Taking Science Experiments (and Kids) Outdoors: an Interview with Liz Heinecke

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Summer is here, and for parents (like me) who have school-age children, that means finding ways to keep the kids occupied. And if those activities help to instill a love of science, all the better. So, what better time for finding a book of outdoor science experiments for children?

Well, folks, you’re in luck. Liz Heinecke’s new book, Outdoor Science Lab for Kids is exactly what it sounds like. More than 50 experiments that should keep kids occupied, many of which require little adult supervision (depending, of course, on how old your kids are).

I first interviewed Heinecke in 2014, just after she published her first book of science experiments for kids, and wanted to follow up with her about the new one. Giving children the opportunity to engage in hands-on experiments is a valuable form of science communication, and writing a book of experiments that needs to be understood by parents and kids presents its own set of challenges. Here’s what we had to talk about…

Science Communication Breakdown: You’d been writing your Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog for years before writing your first book, Kitchen Science Lab For Kids. When did you start thinking about developing outdoor experiments? And why write a book about them?

Photo courtesy of Liz Heinecke.
Photo courtesy of Liz Heinecke.

Liz Heinecke: As a kid, I was constantly catching tadpoles, collecting insects and hunting for rocks and spent lots of my free time outdoors, looking for things to do. Now, as a parent in the digital world, I find it challenging to keep my kids connected to the natural world, and some days it’s hard to get them outdoors at all.

Writing this book seemed like a great way to introduce today’s kids to some of the outdoor activities that I loved as a child, and an excuse to play with some experiments that I’d never done before. I asked a few friends who teach high school biology for a few of their students’ favorite outdoor activities, and finally had an excuse to try making the maple syrup candy from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House in the Big Woods.

Hopefully, the ideas in this book will entice kids to get outside and poke around in the dirt, pull out the garden hose, and do some driveway chemistry.

SCB: To what extent do you develop your own experiments, versus modifying experiments you’ve found elsewhere?

Heinecke: It’s a mix of the two. Sometimes, I’ll be suddenly inspired to try a project I’ve known about for years. I’d seen people instantly turn soda into slush online a number of times, but after listening to a great RadioLab show on super-cooled water, I ran to the freezer to see if I could duplicate their experiment. I didn’t have a little plastic horse on hand, (listen to the show), but it worked well with bottled water after some trial and error and was so amazing that I decided to add it to the book.

I love projects that have a “wow” factor, or at least a fun factor. Many of the experiments I work with have been around for decades, or even hundreds of years, but I try to make them simpler, safer, more entertaining and kid-friendly.  For example, for film canister rockets, I discovered that you can use gum to hold the seltzer tablet in the lid of the canister. I simplified the classic volcano reaction using water bottles and paper bags or cone coffee filters, rather than paper mache, and made cosmetic chemistry more kid-friendly using concentrated drink drops to color and flavor to homemade lip balm.

My dad (a physicist) gives me lots of suggestions for experiments to try. For the new book, he told me that you can make a water elevator with a hot water bottle, and we took it up a notch using an air mattress. I also try to incorporate art into the projects whenever I can, encourage kids to create faces on their capillary action experiments (Vegetable Vampires) and give experiments fun names like “Solar Heat Beam” and “Alien Monster Eggs.”

I do make up original experiments as well, and I’m pretty proud of my creations. Kids I do outreach with are always mixing stuff from multiple experiments together, so it occurred to me that it would be fun to combine polymer slime (glue/Borax) with the classic volcano reaction (baking soda and vinegar) to trap bubbles in slime. After a little engineering, I had a protocol for making Foaming Slime Monsters.

Some others I’ve made up include Frankenworms, a diffusion experiment using Jell-O and food coloring, Picnic Blanket Relativity (in Outdoor Science Lab for Kids), Driveway Frescoes with cornstarch goo, a chip clip catapult (also in my new book), and a siphon roller coaster, for broken balloons. Some of them, like Frankenworms and the Jell-O diffusion experiment are all over the internet now, which is pretty neat.

SCB: In 2014, I asked what your goals were for Kitchen Science Lab. You said you wanted kids and parents to start doing experiments and that, ultimately, you’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.” Have you gotten feedback from readers – parents, children, or educators – about the first book? Do you think the book is doing what you hoped it would do?

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Book cover image courtesy of Liz Heinecke. Click for more information on the book.

Heinecke: I’ve gotten great feedback. People tell me all the time that they’ve done multiple experiments from the book, and that their kids sit for long periods of time looking at the projects and bookmarking page after page of things they want to try.

There’s no way for me to gauge how many people are actually doing experiments at home, but based on the way the book is selling and the fact that it’s been published in eight languages, it seems that people like the idea of at-home science activities.

SCB: What are your goals for Outdoor Science Lab?

Heinecke: I want to get kids to go outside to wade in the water, look for bugs, dig in the dirt, and mix things together to see what happens. In a society that tempts us to live our lives on screens, we all need more physical interaction with the natural world. Science experiments are a great way to encourage kids to be kids.

SCB: What did you learn from writing Kitchen Science Lab, and did that experience change your approach to writing Outdoor Science Lab? If so, how?

Heinecke: I learned that the writing is the easy aspect of putting together a science book.

Photographing the experiments is lots of fun, but also the challenging part for my photographer Amber Procaccini and me. When working with big groups of kids, I learned to bring along plenty of experiments, lots of patience and to play it by ear. Depending on the day, the location, personalities, and the dynamics, you might get through 3 experiments or you might get through 6. It never hurts to have some Diet Coke and Mentos on hand either, to keep kids entertained when the day gets long, or when I’m troubleshooting.

SCB: Did you learn anything from the process of writing the new book – about writing, organizing your material, etc.?

Heinecke: My last book was a little easier, since almost all of the experiments were already on my website. For Outdoor Science Lab, I made a list of experiments I wanted in the book, including some new ones I wanted to try and grouped them into units. If a unit was short on projects, I tried to find, or think up a few more to add.  I had some extra experiments in mind, in case some of them didn’t work.

SCB: Your books target an audience that can be tricky to write for, since you want the material to be accessible to both adults (parents) and children across a wide range of ages. How do you try to balance your writing, so that it can be easily understood without coming across as patronizing (to parents or kids)?

Heinecke: In my experience, it’s adults who are intimidated by scientific explanations they think their kids won’t understand. Kids, on the other hand, aren’t afraid of big words and crave more complicated, complete explanations, whether they understand them fully or not.

As a result, I try to write as though I were explaining a concept to a room full of kids. I don’t dumb things down, but I do try to define concepts so people with no science background can understand them. I also love telling stories about science, to connect hands-on experiments to art, history and the world around us.

SCB: In our last interview, I asked you about the importance of hands-on experiences in science communication. You said it was a useful way to engage audiences and to reach different types of learners. Over the past couple of years, have you found that there are other advantages, or challenges, associated with hands-on science communication activities?

Heinecke: My thoughts on this haven’t changed at all. Hands-on science outreach with kids will always be messy and challenging, but I’m still convinced that it is the best way to get kids infatuated with science and to show parents that it’s simple and inexpensive to do science at home.

SCB: Are you considering writing more science lab books for kids?

Heinecke: We’ll see. I hope so!

I recently attended a conference on kids and play, and learned that lots of people who produce media for kids are really interesting in finding unique, playful science content. It inspired me to start writing a fictional kids book with multi-platform possibilities. I also have a fun idea for a video series.

SCB: Last question: can you recommend one or two outdoor experiments for parents to try at home with their kids – maybe ones that we can link to from your blog?

Heinecke: Kids love worms, and I love the Earthworm Eruption experiment in Outdoor Science Lab. I first learned about this experiment at the Minnesota State Fair from the Department of Natural Resources. Here’s a link to the original post on my website.

The Driveway Frescoes made with cornstarch goo are also lots of fun, and you’ll love playing with the cornstarch goo before you paint on it. In Outdoor Science Lab, I recommend using food coloring to paint on the fresco, but it would be fun to try watercolor paint as well.

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