Most of the time, when I’m looking for a science activity to do with my kids, the first thing I do is search for directions on the Internet. Sometimes I get burned (anyone remember the onion iPod charger?). Sometimes I have more luck. And a lot of the time, I just get stuck — I can’t find the right parts, I don’t have the right skills, or it’s all just too confusing for an amateur like me.
Because despite what you may have read in The New York Times, I don’t really have a science lab in my home. Far from it. My favorite kind of science experiments are those that can be done with equipment that no more elaborate than foam cups and paper clips. And because I lack a formal science background, I need really good directions to help my kids get through any project.
This week, the kids and I were attempting to build a Foxhole Radio. We watched the video, followed the directions, and ended up with a great-looking model. The only problem was, it didn’t work. I have come to think of this as cargo cult science — everything looks right, but because we don’t really know what we’re doing, we’re missing some essential ingredient that would turn our model from a reasonable facsimile into the real thing.
You would think that pre-packaged science kits would be ideal for my family. But over the years, I’ve learned to be wary when trying out most science kits. Some have been so simplistic they were hardly worth the cost — sometimes containing nothing more than a packet of baking soda, a balloon, and a rubber band. Others were more ambitious, but too hard or just poorly-designed to actually get working, like the “build-your-own-electronics” kit that consisted of a cardboard control board and a bunch of little springs meant to hold the wires in configurations described in the instructions. Most of our old kits have ended up stuffed in the back of a cabinet, good for nothing more than scavenging for parts.
But as I was digging through the cabinet looking for spare parts, I happened to come across a kit that had a “real radio” project — and it was the one brand of kit that has always come through for us. ScienceWiz kits use simple materials and simple techniques that are pretty much foolproof. And they come with book-size, full-color illustrated instructions that are easy to follow. What’s more, the books contain enough background information to explain the science behind the project without overwhelming the beginner.
We had already used the ScienceWiz Inventions kit to build a spinning motor, a generator, and a telegraph key. What I liked most about each project was that after we had gone through it and understood how it worked, we could build as many as we liked using recycled electrical parts from broken toys and appliances or materials from our local office supply store and Radio Shack. The radio project was probably the most advanced in the kit. We decided to start from scratch and build it just using the parts from the kit. Then once we had it figured out, we could go back and tinker with our original DIY version.
This project did call for materials not included in the kit: cardboard tubes, a cardboard base and glue. We also found it necessary to add more wire — about 100 feet worth, in the case of antenna. However, the kit did supply a germanium diode and a piezoelectric earphone, which the Internet says can be hard to find. As you can see from the video above, when we finally got enough antenna strung around the house, we were able to pull in a local easy-listening station. Success!
ScienceWiz makes several kinds of kits. We’ve used the Energy, Light, and Electricity kits and had good luck with each. My only complaint is that their website is not updated, and the company itself is hard to reach. (I once tried to interview them for a story, to no avail.) But of all the kits we have used, these have been the most frustration-free.
Now, back to our DIY radio. If we switch out the diode for the razor blade and try bluing it this time…