Ice Cream in a Bag!

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Ages: Any, though the very young will get tired of shaking long before the ice cream is ready.

My kids never took to Sesame Street, or Mickey Mouse, or the Disney Channel; they didn’t care for children’s movies, either. For the most part, I appreciated that, and enjoyed my Dora-free existence. It did become an issue, however, when I desperately needed to make a phone call, or do my homework, or even just have five minutes of unchaperoned time in the bathroom.

As the girls got older, they got better at amusing themselves from time to time, but sick days remained problematic. I would eventually run out of patience with Barbies (for the moderately ill) and with ladling tea and stroking hair (for the flu victims). Unfortunately, my youngest was frequently fighting some bug or another. I heard myself asking: please, please, wouldn’t you like to watch twenty minutes of television? Sadly, no.

But one day last January, my seven-year-old got a glimpse of the Food Network. Now I have that “be careful what you wish for,” kind of feeling. “That’s not how you do a chiffonade,” Josie told me later, as I chopped mint for the top of a fruit salad. “I think there has been a misunderstanding,” she said another time, catching me frosting her fancy ganache-filled mocha birthday cupcakes with a tub of Betty Crocker vanilla.

What can I possibly make for dinner now, when both girls are glued to Iron Chef Morimoto‘s every move?    Continue reading “Ice Cream in a Bag!”

Lemon Batteries!

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

(A.K.A. Part Two of Operation Rebuilding)

posted by Beret

Ages: 6 and up

After my recent declaration that taking things apart is the best way to learn how they work, I feel a little sheepish announcing that YOU SHOULD NOT TAKE BATTERIES APART. All is not lost, though. Now that we know what is needed to make an electrical circuit–see part one: energy source, energy path, and energy receivers–let’s build our own battery and put it to work.     Continue reading “Lemon Batteries!”

Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One

Why not?
Let’s operate on Operation. Why not?

posted by Beret

Age Range: 7 and up

Things break all of the time at our house. Luckily I’m married to Mr. Fix-it, and very few weeks pass that we don’t put his title to the test. He has tackled the dishwasher, the dryer, the oven, the car, the disposal and–albeit reluctantly–the computer. That sort of tinkering is extremely helpful. When everything seems to be working, however, he finds something unbroken to fix. For example, he is constantly rewiring our home entertainment system so that, yet again, I don’t know how to turn on the TV or work the stereo. I find that irritating. He just finds it unbelievable that I can’t figure it all out myself.

Lately, I have been wondering: what was different about his upbringing that helped him to see the world through the eyes of an engineer?

I asked him what he did in his spare time as a child, and he proceeded to tell me a story about secretly removing the brakes from his bicycle and embarking on a variety of death-defying activities. He was twelve years old. This gave me pause. “You took off your brakes? How did you know how to do that?” “I didn’t,” he said, but that certainly didn’t stop him. He took everything apart: watches, clocks, whatever he could get his hands on.

I THINK THIS IS THE KEY.  Taking things apart is an excellent way to figure out how they work and how you might build or change them. It’s not just my humble opinion, either. I started doing a little research, and discovered all kinds of resources and programs that include tinkering as a way to develop conceptual development.    Continue reading “Operation Building and Unbuilding: Part One”

Invisible Ink – That Works

posted by Gina

Age Range: 5 and up

How many of us have been sorely disappointed with the lemon-juice-and-candle invisible ink of myth and legend?  If your attempts were like mine, the paper would catch fire before a message appeared.  Besides, any secret messages written under careful adult supervision kind of defied the purpose.  In theory, a hot light bulb will achieve the same effect.  In reality, not always – especially with today’s energy-saving bulbs.

Just to be sure we remembered our previous failures correctly, my brave assistants and I set to work with lemon juice and a light bulb. As we suspected, little happened, other than my assistants growing bored with the entire process and wandering away.

But fear not, my secret-message-writing friends!  A tipster pointed me towards an invisible ink that does, in fact work each time.  Better still – no flames or hot bulbs are required, making this experiment one that does not need extinguishers at the ready.   Continue reading “Invisible Ink – That Works”

The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age Level:  Any

I’m a huge fan of Halloween.  It’s a festive, fabulous holiday without the baggage and stressful travel.  Sure, I had my candy stolen once or twice, and there were a couple of costume disappointments, but the pure pleasure of carousing after dark as a child–dressed as my alter ego–outweighed any of that.  I love the whole wacky mess of it.


I’m not so wild about the morning after.  Everyone is tired and cranky.  Work and school go on as usual.  And then, there’s the CANDY.  What to do with that boatload of sugar?    Continue reading “The Aftermath: Repurposing Those Sweet Treats”

How to extract DNA from fruit the crazy easy way

©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Beret

Age range:  8 and up

DNA is a fascinating realm to investigate, but one I assumed was out of my league…that is, until my nine-year-old heard about extracting DNA from strawberries and wanted to try it at home.

There are a variety of approaches outlined on the web, often calling for thermometers, holding baths, denatured alcohol, and/or soap containing a very particular agent (EDTA). We tried several approaches, using different recipes, brands, and timing, and were consistently and remarkably unsuccessful. We kept at it, though, and when we finally got the extraction procedure to work, it was embarrassing how easy it was.  Apparently the more intricate the process, the less likely you are to succeed.    Continue reading “How to extract DNA from fruit the crazy easy way”

Cabbage Juice Chemistry!

© Beret Olsen, 2012

posted by Beret

Age Range:  6 and up

Ah, chemistry.  How boring it can be when reduced to a textbook, a monotonous lecture, or a multiple choice test.  But chemistry has its roots in ancient alchemies–the attempts to make gold and elixirs for healing or immortality.

Watching my kids in action, I think there may be an innate drive to mix substances and solutions to create something new. They began brewing their own potions long before we read Harry Potter.  We started simply.  Whenever I cleaned out the cupboards or the refrigerator, I would give the girls a giant (and unbreakable) bowl, wooden spoons, and safety goggles, and send them out into the backyard to make some new concoction.  Stale or moldy food made for some pretty intriguing science projects.  I also had the girls throw in any candy they might find from the back of cupboards or old birthday goodie bags.  It was fun and got rid of a lot of junk.

When they tired of potions and wanted something more ‘scientificky’ to mix and do, I did a little research and discovered that juice made from a red cabbage is a natural indicator to determine whether a substance is acidic or basic.  The process is very simple and straightforward, and the results are colorful and satisfying.    Continue reading “Cabbage Juice Chemistry!”

Mummifying Chickens

A chicken mummy anointed, adorned, and nestled in its sarcophagus.     ©2012 Beret Olsen

posted by Gina

Age Range: 7 and up

Ancient Egypt is a topic that rarely fails to capture the imagination, whether a 2nd grader’s or a high school student’s.  The mythology is both beautiful and harsh, with enough romance and bloodthirst to satisfy young people across the interest spectrum.

In terms of an easy yet spectacular home project, nothing is more fabulous than a homemade mummy, whether the project comes at the end of a unit of study or opens the door to further reading and research.    Continue reading “Mummifying Chickens”

%d bloggers like this: