Everyday discovery labs

I’m a big fan of silly online videos – I doubt that this is news to any longtime readers of this site.  My favorite videos include:

  • Will it blend?  Tom Dickson from Blendtec blends various household and industrial items with his Blendtec blender.  And yes, he wears goggles the whole time!
  • Will it float?  This is actually a series of bits that David Letterman did on his late night show for a number of years, in which some item is thrown into a swimming pool and predictions are made about whether they think it will float.
  • Red Hot Nickel Ball:  What happens if you heat a nickel ball until it’s red hot and put it on different stuff?  Check it out, in a video that the nickel ball master himself, Matt Neuland, has allowed us to use:

Anyhow, you get the idea.  It’s fun to see what random things will do when you perform odd experiments on them.  Just this morning, I did a “will it mow?” experiment with one of those solar walking path lights.  The answer:  Yes, it does mow.

It’s this kind of fun you can bring into the classroom with a “weekly segment” you perform where you perform different experiments of this type and get the kids to predict what will happen.  From the kids’ standpoint, you’ll just be screwing around and breaking stuff, but from an education standpoint it gives the kids some experience with materials science. Some suggested things you can do with your classes (with safety suggestions to follow):

  • Will it smash?  Try smashing stuff with a hammer to see what will happen.  Initial questions can include things like “Do you think it’ll break into a million pieces?” and “Do you think it will blend instead of smash?”  In the debrief following these experiments, get the kids to discuss why they made their predictions and how it relates to the structures of these materials.
  • Will it float?  Clearly, you’ll have to do this on a smaller scale than Letterman did. However, when your students predict if something will float, you can tease apart their reasons for making this guess to get at some real science.
  • Will it burn?  Essentially, you’re asking your kids to explain why things burn, and whether various materials have those properties.  You can do this more generally with the types of reaction, finding out “will it decompose?” and such.
  • Will it rot?  Better for a biology class, this extended experiment will make the kids laugh.  Don’t ask me how I know.

Obviously, you’ll need to take strict safety measures to ensure that nobody gets hurt.  Some basic rules of thumb:

  • Everybody wears goggles.  All the time.
  • In any experiment where projectiles of any kind are generated, the students must be separated from the experiment by at least one safety device (i.e. Plexiglas shield, fume hood sash, etc.)
  • In any experiment where fire is used, the students must be at a safe distance from the fire.  “Safe distance”, in this case, refers to the maximum distance that would come into contact with the flames if the experiment went completely out of control.  Additionally, the usual fire safety equipment should be present.
  • And, as always, no wagering.¹

Have fun with this idea.  Play with it and see what happens.  Give your kids a goofy activity to look forward to.  But only when done safely!²

Footnotes:

  1. Think of this as my homage to Letterman.
  2. As always, there’s some advice and a disclaimer.  Advice:  If you don’t feel comfortable doing an experiment, NEVER do it.  If you don’t know what will happen, NEVER do it. If proper safety measures can’t be used, NEVER do it.  Disclaimer:  By doing these experiments or derivative experiments of this type, you agree to hold Ian Guch harmless for any injuries, damage, or any other negative outcomes that may result.  There is no substitute for the judgement of a teacher, and you ultimately have to decide for yourself whether something is safe.  No matter what, wear goggles, and if you don’t know if something is safe, it’s probably not.
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