use tape to completely seal the opening of the bottle.

To create ballast, make a stack of pennies and wrap them in duct tape. I'd suggest starting with three stacks of six pennies and adjusting as needed. Use rubber bands to secure the pennies to the underside of the submarine.

This is a great area of experimentation and exploration. How many pennies are need to get your submarine to fully submerge? Is it even possible to get the submarine to fully submerge? Does it matter where you attach the pennies along the body? Do you need to place an equal number of pennies in each stack? What happens if you don't?

To test the craft, place it in water, the underside down and let it slowly fill with water. Once it no longer sinks, blow air through the straw and it will rise again. You can even let it sink the bottom of the pool, dive in and "rescue" it from the depths.

Once you're happy with the number and placement of the pennies, dry off the submarine and tape the stacks of pennies on. It'll be easier to play with. Have fun!

Book Review: Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction

Despite its seemingly violent title, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare by John Austin has become one of my go-to books when I'm looking for a fun, easy project that doesn't require a fortune in supplies. Though the target audience for the book is clearly bored cubicle slaves, I've found that a lot of the projects make for great engineering builds and excellent physics experiments.

One of my personal favorites, which I build literally hundreds of times, is the tongue depressor catapult. This little beauty takes just minutes to make and costs pennies. But every kid has a blast with it. I've made my own adjustments, of course. Instead of gluing on a soda cap to make a bucket for ammunition, I just attach a disposable spoon. And rather than launching erasers, I love to shoot marshmallows. Now that tongue depressors come in so many fun colors, the projects are even more fun!

The book also has fun designs for other catapults and trebuchets, many based on historical reproductions. I've used it in class to explore how designs have change through time, as materials and technology have changed. Have students research each design then build their mini-weapon is a great integrated study, which doesn't cost a fortune.

Not every design is perfect; I've had some that took quite a bit of tweaking to work.However, for the shear number of designs and the creative play possibilities, this is one of my favorite books. In addition, the instructions are generally well-written, with clear black and white line-art diagrams of each step. That makes it something that many kids can explore on their own, building as they go.

The book has a companion, written by the same author: Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 2: Build a Secret Agent Arsenal. Once again, the designs are well-written and clearly illustrated and the content encourages a strong DIY vibe. I have made the oragami-style shooting star many times in many settings. And the recycled marker converted to a crayon launcher is pure genius. This book always gives me ideas for my spy classes and parties.

As I was writing this book review, I found that the author is at it again! He's published a third installment: Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction 3: Build Siege Weapons of the Dark Ages. I have, of course, ordered it. I'll let you know what my favorite projects are, just as soon as it arrives!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Five Fun Things to Do with Borax

Borax (or sodium tetraborate decahydrate as it is known to scientists) is fairly common household cleanser, found in the laundry isle of most grocery stores. A naturally mined substance, it's has been used for years as a cleaner.While can be used for a variety of chores, it is also great for science projects! Which would you rather do on a rainy day? Clean the house with Borax or use it to make goo? Yea, I thought so!

So, I've got five great projects for you to do in your own kitchen: Slime, Bouncy Balls, Crystal Ornaments, Dried Flowers and Flame Tests. (You can even use the Borax to clean up any messes you in pursuit of science!)

A quick note on safety: Though it is a natural substance it is important to wash your hands or wear gloves when using Borax. Clean up all residue well, with plenty of water. You may want to consider goggles as well.

1. Making Slime:

One of my kids favorite uses for Borax is to make slime. This gooey, messy concoction is always a hit. Luckily, it's very easy to do. And it teaches a lot about polymerization -- the Borax acts to link together chains in the glue, creating the rubbery, plastic-like slime.

Simply add 1/2 cup of water to 1/2 cup of white glue and mix well. The better you mix, the better your slime will be. Add a bit of food coloring or paint to color the mixture, if desired. Then make a solution of 1 teaspoon of Borax to 1 cup of water; mix until all of the borax is well dissolved. To create the slime, add the Borax solution to the glue mixture and stir.

The amount and vigor of stirring will affect the final slime -- ranging from oozy goo to a nearly Silly Putty consistency. You can also adjust how much of the Borax solution you add; more Borax means more polymerization and more of a rubbery concoction. If you want something really oozy, add less Borax.

This slime can be stored in a sealed bag or container for quite (two weeks) a while if it is kept cool or refrigerated. Be careful though; it can be tough to get out of rugs. To make the slime even more fun, try adding glow in the dark paint, using clear glue, or using glitter glue in the mix.

2. Making Bouncy Balls:

This relies on the same polymerization process as the slime, but uses corn starch as a binder. My kids always keep a real kick out of the changes the occur so quickly with this reaction.

The basis process is this: Make a Borax solution of 2 tablespoons warm water and 1/2 teaspoon Borax. Mix well and add coloring if you want. In a separate bowl, add 1 tablespoon of white glue to 1 tablespoon of cornstarch. Don't mix them just yet.

Now add 1/2 teaspoon of the Borax solution to the cornstarch bowl. Let this sit for 10-15 seconds to begin the reaction. Then start stirring. Once the mixture comes together as a sticky clump, you can take it into your hands, rolling it until you get a ball.

To be honest, this basic recipe doesn't really give you a great bouncy ball right off the bat, but the more you play with it, the more it sets up and the better it gets. The Borax bouncy ball provides a great opportunity for experimentation: adjust the concentration of Borax to water to adjust the polymerization. Or adjust the glue to cornstarch ratio to affect the density of the ball. There is certainly a science fair project in there, no doubt.

3. Making Crystal Shapes:

This one we love to do at Christmas time, because it makes pretty snowflakes, but it's fun to do any time of year, really.

You start by making a super-saturated solution of Borax. To do this, heat your water to boiling and it add to a glass jar (I like to use salsa jars or Mason jars). Add Borax by the tablespoon, stirring well after each addition. When you cannot dissolve any more Borax into the water, you've hit super-saturation. The water is actually holding more Borax than it can when cool! At this point you can add a bit of food coloring or liquid watercolor paint to tint the water (and therefore the crystals). If you plan to do many shapes, you can simple make a large batch of Borax solution and pour it into the jars.

Now take pipe cleaners and bend them into fun shapes. You can make swirls, hearts, stars, or, obviously, snowflakes. Use thread to create a hanger by tying it to the top of the shape. Place a pencil (or chopstick or bamboo skewer) across the top of the jar and hang the shapes into the Borax solution. Use a bit of tape to keep them attached (this is easier than tying them to the pencil). Make sure the shapes aren't touching the sides of the jar or each other.

Put the jars somewhere safe, where they won't be disturbed. You'll start to see crystals form as the solution cools, but it's best to give it 24 hours to let the crystals really grow. When they have, just pull the shapes out, dry them on a paper towel and enjoy!

4. Making Dried Flowers:

In the spring and summer, my kids love to save all the pretty blooms from our garden. This is actually a great field study, as we identify and preserve "weeds," leaves, and other wild plants as well. Once dried the flowers can be used to create any number of projects, including scrapbooks. However, the traditional method of drying flowers between the pages of a book has always yielded flat, discolored blooms. Using a powdered desiccant always gives better results, and that's where Borax comes in.

You can dry many flowers directly in Borax, but many experts recommend improvements. The most common mixture is equal parts Borax and cornmeal with 1-3 tablespoons of salt per quart of mixture. This provides the best combination of drying and color saving properties.

To dry your flowers, cut them fresh and trim the stems closely to the flower. Dry your flowers with a paper towel and remove any parts that are damaged or discolored. Add an inch of your mixture to a plastic dish. Place the flowers or foliage into the Borax mix, making sure they don't touch. Then gently cover with more the mixture until no parts of the plant can be seen. Cover the container and set aside for at least a week. Some layered blooms, like roses, may take up to two weeks to dry.

When the flowers are papery to the touch, simply shake off the Borax, or use an artist's paint brush to remove residue. Depending on how you plan to use the flowers, you may want to apply a sealant, such as a light coat of spray-on clear acrylic.

You can speed up the process by using a microwave, though results will vary. Simply prepare your flowers in the Borax mixture above, but don't cover. Place the container in the microwave with a small bowl of water. Cook on the medium to low power in 30 second intervals for up to 3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the plant. Don't rush it and don't "cook" your flowers on high! Set the container aside to cool for up to 24 hours before removing the flowers.

5. Make Colored Flames:

This is always fun. Burning various compounds that contain metals in a flame is a great way to demonstrate that various elements have their own unique properties. In this case, they create different colored flames. For this activity we're interested in the boron found in Borax.

You know that super-saturated Borax solution we made above? Time to use it again. Simply pour it into a small spray bottle, put on your goggles, fire up a propane torch or Bunsen burner (in a safe, clear space on a fire-proof surface), and spray the solution into the flame. You'll get a flame with a hint of green and yellow.

If that seems a bit messy and dangerous for you, you can create a wire loop with a "tail" that you push into a wooden dowel to deliver power or liquid into the flame on a gas stove burner or Bunsen burner. However, the resulting flame will be less dramatic and shorter lived.

You can also make solutions from other grocery and hardware store finds such as potassium chloride (sold as Nu Salt), boric acid (sold as a pest remedy), strontium chloride (sold as a fish tank additive), sodium chloride (table salt), copper sulfate (often found in root killer for plumbing) and magnesium (sold as pills or powder in the vitamin aisle).

For portable fun, soak items like dried pinecones in super saturated solutions, completely submerged, for several days then let them air dry. Use these in campfires to add colors to the flames. Again, not as dramatic as the spray method, but much easier to take on the go! Dipping the pinecones in wax and sprinkling the dried chemical over them before the wax dries also works, but must be handled carefully, for obvious reasons.

So have fun with some crafty science using Borax. I'd love to hear about your exploits!