I’m really writing to try to pick people’s brains about putting together a science night at our school. … Every year they do a middle-school oriented program called
Science Alive! to get kids interested in science and math, but I want to bring it to our elementary school for one evening. I just have no idea what ideas/projects click, and what others fall flat.
A science night for elementary school students and their families is a great idea, because most kids rarely get the chance to do hands-on science during the school day. Way back when my oldest was kindergarten age I attended a community workshop given by Charles Scaife, then a professor of chemistry at Union College in Schenectady, NY and his wife Priscilla. Over the course of several sabbaticals the Scaifes traveled the country showing elementary school teachers how to do simple hands-on science projects with their students.
One of the problems back then, Prof. Scaife (who died in 2003) told me for a story that ran in our local newspaper, was that few elementary school teachers had a background — college-level courses, or even a hobbyist’s interest — in science. And very often they felt uncomfortable teaching it. Has that changed? I’m guessing not. And this, of course, was before "No Child Left Behind" put the pressure on schools to focus even more heavily on reading and math drills than they had been before.
Even at home, Scaife lamented, kids spent less time messing around with stuff that could lead to scientific insights. (I remember him describing how as a kid he made washing the dishes into an opportunity to explore surface tension in water). Hopefully, that’s something that the children of GeekDad readers don’t have to worry about.
But what kind of projects are right for elementary school kids to embark on? My advice, for kids this age is to stick to projects that promise dramatic results. Subtle doesn’t cut it. Even my teens were less than impressed when the chemistry demonstration we tried simply turned a solution from green to blue. (Go figure.) As GeekDad’s Vince Janoski put it:
Things that go KABOOM, SPLAT, or some other reasonable facsimile is always a good bet. I was involved with an extracurricular class that was oriented around "things that go." We made ping pong ball shooters, a solar car, and a water rocket setup. All the kids (elementary age) were pretty engaged.
However, as Scaife showed that night, projects can be much less involved and still provide the requisit "Wow" factor. You can read Scaife’s own "Family Science Night Handbook," complete with directions for organizing an event and a list of activities, online. But there are many other sources of easy, elementary classroom-friendly science activities. Here are a few:
Robert Krampf: I am one of the 180,000 subscribers to Krampf’s free Experiment of the Week email list. Even better, you can watch videos of him performing the experiments on his website.
Steve Spangler Science: I don’t even mind that this site is really an online catalog, it’s that good. Again, videos and written directions for experiments are available for free. You and your kids will love watching the clips of him on Ellen, they’re hysterical. (And his products — including his Mentos and Diet Coke Geyser Tube — really work.)
Science is Fun is where University of Wisconsin-Madison Chemistry Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri shares the fun of science with more home science activities.
Howtoons uses a comic strip format to show how to build projects like marshmallow shooters.
Science Toys is from the author of Gonzo Gizmos, Simon Field. Probably more elaborate than some of the directions you’ll find above, but still do-able by newbies. (We put together his DVD spectroscope last spring.
And don’t forget the many Janice VanCleave books, such as Janice VanCleave’s 200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments .