Our son Nicholas is in second grade at a great public school! Each month, he has to do two science projects at home. I really like the way these projects are organized. [UPDATE: When I wrote this, the project ideas were available online. They aren’t anymore–sorry!–but at least we still have the ideas discussed here!]
The science projects are written in a calendar format, with one project for almost every school day of the month, so a class or a home-schooler could use them for daily inspiration. The way they’re used at Nicholas’s school is that each student chooses two of the projects from the month’s selections. He can do the projects any time during the month; they are due on the last school day of the month. Depending on the type of project, students may get to talk about their work to the whole class or to display their work in the hallway. Nicholas cuts out the box describing the project from the calendar page and tapes it to his project to avoid any confusion for his teacher about which project he did.
This month, for example, Nicholas chose these two projects:
- Corn was a very important food source to Native Americans. List as many foods as you can that contain corn. He started by writing everything that came to mind, like corn on the cob, canned corn, corn chips, cornflakes, and cornbread; he also wrote down gummy worms because he remembered being told that the powder coating them is cornstarch. Then he looked at the labels of all the packaged foods in our kitchen and pantry. At times he got distracted by reading all the ingredients, but much of the time he was just scanning for the letters CORN. He was surprised to learn that cornstarch and corn syrup are in many foods that don’t taste like corn at all. I was reaching things off the high shelves for him, and I found this pretty educational, too–my biggest surprise was that ramen noodles (I know! They’re not a healthy food! We only eat them sometimes!!) contain “hydrolyzed corn protein” in the soup powder. Nicholas was disappointed to have only 16 items on his list after all that searching, but I was relieved that we didn’t have more stealth corn in our packaged foods, since I do try to avoid it because most non-organic corn in the United States is genetically modified. Nicholas wanted to make a longer list, so we did some Internet searches, and he wrote down some more foods, ultimately making a list of more than 30.
- December has 31 days. How many other months have 31 days? List the months. This is one of the easier choices, but for a young child who’s not yet completely familiar with the calendar, it does present some challenge. Nicholas figured out for himself that he could get the calendar off the wall, page through it looking at the number on the final day of each month, and write down the name of the month if it has 31 days. What’s the science? Well, as a social science research professional, I’d say: Sorting through data, observing a pattern, and collecting your own data set is a skill that can be useful in many types of research and in reporting the results of your own experiments.
Earlier this year, he chose to make a wind vane. That one was a good example of something I’ve noticed before: If Daniel or I helped him do the project, it might be prettier and/or work more smoothly, but our existing knowledge of how stuff works would get in the way of his applying his own knowledge so far and learning new things. It’s best if we “help” by being present but being busy doing something else, so that we might answer some questions or make a comment to steer him away from frustration, but he does most of the work himself. He made the wind vane while I was paying bills. He cut a flag from scrap paper. From his drawer in the kitchen, he got a drinking straw he’d brought home from a restaurant and washed for reuse. From the cardboard recycling bin, he got a small piece of cardboard. He taped the flag to the straw, made a hole in the cardboard with a paring knife, and put the base of the straw in there such that it could rotate freely. He set up his wind vane to try blowing on it. It tipped over. “Mom! It’s not working!! Because a real wind vane would be on a roof! Do I have to build a whole house to put it on?!” I said, “I think it just needs a heavier base. Maybe there’s something in the Free Stuff pile that you could use.” (We had some unsold items from our yard sale out on the porch with a sign welcoming passersby to take them.) Nicholas went out on the porch and soon returned with a gadget I had bought that was supposed to extend the usefulness of your razor blades if you inserted the razor at one end and shaved it along the mirror inside, over and over again–I don’t know if it would have worked if I had had the patience to keep using it, but I hadn’t. At any rate, the thing weighed about a quarter pound. Nicholas taped his cardboard base to the top of it; the slot in it allowed the straw to rotate. He blew on the flag. It turned to show the direction of the wind. He was very pleased.
My favorite of all his science projects so far was in November of kindergarten: He was supposed to survey his family about our favorite colors and make a bar graph. This would have been boring in our nuclear family, 3 people who all like purple! But we were going to a Thanksgiving gathering of more than 20 relatives! Nicholas diligently walked around the tables as we were chatting after the meal, asking each person to write down her name and favorite color. He made a nice graph and also noticed interesting trends in the data: The purple-likers and orange-likers are clustered among relatives more closely related to one another, and many couples share a favorite color or like similar colors (like blue and green). He also learned about recoding an outlier: Smart-alec Cousin Spencer claimed his favorite color is infra-red, and after discussion with his advisors (parents), Nicholas concluded that this response could be included in the red group. He made a nice graph with bars of the appropriate colors.
P.S. I wrote this article while eating my Standardized Holiday Feast in my office. At this time last year, I did a little science project of my own to see how much I could reduce the garbage created by my employer-provided holiday meal. Oh, and I guess I was also doing science when I recently figured out how to salvage over-baked brownies!