Chaos and Creativity

If you stopped by the LPE science lab last Friday, you might have mistaken what you saw for chaos but it was really fifth graders fully engaged and very, very creative.

Let me start at the beginning.  Ms. Carnes (LPE fifth grade science teacher) and I decided that the project for my monthly visit would be “Build Your Own Robot Arm“.  Since I start my day at the whole school assembly demonstrating something related to the plan for the science lab, I contacted Mr. Hollenberger at LTHS about his robot team.  He offered three students, Zach, Nikko, and Meagan for the assembly. They did an excellent job, not only in showing the prototype robot that was used in the design of a larger one, but also in talking about the importance of teamwork in a project like this.  Meagan encouraged the girls in the audience to be part of this robot team when they passed through middle school and into high school. (Great message, Meagan!)  My thanks to all of them.

Zach, Nikko, and Meagan with their robot arm

Zach, Nikko, and Meagan with their robot arm

Then on to the science lab.  I really like the Robot Arm project.  It takes an hour or less depending on how much time I take for the introduction; it can be used across a wide range of grades (I’ve even used it with high school teachers); and it’s very “free form”.  There are some basic materials that you need like the cardboard strips and tape but you can gather as much as you want to allow creativity to blossom.  Here’s the list of materials that I made available this time:

  • Cardboard strips – I cut mine 5 cm x 50 cm and made them available with the corrugations running in both directions
  • Cardboard rectangles 15 cm x 30 cm
  • Lots of masking tape
  • Scissors
  • String
  • Index cards
  • Tooth picks
  • Small and large bamboo skewers
  • Plastic straws
  • Trimmer string with diagonal cutters since scissors just won’t work
  • Metal hangers – straightened and cut in half
  • Brass fasteners
  • Small and medium binder clips
  • Clothes pins
  • Various sizes of rubber bands
  • Cable ties

I’ve included a photo of the supply table after the fourth class.


Each student engineering team is provided with paper and pencils to allow them to draw the designs from their brainstorming session.  They can look at the materials available to them but not pick up anything until they have an agreed-upon drawing.

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With that the creations begin to take shape.  We started with two test stations but expanded that to several more since that became a limitation in the test-evaluate-redesign part of the design process. Everyone was fully engaged! Not everyone finished so with the teachers okay, I left the materials and the test stations for later in the day or the following week.  I also added a few more elements to the design requirements.

I have found that engineering challenges like this or the simpler Puff Mobile, really encourage teamwork and creativity.  While some may view the intermediate stages from the outside as chaos, it really is innovation in progress.

My thanks to Ms. Carnes and Ms. Kordes for allowing me to take over the science lab and for all the great photos that they took.

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I was SLIMED at LPE’s Family Science Night

Who can resist the siren call of slime…  not the students who attended Lake Pointe Elementary’s Family Science Night.  Bonnie and I made almost 200 batches of PVA slime for students (and parents) who attended. It started slowly with three or four at once but quickly we had a dozen or more students making their slime at the same time.  Bonnie and I ended up with fingers stained by the food coloring – only pink was left at the end of the three hour session.  It took many washings over a few days to have my hands return to their normal flesh tone.

PVA – short for polyvinyl alcohol – slime is pretty easy to make.  You just need a 4% solution of PVA and the same of Borax.  Here’s one of many descriptions of the procedure that you can find in a search of the internet.  The borax is easy to find in most grocery stores in the laundry detergent aisle.  I mix mine in a stainless steel pot over low heat. That has the added advantage of cleaning the pot very well.  Do be careful and observe the precautions in handling the solution.  The PVA is a little more difficult but not as bad as some describe it.  I start with the PVA powder that I buy from The Chemistry Store.  Make sure to check the MSDS.  I don’t have access to a lab; so, I make mine in the kitchen.  I did try the slow cooker method which worked well but it is, as expected, slow.  I now make larger batches in a stainless steel soup pot – about 6L at a time.  And, yes, I clean the pot very well after I am done.  It takes about an hour of stirring the pot over low heat.  I have used a thermometer and it is usually between 120F and 130F when all the PVA powder is in solution.

I had great plans to take photos but it was non stop for three hours!  My thanks to Ms. Carnes for the photo from FSN and Ms. Farrell for one from an earlier time.

Please let me know your experiences with slime.

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Science Day at Dobie Middle School

My thanks to Ms. Romany Ly for her invitation to join the sixth grade math classes at Dobie Middle School for Science Day.  I did a mix of math and science – maybe a little engineering and technology when we talked about the Dewar that I use to transport the LN2. (Check out James Dewar for whom it is named.)

We started with a brief discussion about why we use numbers and not words to describe temperatures.  Most students recognize two (of the eight) temperature scales – Fahrenheit and Celsius. (I almost never call it centigrade anymore.) Then on to Kelvin with a brief mention of Rankine.  I do like the Delisle scale with its negative slope.

Then on to the cool science with dry ice and the LN2. I use the dry ice for ghost bubbles, lots of bubbles, and bubble blown across an aquarium filled with mostly CO2 from the dry ice.  The bubbles bounce off the top or just float in place.  We had one that slowly sank and froze.  I got a picture of it at the end of the last session which you can see in this post. I blow up a balloon with dry ice and become the mad scientist by drinking orange juice cooled and carbonated by the dry ice.  (I do provide the cautions several times about not allowing the dry ice to contact any part of the body.)

Lots to do with the LN2 – I like rain the best and we were in the gym so I had plenty of vertical space.  I won’t go through all I do with the LN2 but you can check out my videos on MIT BLOSSOMS.  The frozen graham cracker is always a favorite with the students, especially when it’s the teacher breathing “smoke”.  The most favorite though is the 30 second ice cream made with one quart of heavy cream, an unmeasured amount of Nesquik, half a package of the mint Oreos, and the LN2 for the cooling. It looks pretty dramatic as I disappear behind the clouds of vapor.  I made six batches through the day and packed them up for the students to sample the next day at lunch (assuming that the teachers didn’t find them).

The remnants of bubble.

The remnants of bubble.

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Strawberry DNA Extraction

If you have never done this, you need to try it.  I have done this in 10 classroom sessions over just the past few weeks, mostly with 5th graders as they start life sciences but I also did it with homeschool students ranging from ages 7 and up.

It’s almost flawless – one failure among the 100s of students teams that have tried – and both the students and teachers love it.  There are lots of resources.  One of my favorites is here.

The first time I did the strawberry DNA extraction was at my friend’s home, John Cohn. When I got back to Austin, my daughter, a neighborhood friend and I did it in the kitchen several times with a number of fruits.

A couple of suggestions from my experience…

  1. Start with frozen strawberries – many of the cell walls have been broken by the freezing process.
  2. Viva paper towels work great to filter the strawberry/extraction buffer solution.
  3. 95% Ethanol works best followed by 91% Isopropyl alcohol and then 70% Ethyl alcohol.  The latter two can usually be found in drug or grocery stores as rubbing alcohols.  The first may not be allowed in some schools.

There are also resources on the web that show how to extract your own DNA.  If I have time, I do the teacher’s.  Many want to keep it or at least take a photo.

Please let me know of your experience.

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Science, Weather, and Texas History

I mentioned last month about Science Thursdays at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.  We just finished another last week which coincided with Homeschool Day at the museum.  Visitors totaled over 2000 between the school field trips and homeschool students.  We had the usual activities for all visitors – Van de Graaff generator, PVA slime, bunny ‘copter with the vertical air column, and hoop gliders.  We had a few people from Latin@s in Tech stop by our stations on the third floor during their conference.

We did something special for the homeschool students, DNA extraction from strawberries. We had three sessions and all but the last of the day were completely full; parents had to stand along the walls.  My thanks to to three preservice teachers from Texas State University who helped.

On Saturday it was WeatherFest at the Bullock hosted by Time Warner Cable News Austin. Central Texas Discover Engineering joined GirlStart on the second floor lobby with lots of hands-on demos and activities.  CTDE had the always popular Van de Graaff generator, puff-mobile, PVA slime, and the messy cornstarch slime.  We had volunteers from 3M, ASEE, IEEE, IBM, ISSIP, SWE, and UT Austin to keep over 1200 visitors engaged in science and engineering.  You’ll see a few photos included.

The next two months we’ll have two Science Thursdays each month, April 17th and 24th and May 8th and 15th.  Maybe we’ll see you there.

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A busy Engineers Week in Austin

It was a busy week for my personal STEM outreach this Engineers Week.  We had four volunteers from ASCE for our Science Thursday at the Bullock Texas State History Museum plus Walter from 3M and almost 500 students on their field trips.  We had the Van de Graaff generator with flying pie plates and for a hair raising experience,VDG

PVA slime – always a favorite, a Theremin with a volunteer who was an expert with the Star Trek theme by the time we finished, and both the bunny ‘copter and hoop glider on the third floor so the student could see their creations really fly.


Friday was my monthly visit to Lake Pointe Elementary where the fifth graders are just starting life science.  With the help of two winners from the science fair, the whole school learned how to make bouncing balls from gel glue and a solution of borax – with the help of their parents, of course.  Then in the science lab, class by class, the fifth graders extracted DNA from strawberries.  Everyone was successful!

There were a number of other activities in Austin for Engineers Week.  The Thinkery hosted bookend events kicking off with ASCE and ACEA‘s Engineers Day and closing with TWC’s STEM in Sports “Full Speed Ahead”.  The University of Texas at Austin’ Cockrell School of Engineering had beautiful weather for Girl Day with over 2000 pre-registered participants, over 700 volunteers and 75 hands-on activities.  Tricia did a great job.

In March we start early with a huge crowd for Science Thursday, March 6th, with over 1200 students on field trips in a single day plus 500 for Homeschoolers Day at the museum.  Then two days later back again to help with TWC’s Weather Fest – a favorite around the Austin area.  Then Spring Break before more outreach through the end of March.

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Science Day at Bridge Point Elementary

I spent yesterday at Bridge Point Elementary as part of their Science Day which has been going on for 13 years!  (How could I have missed something so close to my home.)  It’s run flawlessly, reaching over 700 K-5 students with four 40-minute activities (two for the Kindergartners).  This year there were 45 different activities to chose from.  It would be tough for me to decide looking at the list.

My activity was “How Cold Is Cold?” using both dry ice and LN2.  The smoke-breathing adults who sampled the graham crackers dunked in the LN2 get the most laughs but the 30 second ice cream is probably the favorite overall.

I had no spare time to take any photos but there were plenty of teachers and parent volunteers who did.  I’ll post a few as soon as they are available.  (Still waiting for the photos…)

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You Are What You Drink

I was challenged to do an activity in the science lab with 5th graders related to Earth Science.  I turned to Teachers TryScience and found something new, at least new to me, entitled “You Are What You Drink“.  After a brief discussion with one of the the science teachers, it was a “GO”.

As I said this was new to me but the videos and other resources on the site were a great help.  I drafted a short presentation based on some of the text.  (I try to keep this part pretty short so the students have plenty of time to “play”.)  I did include the video of John Cohn jumping into Lake Champlain.

By the time of my first break after three classes, the reviews were rolling in.  The kids were talking about the water filters that they made in the science lab with their teachers and it was all very positive.  I made a few modifications.

I could not find Styrofoam but instead used Perlite from my local landscaping retailer.  I also added fresh small animal bedding – a recycled newspaper product – to the polluted water.  With the chocolate mix, cooking oil, and food coloring, it looked pretty bad.

At the end of the day, one of the science teachers reinforced the feedback that I had gotten earlier about the students’ response and added that she planned to share the activity with a colleague at another school since this was much less messy.

We had dumped all the filters and liquids into a five gallon container throughout the day since there was little time between sessions.  I need to reclaim all the marbles that had been used.  I had six students to help with the overall clear up and both girls and boys enjoyed digging through that bucket of mess to get all the marbles.


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MIT STEM Pals Newsletter – my columns

Here are direct links to my columns in the MIT STEM Pals Newsletter.  You can use the link at the end of my column to return to the entire newsletter or use this link to have the complete list.  Comments are always welcome.  Thanks.

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Happy Holidays

Not directly STEM related but something to share with you for the holidays… Ever since we’ve lived in Austin, around Thanksgiving, people start decorating the trees along the Capital of Texas Highway (aka Loop 360). Initially, one group of trees on the north-west … Read the rest of this entry

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