Science Friday

the eggbotWhile I certainly do my fair share of fiction-focused programs, I consider non-fiction programs to be (dare I say it?) just as much fun. And for today’s adventure in non-fiction, we’re talking science!

We’ve offered some interesting science programs in the past. Take, for example, the Chemistry of Magic, in which we demonstrated the real science behind seemingly magical reactions. Or this Rube Goldberg engineering program. Or even this humble preschool story time that featured the life stages of a butterfly. This week, to get a healthy dose of vitamin “S,” I dropped in on my friends at scienceSeeds.

scienceSeeds team

Team scienceSeeds: John, Michal, and Lindsay

ScienceSeeds is a local science enrichment center for grades K-8 . It was founded in 2008 by Michal Melamede. While raising her children, she noticed a lack of hands-on, age-appropriate, science and engineering opportunities. So Michal decided to establish a business that would encourage curiosity, exploration, discovery, and scientific thinking.

Visiting scienceSeeds is always fun. Especially when they let me play with their toys! Here are a few of their current favorites. Perhaps one or two will inspire a little science at your next program?

JOHN’S FABULOUS CANDELABRA

lamp 2I have to start with this one because I’m such a hot glue devotee. This is an LED lamp with hot glue stick shades! It was designed by John to demonstrate circuits, fiber optics and light behavior. He used a hot glue gun to hollow out the bottom of 5 hot glue sticks, and then rigged up a series of little LED bulbs on a simple circuit. Everything was attached to a foam core base, and then the base was wrapped with decorative duct tape. I love it.

HYDRAULIC BUTTERFLY

butterflyThis is another project designed by scienceSeeds staff to teach hydraulics. Using two water-filled syringes and tubing, the butterfly lifts its wings up and down. The syringes are from a medical supply company, the tubing is from a science catalog, the base is wood, the wings are made from foam board, and the butterfly’s body is a clothespin. A little duct tape here and there and you’re ready to go. They also have versions with an owl, a bat, and a dump truck!

FOAM BOARD AUTOMATAUN

star boxOne final project from scienceSeeds’ workshop! This one demonstrates how simple machines and mechanisms work. Turn the crank and the movement of the wooden gears and rods causes the star to spin. The base is made from foam board, the sticks are bamboo skewers, and the gears are little wooden circles purchased from Michael’s craft store. A little hot glue and duct tape seals the deal.  And just look at this sweet double gear version!

bee boxMark my words…I’m GOING to find a way to work a foam board automataun into a story time project. It shall be done. Oh yes, it shall.

THE EGGBOT

the eggbotThis is a recent acquisition at the workshop. It’s the EggBot, an art robot that can draw on round surfaces like eggs, light bulbs, ping pong balls, ornaments, etc. It hooks up to your computer and, with some lovely freeware, will take a design or image and put it right on your object! scienceSeeds is using it to teach CNC and automated design. Here are a couple test subjects…

lightbulbsAlas, an EggBot kit like the one above retails for $219, so it’s well out of my budget. The company that sells it is called Evil Mad Science LLC. Hah hah hah! Minions not included.

CONFETTI VACUUM CLEANER

vacuumThis is a modification of a cardboard kit the staff tested. They found that a 1 liter bottle and plastic propeller worked much better than a cardboard tube and propeller. The foam board base holds a simple circuit that connects to a motor. As the motor spins the propeller, it creates a wind tunnel in the bottle that sucks up pieces of confetti. It’s the perfect way to teach engineering and air flow. It’s wildly popular with the kids too.

THE 3-DOODLER

3-doodlerIt might be a little hard to see this in the photo, but this device lets you do 3-dimentional drawings! That thin green line you see isn’t drooping down from the tip of the doodler. It’s rising up from the piece of paper and standing on its own! You insert little plastic sticks of various colors into one end of the “pen.” The plastic emerges in liquid form out the other end, but quickly hardens. With some practice, you can “draw” amazing 3D creations like these:

popcafe everestrobotscienceSeeds likes to use the 3-Doodler for their 3D modeling workshops, sometimes in conjunction with their 3D printer. A 3-Doodler pen retails for about $100, and additional plastic sticks are approximately $10 for 25. I noticed that the pen makes a loud whirring noise while being operated (a little louder than an electric toothbrush). The staff also mentioned that after extended periods of use, you can smell burning plastic. The smell bothers some kids. But those things aside, it’s a cool little drawing tool.

I’ll leave you with a photo of scienceSeeds’ classroom space. Look at the cheerful red cabinets! The under-the-counter adjustable storage! The cool green chairs! Now imagine it packed full of kids creating, discovering, building, and innovating. Fantastic.

room shot

The Dirt on LEGO

the dirt on legosOver the years, people have learned to contact me before they discard things like surplus archive boxes, old folders, and giant tubes. I always find a way to work them into a story time project (even if it means cramming them in a storage closet for months, praying they don’t topple on me while I’m trying to wrestle a stubborn pack of sparkle stems from a bin).

But our most recent acquisition was a little was unusual. It wasn’t office supplies or packing material. It was a LEGO set. An ancient Civil War LEGO set unearthed from the History Department’s graduate study room.

box of legosThe set had collected a considerable amount of dust over the years, and as I pondered its fate, Katie said “You know, I saw some great LEGO cleaning tips on Pinterest. One woman even threw hers in a washing machine!” Really?

I know that many libraries, classrooms, children’s museums, and homes have LEGO and DUPLO sets in them, and that keeping them clean is a concern and a frustration. So we thought it would be helpful to test 3 different cleaning methods on 1 dirty LEGO set and report the results. Katie gamely volunteered. Here is the report, based on her excellent field notes.

TEST #1: WASHING MACHINE

washing machineFor this method, you’ll need a mesh laundry bag (also knows as a lingerie bag). First, Katie removed all the small bricks and tiny pieces (basically, anything that could fall through the holes of the mesh). Then she pulled the rest of the bricks apart, dropped them in the bag, and wrapped a rubber band around the top for extra security. After reading a number of comments and suggestions on the original Pinterest post, Katie decided to wash the bricks using the delicate cycle, in warm water, on low spin.

Katie’s washing machine is a front-loader. The LEGO set was loud. Super loud. 35 minutes of loud. I asked her if she thought a top-loader would have been quieter, and she said that some of the Pinterest commentators used top-loaders and…it was still super loud.

When the machine stopped, Katie discovered that a small handful of LEGOs had escaped the bag. Not so good. The low spin cycle did dry the bricks a little but they definitely needed air drying.

TEST #2: DISHWASHER

dishwasher Katie prepped another set of bricks and put them in a mesh laundry bag on the top rack of her dishwasher. After consulting her machine’s operating manual, she decided to use her “china” setting (warm water, no heat dry). She didn’t want the LEGOs to melt on a hot water/high heat cycle. The dishwasher was much, much quieter. However, the no heat dry meant that the LEGOs were super wet and needed considerable air drying time.

TEST #3: HAND WASH

sinkA final set of LEGOs were prepped and placed in a small mixing bowl with warm water and dish soap. IMPORTANT! When washing LEGOs in your sink, make sure you put in the drain plug in place. LEGOs in garbage disposal = bad news. Wash and rinse the LEGOs thoroughly, then drain.

drying legosToting piles of wet LEGOs, Katie headed outside with some towels and spread the pieces out on her back porch. But the humidity was so high, she had to bring them back inside and spread them out on her kitchen floor overnight, which worked great.

AND…THE RESULTS!

There weren’t any discernible difference between the 3 washing methods. Strangely, the white and yellow bricks still held on to a little dirt (and it’s not just because dirt shows up more on light colors, we examined all the bricks very closely). The blue bricks were the champions of cleanliness. Not a speck of dirt to be seen!

clean legosCleaning LEGOs in a washing machine is not recommended. It’s just too loud and some bricks escaped, which could potentially scratch the interior of your machine. The dishwasher is quiet, quick, and does the job. But if you use anything other than warm water, you risk warping or melting your LEGOs. So if you’re going for the full-out disinfecting, a good old fashioned hand wash is the way to go. Especially since you can use hotter water (and disinfect with vinegar or diluted bleach if you choose).

The sparkling clean LEGOs were immediately put to good use by Katie’s son, who spent a busy afternoon enthusiastically building an impressive football/castle/Civil War reenactment/futuristic battlefield.

legoscapeWant to see what we’ve done with some of our other recyclables? Check out this post!

Draw Like an Old Master

draw like an old masterMove over Leonardo! You too can draw like an Old Master. And you don’t need a studio, an aristocratic benefactor, or an artistic temperament. You just need one of these…

overhead projectorYup, it’s an overhead projector. Remember these things? They used to be a fixture in classrooms. Now, you can probably find one in a forgotten corner of a school storage closet, or buried in the back of a library office, its head peeking out from a pile of mimeograph sheets like the Loch Ness of the office realm.

I rescued this overhead projector from the surplus pile at my library and am proud to house it in my stable of useful outreach tools. Among other things, I’ve used it to make inexpensive event signs, salvage presentations when PowerPoint went kaput, light up shadow puppet shows, and replicate iconic pieces of Renaissance art. Here’s how it works.

First, select the image you want to replicate (we used Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter sketch). Then, print the image on transparency film made specifically for printers…

transparancy filmLoad the transparency film into a computer’s printer like a regular piece of paper, and lo! It comes out with the image printed on it.

transfered drawingFire up the overhead projector, drop the transparency film in place, aim the projected image at a piece of paper, poster board, foam board, or wall and…start tracing!

katie tracesWhen you’re finished tracing, simply fill in the outlines with markers or paint.

katie drawsVoila! You now have a lovely image that requires zero artistic ability.

finished artTo make inexpensive event signs, simply print the titles of the signs on transparency film, trace them onto the top of a piece of foam board or poster board, and fill the outlines in with paint. Once I had the title, I’d use computer print outs to create the images and/or copy I needed for the rest of the sign. Our most popular event sign ever was created this way (and you can see it here).

If I hired a professional printer to have the titles of the sign printed on foam board, it would have cost between $15 – $25 per sign. Since I would typically create 10-15 signs for a large event, it added up pretty quick. On Amazon, transparency film is about $20 per pack of 100, 8.5″ x 11″ sheets. Vinyl letters and/or stencils are another option for creating signs, but they don’t always come with the widest variety of fonts (and they can get a little pricey too).

The overheard projector tracing method does require some time. If you have an event with a small budget and volunteers looking for work, however, you might just consider trying this method. It also works for theater sets and/or murals. Or you can just, you know, whip yourself up some classic art for the fun of it.

katieThis person featured in this post, by the way, is my new part-time assistant Katie! You actually already met her foot in this post, when she was operating a skeleton marionette. Katie was my temporary event assistant for 2 years before I managed to reel her in to work for me on a permanent basis.

So she’s way used to my odd requests and strange job requirements. Such as selecting hundreds of specifically-sized rocks at a local quarry, folding 500 origami hats, helping me shove University students into 8′ cardboard tubes to install archery targets, developing a tax game for kids, locating an Etsy artist who could make a cuddly Ichthyosaur, and dressing up as a Victorian Steampunk spelunker at a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event.

So she was totally game for throwing on a doublet, taping on some construction paper facial hair, and posing as an Old Master. No problemo.


Special thanks to the Lewis Center for the Arts’ costume shop for the doublet and hat loan! Thou rock!