Friday, December 17, 2010

Son's Self-Initiated Science Experiment

A truck pulled into the driveway.

The doorbell rang.

No delivery was expected but indeed a cooler full of Omaha Steaks products arrived, a Christmas gift from a relative.

What was in that box that was not the food, was the main draw for my kids: the dry ice. My husband pitched into the fun and showed how to safely handle it and put it into water.

The boys ooh'ed and ahh'ed over it. Abruptly my thirteen year old went upstairs. I heard the sound of hands swishing through LEGOs. I wondered what was going on but was too busy to go investigate.

A little while later he emerged with a LEGO creation in hand. It was a wide chimney that tapered up to a narrow smoke stack. He said he wanted to see the dry ice come out of the smoke stack.

Before placing the chimney on top.

The first attempt failed as the chimney was too short to fit over the measuring cup with the dry ice and water in it. Modifications were made, as seen in the below photo.

The second time he placed it on top and made sure the surface was flat against the granite counter. He pushed down to make sure no air was leaking out. Nothing came out of the top. We waited. Nothing came out.

Above: Chimney placed flat on the counter,  nothing escapes from the top.

He lifted it up and the vapors came out of the bottom, so they really were there. He placed the chimney back down and held it tight and waited. Nothing came out of the top. Once again he picked it up and there was a lot of vapor trapped in the bottom of it.

Above: Lifted up the chimney, some vapors came out of the bottom (hard to see in photo), no vapors come out of the top.

After: there is clearly vapor still available. See how it falls down the side, sinking?

"Oh!", he said. "It's not coming out of the top because the dry ice is so cold and it is making the water very cold and the trapped air also is cold. Cold air sinks and so the vapors are gathering at the bottom instead of rising up and out the top of the chimney!"

I guessed he was right. The funny thing was he put two and two together before I did. I was too busy looking for errors in LEGO construction to think about the scientific things that were going on.

Update 12/23/10: I didn't go look up this information to verify the accuracy of my son's hypothesis but I should have. My friend and blog reader Kim of Kim's Play Place corrected me that the smoke is vapor that is carbon dioxide which is heavier than the air in our atmosphere thus it sinks. Thanks Kim!

Most likely next academic year my son will do a high school level chemistry course and such matters will be covered thoroughly. So far in our homeschooling the learning about chemistry was happenstance or interest-led. Some chemistry is being touched upon in this year's biology studies via a homeschool co-op course. Both of our innacuracy after the dry ice play is further proof that a thorough, organized, broad-sweeping study of a topic such as with science or history is important. It also underscores a bit of the risk when a homeschooling parent is not a subject matter expert on every single subject being taught. Thanks for the reminder Kim.


Our fall was too busy and over-scheduled. In any free time the kids tried to go right to the TV to sit and vegetate which I discouraged. Neither had free time for creative pursuits or even thinking like this. On this day, this week, almost all of our structured activities done outside the house had ended for the fall.

This was the first full day the kids could sleep in and stay home all day long to do homeschooling lessons with me or Christmas preparations. The pace of the day was entirely different. This is an example of the good things that happen here which are educational or support thinking skills that can only happen when we are not stressed out and running around like chickens with our heads cut off. This is an example of self-initiated or joy-led learning that some call unschooling.

However unschooling does not suffice for this child or my younger one as a full-time thing. These good things don't keep up, they try to watch TV or beg to play video games or other easy passive things instead of using their time on educational pursuits all the time. They also start to bicker if they have too much free time on their hands.

Also, they avoid learning things that are not fun or that challenge them. Certain skills like improving reading ability, literature analysis, practicing difficult math concepts and writing composition skills do not get addressed if I leave my children to their own devices for a full unschooling experience.

I'm trying to straddle the fence between guiding my kids toward the education that our state government requires, preparing them for the career of their choosing (some includes a certain college degree) and allowing them some freedom and fun in their learning. It's not easy to provide them with the social experiences they want with others and have free time at home for solo pursuits and sleeping in.

I'm still looking for that elusive balance. Homeschooling is a process that is ever-evolving. While I can stress or complain of being too busy it makes me feel better to see something good like this going on in "free time" at home, something that shows thinking is happening and that past science lessons learned someplace, sometime (who knows when), were committed to long term memory and were retrieved accurately. I love seeing curiosity and exploration and spontaneity also.

Below: my younger son, age ten, playing around with the dry ice and making a scary face like a mad scientist.

1 comment:

Kim said...

The smoke is actually carbon dioxide in its gaseous state. CO2 is heavier than the gas mixture of the atmosphere and that is why it flows down once it emerges from the water.

Dry ice is always fun! Great explorations.