Anyone who spends time with children knows that they are information sponges, eager to learn new things. But, in my experience, they can also have incredibly short attention spans.
So if you want kids to be passionate about science, you will likely have to do more than just give them a book. One way to capture (and keep) a child’s interest is to give him or her the freedom to make a mess, shoot a rocket or make candy. In short, you can interest kids in science by doing science, and having fun while you’re at it.
Liz Heinecke knows what kids will like. For the past several years, Heinecke has run the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog, giving kids (and parents) step-by-step instructions on how to do science experiments that are safe, fun, educational, and can be done using common household materials.
Heinecke recently published a book, Kitchen Science Lab For Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments From Around The House, offering even more of these family-friendly experiments.
I wanted to talk to Heinecke about why she decided to start writing about science experiments for kids, the science communication value of home experiments, and which experiments she recommends for the novice pantry scientist.
Communication Breakdown: What’s your science background?
Liz Heinecke: After graduating from Luther College, a liberal arts school in Iowa, with a major in art and a biology minor, I got my first job in a diabetes research lab at the University of Iowa. For the next ten years, I played with cells, nucleic acids and proteins at the University of Minnesota, the University of Kansas, and finally the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I became fascinated with molecular pathogenesis and went back to school for an M.S. in bacteriology.
It was amazing to see how the technology advanced over the 10 years I worked in a lab. I went from learning to use an early model thermal cycler to doing fluorescent sequencing and synthesizing DNA.
CB: Were you interested in science as a kid?
Heinecke: Yes! I loved collecting rocks and bugs and wanted to be a geologist.
CB: How old were you when you first started doing science experiments – did you do them at home or in school?
Heinecke: The first experiment I remember was playing with an egg whose eggshell had been dissolved in vinegar (rubber egg) in preschool. At home, we did more backyard nature exploration than formal experiments.
CB: When did you start doing science experiments at home with your own kids? What was the impetus for that?
Heinecke: When my kids were little, I did a childcare swap with a friend every Wednesday. To fill the time with something other than crayons, I found some safe, classic science experiments online and modified them to use ingredients I had around the house. PBS’s DragonflyTV website was one of our first resources.
The most memorable moments from our “Science Wednesdays” was being lucky enough to catch the moment when a monarch caterpillar we’d found wriggled out of its skin to become a chrysalis. I was as excited as the kids were.
CB: After you’d started doing science experiments with your kids, you launched the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog. When was that and why did you decide to share your science experiments online?
Heinecke: Several years ago, a friend asked me to write a kids’ activity blog for a local retailer. I learned to use WordPress and joined the blogging community, writing about art projects and including a few of our “Science Wednesday” projects. Soon I realized that there were a million craft blogs, but parents were hungry for safe, easy science experiments to do with their kids.
I jumped at the chance to share something I love, and started KitchenPantryScientist.com to encourage parents to tackle science projects at home with gusto and without fear.
CB: Did you have any previous writing experience before starting the blog?
Heinecke: No. I’ve always liked writing, but was focused on other things. Blogging is a great way to practice. I’m obviously still learning.
CB: Was the blog an immediate success, or did it take time to find an audience?
Heinecke: The blog was not an immediate success by any stretch of the imagination. I used to get really excited to get 30 hits in one day. It’s taken years to build a resource that people can find when they’re looking for a project. I do everything myself, trying to focus on the experiments, and haven’t done much with search engine optimization.
CB: Any big surprises or lessons learned that you hadn’t anticipated when you started blogging?
Heinecke: I’m surprised at the great opportunities that social media has given me, like the chance to do science on television, and attend a NASA tweetup for a space shuttle launch.
CB: Do you design your own experiments? And how do you decide which experiments to include on the blog?
Heinecke: Most of the experiments I do are variations on classic experiments. I try to make them safer, easier, quicker, or rework the ingredients to include things many people have around the house. There’s a cool Kaye Effect experiment in my book that was worked out by a physicist (Greg Gbur) who I met at a science meeting. Often people will tell me about a fun experiment they did as a child, or saw online, and then my kids and I try it out. I credit experiments to their creators when I can, but it’s often impossible to figure out who came up with them first.
My kids and I concocted a few experiments of our own as well. A popular one is Frankenworms, which uses the classic baking soda and vinegar chemical reaction to make thin slivers of candy worms float around and wiggle. Another colorful, decorative diffusion experiment we came up with combines science and art to illustrate diffusion.
I try to include experiments that work well, but sometimes I’ll write about one that didn’t go as planned to show kids that science experiments, or ideas for experiments, don’t always work perfectly.
CB: So you do have ideas for experiments that just doesn’t work the way you wanted them to?
Heinecke: Yes! I’ve been trying to make up a protocol for doing magnetophoresis in gelatin or agar with a strong magnet and the tiny metal pieces you can pull from Total breakfast cereal (I think Steve Spangler may have come up with the metal extraction from cereal idea). It seems like a good, safe way to demonstrate how scientists separate DNA fragments using electrophoresis. I can’t get it to work though. Let me know if you have any ideas.
CB: I know you do a monthly TV segment for the NBC station in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Did that stem from the blog?
Heinecke: Yes. I started following some local news people on Twitter, and a morning news anchor named Kim Insley liked what I was doing on my blog, so she asked me to come demonstrate some experiments. They’ve invited me to be on monthly ever since.
CB: Did the blog generate any other opportunities for you?
Heinecke: Yes, the acquiring editor of my book found me through my blog.
CB: Can you explain the work you did with NASA and the Science Museum of Minnesota?
Heinecke: Starting in 2011, I volunteered as an Earth Ambassador for NASA, partnering with the Science Museum of Minnesota to plan and host a NASA Climate Day/Earth Day event at the museum each spring to educate people about the science of climate change. I always do hands-on science at the events for kids, related to climate change, like this ocean acidification experiment: http://kitchenpantryscientist.com/co2-breath-test/
CB: I know that the NASA program was cut due to a lack of funding. Are you still working with the science museum at all?
Heinecke: Yes! I still volunteer to do hands-on science events with them and will continue to help them out with Earth Day events, as long as they need me.
CB: You published a book this year called Kitchen Science Lab For Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments From Around The House. How did that come about?
Heinecke: Quarry Publishing wanted a kids’ science book as part of their Hands-On Family series, and they found me through my blog.
CB: What’s your goal for the book?
Heinecke: Ideally, I want kids to flip through the book and run to the fridge to grab the ingredients for an experiment. Hopefully, parents will see how safe and simple the projects are, so they’ll encourage their kids to go ahead and do some science.
Ultimately, I’d love to see more kids fearlessly doing science at home so that when they come across it in school they’ll have a creative, inquisitive, positive attitude to the subject.
CB: The book includes not only materials and protocols for each experiment, but safety tips, explanations of the science, and questions that encourage kids to think about what they’ve learned. How effective have “science Wednesdays” and kitchen experiments been at getting your kids interested in science and helping them understand scientific concepts?
Heinecke: All three of my kids love doing experiments!
My oldest has every radar app available, and wants to be a meteorologist or climate scientist. My youngest asks me questions about science all the time, like “Tell me again why the leaves are red in the fall?” She remembers we did an experiment with the pigments in leaves.
CB: Have you gotten feedback from parents or teachers about the impact the blog or book has had on their children or students?
Heinecke: I’ve gotten several grateful emails on my blog from parents and kids looking for science fair projects.
The book is pretty new, but some friends have told me that they’ve found their kids paging through and planning experiments for the weekend!
CB: In your opinion, how important are these sorts of hands-on activities in terms of science communication?
Heinecke: Hands-on science for kids is fantastic for science communication. While kids explore a concept, parents lean in to watch and absorb everything their kids are learning. Whether you’re talking rocket science or climate science, everyone is engaged on some level!
Hands-on science is also a great way to reach different types of learners. Science experiments are an immersive experience. They’re often visually exciting, but they can also be tactile, have an odor and even be audible. We all experience the world slightly differently, and while some kids will remember that the balloon that inflated with carbon dioxide gas was red, others will remember that the bottle felt cold from the chemical reaction. [Note: Heinecke is referring to the “fizzy balloon” experiment.]
CB: You still have the blog, and the book came out this year – do you have any plans for new science communication projects?
Heinecke: Not yet. I love doing outreach though. My dream is to be the Julia Child of kids’ science and make some 3-minute how-to science experiment videos to air between programs on PBS, the Food Network, or anywhere else kids and parents are watching.
CB: Last question – can you recommend two or three experiments for parents to try at home with their kids?
Heinecke: Alien Monster Eggs: You already have the ingredients for these in your kitchen, your kids will learn a little biology and chemistry, and they’re awesome.
Magic Potion: This experiment combines a pH color change experiment and a safe chemical reaction in a colorful, exciting way. It’s great for everything from birthday parties to outreach, since you can do in in small cups or sample containers with large numbers of kids!
Paper Bag Volcano: Have a bottle, paper bag, food coloring, baking soda and vinegar? Try this quick, easy variation on one of the most popular science experiments out there.