How-to-do Science Books (Review)
Awhile ago I wrote a column about what science is and about the scientific method (The Nature of Science). Recently I found some related books and I thought I’d review some of them for you. The theme of some of these books is how to prepare a science fair project, but they are also useful for designing and carrying out science experiments at home. To be fair, I’m going to review them in alphabetical order by author.
The first book, The Complete Handbook of Science Fair Projects by Julianne Blair Bochinski was written (according to the author) to provide a good example of the scientific method and to let you “see” what others have done for science fair projects, in case this is the first time you’ve been to one. She writes about how to do the scientific method, gives practical information about how to make your display, and gives fifty outlines of award-winning projects by actual students.
Bochinski writes in a friendly, conversational way. She obviously has been to many science fairs and really knows her material. She even has a section that covers some of the rules of some of the science fair organizations, such as that you can’t have live animals or even dried plant materials on your display and that even simple experiments with human subject require a ton of paperwork. (I understand why no live animals, but why can’t you show dried plants? Fire hazard?) She emphasizes that the examples she provides are actual projects and not recipes for your own project. She says that you can’t get an award-winning project from copying an experiment out of a book. In fact, she does not give results and simply includes a list of relevant questions under “results.” She also emphasizes the need to follow your own interests and one chapter is a compelling story of one young man who took a question he had about whether germs can live in carpeting and developed it into a project that drew the attention of prominent scientists.
I have to say I liked her book a lot. I found it useful. The Appendices were outstanding, with a list of 400 ideas for science fair projects organized alphabetically by topic, a list of U.S. Scientific Supply Companies by Regions which is the most extensive that I’ve seen, and a list of organizations that carry out science fairs by state and country. Overall, I’d like to have this book on my shelf as a reference.
In Science is Golden by Ann Finkelstein, the author says her motivation to write the book was that when she went to help her fourth grade neighbor to plan, perform and analyze her own experiment, the author was disappointed to find only information on pre-designed experiments (like the other books listed here.) She wanted to find a way to help children figure out the experiments themselves using questions that they came up with themselves. She then goes on to discuss the scientific method as a “brains on” way to do science experiments (as opposed to a “hands-on” approach). Some examples she uses are “How does the remote control on the TV work?” and “Why is apple cider brown?”
In this case the author is a scientist, and she spends a great deal of time discussing the scientific method. She has a good section on laboratory notebooks in Chapter 5, again for younger children in Chapter 8 and a good example of a sample laboratory notebook in Appendix 2 (see Learning to Keep a Laboratory Notebook for discussion of the importance of laboratory notebooks.)
Being a scientist myself, why wasn’t I more excited about this book? First of all, the tone of the book is more serious, maybe a bit too serious. It is definitely written for adults with a heavy emphasis on classroom experiences. Some of the problem may have been the small print and wide pages the publisher chose, creating a sea of words broken only by some ho-hum clip art. I just never felt drawn into the text, reading it was a chore. I was also disappointed to find no index available.
Appendix 1 is a list of questions asked by children of different grades, organized in no particular way. Examples are questions are pretty mundane, such as “why is snow white? or “why is the sky blue?” I was unclear about the intended purpose of this appendix. Was it to help the child generate ideas for projects? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to have the children figure out questions themselves based on their own interests as the author suggested earlier? Or is it to impress adults with the astonishing curiosity of kids? I think most of us are aware of that. My four-year-old currently has a bin of lemons picked from our tree rotting in the garage to see what happens to them, has put three types of bedding in the guinea pig’s cage in different corners to see which kind the guinea pig prefers and loves to examine the laws of physics by racing small cars and crashing them into each other. Kids are curious!
Overall, Science is Golden may be a help to those unfamiliar with the scientific method but has some flaws. I should also mention that this book does briefly discuss evolutionary theory.
The next books were written by Janice VanCleave, an award-winning and prolific author of more than 30 children’s science books. In her Guide to the Best Science Fair Projects she gives 50 science fair project ideas organized by field of science. Each has a short statement of the problem, a list of materials needed, and a step-by-step procedure to follow. Unlike the Bochinski book, she does give the results that are expected. Then she adds sections on “Why?” explaining the results, “Let’s Explore” to delve into the problem further, “Show Time!” tips for presentation and “Check it out!” tips for finding further information. Each idea is a stand alone unit and you could simply turn to the section you were interested in without reading any of the rest of the book. Each could be performed at home, there is no expectation of a classroom setting.
Her tone is also friendly and conversational. I would say that although her experiments are more like science recipes, they are also designed for younger children than the Bochinski book. Although Finkelstein makes a good point that giving the results spoils the creative part of science, the part of really trying to figure out the answer, on the other hand these projects are not part of an on-going educational program and without any background or expectations in the topic, then how can a child know if his or her results are within the realm of acceptable answers?
Another plus for the VanCleave book is that she discusses how to handle a rock collection. Collections are an important way children learn to sort, classify and count, etc. but are often ignored in science books because we adults sometimes don’t realize their value. Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that science equals experiment, and that isn’t the case.
In 202 Oozing, Bubbling, Dripping and Bouncing Experiments, VanCleave follows a similar recipe format, but stops at the “Why?” section, with no pointers for presentations or for exploring further. Although organized by category, these “experiments” feel disjointed. I’m not sure how much you would really learn if you had no idea why the question was important, and a limited understanding of what happened. They are really demonstrations rather than experiments. But I would love to have this book and others like it in my head so that if my child asked a question I could jump in with a really cool demonstration of how that works, rather than what really happens: fumbling through a bunch of books and coming up with something two days later when he’s asking another question.
To wrap up, although these three authors have different approaches, they have demonstrated that information about how-to-do science is available and it’s just a trip to the bookstore or library away!