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12 February 2013

Snow Experiments

I wrote this mid-January, but didn't get it posted right away because of all the craziness with Baby Girl's birth and hospital stay.

I read a while back a distinction between experiments and demonstrations that really made me think about how we do science. The book is called "Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method," and the author discusses the advantages of experiments over demonstrations and observations when working with critters she captured in her backyard, but the ideas she's talking about are easily applied to other types of inquiry as well.

Why not just keep animals in a terraria in  your classroom and observe them? I spend a lot of time just watching animals, feeding them, talking to them and in general regarding them as pets. It's fun and it's valuable. I don't routinely do experiments with the animals that live in terraria around my house. I just enjoy them.

The classroom is a different situation. Some children will spend a lot of time watching gerbils or fish in a classroom. Others have less interest. But when a child makes a prediction about that fish's response to something, like covering half of the aquarium with a dark towel, that child invests something of him- or herself in the fish's behavior. It may greatly increase the child's interest in the fish. Say the child then observes that this particular type of fish avoids the dark part of the tank. If the child writes down his or her discovery and shares it with others, the child's going to feel pretty proud. ...

Another important difference is that posing questions, predicting answers and testing the predictions all develop higher level thinking skills. Experimentation develops the habit of following observations with questions, a trait that adult innovators all possess.

A third and perhaps most important advantage of experimentation over observation is that by conducting experiments, the children learn the meaning of the word science and think of themselves as scientists. I never did any science at all in biology until I got to graduate school. That is, I never did an experiment until then. I read a lot and I learned a lot but I didn't feel like a scientist until I started doing experiments. (page 1)

So, this idea of doing experiments - encouraging my children to come up with questions and things that they wonder about and then trying to find out the answer to their questions - has been stewing in the back of my mind now for several months, since I got this book. Creepy crawlies are tricky for our family right now, but last week we had snow, and when I asked Hero did he want to do some "snow science" he jumped at the chance. So that's what we did.

We started with ideas I'd borrowed from The Tiger Chronicle. First, we played in the snow. We were so sick over Christmas that, although the snow had been laying there for a week or two, it had hardly been stirred up at all. Fortunately, it hadn't crusted over, and the boys had a blast playing in it. My coat doesn't zip around the belly anymore, but this particular day the Daddy was home and so I borrowed his and we all could stay outside a little longer.

Then we brought some snow inside, and I asked Hero a question: "How long do you think it will take it to melt?" He guessed that, since it takes a very long time for snow to melt outside, it would take a long time inside. We talked about what is a theory (the thing you think is going to happen), and we wrote down his theory, and made a schedule for checking on the snow hourly, and went about our afternoon's business. Business which ended up including a whole lot of contractions - I wondered for a while if we were going to get a little sister that afternoon. She changed her mind; the contractions stopped, but the snow wasn't quite water when I stopped being able to concentrate on science. Happily, we'd done enough for Hero to come to a conclusion: the snow did not take all day to melt; it was much faster.

So I asked him another question: "Why do you think the snow melted faster than you had predicted?"

He came up with a theory: "Because outside there is a lot of snow, and inside we only had a little."

And then I asked him, "How can we test your theory?"

He decided that we needed two containers of snow, one big and one little, to see if the little one metled faster, so that's what we did.

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