Science author Roberta Gibson writes about science kits.

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The Unschooling Handbook
How to Use the Whole World As Your Child's Classroom
by Mary Griffith
Unschooling, a homeschooling method based on the belief that kids learn best when allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and interests, is practiced by 10 to 15 percent of the estimated 1.5 million homeschoolers in the United States.

Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves
by Alison McKee
Patrick Farenga, editor, "Growing Without Schooling": An honest and touching account of how homeschooling leads to new attitudes and possibilities for learning.
Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.
~ Mary Lou Cook

    The Litmus Test - Or Finding out the Hard Way Who Your Friends Really Are When They Give Your Child a Science Kit
    Roberta Gibson

    I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the words “chemistry set” or “science lab” I immediately think of strangely colored liquids, weird smells and unexplained explosions. So when my two closest friends gave my son a “Radio Shack Jr. Scientist Science Lab” for his birthday, I didn’t know what to say. “What are you thinking? I thought you guys liked me,” I thought, but managed to thank them anyway.

    I put the box away quietly. Far away. My son had gotten more promising gifts for his birthday. “He’ll forget about it,” I thought. “Where’s the science kit?” he asked.

    Mom 0, Science Kit, 1.

    I looked at the box. It said “Some experiments require adult supervision – Learn with your children!” Okay, so we started pulling out all sorts of gizmos and gadgets. I don’t remember my college physics laboratory having this much equipment. Fortunately my son quickly found some magnets. Good, magnets are safe and unlikely to explode.

    I quickly perused the 254-page manual. No index, but the table of contents did have a section on magnetism. We tested some objects to see whether the magnet would stick to them. We then stroked a sewing needle (supplied) with a magnet. It became magnetized! Yow! We were going places. I found a box with a cover and taped some metal objects inside. He passed the magnet around the outside until he “found” them. This is cool!

    Feeling quite cocky, I flipped through the manual. “Make your own lemon battery,” it said. We have a lemon tree in our yard. Anyone with a lemon tree knows that lemons are the citrus equivalent of zucchinis. We have gallons of frozen juice in our freezer and still have enough to supply our entire community for a lifetime. We are always looking for new things to do with lemons.

    I should have paid a little more attention to the note — “The LED will light up, but not very strongly. It will be most visible in a dark room” — but I ignored it. My son dashed out to pick three candidate lemons while I sorted out the piles of do-dads into electrodes, insulated wire, and LED. Now, where is that LED? If I had noticed the “What’s in Your Kit” list, complete with line drawings of each object, after the Table of Contents, it might not have taken quite so long. I was thinking fairly big; what I found instead was very, very tiny. Anyway, we got the electrodes into the lemons, the wires strung up like a spaghetti tree, the LED in place, and viola — nothing. This little light wouldn’t be glowing anywhere.

    It was much easier to find our 9-volt batteries than the LED. Yes, the battery could light up the LED. Guess our lemons weren’t up to 9 volts. We cleaned up and were through for the day.

    The next day my son wanted the kit again. This time I let him sort through the equipment himself. He wanted to try the litmus paper. I have to admit the litmus paper was interesting and turned pretty colors, although I’m sure my son didn’t have a clue why. We tried lemons and tomatoes for acid and soap for a base. I went out of the room for a moment and when I came back there was litmus paper stuck firmly to the kitchen floor. I need to write a letter to the “Hints for Heloise” column on the best way to remove litmus paper from your kitchen floor.

    Eventually we gave up the manual and my son just put things together in ways that interested him. He did a test tube stand vacuum cleaner complete with wheels. We got the solar powered motor up and running, although all it did was spin a fan. One of the test tubes became part of an ant farm. You get the idea.

    The kit givers and I remain friends. I’m not sure how much science my son learned, probably more than I think. He definitely increased his scientific vocabulary by naming equipment and processes. The science kit sits on a shelf in a plastic tub, waiting for a rainy afternoon. Maybe we’ll make recycled paper. I wonder if Heloise has any hints for removing wet paper pulp from the kitchen floor?

    Where to Get Science Equipment and Kits:

    The science kit mentioned in this column is from a RadioShack.Com store, which is not the typical strip mall Radio Shack that may be in your neighborhood. You may have to look further to find one, but they do offer some nice, low-cost science and electronics kits for kids.

    If you are looking for low cost science equipment, don't be afraid to look at your local discount/close-out stores either. Here in the west we have Ross, MacFrugals, Tuesday Morning, and Arizona Closeout Stores, which all offer returns and closeout items. These are often brand name versions found in expensive catalogs or museum gift shops. I found a Smithsonian microscope kit and a science curriculum I had seen in a catalog for much less than the original cost at Tuesday Morning. Arizona Closeouts had museum quality plastic seashells, insects, etc. that I had seen at other places for more than twice as much. Just be sure to check that all the pieces are working if the item is obviously a return. Happy hunting!


    • Check the website to find the store nearest to you.
      Customer Relations
      200 West Third Street, Suite 600
      Fort Worth, Texas 76102
      Phone: 817-415-3200

    • American Science & Surplus
      3605 Howard St
      Skokie, IL 60076

    • Edmund Scientific
      60 Pearce Ave.
      Tonawanda, NY 14150-6711
      Phone: (800) 728-6999

    Copyright August 2001
    Originally published in September/October 2001 issue of HELM (Home Education Learning Magazine)

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