Tuesday, July 08, 2008

This week in T.E.S.L.A.

Last month I started a summer science club for kids ages 7-11 and called it T.E.S.L.A. (Totally Educational Science Learning Activities). We invited neighborhood kids, friends of my kids, and homeschoolers to come enjoy doing some hands-on science. The objective is to get the kids excited about doing science projects, instead of just learning from books. I thought it important because when my kids were at the local public elementary, they only did science from books. They never got their hands dirty, and every damn year they learned the water cycle again. If that was your only exposure to science, you'd think it was boring and run as far away from it as you could.

We declared last month "Properties of Matter Month" and we did experiments on density, acids and bases, and pressure. For the density lesson we explored whether objects would float in fresh water, in salt water, in oil, and in corn syrup, and then I let the kids go wild and create their own density experiment. They had a load of very oily and sticky fun. The acids and bases lesson included the classic vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano (each child made their own in a cup) and then everyone made a bath bomb (until Bagel turned the hose on the tray of drying bath bombs and they all went up in a cloud of fizz). The pressure lesson included experiments with cups and straws and water. The kids learned why it's hard to pull an upside-down cup out of the water and how to lift liquid using a straw, and then they made Cartesian divers out of water bottles and eyedroppers.

This month is Sun Month. We didn't have a lesson last week because we were busy with the 4th of July preparations, but this week we made parabolic-reflector solar ovens out of boxes and aluminum foil. I showed the kids how to make a parabola shape by folding paper, and we used that to shape a foil-covered cardboard reflector and cook a hot dog. We had our largest crowd ever this week-- there were maybe 20 kids in my yard, all making solar ovens.

Next week we are going to make sundials and learn about the sun's path through the sky, equinoxes, etc. The following week we are making pinhole cameras to observe the sun, and learning a bit about optics.

The parents are very enthused. I get a lot of "You're braver than I am" and "I'm so glad you're doing this because I never could". One mom told me that her girls said they hated science, but after they came to T.E.S.L.A. they said they loved science. That's the kind of thing I'm hoping to accomplish. You never know where the next great scientist is going to come from, but the odds are pretty poor that it'll be someone who thinks science is boring. Granted, there's not a strong likelihood that the next great scientist is going to come from Tooele, but if we use that as an excuse to give up on science education, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if everyone gives up, where can we expect the next generation of scientists come from?