Sweet Snowy Science

My clearest memory of science as a kid is the third grade dissection of a cow’s eye. We were supposedly working in teams, but as my partner was a girl who was mentally handicapped, the work ended up falling to me. It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day in my book. Even now, the smell of formaldehyde triggers the memory of a cow’s lens slipping around on the tinfoil dissecting tray and make me gag.

The memory of the event stuck with me through high school so strongly that I took physics instead of chemistry and did everything in my power to avoid lab days in our mandated biology class. My teacher was sympathetic to my musical leanings, fortunately, and let me use to lab days to practice my clarinet as long as I made up the work from the book. Pictures of frog guts weren’t exactly my idea of a picnic, but they were a big improvement over slicing through rubbery corpses.

I’ve probably written before about my delighted surprise when I realized sometime during my undergraduate career that psycholinguistics is, in fact, a science. The parameters of the way you can study things in the physical sciences versus the social sciences are different, of course, but the principles of systematic inquiry remain the same. I won’t say my experimental design or statistic skills are so sharp that I wouldn’t check my work before running it by a professor, but I am at least a partially trained scientist.

As much as I love running subjects through speech tests and painstakingly coding and transcribing the results, linguistics has nothing on elementary school household science for sheer awesomeness. We made snowflakes in my program this week using nothing but pipe cleaners, boiling water, and Borax. (Instructions here, teachers and moms, picture to come!)

I was dubious of the outcome–many of the science projects I come across come out only about half as well as I hope they will, but this project was brilliant. Literally. We left our pipe cleaner snowflakes in the solution overnight and the next morning they had been transformed into sparkling ornaments that took my breath away.

The transformation of one plain, simple looking thing into something else with only the invisible aid of heat, time, and air is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I find that as I try to expose my kids to experiences that will expose them to wonder and spark their curiosity, my own sense of amazement is learning to dance again. The snowflake project in particular was so delightful that I’m attempting to duplicate the results for our own tree at home. Helpful hint: the road to wonder is paved with careful measuring.

Do some kitchen science this week as Christmas approaches, even if you don’t have kids to do it with. Your sense of wonder will thank you.

3 thoughts on “Sweet Snowy Science

  1. Hi Melissa –
    I am thinking of doing this with students to promote the Maine Student Book Award book /The Secret Life of a Snowflake/. I was wondering what age kids you did it with, how many adults per students and how you managed the hot water piece. Any tips and advice would be greatly appreciated! thank you :o)Hope things are great with you guys.

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    1. Hi Laura,

      It’s a fun project! I used hot water from the water cooler. If you have an electric kettle or a microwave available, either could work. Our ratio is 1:13, but I had about 6 kids do the project with me that day. The kids can do the pipe cleaner bit on their own, for the most part (depending on the age, of course: I work with K-6), but the real issue is the hot water/borax solution. It does need to sit overnight, so if it’s something you can do in big containers for kids to pick up later, you can probably have just as many adults as needed to cover however many containers you’re using. If each child has their own container, safety would probably require greater adult supervision. Hope this helps!

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  2. Thank you! I’m thinking we’ll do two small groups for reading the book/discussion, and then have the kids just do the pipe cleaner part. I made a couple myself and they are really pretty! Thanks for the tip.

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