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Every year each of my kids does a large scientific investigation, and it is that time of year again. As I did last year , I will write up what we have accomplished each week, so that you can see true scientific inquiry in action. Often people only see the outcome of a scientific investigation, and it always looks so tidy. This is not how science works as you will soon see with my kids' projects.

So last year, my older son won the Regional Science Fair and was so excited that he started planning his next project 2 months later! Here is what I wrote up in October:


Coming up with an idea. October. Older ds who is in 7th grade.

Well, it has been 2 months since the Regional Science Fair, and my ds is already planning his next project. We are studying chemistry this year, so he would really like to do a chemistry project. This is a very difficult thing to do for a few reasons:

1) How does a 12 year old uncover anything new in chemistry?
2) We have no chemical equipment.

His first idea was to determine which chemicals made the biggest explosion. 001_rolleyes.gifYes, I am sure most of you are smiling. Not really surprising in a 12 year old boy, but not a great idea from the point of view of my insurance. Plus, not really original.

The next idea came from his reading on fracking (which unfortunately for me has a different meaning because of watching Battle Star Galactic
blush.gif.) He read an article in Scientific American and was curious as to why the concrete pipes leak underground. So we discussed testing different kinds of concrete for resilience to seismic disturbances. I knew we could get cement for free, and we have lots of different levels of grit for rock tumbling (we had to buy in bulk), which would allow for a quantitative comparison as we know the grit sizes. So we talked about creating different types of concrete and testing it for strength and flexibility. He could have some fun designing some objective ways to smash or shake the concrete, but I was not clear how he could make any tubes. He also was interested in having it set at different temperatures, possibly under water kept at a certain temp with ice cubes etc. Seemed pretty promising, but he just never took to it.

His current idea concerns air pollution. He has noticed that one of the longer tunnels in our town is quite smelly. We have to roll up the windows in the car and turn the vent to internal circulation or we are really gassed out. This got him to thinking about what kind of ventilation existed in that tunnel. We also discussed what else affected the air pollution - number of cars, direction the tunnel faces compared to the prevailing wind direction (we live in a very windy town), and the length of the tunnel. Then, he starting thinking about parking decks. We have some smelly ones and some clean ones. Some underground, some above ground. Some with multiple open walls, some with only one open wall. Some with fans, some without.
blink.gif He starting getting excited about building a M.O.D.E.L.... yes , this is my very mathy kid, and he is very motivated to win the math award 2 years in a row.

So next up he starts researching how to measure pollution. CO2, lead, CO, etc. He wants to do it himself rather than send the air samples to a lab. He very quickly finds a site that tells him how to build a pump and where to buy the CO2 kits. They are $65 per 10. hummm. I tell him that he has a $200 budget. Given that I spend nothing on lab equipment, it seems like a fair but generous amount. I told him if he plans to spend more, he needs to dip into his $700 winnings from last year's fair. Last year's project cost us $12 for a new ruler when he left it behind + $12 for a poster board. So definitely a money making venture!

I told him that we could go to an exhaust testing station and talk to them. I also discussed with him that he does not have to test for ALL the different pollutants. One could be representative. His current question is NOT: Is there pollution in the different parking decks?, but rather creating a model to explain the different pollution levels. So one pollutant could be representative of pollution in general. But he needs to know the *levels* of pollution for this question, not just if the pollutant is found. We also discussed counting cars going through the tunnels during different parts of the day, and counting the number of cars per volume of space in the different parking decks. Good thing he is starting early!

Currently, he is very excited about the pollution question. But he needs to see if he can do the work within the budget. I am not so sure. Really depends on the replication he needs. But there is still much more research he needs to do. Scientists do have to work within a budget, so it is not a bad problem to have from the point of view of replicating real science.

Ruth in NZ

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Coming up with an idea. January to mid-March. Younger ds who is in 3rd grade


My younger son got his inspiration when we attended a medieval lecture on making inks and paints from dye. She went through the entire process in front of us – grinding, boiling, adding chemicals, etc. And then POOF the dye sunk to the bottom as a solid with colour! This is then strained out through cheese cloth, dried, and called pigment. The pigment is then mixed with egg or casein or oil to make paint.


Well, my ds was mesmerized. And after class we went up to the lecturer to find out what she had added to the dye to get it to precipitate out. It was "alum" and "potash." Well, my old ds got so excited because he was convinced that it formed an insoluble salt and started going on and on about the chemistry of acids and bases. This got my younger boy even more excited, because it was *chemistry*!


So on the way home we discussed the idea of looking at making inks and studying the fade rate of different substances. The idea of grinding and mixing and using chemicals was very appealing to my little boy – he was hooked :001_smile: .


So the very next week we went to the store on bought “alum†and “potash.†He spent an hour picking and boiling up a bunch of flowers and leaves from our yard, and then he added the 2 chemicals and NOTHING happened. :001_huh: We added more, and then let it cool, but still NOTHING happened. :confused: So what went wrong? We got on the internet and found that “alum†and “potash†are very generalized terms and could be many different chemicals. I had bought “sulphate of potash†which is potassium sulphate, and “alum†which is potassium aluminium sulfate. We finally decided that I must have bought the wrong alum and decided to try the pickling spice called alum. Too bad it is not sold in NZ, but my brother in law as happy to send us some.


So a few weeks later we tried the experiment again with the new alum from the USA. Well after another hour of work ......NOTHING happened. Hummm.


So finally a month later we are coming back around to the project. We did some more research on the internet a couple of days ago and could not find anything helpful. So I called the National Library and got the name of the speaker and e-mailed her. She wrote back yesterday and told me that she ground up a “crystal†deodorant stick which is made of alum. So I called the alternative grocery store in town and asked if they carried a crystal deodorant stick made of alum. The man said that if I just told him what I was allergic to, it would be more helpful. Well, I'm sure you can picture this conversation. “Actually, I just need the deodorant stick so my ds can grind it up and mix it with fertilizer so that he can turn dye into pigment.†:tongue_smilie:


Ruth in NZ

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… She wrote back yesterday and told me that she ground up a “crystal†deodorant stick which is made of alum. So I called the alternative grocery store in town and asked if they carried a crystal deodorant stick made of alum. The man said that if I just told him what I was allergic to, it would be more helpful. Well, I'm sure you can picture this conversation. “Actually, I just need the deodorant stick so my ds can grind it up and mix it with fertilizer so that he can turn dye into pigment.†:tongue_smilie:


Ruth in NZ



Have you found the crystal deodrant yet?

I use this Crystal Body Deordarant, and the website says it sells in New Zealand.

Although, I have never used it make pigment!

Love your science fair updates!

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Obtaining equipment. February. DS 7th grade


The first thing that ds and I had to figure out is whether we could get CO2 detectors for a decent price. I talked to my sister, who is a science teacher, about this, and we struck the jackpot! Her school happens to do CO2 detection experiments for their Environmental Science class, and they had just updated their detectors and had some old ones laying around. They still work and can do as many samples as you want, but require you to bring a computer to the study site and download the data as you collect rather than just storing the data in memory until you get back to class. She said that we could have one – for free!


So last month I asked my dh to make sure that we could make them work. Well..... the school lost the software so nothing worked! My dh, being the clever man that he is, was able to download some software by agreeing to be a beta tester for the Linux version. Point being, the CO2 detector works! And it has cost us nothing! :hurray:


Ruth in NZ

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Week 1. DS 7th grade


We officially launched the science fair season this weekend with a lovely long discussion about what exactly he wants to study. I could just tell you the outcome, but instead I took notes on the back and forth of the discussion which I thought would be interesting to some people. A lot of homeschoolers seem to struggle with how to make the project the student's and not the parent's. So here is a detailed description of how to draw ideas out of a student without giving them an “answer.â€


First of all, let me be clear, at the start of this discussion, I had purposely not put any brainpower to the project, so I had no preconceived notions as to what was going to come out of it. My goal was to guide him through the thinking process. I was not even sure what we were going to talk about. I have excluded all the ums and I-don't-knows etc that you expect from a 12 year old. His responses are in italic:


You told me before that you don't want to just measure pollution levels in different parking decks, but rather would like to determine what parking deck features help to reduce pollution. So what do you need to answer this question? How many cars are in the parking deck. What else do we need? What kind of pollution removal techniques each deck uses. Great, let's start with the cars.


Are we just counting the number of cars? What about a big deck vs a small deck? No, you would need to see how large the deck is, so cars per volume. So probably cars/m3. How would you measure the volume of the parking deck? You need one of those laser measurer. We could ask our friends if anyone has one, and if they don't what else could we use? A really long tape measure. Possibly, but we might be in the way of the cars, do you think we could just use paces and estimate the height?


So does it matter how busy a parking deck is? Of course, we could measure how many cars go in and out. How exactly do you plan to do that? I'm not sure, could we just go count the number of cars in the each parking deck? Yes, that is called a snapshot. When would you do it? What do you mean? In the morning, afternoon or at night? After I get my work done – so the afternoon. So if you are considering pollution removal, wouldn't it matter if the parking deck was only for shoppers who come and go vs commuters who come in and park and stay all day? What if the deck was closed at night vs having residents be allowed to rent the space at night? Wouldn't there be more pollution? What we really need is to know how long the car engines are actually running in each deck. So how would you measure that? We need to put in a hidden camera and then count how many minutes car engines are running. :huh: Well, besides that being illegal! And expensive! Are you planning to review the tapes every night for 24 hours? :tongue_smilie: you would need some sort of speed-up machine. (he laughed and mimicked what this would be like) So what are our options? We could count all the cars in the deck at one point in time or we could use a hidden camera. There is one more option, you could sit for an hour and count the cars that go in and out. But what exactly are we trying to measure? What would be the ideal measurement? Some sort of average over the month. That is good, we actually want to approximate the best option, which would be the number of minutes car engines run throughout the day and then average that value over a month. But there is just no way to get that kind of data.


I think we need some graphs to figure out which option we should use. Option 1 is to count the cars driving in and out for an hour. (I asked him to sketch a graph of the number of cars moving vs time of the day. The commuter graph has spikes in the morning and night, but the shopping graph is more even throughout the day but at a lower level than the commuter graph). Option 2, count the cars parked in the deck at one point in time (next, he graphed the number of cars parked vs time of day. The commuter graph went up first, then flat, then down at night when everyone went home. The shoppers graph was curved or even bimodal depending on when the most shopping is done.)


So when are you going to measure? At 2pm because there are the most cars. But the shoppers graph does not show all the cars that came in and then left before 2. It underestimates. So what can you do? I can count the number of cars that go in and out of the deck for an hour in the shoppers deck and then stretch it out to a day. But how do you know if the number of cars is constant? I could check multiple times per day. Yes, you could, but will you? Will you really go sit and count cars at multiple times of day for multiple parking decks? Well, no that sounds really boring. Plus, how are you going to compare the number of parked cars in a commuter deck with the number of cars coming in and out over an hour in a shoppers deck. You really need 1 variable.


Do you know what a cumulative graph is? no (So I explain it and ask him to sketch a graph of the number of cars that come in and out vs the time of day but make it cumulative. This graph rises steadily for the shoppers deck, but stair steps for the commuter deck). Well, this looks like a real problem to me and I don't think we have an answer yet. So how do we handle it? Whatever you finally decide on, you will need to write up your assumptions and use that information to help you interpret the data. Alternatively, you could try to only use shoppers decks or commuter decks so that they are more comparable. I just am not sure that we can know if a deck is one or the other.


We really need to know how much pollution the average car produces. Oh, I hadn't really thought of that. We will need to do some research. How do we know how much pollution is in the parking deck? What? How are you measuring pollution? Oh, with the CO2 reader. Right, so where are you going to stand? What? Where? In the middle? Oh, well, all over. Are you going to go to the most polluted area? Maybe the corners? Or the least polluted area near the fans? Yes, both. How will you know where the most polluted spot is? I don't know. So perhaps you should measure in an objective way. How can you do that? I'm not sure. What do you mean by objective? Well, you won't know where the pollution is until you take the readings, and the most polluted area might change every day depending on the wind. So perhaps, you just need to say, I will take the readings in the 4 corners. And in the middle. Sounds good.


Let's take a break from the cars, and switch to how the pollution is removed. What are the possibilities? It could blow away, have fans blow it away, or have cars push it out. I had not thought of the cars pushing it out, this is very true for the long tunnel, but do you think it is important in parking decks? Probably not, plus it would be hard to measure. How do the fans work? They blow the air. Do they blow it or suck it out? I think they suck it out, but we should check. How can we measure how much air they move? We can throw confetti at it and model the flow and movement. :rolleyes: I think we would get in trouble if we do that. We could get a wind toy – an anemometer. Then we need to measure the revolutions per minute and the size of the fan and the tilt of the blades. :blink: Great! But I don't think we will be able to get all that data, especially the tilt of the blades. Perhaps we can call and ask about the amount of air the fan moves in each parking deck. I just don't know if they will tell us. Or maybe we can just assume that the size of the fan represents the relative amount of air that moves. We can't do that! It is totally dependent on the revolutions per minute. Sounds like a bit of a problem.


What about the pollution being blown away. What do we need for the air to blow away? We need open walls. Which ones? What? Which walls have to be open? opposite walls. And we should measure how big the open areas are compared to the size of the deck. Great! Does it matter how they line up with the North-South prevailing wind direction? It might.


So let's summarize. You have 3 main variables to measure, what are they? The amount of air that is moved, the amount of CO2 that is produced, and the amount of CO2 that is actually there. Yes, great. We don't actually know how to measure anything yet. I think the next step is to do some reading about how others have measured these variables, and to also go and do some preliminary measurements in a few parking decks. What else do we need to do? Pick the parking decks. Yes, I bet we can find them on google maps. (ds and mother exit the stage :) )



Overall, all we have right now is questions -- we have no clear cut knowledge about how to measure these variables. But we have laid out what we need to figure out, which is a start.


Let me be clear – I do NOT have any clear notions right now as to how we will proceed or what exactly he will be studying. This is the preliminary investigation phase. In real science, you don't have the answers before you do the work. So you always feel like you are confused and uncertain. This is to be expected.


Time required:

Discussion 1.5 hours

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I really think your ds would love how Uncle Paul teaches. If you haven't read Wonderbook of Chemistry by Fabre, I would skim it. It is hard reading bc it is a poor translation and some of the terminology is out of date, but the way he teaches and the kids learn is so much fun!





This looks like a wonderful book. I will take the time to read it. Thanks!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Week 2. DS 7th grade


We took a week off, but began again this week. My ds and I revisited the issues that we discussed last week and did not come up with a lot of answers. It is just a mess. There are just so many things to consider and so many ways to collect the data. He really wanted the best data – to collect how many cars entered each parking deck every hour, even if this meant going to the City Council and seeing if they would give him the data. He then wanted to compare hourly car numbers to hourly CO2 readings in some sort of delayed time series. I told him that this is an excellent approach, but to a different question – how quickly does the ventilation system remove excess pollution in a single parking garage. It is too detailed for his original question of how do different ventilation methods compare in their ability to remove pollution. Does he want to change questions? No, he doesn't.


At this point he was feeling overwhelmed. So I told him to focus on how he felt in that exact moment and remember it, so that when he is done with this project and it is all tidy and organized and clear at the end, that he can remember how complex the issue really was. I also stressed the point that what he is experiencing is critical to his understanding of the scientific method. When you read a study or hear about it in the news, you always see the tidy end-product, and he must remember that the process to get there is much much more messy. Many assumptions are made to simplify “life†to make it studiable, and these assumptions affect the interpretation of the results.


So we finally agree on the goals of the preliminary analysis:

  1. Pick a few different parking garages to go to
  2. Get the CO2 detector working in the field. We have to drag the computer around, so we need to think this through.
  3. Determine where to measure in each parking garage
  4. Get a volume measurement and count the cars
  5. Study the ventilation methods at those garages

So because my dh had the day off today, we dragged him along as the computer expert. DS decided on the grocery store and library parking lots because they are both underground and nearby. We go to the grocery store first, because we cannot figure out where we put the batteries for the detector :huh: and need to buy more. While I do my shopping, dh and the kids play around with the detector to make sure they know what they are doing. They take some readings in the foyer of the grocery store. The readings are 13. So the first question is, what is 13? Is this a good number? Need to do some research. Then we head into the parking garage in the basement.


While dh and ds take some readings, younger ds and I pace out the garage. 51X56 meters. DH is frustrated because they are still getting readings of 13. But when he blows into the detector, it registers 10,000. So clearly it is working. The parking deck smells fumy to me, but the detector is not registering anything different than in the foyer. Then a terribly, horribly, smelly car starts up and heads out. Quick! Get over here and measure! So they come over, measure, but find no change?!?! :confused1:We decide to go sit on the bench by the taxi stand and go over the data as there is a time delay from reading to graphing. So perhaps my dh did not see all the data from the smelly car, perhaps it was still writing. But as we go to look at the data, my dh realizes that he has accidentally erased it. :tongue_smilie: Oops. We are all very frustrated by this point and decide to go home. We want to measure the exhaust of our car to see if the detector is working. We know it is, but somehow it is not. Perhaps the parking garage is cleaner than it smells. Perhaps CO2 is the wrong thing to measure pollution with. Perhaps the detector cannot measure small differences, but only large ones. We are all very discouraged as we hike the 15 minutes home (uphill) carrying all the groceries.


We get to our car, which is parked outside, and take some initial pre-exhaust readings for comparison. They come up as 13. I start up the car, while dh and ds measure the exhaust. If the detector is near the exhaust pipe, it clearly measures 5000, and then even sinks as the wind blows the exhaust away. We also look at how far away you can put the detector and measure anything. It appears to be only about half a meter. Past that and we are back down to 13. This is NOT looking good. :sad: I think that the problem is with the detector. Not good at all. The my dh saids “I don't feel well. I think I got Carbon Monoxide poisoning.†!?!?! :scared: :eek: As he goes in and lays down, I look up the symptoms and yes, he does. So we wait an hour to make sure it does not get worse. It doesn't. So lesson learned, exhaust IS poison. We must pay attention and be careful during this project!


When we get home, my ds is really moody. After a good long talk, it is clear that he is frustrated with the lack of progress. I remind him of 2 things. 1) Preliminary research is difficult. You have few goals, you are just exploring, and you don't have a clear cut experimental design you are following yet. But this work is still critical, and time consuming, and requires a LOT of problem solving. 2) Sometimes projects have to be abandoned because they are simply not doable in the time frame, or with the tools you have, or within the budget you have. This is life. And better to figure this out early, than months into a project. I have seen MANY projects abandoned over the years. As I have said before a friend of mine wanted to study kit fox in death valley. He spent a summer there (yes, a summer) sleeping under his car during the day and trapping at night. And after 3 months he had only captured 3 fox – clearly not enough for a study, even it he could triple that number. So he started a new project. This happens. Once again, this is a part of understanding the scientific method.


So while my ds goes off to play, dh and I do some research. I feel that it is ok for us to evaluate the detector without his help, because most teachers would hand a student a working tool, rather than a broken one. We each work for 2 full hours. I research parking decks and pollution while he reads the instruction manual. Perhaps we are using it wrong or perhaps it needs to be cleaned or perhaps it is too old. He tries lots of different things (2 hours worth). What he finds is that the detector takes 90s to warm up and 300s to get a clear reading because the gas has to get into the detector. Also the detector will not work in direct sunlight because it uses an infrared light to measure CO2. He finds out that ambient atmospheric readings should be 380, not 13. The detector needs to be calibrated! :rolleyes: He does this and starts measuring outside air. He collects it in a purpose made container and puts the wand inside – yes we are getting 380! :hurray:Then he tests our bedroom. Yikes! 600! remind me to open the windows more often! This is great news. Apparently we need to calibrate it regularly. So we bring ds back in and discuss tools. I tell him that often research is 30% learning how to use the tools to do the study and that if we can get away with 2 hours, we will be doing well. Part of the scientific method is learning how to use the tools of the trade - the sensors, the computers, the statistics, the lab equipment, etc. This often takes months or years!


So now we will need to go back to the parking deck and remeasure. So cross your fingers.


Finally, while I make dinner, we review what he he has learned about research and the scientific method:

  1. Preliminary research can be frustrating and is all about problem solving
  2. The end-product from a research project is tidied up, but the real work is much more complex
  3. Some times you have to drop a project because of time, money, or tools.
  4. It takes time to learn how to use your tools. Expect it.

Time spent:

Discussion: 2 hours

Data collection: 2 hours

DH's extra time to make the detector work: 2 hours

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Week 2. ds 9. 3rd grade.


We tried again to set the dye into pigment. My ds collected leaves, we boiled them, we added the NEW chemicals, and N O T H I N G !!!!!! :sad: sigh. We even tried to strain it with the “cheese cloth†that we bought at the store. I knew that it was not real cheese cloth, but I had hoped it would work. It didn't. The holes aren't small enough. This was very frustrating because I had needed to talk to 5 people to find it and because english was their second language, they really didn't understand. So imagine trying to explain what cheese cloth is: Well, it is cloth that you squeeze cheese in. :huh: hum. Ok, it is cloth that allows you to strain out water and keep the solids? Not sure if they understood what a solid was. It is cloth that has little holes – well that sent me to the tea towel section. It took me 20 minutes to get exactly the wrong thing. Sigh.


I emailed the woman again whose seminar we went to and she said that if we had fizzing when the chemicals were added then the reaction had happened. She guessed that we had not used enough chemicals, and suggested 1 Tbsp of each chemical for 50ml of water. We had used about ½ tsp for 200ml water. She said that there would be so much fizzing that we should them slowly so that the mixture did not overflow the pot.


The second part of the project is going a bit better. My ds is trying to figure out what to mix the pigment with to make paint. So he wanted to mix his ground dirt with egg yolk, day-old whipped egg white (do you know how long it takes to get stiff peaks without a mixer!?!?!), oil, and milk. After mixing them, the oil clearly did not work - it is actually a huge mess on the page. The egg white needed to sit before mixing apparently, so it went in the frig. Finally, he mixed and painted on the milk and egg yolk paint on the page, we waited a day, and then he tried to scrape each with a toothpick. MILK!!! yes milk is very very strong compared to egg yolk. But unfortunately when we went to mix the pigment with the old whipped egg whites, I must have thrown them away :tongue_smilie: (it did look strange). So we will have to do that part again.


Time: 2 hours


Week 3


This week, my dh bought proper cheese cloth from the fabric store. And we spent 2 hours working on getting the pigment. To make a long story short.... FAILURE. :confused: and a bit of :willy_nilly: I mean really, again? My ds collected the petals, we boiled them with less water, and then added LOTs of chemicals, then let it cool, and then strained it through the cheese cloth. NOTHING. This is when I have the lovely long conversation about Thomas Edison and the light bulb filament. At least we know that this IS possible (because we saw it in the seminar), even if we can't get it to work yet. Imagine not knowing if it was even possible. And trying and failing and trying and failing over and over and over again. This is a VERY good lesson in science.


So my older boy comes in and asks about how it went, after telling him he says, well you should have added the alum first? WHAT!?!?! :glare: Well, the alum binds to the color and the potash pulls it out of solution, so you have to do it the other way. My younger ds is pretty calm, but says “do you mean that I have to do it all again?†Well, yes. (More conversations about Edison). So we do it all again, put the alum in first, then the potash, and there is NO fizzing, nothing. We let it cool, and there is NOTHING. :crying: Sigh. This is about the point where you throw out the project right? More conversations about Edison.


So about 15 minutes later, I start cleaning up. I'm not sure how toxic these chemicals are, so I want to be careful. I take out the cheese cloth and go to rinse the cup of liquid. And there are solids in it! Um, what? :confused: It takes me a while to realize that the crystals are large enough that they could not have gone through the cheese cloth. So I call ds into the kitchen to evaluate. We pour the extra liquid through the cheese cloth again but there are no solids. So ds decides that the solids are just the extra alum coming out of solution. I start cleaning again. But now the extra liquid that we JUST poured cleanly through the cheese cloth is full of solids, lots of solids. ????? :confused: I call ds again and we pour the liquid through the cheese cloth again, and the solids sit on top! It has worked! The solids are pink like the flowers. :hurray: But there was no fizzing??? so I'm not quite clear what is going on. I assume it just takes quite a bit of time and cooling, but why no fizzing? DS suggests that we dry the solids and then add the milk and paint it on the paper and see what happens. We check the second batch, and it also now has solids, just paler. Why paler? Was it the opposite order of chemical adding, or did we add fewer flowers to the water, or not let it boil enough? We don't know. But there are our questions for tomorrow.


Still crossing my fingers that things are working.....


So far this project has just been one head ache after another, but ds does not seem to care. *I* have the need to “get it done,†but he just wants to explore. So who is the scientist now?


Time 2 hours


Ruth in NZ

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I came out this morning and found that the spoon had discolored the pink sludge and turned it purple! I pulled out the spoon and it was streaked in black, which I could not easily wash off. Luckily this was an old spoon and not one of my set. :tongue_smilie: I have no idea what happened, or what chemically reacted. But what a GREAT opportunity to discuss serendipity in science. It is not common, but unexpected, chance things do occur in science. We discuss how the prehistoric humans likely discovered soap or smelting -- it was not planned, just chance. In fact, one of the most important discoveries in physics at the turn of the 20th century happened because a fire changed the equipment unexpectedly. These things do happen, but not commonly, and they cannot be "helped along."


So now, it looks like we have uncovered a way to make purple pigment! Take pink sludge and leave a certain type of spoon in it overnight! :001_smile:


Ruth in NZ

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So now, it looks like we have uncovered a way to make purple pigment! Take pink sludge and leave a certain type of spoon in it overnight! :001_smile:


Ruth in NZ



The Phoenicians are green with jealousy. :D


I think the recipe you want is on page 18 in here: http://travelingscriptorium.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/scopa-recipes-booklet_web.pdf


If it really doesn't work out at all, your kid could experiment with some of the other recipes. One of the ink recipes calls for "still pond water." Why? Another calls for a rusty spoon. A really interesting study would be to explain the chemical reactions being created in these recipes.

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Week 4. ds 3rd grade.


DS decided to grind the crystals and try the different adhesives again. Given that I did not really want him to put these chemicals into the food mortar and pestle, we went out and bought one for $4. He really enjoyed grinding the crystals! Then he spilled a bunch in his enthusiasm. :tongue_smilie: When he went to open his thick-papered notebook where he had painted on the paint last week, it was filled with dust. All of the pigment that was mixed with water and come off the paper and powered. :tongue_smilie: So he decided not to use water again! He proudly separated an egg, and mixed his ground pigment with egg yolk and whipped egg white. It was definitely better than last week's paint because it did not have big chunks in it, but he thinks that he should have ground more finely so will be doing this again.


I realized that his notebook was very scantily labelled, so we had a discussion about keeping notes and making sure to label everything. We don't know the names of the flower he used, so currently it is flower #1 (I know, not very original). He then went and took a photo of the flower and of the apparatus that he is using. It is very easy to forget to do this and at the end have to run around and reconstruct a bunch of stuff so you can take photos.


Overall, the project is going well finally. He is still in the technology stage -- just figuring out *how* to make it work. Once the paint making procedure is determined, then he will lay out an experiment. Possibly about fade rate but possibly about best adhesive. Not sure yet.


Time: 2 hours

Cost: $38 to date, including potash, alum, and mortar and pestle, and the alum sent from American (including postage of $18!)

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Week 3 ds 7th grade


Now that the detector is calibrated, we filled the special bottle with water and went to a grocery store parking deck. I told him to be a bit surreptitious, so he walks away from the car and holds the bottle over his head and dumps the water out (yes, some on him too). :001_rolleyes: He seemed to think he was sneaky? I, of course, am thinking of all the security cameras. We are not doing anything illegal, but if they keep seeing some kid dumping water bottles out in the parking deck there might be some questions. :001_unsure:


When we get home, he recalibrates the detector, tests the sample, and gets about 600. Um, that is the same reading as my bedroom! :sad: Perhaps he should consider a new possible topic on high CO2 readings in houses.


He lays out a preliminary data collection table and records his first reading.


He decides that he would like to get more samples at one time, so we go to the store and stick the probe in bottles. It did look very odd :blushing: . Of course the conversation goes like this.... 'this one is too loose, this one is too tight, this one is juuuuust right.' But we got 4 bottles for cheap! $4 each, which is a relief because I thought they would be much more expensive.


We head to the next parking deck and take 5 full water bottles. He dumps them out in all the corners and in the middle. He comes home, recalibrates, measures, and records. All of them are about 600. The parking deck was only about 1/4 full of cars, so he decides to come back on a busy day.


So far this project is moving very very slowly, and I am worried about time. We have about 9 weeks until the science fair, and he has no notion what his question is. He is still just in the investigation phase. So more measuring next week.


Time 2 hours

cost to date: $16


Ruth in NZ

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Week 4 ds 7th grade.


I talk to my sister about the detector and she agrees that we should not have to recalibrate it every day. she wants to send us 3 better ones. She calls me back from the post office -- it will be $216 to ship them 3 day air and $140 to ship them 10 day. :eek: Even the slow boat will cost $78. So she cuts down her box at the post office, puts one in, and ships it to us slow boat for $28. Not sure when it will be here, might be after the project is done!


Because ds is having a hard time getting motivated, we decide that he must do 30 minutes per day. He spends 3 days reading all the material that I found on the internet, 1 day doing his own research, and 1 day collecting more samples from a different parking deck.


So far the reading has been really good. He has read:

Measuring the Emissions of Passing Cars which goes through all the chemistry of pollution

Garage Ventilation including the equations to calculate required air changes per hour, CO emission rates, and fresh air supply

Valtronics has lots of info on threshold limits, exhaust gas components, etc


He has not yet run the new samples, so he does not know the difference in CO2 between these 2 decks. I am really curious, but just waiting for him to find the time to do it. It takes about 30 minutes - 5 minutes per sample plus recalibration time. But he seems happy to wait until Monday. I did notice that he did not count the number of cars in his second sample, too bad. He will have to do this sample again, I'm guessing, but I won't say anything. We will see if he notices the missing data.


Once again, moving slowly with no clear question yet.


Time: 3 hours


Ruth in NZ

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I am late to the party, but I have looked back through your old posts about scientific enquiry & they are gold to me.

Thank you for taking the time to type all this up & share.


I'm happy to write them up -- its like keeping a journal. I hope one day I will look back on them fondly.


And you are hardly late to the party! We have 8 weeks to go!

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I'm interested in the background research part of the process. Is your older one just reading materials you have found for him? At what age should a science fair student do all their own research, with what tools, and how do you teach those skills?

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I'm interested in the background research part of the process. Is your older one just reading materials you have found for him? At what age should a science fair student do all their own research, with what tools, and how do you teach those skills?



This is a great question. I will first address scientific research as a whole and then discuss the background research part specifically.


Scientific research is learned through mentoring - you have a grad student and an advisor. Just like in a residency after med school, some things cannot be learned on your own through book study. The research advisor responds to the constantly evolving situation at hand, and if the advisor is any good, he/she will guide the student to find his own answers. But he/she is still providing guidance. Guidance includes questioning, suggesting, refocusing, reducing scope, problem solving, and discussion. It occasionally involves very specific direction, but not normally. IMHO middle school and high school students doing scientific research should *always* have a mentor. These students should NEVER do a science fair project completely on their own. Grad students have advisors, and professors have collaborators. Science is simply not done in a vacuum.


The problem is that science fairs are competitive with the prizes being both monetary and prestige. This makes the situation very very difficult. Obviously a student who has more help will do better research. Somewhere I have posted my thoughts on how much help is appropriate, and I will try find my post.


As for the background research part, in my personal experience having had 2 different advisors, they always gave me general background reading on a new topic to get me started. They knew of the best overview articles. Once I had read them, then it was up to me to find the more detailed material as my question narrowed. I am taking this approach with my older ds. Having read the material I found for him, and having narrowed down his research question through this reading and discussion, we made a list today of the questions he needs to find answers to. So starting tomorrow he is going to try to find answers. I will pay attention to how I teach him to do this and what kind of issues arise, and will post later in the project.




Ruth in NZ

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x-post from thread titled: How involved should a parent be in a child's science fair project?


I have done 6 science fair projects with my older and 4 with my younger, and we are about to start up again this year. I also organize the local homeschoolers science fair, and my older has attended and won the regional science fair. These are the guidelines that I give myself:


You need to act as a teacher, not as a parent -- that is think about what a teacher in a classroom with 25 kids would/could do. Imagine what material would have to be taught, how much organizing the teacher would do, and how much personalized attention each student would get. All this depends completely upon the age of the student. The classroom situation that I imagine is where a teacher uses the science fair as a type of unit study and incorporates scientific method, research skills, writing, math, layout, and presentation skills. The class would work on their project for about 2 hours per day for about a month. The teacher would lecture to the class about how to do things, but would also walk around the room and give personalized suggestions as the students worked independently.


Here is how this translates into my homeschool environment:

1) You are allowed to teach your student about the scientific method, about making effective tables, about layout, about how to design and give a good presentation, about how to use the computer graphing package, etc

2) You are allowed to give your student general guidelines like your poster must be tidy so you must use a ruler. Or you need to add some glitz like glitter or colors. Or the paragraphs on the poster cannot be more than 3 sentences long, etc

3) You are allowed to give personalized suggestions. So you can teach them about controls, have them go think about it, and then discuss their ideas and make suggestions for improvement. This is how student learn. It is no different than doing multiple revisions of an essay with teacher comments guiding each change. When they are designing a table for their data, let them try a few ways on their own, but then meet with them to discuss their ideas and make suggestions. If they don't know how to make a certain type of graph, this falls under "you are allowed to teach your student new material." So you show them how to do one on different data, but make them do their own.

4) You are allowed to set a schedule for them. Teachers would definitely do this. You must have xxx done by this date, and yyy done by this date. "Today, in class, children, we will be working on xxx. You have 1 hour to accomplish yyy."


What you are NOT allowed to do:

1) You are not allowed to design their experiment completely for them and hand it to them on a silver platter. You must make them THINK to learn. And then you can make suggestions in a reiterative process.

2) You are not allowed to collect the data for your student.

3) You are not allowed to write up their analysis and discussion, although you can type it while they dictate if this is required.

4) You are not allowed to make any parts of the poster. This must be completely their work. You can guide them and make suggestions, but the ultimate decisions are theirs.


What you should always TRY to do:

1) Try to make them spend some time figuring things out on their own. Like 15-30 minutes for each issue that arises.

2) Try to step back and see how much they can do before you step in with suggestions.


If you have not seen it already, I wrote up our science fair process last year here, and I wrote about my own self-doubts about what is considered too much helping, which you might find useful.


Also, just an FYI, we do not judge the kids at our homeschoolers' science fair. This way there is no reason for the parents to over help. We do run the older kids through a judging process, but there is not a winner. We just require them to talk to the "judge" and explain their work (good practice). And then our "judge" writes up comments about what is really good and what could be changed to make it better. However, there are judges and winners at the regional fair.


Below middle school it is just a unit study that the parents organize and lead.




Ruth in NZ

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  • 3 weeks later...

Week 5. DS 7th Grade


Well, hold onto your hat, we had both a major setback and a major spring forward this week. As I have implied, ds has not been overly excited about the science fair this year, so we had a long discussion about whether he actually wanted to do one. He is currently studying for the NZ math olympiad and is very focused on that, so I just wasn't sure he wanted to put any time into a large project. He just was NOT interested in the CO2 in parking decks question that we had been working on for weeks! I was feeling :willy_nilly: and some :banghead: . After many discussions I had made up my mind that he should do something small, and I tried to convince him to quit the large parking deck question and just test the pollution levels in the tunnel. This could be done with some easy data collection and very simple calculating to figure out how long you could be in the tunnel without physiological symptoms. Seemed straight forward to me and doable very quickly. He was NOT interested. Really, really NOT interested. He suggested asking the question "is the tunnel as polluted as people think?", but then when I brought up the need for surveys, he did not want to do that either. We just were getting nowhere. So my thought was to scrap it, but my dh was adamant that this kind of project is very good for ds, and we should find something workable. The problem is that there are only 7 weeks until the science fair. That is really not a lot of time.


So I had another very long talk with ds. What did he actually want to do? And it is clear, he wants to do a model. He does not like data collection and wants to basically do something theoretical. So on one of my long walks through the city, I started thinking. What can you model when you are 12? Here are some of my ideas:


1) NZlanders talk about having 3 degrees of separation between all other NZlanders. How do different assumptions (size of family, wandering lifestyle, etc) affect this?

2) Can you improve the timing of the traffic lights? I always seem to hit them all as I drive out of town.

3) Can you plan a bus network?

4) How will the different city council plans affect your representation in the government? (regional council, multiple city councils, a couple of mixed options, there is a plan to make a big change next year)


Those were the 4 I came up with on my walk. When I ran them across my ds, he loved the first one. But when we started talking about it, there just seemed to be no way to get at the problem without a lot of survey work. So his next interest was the second question. He was not super interested in timing the lights, but then he thought to connect it to pollution. How much pollution could you save by timing the lights better? Now *that* is an interesting question. But the question became, is it possible? :confused1:


Discussion: 3 hours


Week 6


We put our thinking caps on and start to brainstorm this new question. We discuss some different ideas in kind of a general way, and it does seem doable. He wants to try it! :hurray: Yes, he now has an entirely new project after 5 full weeks of mucking around. :huh: When people ask me "how do you find a project?", all I can say is it takes time. Lots of time. We don't have time to switch again, so this has to be it!


The first thing we decide to do is some preliminary data collection. We decide to draw a map to start, specifically collecting the distance between the lights. So the next time we are driving to swimming lessons, he grabs a pencil and paper, and I call out odometer readings. Well, what a disaster! :crying: He could not read and write down the streets, and I could not estimate the odometer readings (really, I couldn't, too much subtracting while city driving = wrecks!) We needed a technique. So when I was at the pool, I wrote down all the street names and then on the way home we tried again. Disaster again! He could not get the data down. Apparently, my map was too old and there were additional lights and pedestrian crossing lights, he just got too muddled with the speed of things-- he just could not write it down accurately. So my next thought was to walk into the city and draw a map. Well..... do I feel old and outdated! :rolleyes: ds suggested printing a google map of the area with all the street names and lights. He does this and it takes 5 maps, which he cuts out and pastes together. The next time we drive out of the city, I call out the odometer readings (I hit the reset button at each light, which helps). We do it again coming back into the city. The numbers are almost all the same, but there is one distance which is either 1.5 tenths of a km or .5 tenths of a km - clearly my fault.


Well, the preliminary data is really interesting and helps inform what data he actually needs to collect. We sit down the next day to write a 7 week plan. There is just not a lot of time, and he works well to deadlines, so we need to lay out the project so he can work to a schedule. In my own mind my goals were to identify the large picture and map it to the weeks. He needs time for research, laying out the methods, collecting data, developing the model, analysis, writing, poster making, and presentation practice. That is a lot to do in 7 weeks. But as we start to make up the plan, ds asks "but how am I going to actually time the lights? I want to figure this out first." Well, can't really argue with that. I have NO idea how he is going to actually time the lights. I am an ecologist, not a civil engineer. But, we start.


I suggest that we make up some data and see if we can design a plan. It takes us 1.5 HOURS to figure out how you actually time lights. I draw this and that, try a few things, ask a bunch of questions, and then out of the blue, ds says "I have it." At this point I LEAVE THE ROOM. He has enough to work with and I want to see what he can do without help. 20 minutes he comes out with an AWESOME diagram. Really, really something I never would have thought of. At this point, I think "Ok, this is actually HIS project. He *can* do this." I am thrilled. :hurray: The biggest downside is that it looks like it will have to be trial an error, which he is not so happy about. But it *is* doable, which I am happy about.


Today, we sat down to make that plan again. We start with the methods. I type what he dictates. Our process is recursive; he gives me the big picture, and then I ask questions like "what *exactly* are you measuring?" "What are your assumptions for that variable?" "Imagine yourself in a car, look outside and what do you see around you?" And then he adjusts/improves his variables. We work for 1.5 hours on the actual variables that he needs to collect and *how* specifically he will collect them. As I said, it is a recursive process -- the more he thinks, the more he changes. Here is what *he* came up with (I am only the question asker):


Science Fair Plan



Part 1: Can I improve the coordination of the traffic lights on xx road?

Part 2: If I can, how much pollution would this save annually?




Part 1: Can I improve the coordination of the traffic lights on xx road?


Variables required

1. Distance between stop lights

2. The time each light runs for green and red in each direction

3. Use above variables to determine time for 1 car to get through going 40km

4. Map the timing of traffic light rotations at each intersection (not required but useful)


Questions still to consider

Should I use 1 car or a pulse of cars?



Individual traffic lights are optimized

All feeder roads are unimportant


How I will time lights

1. Brute force with hopefully some inspiration

2. Map time of rotations for each light and slide papers


Part 2: If I can, how much pollution would this save annually?





1. Amount of pollution put out by an average car in 1 minute – CO2, CO, NOx, NO, SO2, HC

2. Original time to travel – experimental total time on 2km road in a car, stopwatch mother 10 times both directions

3. Optimized time to travel - what he will model

4. Number of cars – 5 min estimates at 3 locations in 2 directions at 2 times

5. Average speed – total distance travelled / (total time – wait time)

6. Lights red and green for each experimental run



1. Assume all cars are combustion

2. Assume all cars travelling at an average speed

3. Assuming no trucks, no buses

4. Assuming experimental data represents an average driver: not very slow or very fast.

5. NOT rush hour, weekends, rainy, dark

6. Car counting day is an average day



Clearly this is complicated! Very very complicated. My ds is SOOOOO excited that it is complicated. :lol: But, I do think it is achievable if he works for 2 hours per day. Tomorrow, I will have him write up the data collection tables - very specifically what he will be collecting. Then the next day when the big storm passes, we will be out collecting data!


Planning and Discussing: 5 hours

Preliminary data collection: 1 hour


Ruth in NZ


FYI: If anyone is keeping track of the dates, we had 2 weeks of school holidays, which is why it looks like I can't count! :001_smile:

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This makes my head swim. :)



Makes my head swim too! But ds wants to be a mathematician one day, so this kind of problem is his favorite.


Great job sticking to it. I so would've given up.


Thanks for this, but honestly, I have NEVER done a science project that did not contain an equal number of setbacks. I have never even SEEN one done without an equal number of setbacks. What I am demonstrating is REAL science, and real science is messy -- very, very messy. Not only do scientists have to understand the concepts and issues, they must be great problem solvers and have a heck of a lot of persistence. The comment of "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration" is absolutely, positively true. This is why when I see people saying that they can't get their kids' experiment to work and they have tried for over an hour, I realize that most people don't know what science is all about. One hour of effort? You have got to be kidding me. Talk to me after a week.


I like reading how the process works because I would barely know what questions to ask.


This year I am asking the questions, but next year I expect him to be able to ask the questions. So with this goal in mind, I am explicitly describing (and having him memorize) what questions you have to ask.


So, you have a question "Can I improve the timing of the lights?" Where do you go from there?


1) Gather preliminary data: Go out an look at the system you want to study, be it the birds in your back yard or the lights in the city. What do you notice? What seems to be important? For ds, he needed a map of the city lights - the streets they were on and how far between them. That was his goal, however when we were driving, we also noticed that some of the streets are one way so the turning cycle is different, and some of the lights seemed to be timed because I hit a row of 5, and the lights for pedestrians only caused me to miss the next light. All these things helped with the discussion we had next.


2) Figure out how you will answer your question (design the methods). A) I always start with the variables. What are the important variables in the system you want to study? ds started with distance between the lights and the time it takes to drive. B.) So the next question is what *exactly* are you collecting with these variables? And I mean *exactly*. The distance between the lights is pretty clear. But the time it takes to drive? what is that? I always put myself in the situation. So I am in a car, driving, with a stopwatch, what am I going to write down? Is it total time for the 1.5 km or is it time between the lights? When I get to the end of 1.5 km, and drive home, do I time it all again going the other way? When you put yourself in the actual data collection situation, things become clearer. C) So now I ask about assumptions. What are you assuming about this timing? Once again, put yourself in your car and picture yourself driving, what do you see? Look around you. How are the other cars driving? Are they all going the same speed? The answer is no. So when you time the drive, you are assuming that your car is going an average driver speed -- not too fast and not too slow. This also brings up how many cars are around you. Imagine it. Picture the cars. Is it rush hour or the weekend? These things will affect your data. So either you need to time the route for lots of different conditions, or you need to assume that the time of day you measured is an average traffic time on an average traffic day.


3) Now I create the data collection tables (where you will write your results). You have a good idea for these 2 variables, but you are not crystal clear until you make the table. My ds said "I don't think I need a table for xxx" and my response was "do you plan to write the data down on your hand?" You need a place to write it down -- this is a table. So the distance between the lights, what does that table look like? you have 16 lights. Will you measure it more than once? How accurate is your measurement? So ds decides to measure 3 times. So now actually draw the table with the 16 lights and 3 replications. For the timing between the lights, ds decided to measure both the total time for 1.5km and the time spent waiting. So the table needs the date, time of day, total time, and 16 wait times for the 16 lights. So will you replicate this? ds decides on 10 times. Once again the issue of direction came up and ds decided that he needed to measure in both ways. So how do you design this table? you have 1 total time, 16 wait times, 10 replications, and 2 directions. He decides on 2 different tables for the 2 directions, and then just a 17 by 10 table. The process of creating the tables is time consuming. It took him 2 full hours to design and draw into his notebook 6 tables.


Please know, that this project is a high school level project, and is much more mathematical than most projects (ds wants to win the math award again). So if you want to do your own investigation, you really really don't have to do so much. My younger son's project is an easier place to start. We have had a great time in the last 2 days and I will write it up soon. I just wanted to write down the older's situation before I forgot the details!


Hope that helps you understand a bit better.


Ruth in NZ

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OK I'm sorry but I am confused. What happened to the CO2 in parking garages experiment? Brownie



Yes, we had a very unexpected change of project! Sorry I did not make it clearer. DS had no motivation for the CO2 in parking garages investigation. We would collect the air from the parking decks and then it would sit in its bottles for days without being run through the detector. Every time I mentioned the project, he would sigh. I talked to him and he would say that yes, he did want to do the project. But clearly he did NOT. At first I thought that he was just a moody 12 year old, then I thought that he really did not want to do a science project, then I thought that it was just too big a project and something smaller would be better. But in the end, he finally could express that he really wanted to do a mathematical model, and the CO2 project was becoming less and less mathematical as we realized that there was no easy way to collect the data that he needed. And as the preliminary investigation continued and we began to narrow in on a specific question, it was less and less math related. So finally, I suggested that we start with something completely different, and we began brainstorming math-related questions. Which led us to where we are now.


In general in science, when you study something that requires a lot of expensive equipment (cell biology, experimental physics), you join someone's lab that is funded by a research grant. The professor hands you a piece of the question he/she is addressing and off you go. In other fields, like mine (ecology) and my husbands (information technology), the equipment is typically cheap. He needs to survey and I needed to have traps, radiotags, software. In these fields, you have to pick your own question, which is incredibly difficult and time consuming. It took me 9 months, and it took my dh 7 months. Finding a good, interesting, and answerable question with a limited scope is very time consuming, and there are often false starts.


I will go back an edit my previous post to make this change in plans clearer! Thanks,


Ruth in NZ

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Week 7 (still more to go in week 7, but the pace is picking up)


DS set up the data collect tables day -- it took him 2 full hours. I decided the best course was for each of us to independently sketch out a design for each table and then compare answers. This allowed him to work independently but then look at another possibility and see if there was any improvement that he wanted to make. This was a very successful approach. The main thing that he forgot to add was the date and time of day on each table. This data could possibly be very important because traffic, of course, depends on the date and time of day. After making any adjustments he wanted to make, he had to then make a clean, full copy in his notebook.


The tables were:

Distance between the lights

Time that each light was green and red (not a good title yet)

Number of cars on the road

Actual time travelled - North bound

Actual time travelled - South bound

Intersection design (not a good title, but all the turns allowed, one way roads etc)

Actual Traffic lights made or missed - North bound

Actual Traffic lights made or missed - South bound


There is a LOT of data to collect!


The next day we set out on foot with the plan to 1) Map the intersections and record street names, 2) correct/clarify the map, 3) Time how long each light is green and red and do this in both directions, 4) Count the cars for 5 minutes at 3 different locations. We figure this should take us about 3 hours including time for lunch. Boy were we wrong!


Here are the problems we ran into

1) It is too difficult to watch the lights, call out the time, reset the stop watch. My ds just kept messing up.

2) The younger boy had nothing to do and was really bored. He brought a book but did not want to read it on the street!

3) DS could not decide how to map the intersections - should he only include turns that affect the lights? should he include pedestrians? Should he indicate if the cars were on sensors and thus triggered the lights?

4) The counting of cars was easy but really really boring. We each took a lane and just counted. 132 cars in 5 minutes. We ran out of time for any other estimates

5) But the biggest problem was that the length of time an individual light was red or green varied - sometimes drastically . Was it our technique? Was it the pedestrians? Was it some car that triggered the light? How should he record the data? He had no table for multiple cycles of the light. Should he take an average? Would a range be a better option? Should he try to identify what was triggering the change? How would he record that information and where? Should we hit the pedestrian light and see if it made a change to the time? How many cycles should we sit through? It was just a disaster!


So point being, we did not finish even half of what we wanted to, and will have to go out again. In the end, we got MUCH faster. We handed the stop watch to the younger boy and he would start the timing of the lights as we were walking towards them. DS decided to do 2 revolutions of each light and if those varied to do 2 more. I ripped out some paper from his notebook to record these multiple cycles as my younger called out the times and the older drew the intersections, labelled the map, and then recorded the ranges of the time both red and green. So we got it down to 10 minutes per light. There are 16 lights and he has to do it in both directions. Wow! Here is to hoping the rest of the data collection is faster!


So ds will have to make some simplifications of the cycle lengths (red vs green). He will need to glue into his notebook the data I wrote down, and then will need to analyze it and make some decisions. Simplifications are required in models -- that is what a model is, a simplification of a complicated system. He will just need to be very clear *how* he simplified the data and be objective about it.


Table making: 2 hours

Data collection: 3 hours


Ruth in NZ

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Love the thread!


Does your 9 year old know about Oak Gall ink (aka Iron Gall ink)?


We made some once. Very (very) old-school.






Did you use actual oak galls?


When my college group did this we did a "cheat" recipe using red wine and a couple things from the chem lab (we did ask first!). I thought it would be really fun to actually ferment oak galls by the light of the moon until after the spring equinox and so on like the medieval recipe I found prescribed, but we didn't have time for that. Silly time restraints of the modern educational system!

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Does your 9 year old know about Oak Gall ink (aka Iron Gall ink)?


We made some once. Very (very) old-school.



Sounds very fun. I'm so impressed you made it! We definitely have different plants here although there are a lot of exotics. But I don't think that I have ever seen an oak except the cork oak at the botanical gardens, but they frown on anything but looking. I just did a search looking for notable oak trees nearby, and I did find one 1.5 hours away. :sad: I've seen a few maples here and there, would they work?

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Did you use actual oak galls?


When my college group did this we did a "cheat" recipe using red wine and a couple things from the chem lab (we did ask first!). I thought it would be really fun to actually ferment oak galls by the light of the moon until after the spring equinox and so on like the medieval recipe I found prescribed, but we didn't have time for that. Silly time restraints of the modern educational system!



Yes, we had some oak galls from a big oak in our backyard.



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I have been reading and rereading your posts hoping I will somehow grow enough science brain to at least manage to mimic a little. No luck. I have an 8 year old fascinated with medicine (his asthma is the reason I think) and science and I have no idea how to help him design original research. I have a summer ahead to read and reread your posts, but in the absence of a curriculum written by you, do you know of any resources you would recommend that can guide us?

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I have been reading and rereading your posts hoping I will somehow grow enough science brain to at least manage to mimic a little. No luck. I have an 8 year old fascinated with medicine (his asthma is the reason I think) and science and I have no idea how to help him design original research. I have a summer ahead to read and reread your posts, but in the absence of a curriculum written by you, do you know of any resources you would recommend that can guide us?



I have no book to recommend. I am so sorry. Seems like I need to go buy about 20, read through them, and pick my favourite. Will put it on my list for next year (or maybe the year after). :001_smile:


However, what I can offer you is a personal advisor. I am happy to guide you -- in fact, I think it would be great fun. Start a new thread, and we can brainstorm some ideas. Then, over the next few months as the project develops problems, post them, and I will help brainstorm solutions.


Ruth in NZ

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I have no book to recommend. I am so sorry. Seems like I need to go buy about 20, read through them, and pick my favourite. Will put it on my list for next year (or maybe the year after). :001_smile:


However, what I can offer you is a personal advisor. I am happy to guide you -- in fact, I think it would be great fun. Start a new thread, and we can brainstorm some ideas. Then, over the next few months as the project develops problems, post them, and I will help brainstorm solutions.


Ruth in NZ


I am taking you up on this offer. I can't thank you enough! It's extremely generous of you.

I will start a new thread tonight titled "our first science experiment." We do have some ideas!

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I have been reading and rereading your posts hoping I will somehow grow enough science brain to at least manage to mimic a little. No luck. I have an 8 year old fascinated with medicine (his asthma is the reason I think) and science and I have no idea how to help him design original research. I have a summer ahead to read and reread your posts, but in the absence of a curriculum written by you, do you know of any resources you would recommend that can guide us?


I really recommend that if you want a book that teaches children through very simple investigations that you try reading Jean-Henri Fabre books b/c he guides his nephews to understanding science through discussion and simple experiments. They are not long investigations like Ruth posts, but they are definitely investigations that lead to their understanding of processes.


This link is the chemistry book which my kids love. The book is a poor translation, so I read it to them and improve upon the translation as I go. Since the books are old, some of the terminology is "old" and new discoveries (more elements) have been discovered. But the content is interesting!



(ETA: I should point out that they do kill a sparrow during one of their experiments. Just thought I should give a heads up in case that sort of thing offends.)

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I really recommend that if you want a book that teaches children through very simple investigations that you try reading Jean-Henri Fabre books b/c he guides his nephews to understanding science through discussion and simple experiments. They are not long investigations like Ruth posts, but they are definitely investigations that lead to their understanding of processes.


This link is the chemistry book which my kids love. The book is a poor translation, so I read it to them and improve upon the translation as I go. Since the books are old, some of the terminology is "old" and new discoveries (more elements) have been discovered. But the content is interesting!



(ETA: I should point out that they do kill a sparrow during one of their experiments. Just thought I should give a heads up in case that sort of thing offends.)



Thanks 8 for the recommendation. I got it printed!

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Week 5. ds age 9


Sorry it has been a while since I wrote about younger ds. His project has is finally just progressing in a normal "try this - find a problem - solve it" sort of way. So I will see if I can remember what has happened in the last month.


So last I wrote, we had finally gotten the alum and potash chemical reaction to work, and we had found the egg yolk binder to be quite effective. The next step was to figure out exactly what he was going to study. Basically, we had learned enough and done enough preliminary investigations that we could make a list of what he wanted to accomplish for his project. The preliminary stage often takes a full month, so I have learned to expect it. You really need to know something about a subject before you can ask a decent question.


So after brainstorming what he had already accomplished and what he still wanted to do, this is the list he came up with:


Binders -- Test the following:

egg yolk

egg white






Pigment development:

set dye into crystals using alum and potash

grind solids directly


Finding pigments for the following colours:











Given this nice list, ds sets himself some goals for week 5. He really wants to get a nice pink and a green. My dh tells ds that he can pick all of the flowers off the cactus plant and try grinding them. We had read that you don't have to make a dye to set into crystals and instead you can just grind what ever you find. So he picks all the flowers and puts them loose on top of the dehumidifier. :huh: When I realized what he had done, I grabbed them before they got into machine, and put them in cheese cloth on the dehumidifier. After 24 hours, ds puts them in the mortar and pestle and begins to grind. They just seeem wet somehow, even though they are dry. Hummm. So he puts them back on the dehumidifier. The next day he tries to grind them again with the same problem. So I suggest that we take the flowers apart and see if they are damp inside. They are not exactly damp, but they are greasy somehow. Plus the insides are white. He pulls off the dry pink petals from 30 flowers, and grinds 15 of them. Success! They powder! He quickly mixes them with egg yolk and he gets the most beautiful deep pink pigment you have ever seen. It worked! He is very excited. :hurray:


So he looks around for more flowers to grind. This seems to produce a much more vibrant color than the alum-potash method. He picks orange, green, and yellow flowers off of all the plants nearby. He pulls them apart to get just the petals, puts them in cheese cloth, places them on the dehumidifier, and waits a day. He starts with the green petals. He tries to grind just a few and they are impossible to grind. He wants me to try. Well, they are just too fibrous. The veins are so study that they cannot be ground and they inhibit the grinding of the rest of the petal. :confused: Hummmm, not all flowers work. He needs to find dainty flowers with light, non-fibrous petals. Too bad it is autumn. We might be buying flowers from the store. :tongue_smilie:


During this week, we also begin some research on medieval paint making. There are no decent books in the library and the internet sites I find are just too complicated for ds to read. I did copy some text, paste it into Word, format it with larger font and more white space, and print it. But even so, not really easy to read. :sad: We did find that tempera needs to be applied on a hard board because it crumbles easily if put on a flexible surface. This explains all the powder we found in the notebook last time we opened it -- So he switches from the art notebook to a canvas.


He is working about 30 minutes 4x per week. So about 2 hours this week of experimentation and 1 hour of research with me.


I'll write up weeks 6 and 7 tomorrow.


Ruth in NZ

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Week 6. ds age 9


At the beginning of each week, ds and I make a list of what he wants to try - specifically 3 new types of flowers. The grinding is particularly difficult and we are coming to appreciate why the apprentices were required to do all the hard labour instead of the masters. It is really difficult and time consuming.


Ds is learning to be very meticulous. At times he has to pick out the smallest bit of nothing while grinding so that he can grind the rest. He also has to remove the smallest bits of off-colour to get just the right colour. Definitely requires attention to detail.


This week we also started to work on documentation. I have been a bit slack, because he does not really like to write. So from now on every day that he tries something, he has to at least label the painted area and the saved pigment. He also made his first table this week and began to take a photo each day and write a label for it. For younger children I definitely find that you need to prepare the poster as you go so that you are not left with a gargantuan task at the end. Once we develop the photos, he will have a huge sense of accomplishment to attach his pre-written descriptions.


30 minutes per day = 2.5 hours this week



Week 7


This week he burned sticks and made black paint out of charcoal! That was super fun. He also was making purple sauerkraut with his dad, and when they found their fingers dyed, ds decided to try purple cabbage as a pigment. He boiled it for 10 minutes and then added the alum and potash. The crystals were a lovely pink! But then when he ground them and mixed them with egg yolk the paint was grey! :huh: It does look very funny on his board – the grey paint says “purple cabbageâ€. He also tried to evaporate some of the purple cabbage hoping to get dried sediment, but it only got mouldy and really really really smelly! :eek:


He decided to try to get aqua from copper in vinegar. So, he submerged a copper pipe piece in a shallow container of vinegar. He took a lovely picture of the set up. But after 5 days, nothing had happened. Maybe if you looked really hard you could see some faint blue tinge to the vinegar, but that was it. My older ds came in to look, and condescended :001_rolleyes: to tell us that you do NOT submerge it, you must elevate it above the vinegar. Oops.


This week we also went to the store and found some lovely little containers for all the pigments. Then he had to label it all!


Experimentation: 2.5 hours

Documentation: 30 minutes

Total: 3 hours

Additional cost $6 for the containers, bringing the total to $44

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I have not read all the posts in this thread, so forgive me if this has already been discussed.


My daughters & I enjoy spinning & knitting & we dabble in natural dyeing. Have you considered using a natural dyeing resource?


Pinks & greens can be quite elusive colours to obtain. Green are just hard to get from plants & the pinks, whilst available from berries tend not to be lightfast & can fade in as little as a day.

I am planting madder seeds this year, but it will take a few years before I can dig them up & use the roots to get red (therefore pink) I would recommend cochineal bugs for pink, if you are comfortable with that. (easy to source online)

Green was historically derived from woad overdyed with (off the top of my head) with weld (in the UK) google 'Lincoln Green'


of course, I am speaking here about wool dyeing & not paints, but it may give you some starting places with colour.

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Oh thank you so much for your ideas! The madder seeds sound so interesting, and I am so impressed with how far you are thinking ahead.


The main problem we are having is that any dye we make we have to set into crystals and then grind to turn into a pigment. And every time we do this, it makes beautifully-coloured crystals and grey pigment which turns into grey paint.


We have gotten the verdigris to grow on our copper now that it is elevated above the vinegar, but when we tried to scrape it off today, it was very difficult to do and did not make a lot of pigment (as in less than a head of a pin)!

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Ruth, can we copy your 9yo's project this fall? It sounds PERFECT for my 9yo/Chemistry. I read some of it aloud and he asked if he could go pick some violets right now! I suggested that he start picking whatever flowers he wants to experiment with and we will preserve them. I have a dehydrator we can use to dry them before grinding (what I do for herbs). We make sauerkraut here, too, and he really likes kitchen gadgets and is pretty comfortable making food in the kitchen (especially guacamole!) He hates writing, too, but loves color. (What I mean is I can usually get him to "do" art if I tell him to forget about an outline and just use colors for shaping what he wants.) So I really, really love this project. I wonder if your son would be interested in documenting it (or even better, dictating/recording how-to instructions) with pictures or something that he could send. (My 12yo got a little jealous, btw.) :)

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I would love for you to copy my son's project! He is really enjoying it!


DS is starting to document it today. His poster has to be ready in about 2 weeks so he has time to develop his presentation, and I will post his methods then.

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Week 8. DS age 12


Now I have read a few little comments that some individuals are intimidated by this project. And this makes me very sad. :sad: Please know that this is my ds's seventh science fair project and he gets more ambitious every year. This boy is also a mathy type kid and wants to win the math award again this year, so his goal was to pick a math-based project. If you want to do an investigation with your child, make sure that you choose something that (s)he is interested it. Is it burning stuff? Is it people's perceptions? Is it cooking? birds? computer programming? Follow the child's lead. My son likes math, so his project is math based. The winner of the science fair last year studied how long it took people to recover from jet lag by having them catch a ruler for 5 days after a school trip to France (a long way from NZ). It was a simple project but very clever. An investigation can be of any size and still be excellent. So, point being, don't feel that you must do something large and complicated in order for you student to learn more about how science works.


So the end of week 7 and week 8 was a roller coaster ride! Because DS changed his project at the last minute, he has a LOT to accomplish in very little time. So we decided on 2 hours per day, 5 days per week. This description covers 8 working days so 16 hours. There is a LOT to do.


My role is now 2 fold: to act as time manager and to force him to document as he goes. My DS HATES documenting. He would quite happily try to keep it all in his head. Of course, he would then forget what he has done and concluded, but he refused to acknowledge this. So, this is *my* role. Every single day I require him to document for 30 minutes. That is 25% of the time he is working on the project, and that is really not that off the mark for standard science. Science must be able to be replicated, so you simply must document every little thing that you do.


So, at the end of week 7, I get him to set up a notebook. He currently has lots of pieces of paper that need to be organized. He has a phobia of writing something in his notebook that might be wrong, so he does not want to put anything in until he is sure that he will use it. This is NOT the way you keep a notebook. But all I can say is that I am :banghead: , and I just keep harping about it every single day. The only thing we are fighting about is documentation which says quite a bit given that he is 12 and I am 45 with all that goes with both those ages. But honestly, documentation is a mountain I am will to die on. We will continue to fight.


So during the rest of week 7, we collect the rest of the data. Because the data collection requires either a car or multiple people to count, it must be done as a team.


We go out early the next day and finish the timing of the rotations and design of the lights. It is spitting rain and quite windy, so we have to keep the notebook in a bag and sneak a pencil in to write down the information. This takes an additional 2 hours. At one point, we needed to hit the pedestrian light to trigger it, and then we just stood there while the cars stopped. Given that we had to do it 2 more times, we realized that we better walk across or the drivers were going to get pretty mad. But once we were walking across, we got confused about the timing :blink: , and had to do it again and again. I think we timed that stupid pedestrian crossing 6 times each way! If anyone was watching, we must have looked quite odd, pressing the button, walking across, then pressing the button, and walking across. Over and over and over. :blushing:


Over the next few days, we drove the route at different times of the day, and wrote down how long we waited at each light. Issues arise, like do I have to be fully stopped? Or just slowing down? What about starting up? How do I handle yellow lights, do I stop or go through? We also count cars. We each get a lane and count for 5 minutes. We went to 3 different locations and counted in both directions, so plus walking time this takes 1.5 hours. Luckily it was a Beautiful day, and we treated ourselves to ice cream afterwards. Given how mundane this data collection was, we were actually shocked to learn as much as we did. Some lights were just full of cars waiting, other lights would have no cars waiting when the light was red, and then when it turned green, lots of cars would zoom by in a 'wave' going 50kmp. Clearly, the latter light was extremely well timed. DS took a photo of the red light with not a car in sight.


During week 8, ds started his calculations and analysis. He had to determine how to generalize about the rotations of the lights given that they varied based on cars and pedestrians triggering them. Mean? Mode? Median? Etc. Next, he had to calculate the speed of the average car. This took a very long time because he was trying to do it on a calculator without writing down any equations. And he kept calculating it wrong. I kept harping on him to write it down! But it took him a good 45 minutes before he decided to do it, at which point he realized what he was doing wrong.


The next day, he thought he was ready to start the actual timing. He spent 45 minutes drawing out the revolutions of each light in preparation for gluing them down to some heavy construction paper and cutting them out. The idea was to slide the strips back and forth to change how a car would drive through them. After an hour, he comes to me close to tears. It won't work, he says. Why not? He then proceeds to describe something, and I have no idea what he is saying. Kind of like Charley Brown's teacher going “wha wha wha.†:confused: I ask him to repeat it. This time I think I get a piece of what he is saying. One more time. Oh. Oh! OH dear! :eek: :scared: He is right it won't work. (insert small panic here). The problem is that the revolution times go out of sync. If light A goes through a red/green revolution every 90s and light B goes through a revolution every 110s, they will shift comparative to each other by 20s after each rotation. If you align them so that a car will make both, by the next revolution the pattern has shifted by 20s, and by 2 revolutions, the car will hit the second light because it is now out of phase. This is BAD! :crying:


So I calmly say to him “so you are feeling like all this work has been for nothing because you can't actually time the lights without a computer.†(this is what I am thinking too). And he says, of course, “yes!†So I suggest what appears to me to be the most obvious next step. “Why don't you just time the easiest light. We know you can time it because it is on a one way road and the last light on the route. It can definitely be timed.†30 minutes later, he comes out. “I have saved 8s!†I look, and he has! :hurray: His first small success.


So the next day, he tries another easy to fix light – this is a pedestrian-only light on a one way portion of the road. He saves another 10s. Now, he is feeling pretty good. So he tries a hard light, it is still on a one-way portion of the road but he is going to try to coordinate 2 lights which have different rotation times. He wants to change the rotation times to be identical, but keep the percentage time of green and red the same for each light. This leads to a new issue, some sort of expected value of a probability that the cars will be in the wave, or something. I'm not quite sure. So clearly, he will need to explain it better.


Today, he writes why his original methods will not work, and then describes how the new methods will work. Here is a description of his to help you visualize what he is doing:


“Imagine the first car waiting at the light A. When light A turns green, the car starts going. It takes 55s to drive from light A to light B. When the first car reaches light B, the light turns green and the car continues. Now imagine the last car that is able to get through light A before it turns red, it also takes 55s to drive to light B, and when it arrives, the light is still green. No other cars follow it because light A is now red. Because of this, there is a 30s block of time in which no cars are arriving at light B because light A is red. This means that light B can turn red any time within that 30s block (only really in the first 15s of that period of time because the cars need 15s to turn). Once the light B turns green again (even if it turns green earlier than normal), it will still remain on the same revolution time even if it stays green for a slightly longer time."


Now, he has about 5 days to try to time as many lights as he can! So far he has saved 39s on average off a 5 minute trip. He already knows that about 100 cars pass in 5minutes. So once he can get data on pollution per car, he can do the final calculations. This is the goal for next week!


2 weeks:

Data collection:6hr

Documentation: 4hr

Analysis and calculations: 6hr

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