Friday, June 24, 2016

Homeschool Field Trip: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

Bright and early on Father's Day morning, the children and I woke Matt up (some of us by jumping on him as he slept, deeply and unsuspecting of the familiar agony of pouncing little knees and elbows that he was about to endure), gave him presents and cards, and then bundled him up and out the door to parts unknown.

We didn't tell him where we were taking him as we drove him two hours deep into the Indiana wilderness. In fact, we told him that we were taking him to tour a rainbow toilet factory, where we were going to let him pick out the nicest, sparkliest rainbow toilet for his very own--the phenomenon of the rainbow toilet is a family joke of murky provenance. It's best not to inquire too deeply into our collective family psyche.

Finally, just as we were so clearly ensconced into the smack-middle of nowhere that Matt was perhaps starting to believe my jokes that we were maybe planning to dump him by the side of the road and drive away really fast, we reached a place where surely every father in the world super wants to go on his special day:

The Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

Oh, wait--that's ME who wanted to go there!

My husband is a very patient, very amiable man.

Back story: as part of our prep for our American Revolution road trip, the kids and I had a lesson on the Lincoln Memorial, because we're driving right through DC so we'll surely stop there and surely see it, so of course we have to study it.

Stay with me here.

As part of that lesson, I learned that the artist who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial had made molds of Lincoln, including a life mask. "Hey!" I thought to myself, "I know where a life mask of Lincoln is!" I used to work at the special collections library on our local university's campus, and I've held that life mask in hands gloved with white cotton more times that I can count. As a matter of fact, that special collections library has quite a large collection of Lincoln artifacts.

Obviously I set up a field trip for our homeschool group to go there and see them.

And also the Oscar:

...and the puzzle collection:

She solved it!
As part of preparing for that field trip, we obviously had to have a lesson just on Lincoln's life, and in preparing for that lesson, I kind of became a little bit obsessed with Lincoln. I blame that on this super good, SUPER dishy biography: Abraham Lincoln: A Life. I dare you to get through the first chapter without needing to read the entire thing.

Seriously, Abraham Lincoln, especially the young Lincoln, is astoundingly fascinating. As a young man, he was apparently known for his dirty jokes and stories. He was even quoted as basically saying, "What's the point of a clean story? BOR-ING!" After his beloved sister died in childbirth, he blamed her husband's entire freaking family for her death, even though they were all like, "Jesus, Lincoln, we took care of her! Shit like this happens all the time!", and he hated that family so much that he actually wrote a homophobic song about one of their cousins.

I'm going to tell you that again.

Lincoln hated some guy so much that he wrote a SONG, a song of SEVERAL VERSES, calling the guy gay. I can only assume that he also sang the song.

How does the song go, you ask? GO. GET. THIS BOOK. There's all kinds of crazy stuff in there.

And that's why I wanted to take myself Matt to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial for Father's Day. None of them will read the book, so I was dying to march them all around and regale them with the stories that I got from it.

Oh, and I wanted Matt to have a lovely Father's Day with his children, of course!

Pretend that one of them isn't frowning. I took a dozen photos here, and this is the best. She's not even actively snarling in this one. Trust me--she was for sure snarling in the next one!
 The kids and I had already seen some examples of Lincoln's handwriting during our homeschool field trip to the special collections library, but I can always fangirl over one more:

When you read Lincoln's handwriting, a fun game is to look for misspellings, because he wasn't a reliable speller.
 This, however, is the first example that we'd seen of the handiwork of Abraham's father, Thomas Lincoln:

I thought it looked pretty sweet, but in The Book Thomas Lincoln is reviled as a lazy-ass deadbeat who was a terrible father, and who neglected and abused his children. Also, the book said that he wasn't a great carpenter--sure, he could make your basic stuff, like this giant chest, apparently, but none of the neighbors would use him for anything that they wanted to be especially nice.

He was also a lazy farmer; he'd stake a big claim like all the neighbors, but whereas everyone else farmed above their needs so that they could turn a profit and, you know, BETTER THEIR LIVES, Thomas Lincoln apparently farmed at almost a subsistence level. That's one of the reasons why the family moved around so much--a bad couple of years can really wipe you out when you have no savings.

Also, ALSO?!? When we were watching the memorial's introductory film, and Leonard Nimoy, the film's narrator, stated that both Abraham Lincoln's father and mother encouraged his educational pursuits, I gasped aloud in outrage. Thomas Lincoln most certainly did NOT encourage Abraham's educational pursuits! Why, whenever he'd catch him sitting and reading, he'd chew him out, hit him, and basically try to make him feel like a lazy piece of shit for studying instead of chopping wood. Abraham's step-mother actually had to sneak him books! And that thing about Abraham "leaving school" at a young age?!? That's because Thomas MADE him leave school! He made him drop out and began to rent him out as a day laborer for all kinds of work--chopping wood, farmwork, slaughtering pigs--and he took ALL of Abraham's earnings. Abraham even approached a family friend once and asked for help in running away, because he wasn't legally allowed to leave his family until he was 21. The friend told him it would be better to just stick it out. You might have seen a quote that Lincoln said later in his life--when someone was asking him about slavery, he said something like, "Yeah, I was a slave for a while." That time in his life is what he was talking about, and his words were pretty accurate.

Don't worry, though--I shared this information with the rest of the family in a furious hiss as they were trying to watch the movie.

They are very patient with me, even if some of them are much more interested in giant fireplaces:

It's a short hike from the memorial and museum to the grave of Abraham's biological mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln:

I don't know why I am always forcing my family to pose with graves, but I am:

The kids were completely fascinated with the story of Nancy Lincoln's death from white snakeroot poisoning, and we had an interesting discussion about pasteurization, dairy farming, and the time that I sent Matt to buy us some raw milk at the farmer's market and he came back, looked at the bottle, and then said, "Hey! I just wasted my money! This says that it's pet food!"

And then we discussed what a legislative loophole is!

One of the reasons why I was so excited to go to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial is that it has a living history farm on site, complete with animals, crops, and rangers in period dress:

On the walk there, you pass by the bronzed footprint of the original Lincoln cabin:

After Thomas Lincoln married Sarah Bush Johnston (leaving Abe and his older sister, Sarah, in the company of a slightly older cousin for several months. By the time he returned, the children had assumed he'd died, and they had nearly starved and had hardly any clothes), there were eight people living within this footprint:

 Husband and wife and two daughters slept on the ground floor, and all the boys slept up in the attic:

There was apparently room underneath for the chickens:
Will loved these chickens so much that when I suggested that she go ask the ranger what breed they were, she happily complied. They are Wyandottes, and I want some!
 We spent most of the day hiking around and looking at stuff--

--and then the children joined a certain elite group that they dearly love--

--and we drove back home through the wilderness.

During our ten minutes of daily memory work in the car, I've slowly been working with the kids on memorizing the Gettysburg Address (Will had it memorized a few years ago, but lost it. This doesn't bother me, because I know that it'll be easier to re-memorize this time thanks to that). We're only three sentences in, but in this gift shop, I noticed bookmarks with the Gettysburg Address printed on them for sale. I bought one for each of the kids, then surprised them with them in the car and told them that when each kid had memorized the entire speech, she'd earn herself ten dollars.

They happily repeated the Gettysburg Address over and over to themselves the whole way home.

Here are some of the Abraham Lincoln resources that we (mostly me!) enjoyed during this study of his life and times:

Monday, June 20, 2016

Homeschool STEM: Build a Popsicle Stick Truss Bridge

No work plans this week! The kids are day camping, which means that I have five full days to mark off every single thing on my to-do list--you know, the one that I last caught up on last year when the kids were at camp.

I always think that while the kids are gone, I'm going to take an entire day and just drink coffee and watch movies and read, but I don't. The temptation to do ALL THE PRODUCTIVE THINGS is far too great.

Anyway, before I do my first mile on the treadmill and read some of my Abraham Lincoln biography over breakfast and work on my freelance assignment (craft projects that you can do instead of setting off fireworks with kids--tough one, right?) and paint the frame to the magnetic memo board and see if my repair to the bread machine is functional and... well, I'm boring you just telling you about my productive day.

tl;dr: Before I get to the rest of my day, let me tell you all about how awesome truss bridges made with popsicle sticks are!

A truss bridge can be a cost-effective way to span a distance, because those cross-beams provide a LOT of support for their size. And once you've discovered the genius of the triangle, you'll find yourself using it in all sorts of designs, not just bridges, to increase stability. On our day trip to the Indiana State Museum a few months ago, I discovered that my K'nex pyramid was undefeatable at the earthquake table--all the other little kids with their non-pyramid K'nex structures were so jelly!

To explore truss bridges, the kids and I built models as illustrated in this tutorial. Syd and I built one bridge, and Will built her own, slightly simpler, model:

Again, although it would be more accurate to distribute the load for the weight testing across more of the bridge's deck, testing this way still gives you a good basis for comparing the different bridge types, which is all that we need:

You can see that this simple bridge took a pretty good amount of weight before it went down! If you were super careful with your construction techniques, made each component of your bridge as accurately as possible, and tested it in a controlled environment, it would stand up to a LOT more stress before buckling.

For bonus points, compare your truss bridge to a beam bridge and a suspension bridge!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Homeschool STEM: Drinking Straw and Twine Suspension Bridge

I know that I've been boring lately and just posting our homeschool work and school-related tutes and not, like, thoughtful essays about life and parenthood and whatever, but frankly, I'm actively avoiding introspection until my emotions feel a little less gut-shot, soooo...

Here's another tute!

The kids and I have been having a fine time, the past couple of months, working on a California unit study that I created for them. They (or I) pick something in California that they'd like to see or do, and then I create a week-long unit based on that thing. We won't have time to get to everything, of course, just as their grandparents won't have time to take them to everything when they're actually in California, but it's fun for the kids to anticipate all of the adventures that they'll have, and I've been pleased at what a lovely cross-curricular study this has naturally become, especially when it fills in some subjects that we haven't studied previously, like coastal geography, the Gold Rush, or this week's unit on bridge engineering in honor of the Golden Gate Bridge, which the kids will certainly see (many times) on their trip, and which their grandmother has already promised that they can actually walk across, as both kids deeply desire to do.

To understand bridge engineering, you need to understand the forces of compression and tension. We discussed these forces, and I showed the kids some diagrams, but I could see from looking at their blank little faces that it really was not sinking in. Good thing, then, that my plans also included building a model of every single bridge type that we discussed!

I'll show you the models in more detail, but let me just say now that as soon as the kids made their models of each bridge design and tested them, they immediately, naturally, understood how compression and tension work. You could see the very moment that it came alive from looking at their bright little faces. THAT is why I'm so obsessed with hands-on, project-based learning!

To understand why a suspension bridge works so well, you should first explain a beam bridge, and then build one and test it to the point of catastrophic failure. The way that you test it will undoubtedly not resemble the way that a real bridge experiences live weight (on account of you don't really hang a giant hook attached to a giant bucket filled with giant pennies from a real bridge...), but it's adequate for testing and comparing a bridge's strength, and examining its points of failure.

The kids built beam and arch bridges out of building blocks, but also built them out of drinking straws, using the tutorial in this Scientific American article. Even though you can make beam bridges in endless ways, for the purpose of comparing its effectiveness to the suspension bridge, you want to have the kids make it just the way the article says:

Most of my photos of this project are crap, because apparently I don't know how to work my camera anymore.
I had to help the kids with this a little--it's something I don't usually like to do with their projects, but it was that important in order to make the comparison work.

Our bucket was also heavier than the Styrofoam cup the article calls for, but as cool as this project is, it cannot make me waste both five drinking straws AND a Styrofoam cup!

Have the kids gently drop pennies into the cup, one at a time, until the bridge fails:

Our beam bridge held 31 cents before it reached catastrophic failure. Note where and how it fails and how many pennies it held. If I'd been thinking, I'd have made the kids take notes and draw diagrams... oh, well!

Next, build the suspension bridge. You'll see that it's built almost exactly the way the beam bridge is built--

--except with the addition of that twine:

That twine, my Friends, is what is going to make all the difference!

Doesn't the completed suspension bridge look elegant?

Test the bridge the same way that you tested the beam bridge. Don't tell the kids in advance, but it will hold more--WAY more--money than the puny beam bridge did. We're talking $2.53 worth of suspension bridge awesomeness!

That's because the main cable pulls, or provides tension, in the opposite direction from the beam's compression, and that force is balanced by the cable's placement over the tower and anchored on the other side. The cable pulls the beam up, the tower takes the weight, and the force is balanced on both sides.

I'm not ashamed to tell you that before this unit, I didn't understand how suspension bridges work (I was also in my twenties before I could reliably spell "refrigerator," so there's also that...). Like the kids, I've seen the Golden Gate Bridge tons of times, and the way that the cable drapes, as if it's simply resting there, always threw me off. But it turns out--and you can model this, as well!--that the cable is held that way because it's not just attached to the deck in the middle, but by suspender cables all the way across. That drape is simply the way that the cable looks when it's got all of those points of attachment.

We had a playdate with friends instead of most of our school yesterday, but we're stuck home today with the second car in the shop because the Lord doesn't want us to have any money, so hopefully we'll have time for both our bridge-building challenge and the computer modeling that I wanted to do to finish out this study.

And those kids better take TONS of pictures of themselves on the Golden Gate Bridge for me!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Homeschool Geography: Make a Glacier Model

We did this combination geography/science activity a while ago, ostensibly as part of our Indiana history study, but also so that the kids will have the proper appreciation for all the glacier photos that I'm going to show them when I get back from my Alaska trip that they're not invited on.

Indiana has been under glaciers numerous times during its geological history, and there are some unique components of glacial geography that it's important to understand. Not only do glaciers carve out valleys and make rivers out of their run-off, but they also leave behind a lot of junk as they advance and retreat, moving substrate and then depositing it somewhere else. This is called drift, and we're going to model how it works!

Note: we did this on a seed starting tray with glaciers molded in small Tupperware containers, and it worked okay, but the bigger, and therefore heavier, you can make your model, the better. If I could have figured out the tray part, I'd have happily had the kids form their glaciers in our largest mixing bowls.

1. Make the glaciers. You'll need some sand, some gravel, some water, and a bowl. Cover the bottom of the bowl with sand and gravel, then pour water in to fill the bowl. Stir it up just a bit, then put it in the freezer until completely frozen. If you're using a big mixing bowl like I wanted to, have the kids do this on one day, as they learn about what makes up a glacier and how they travel, and then complete the rest of this model on the next day.

2. Make the topography. Fill the biggest tray that you can find with potting soil, and pack it down. Set it up on a surface with one end elevated; we used a few bricks for this. You're trying for an angle that's as steep as you can get it without the glacier sliding down before it's melting.

3. Set up the model. Set your glacier at the highest point of the tray. Push it into the soil a bit, because glaciers are heavy!

We have two models, because we have two kids.
 4. Let the glaciers melt. It's no longer the Ice Age, and so the glaciers are going to melt and retreat. Hang out and observe what happens as they do!

This is an excellent activity for a summer day. I mean, it's such a hardship to sit in the shade and read in between glacier check-ups:

5. Observe the model. Depending on the weight of your glacier and the steepness of the tray, your model could do some different things, but it will more or less both gradually slide down the tray as it melts, and simply melt. Both actions will result in drift, which is the eroded substrate, previously picked up by the glacier, now being deposited in a different location. Most of the time, whether the glacier leaves it behind as it retreats or simply melts in place, your drift will be till, which is directly deposited by the glacier:

If you've got an exceptionally big glacier exceptionally full of stuff, however, you may be rewarded with outwash, which is drift that's moved by a flow of glacial meltwater to a new location. If you don't get that the first time, you can always ask the kids to rejigger the model so that it happens--add a little STEM problem-solving into your geography study!

Here are some more glacier activities. Some we've done, some are in my work plans, and some I'll probably save for a future study:

  1. Mark the outward boundary of Ice Age glaciers on a map. I had Will do this with our homemade waxed yarn right on our big wall map of the US. This waxed yarn works just like Wikki Stix, which means that it will stick to our laminated map but still pull off cleanly. And since the map is laminated, Will was able to use a dry-erase marker to update the map's legend, and it's still wipeable.
  2. Complete the Glacier National Park Junior Ranger activities. Glacier National Park isn't one of the national parks that let kids complete the Junior Ranger book at home and then mail it in for a badge, but they do have pdfs of many of the activities from the badge book, so kids can still work them.
  3. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has the same setup--you can download the Junior Ranger book, but I don't *think* you can mail it in for a badge. If you try it, however, let me know!
  4. Homemade slime can also be set up to simulate the movement of a glacier. Here's one tute for that activity.
  5. Compare the movement of glaciers. This is another interesting science experiment, to test whether clean ice or ice full of drift melts faster
  6. Excavate ice treasures. This doesn't really have anything to do with glaciers, but if you've got little ones around, it's easy to set this activity up for them at the same time that bigger kids are setting up their glacier model.
  7. It's the same with the ice vs. salt activity--it's just fun and sensorial and even older kids will like it!
And here are some glacier books that we've enjoyed!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Work Plans for the Week of June 13, 2016: Bridges and Back to Work!

Although Will and I have been on a half-day schedule, Syd has taken a full two weeks off of school. She did this instead:

Now that her ballet intensive session is over, I kind of feel like summer has actually begun. Now we can go strawberry picking and to the lake and camping like all the other families have been doing these past two weeks!

Even with one kid spending half her time in leotard and tights, the past two weeks offered the kids some much-appreciated down-time, with plenty of time to read and relaxed screen-time rules and LOTS of Sculpey play and audiobook listening, and also some sneaky science that I sneaked in. We disassembled a TV, for one thing:

Will and I spent an afternoon trying to figure out her dang boomerang--throwing a boomerang is hard, yo! There was rock tumbling, gardening, and still time for hiking. There was a lot more exploding and burning stuff with homemade fuses and fuel:

I turned off the video, because I thought that the show was over, but we'd actually spiked this newspaper ball with some leftover potassium nitrate and sugar mix, and it was quite particularly awesome how moments later, the entire ball burst merrily into flame!

Obviously we also poked at it:

We're back to work with a vengeance this week, knowing that next week we'll be off again thanks to day camp. This going-strong-and-then-taking-a-break type of schedule will continue for most of the summer, and if it works, I'm not opposed to keeping it going in the fall. We'll see.

Books of the Day this week consist mostly of juvenile non-fiction selections on the French and Indian War, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Abraham Lincoln, with a couple of living books to pad them out. The Open-Ended Material of the Week is still Sculpey, because Syd, in particular, still spends hours creating with it every day. Syd is still working on the secular version of New American Cursive 2, while Will now does copywork every day for her cursive assignment. They're both still working through Wordly Wise at their grade levels, and I'm conflicted between carrying on our slow progress that also includes memorizing each word's spelling, part of speech, and definition, or allowing them to continue through the chapters in a more speedy fashion so that they can start the next grade level in the fall. We'll see.

And here's the rest of our week!

MONDAY: In Math Mammoth, Will is finishing up her decimals unit and Syd is finishing up geometry and moving into fractions. They're both moving through their current units easily, and it's been a nice break from the extensive hands-on work that is required to get them through some units. Phew!

History, on the other hand, always involves extensive hands-on work! This week in our Revolutionary War unit study we're beginning coverage of the French and Indian War. Over the weekend, we watched part of The War that Made America--the kids didn't love it, but consented to watch with us through the chapter on Fort Necessity, which is what we'll be studying this week. And yes, I've also added Fort Necessity to our big fall road trip--I mean, we drive RIGHT BY IT! AND THEY HAVE A JUNIOR RANGER BADGE!!!

In other news, we will be on this road trip forever.

Our activities for this chapter also come from the curriculum materials on the Fort Necessity National Battlefield's website. On this day, I'm again handing the kids the 1750 map of North America and asking them to label the 13 colonies while we listen to History of US ch. 3, and then we're dialing down to complete a more detailed map of the Forks of the Ohio area. It should make a lot of sense to them, having watched that segment of the documentary.

When they're in California visiting their grandparents, the kids REALLY want to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, so of course we have to do an entire study of bridge engineering! This unit took an annoying amount of work to create, but I think it's going to be really educational, and the kids are going to love it. On this day, we'll discuss the basic components of bridges, the basic problems that a bridge has to solve, and the basic definitions of a beam bridge and an arch bridge, primarily using this book. The kids' challenge will be to construct models of beam and arch bridges using our building blocks.

A shift at our regular volunteer gig, and work begun on Father's Day presents and cards will make up the rest of our school day!

TUESDAY: I usually like to have the kids' hands-on math lesson be more hands-on, if you know what I mean, but the rest of our school week is VERY hands-on, so this lesson will instead be a chance for the kids to play around with the math games in my Educational Links. There are a lot of cool activities there for them to explore.

This chapter in History of US is really dense, so we'll listen to it again on this day, and then do another activity from the Fort Necessity National Battlefield curriculum materials, this one designed to let the children learn more about the Native American people involved in the French and Indian War. 

The truss bridge, or rather beam bridge with trusses, is the focus of our bridge engineering on this day. Trusses are pretty common on bridges, so we'll discuss their merits, check out some pics on Google Images, and then work together to make one of these out of popsicle sticks. I'm thinking that we'll set it up and test its weight by piling something on top of it--cans of vegetables, perhaps? Chickens? Books?

WEDNESDAY: At last--suspension bridges! We'll be talking about suspension bridges--and the Golden Gate Bridge in particular, of course--and then recreating this Scientific American activity of building and comparing beam and suspension bridges built from drinking straws and thread.

Will wants to earn her Girl Scout Cadette Trees badge next. Don't tell her, but I'm adding quite a bit to this badge to turn it into more of a botany study. The first activity, though, asks her to think imaginatively about trees, so both kids are going to design an actual tree house that we can actually build in an actual tree on our property. I'm sure it will require plenty of modifications, but my plan is for us to actually build this as the final activity for her badge. I have ALWAYS wanted a tree house!

Syd is still working through her Young Writer's Workbook, but Will is in the process of actually writing her story. I wasn't sure how I felt about arbitrary word counts, but I can see how it's encouraging her to stay with her story, keep thinking about it and writing it, and add in plenty of details.

THURSDAY: This day's reading in our rocks and minerals unit covers the Mohs Scale of Hardness. Identifying actual rocks and minerals is pretty hard, but I'm hoping that if we go through the process gradually, we'll end up with conclusive IDs for most of the rocks and minerals. I'm encouraging each kid to pick out at least a dozen specimens from their ridiculously huge collection, and we'll do all our work on these, recording results as we go. So for this activity, the kids will attempt to rate each of their specimens on the Mohs Scale, and we'll see what happens!

Did you know that Junior Forest Ranger is also a thing? The book includes a good section on forest fires, which is one of the things that Will needs to learn about for her Trees badge, but if your kids fill out the book and mail it in, I guess they also receive a free pin and access to special online activities.

Since by now we'll have covered the main types of bridges, on this day we'll have a challenge: I'm thinking that I'll give each kid 100 popsicle sticks, hot glue, and zip ties, and challenge them to build the longest, sturdiest bridge that they can. They'll have to choose between long and sturdy, of course, but otherwise I'm curious to watch their problem-solving processes.

FRIDAY: As an environmentalism tangent to the Trees badge, I'm having the kids help me review 23 Ways to be an Eco Hero on this day. There's a wide variety of projects available, so hopefully each kid will be able to find something that she can use to end the school week on an extra fun note.

This software developer has, bizarrely, a load of bridge-building simulations. The kids both love sim games, and Will especially, so I think that they'll have fun trying these out. They'll be very valuable if they offer lifelike modeling with realistic physics.

We've done a lot of research into the existing presidential candidates, but the kids had so much fun playing around with creating their own pretend presidential candidates that I've decided to use that as our focus for the rest of this elections unit. You know that by now, the remaining candidates are pretty much just going to say the same things over and over, but HitlerTrumpCat? You never know what's going to come out of HIS mouth!

SATURDAY/SUNDAY: I'm hoping that we'll get some fun summer stuff done in the afternoons this week--don't swimming and strawberry picking sound like the best ways to spend the day?--but we have to save some fun stuff to do this weekend, too, especially on Father's Day! I'm not going to spoil any surprises, but we HAVE been wanting to go visit the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial...

Friday, June 10, 2016

Homeschool Science: A Paper Plate Density Model

I was reviewing the kids' homeschool year, as I like to do in the summer, when I was reminded of how much we all enjoyed last summer's density study. Taking a closer look at that, and wondering if a brief review might be in order, I realized that I never showed you one of the fun, hands-on density activities that we did. Silly me!

This activity, a paper plate density model, actually would work well to repeat this summer if we did do a short review, since it focuses on illustrating the way that the number of molecules within a specific area of a substance dictate that substance's density. Since the kids have studied atoms and molecules much more extensively this year than last, repeating this activity would add context to their understanding of how atoms and molecules work.

For this activity, you will need:

  • paper plates. I usually make a point to avoid crafting with them, and you could use cardstock for this, but frankly, paper plates are kind of perfect here, and that's why I used them.
  • dot markers, stickers, or a bottle cap to trace circles. I bought a set of these Do-a-Dot markers SO many years ago, for use when the kids were both preschoolers, and they still work great! We don't use them very often, but we've certainly gotten our money's worth on them over the past at least six years, and again, they're perfect for this project.
  • yarn. I pre-cut the yarn into six-inch lengths.
  • hole punch.
1. Have the kids work as a team to put circles onto several paper plates, with the one rule that every single plate must have a different number of circles on it. No two plates can have the same number of circles. Depending on your kids, this may really test their teamwork skills!

2. Review your definition of density, which should be something along the lines of "Density is the relationship between mass and volume. In objects with the same volume, those that have more mass will be more dense."

You can explain the dots on the paper plates either as a representation of each plate's mass, or as a representation of how many molecules of a similar mass are in that plate. Either way, the concept is that the volume stays the same, but the mass of every plate is different.

3. Challenge the kids to arrange the plates from least dense to most dense:

4. If you've done the density bottle experiment already, the kids should have a good visual memory of the concept that less dense substances sit on top of more dense substances. Tell them that you'll be hanging this paper plate model, and ask them to lay out the plates in the order in which they should be hung. They should put the least dense substance at the top, and the most dense at the bottom.

5. Once the model is laid out correctly, then the kids can bring their fine motor skills out to play! They should punch a hole at the top and bottom of each plate, tie on the yarn--

--and then tie the plates to each other in the correct order.

For extra enrichment, and especially if you've been studying elements or have already done several density demonstrations with real substances, the kids can research and print out images of substances that will mimic their density model and glue them to the backs of the plates so that when the contraption hangs, there's the model on one side and a visual illustration on the other side. The top plate, for instance, can have a picture of a helium balloon or whatever, and the bottom plate has, like, uranium or something.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Homeschool STEM: Adventures in Potassium Nitrate and Sugar

First of all: nope, no weekly work plans again this week! Syd's in a pretty intense ballet program for a couple of weeks, so so I'm only doing school with Will, and I can make her work plans up on the fly each morning. Since I don't want to cover any subject that she and Syd usually do together, I mostly have her doing our daily stuff, but this is also a great time for us to work on the projects that she alone especially likes. For instance, today she has a Math Mammoth lesson, cursive practice, her Wordly Wise, some assigned reading, at least 300 words of writing for her "novel," and she and I are going to play some more with rocket candy, ie. potassium nitrate and sugar.

Will first got really into explosives engineering back when I organized a STEM Fair for our homeschool group; while Syd built a table for her project, Will wanted to study explosives for hers. Sure, we did the old Mentos and soda trick, and reviewed the exothermic reaction that occurs when you decompose hydrogen peroxide, but I knew what she really wanted, and so that's why we found ourselves out on the driveway numerous times that spring, testing various homemade rocket fuel recipes.

You'll probably be horrified to learn that homemade explosives are actually super easy to make; all you really need are potassium nitrate, sugar, and a container. To make better explosives, add in a temperature-controlled outdoor heating source. To make fancy explosives, add in a few standard, easily obtained additives.

Regular table sugar is the fuel for this explosive, I am told--Will and I are both starting from scratch here, learning together, and although I'm figuring out the science involved, and so is she, of course, for now we're mainly relying on various online tutorials and explanations, repeating the demonstrations that we've seen to try to get the same results, making notes of what variables we want to change when we're confident enough to experiment, etc.--that sugar is the fuel, and that you can grind or melt the sugar to let it interact better with the potassium nitrate, but for the purposes of creating a workable fuse, you don't have to. Sugar actually has a pretty complicated molecular structure with lots of nice hydrogen and oxygen to make a nice, big exothermic reaction.

Potassium nitrate is simpler to model. Also note, on this spec sheet, the important information that it can combust with prolonged exposure to heat. I do have plans to buy an outdoor griddle for the purpose of making a better-mixed, more stable mixture of potassium nitrate and sugar, and so this tells me that when I do, I have to be very, very, very careful.

We're not using any heat in this first combination, however, in which we're simply following this simple tutorial to make a fuse:

Despite the risk of giving you too much information about my misspent youth, I'll tell you that this part is exactly like rolling a joint:

And it's easy enough for an eleven-year-old to do completely independently:

Again, it's not the most efficient fuse, nor the most elegant, but it DOES work...IF you can get the lighter lit!

Okay, here's what it actually looks like in action:

Yeah... we're still working on a reliable recipe for that smoke bomb.

We've played with this fuse several more times--in a couple of different smoke bomb recipes, and for the merriment of burning things safely in the middle of our driveway (a crumbled up sheet of newspaper with more potassium nitrate and sugar inside makes for quite a jolly show!)--and it's dependable. It always works, and hasn't yet ever flared up or done anything unexpected. It's extremely fragile, however, so when we get to the making of actual model rockets, we'll definitely need to try a more sophisticated type.

I know some of you (many of you? Most of you?) are thinking that I'm crazy right about now, and that's totes fine. I'm pretty sure that my sanity is cracking quite often, actually. But here's the thing: what's the point in homeschooling if you can't let a kid follow her passions? You've got it easy if your kid is passionate about drawing or dinosaurs. You have to really figure out what it means to you to let a kid follow her passions if she's into something not so easy. One of my mom friends let her kid watch homebirth videos on YouTube when she was little--tons of homebirth videos!--because that's what the kid was interested in. Will she become a midwife or an obstetrician when she grows up? Who cares! Maybe she'll just grow up with an excellent knowledge of reproductive anatomy and will walk into her own childbirth experiences, if she has them, amply prepared with appropriate expectations. The important thing is that she got to immerse herself in what interested her, and nobody got to shame her or tell her that it was weird.

Will my kid grow up to be a rocket engineer or a fireworks designer? It doesn't matter to me. All I care about is that she wants to learn about explosions, and so we're learning about explosions. Maybe she'll just grow up with an excellent knowledge of exothermic reactions, and the ability to build a homemade toilet paper fuse should she ever need to. Doesn't matter to me. What does matter is this: chemistry, physics, fine motor skills, research, risk management, molecular modeling, recipe following, experimentation--seems like a fine way to wrap up sixth grade, to me!


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