Making Learning Fun with Experiments

In my last post I talked about how to take advantage of games to make learning fun. By no means is this an original idea. In fact it's rather obvious. Another approach which is probably again pretty obvious is to do experiments.

Their are numerous sites describing fun experiments. One that everyone seems to know is the classic baking-soda-vinegar volcano. For anyone that may be unfamiliar you take something like dirt or clay and sculpt a volcanic cone with an extra deep caldera. From there you pour in some baking-powder into the caldera. Finally you pour in some vinegar. The baking soda and vinegar react and discharge carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles that are heavier than air so, when done correctly, the bubbles overflow the volcano and spill down the sides much like a lava flow from a real volcano would.

This experiment is a great experiment because it opens the door to talking about all kinds of things from the structure of the earth, to how volcanoes form, to how volcanos can lead to other natural disasters like earth quakes and tsunamis, how pyroclastic flow can in a way preserve whatever it hits. For us the volcano devolved to just mixing baking soda and vinegar. After all, who doesn't like watching a vigorous chemical reaction? Even this is great though as it opens the door for talking about things like pressure, surface tension, and chemistry. In a similar vein, the Coke and Mentos experiment is always fun to do. Last I read the reaction wasn't well understood but it's clear that the process is releasing a lot of gas in short order.

Another experiment we have had fun with is the basic electromagnet. Again for those that are unfamiliar you wrap a length of wire around something like an iron bolt and connect the two ends of the wire to the opposite ends of a battery. It is important that the object around which you wrap the wire is ferrous. We usually call this object the core. The movement of the electrons through the wire then produces an electromagnetic field which is amplified by whatever you use for your core.  From there you can use whatever other magnetic objects you have lying around to show the formation and destruction of the magnetic field as you connect and disconnect the battery.

It is not necessary for the experiment to seem obviously fun though. Take for instance testing soil types. In this experiment you gather a couple of soil samples from different places. Potting soil and dirt from outside are great. You put the potting soil in a jar, the dirt in another, and then mix of both into yet a third. Then fill the jars with water, cap them, and shake. What do you get? Mud! Of course the educational part comes from the discussion that ensues when everything settles and talking about how long it takes to settle. My son and I played with this experiment for a couple of days.

As I eluded to earlier, the list of possible experiments is endless. They often lead to the same discussions but that doesn't make them any less fun. To close out this post I will leave you with some links to other particularly fun experiments:
  • Rock Candy: This one takes a bit longer but you get a treat in the end.
  • Fluorescent Jello: Not so tasty, but it glows in the dark!
  • Squishy Circuits: This is great for introducing children to both chemistry and electronics.

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