Kitchen Witchin’: Magic Shell

Remember this stuff?

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Image via smuckers.com

It was truly magical when you were a kid, wasn’t it? I remember watching, eyes wide with awe and wonder as we squeezed that liquid goodness over ice cream and, almost immediately, it became another form of chocolate-y goodness you could crack with a spoon and crunch between your teeth.

Then, there was that time in college one of your friends bought it for erm… off label purposes only to discover, much to her disappointment, it didn’t harden at all at human body temperature?

What? Only my friends did that? Fair enough, we were mostly humanities people, we didn’t know any better. Pays to always have a chemist in your crew though I have been warned never to play pool with physicists.

I honestly didn’t give much thought as to how the various “shells” transformed until decided to introduce it to my kids. I made my own because I didn’t particular want them eating paraffin wax, food grade or no. I’m a tox nurse and I’m well aware that a little bit of wax isn’t going to hurt anyone, but if I wanted to eat it, I’d recycle those used birthday candles, thank you very much. Some commercial grade products have already replaced the wax with a plant based oil (Carvel, for example, has done this per Chowhound.com. Smuckers, the grocery store brand I see most frequently, declined to discuss their proprietary blend which makes me think they’re either still using wax or some sort of soylent something), but then you have to stand in the aisle and read ingredients and one kid is making a break for some sugar based Star Wars cereal and the other has decided to teach himself to juggle with the eggs…

The chemistry behind the wax and oil emulsifiers is essentially the same, which is why it’s easy to substitute the later for the former. Provided you use the right kind of oil.

You ready for me to lay the science down? Here we go:

Chocolate is the other constant (there are other flavors but why screw with a classic?) in the various ice cream shells. Chocolate, by its nature, contains a fair bit of fat, milk more than dark, but even dark has a goodly bit. Why is the fat already in chocolate not sufficient for our shell purposes? I’m taking a leap here, but after some research, it seems to me that shell needs the additional emulsifier for two reasons: 1) the fats native to chocolate are are of the more stable sort and don’t change phase easily or quickly enough for the shell to be fun rather than an eternal waiting game and 2) chocolate doesn’t have enough emulsifiers to add “tenderness” to, well, itself. Chocolate melted on its own does change state but it eventually dries out and get lumpy and/or gritty. The additional emulsifier in magic shell, much like the cream in ganache, keeps it it from dehydrating and congealing.

Per Paula Figoni’s How Baking Works, oils are, “any lipids that are liquid at room temperature,” (pg. 215). Oils are usually vegetable based (canola, corn, olive). Most are liquid at room temperature. Tropical oils (coconut, palm, etc), however, are solid at room temperature but melt quickly and within a relatively small temperature window: solid at 70 degrees F, liquid at 74.

image via http://www.foodgroove.co.uk/info/?p=75
image via http://www.foodgroove.co.uk/info/?p=75

 

Chemically speaking, all oils are trigylcerides: three fatty acids attached to a three-carbon glycerol molecules. Fatty acids are made up of carbon chains that have anywhere from four to twenty-two carbon atoms. Saturated fatty acids are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms (they can’t hold any more) which means all of the carbon bonds in the molecules are single bonds. Unsaturated fatty acids contain carbon atoms that are not fully saturated with hydrogen; carbon atoms that are not saturated form double bonds in order to maintain structural integrity. Double bonds create stronger atoms, stronger atoms create stronger molecules and stronger molecules create stronger substances. Due to the aforementioned, double bonds are also more difficult to break and if you want to split them to force a change of state, you have to use more energy than you would to break a single bond.

That’s why coconut oil, which is high in saturated fats, is frequently used as the emulsifier in Magic Shell; single bonded as it is, it can be broken down from a solid to a liquid with very little expenditure of energy – or just a four degrees of heat. The bonds reform with a proportionately small drop in temperature, allowing the shell to harden almost upon contact with a frozen dessert (or an ice cube if you’re just testing for funsies).

image via science-all.com
image via science-all.com

When I made my shell, I subbed olive oil because that’s what I had around. Coconut oil is a little spendy and I was hesitant to shell (heheh) out for a whole container; oils do go bad and odds of that happening before I used the whole container, even a small one, were good. Because vegetable based oils are lower in saturated fat, and thus carry double bonded carbon atoms, however, it takes more energy, and hence a greater temperature differential, to force a phase change. It worked, to an extent, but it was really cold in my house at the time, cold enough to solidify even the olive oil, which meant I had to re-melt every time I wanted to use the shell (which eventually lead to dehydration and grittiness) and then the kids had to wait a good five minutes from application to re-shelling. And, as we all know, things are only magical when instantly gratifying. They thought it was cool, but not as cool as I’m sure they would have if it had been essentially immediate.

Lesson learned.

Yay for books!

Yay for chemistry!

Yay for Chef In Training for posting the recipe I happened to see!

Yay for shell!

How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science is by Paula I. Figoni. It was originally published in 2004 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. I have used, quoted from, and now purchased the 3rd edition, originally published in 2010. I’d be happy to share.

Have other cooking or baking questions? Shoot me a line. I’m always looking for new topics.

 

GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #4: Toys and Lego!

Now that we’re in the second half of November, I know I’m not the only one starting to really flesh out my holiday shopping lists. Toys are almost always on kids’ wish lists (and many adults’ lists, as well!), so here are some of our favorite toys that we (or our kids) are wanting this year.

Continue reading GeekMom Holiday Gift Guide #4: Toys and Lego!

‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

I love cooperative games because the dynamics of the group shift from finding any possible way to beat the live humans hanging around with you to exploring all possibilities within a game system to triumph together.  I also appreciate educational games that keep the fun.

Is it possible to have all three in one?

Why, yes, and the game is called Covalence: A Molecule Building Game recently put out by Genius Games. This is the latest in their series of science-based table-top games.

How does it work?

Covalence uses deduction. Continue reading ‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

Summer Science Fun: Make Pink Tea!

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Image by Rebecca Angel

Science experiments are fun when you can play with them, but they are more fun when you can eat them! Or, in this case, drink.

Litmus paper is used to show the pH scale in chemistry. Litmus is what chemists call an acid-base indicator. Although it’s great for science, do you have it handy in your home? Well, I don’t, and any extra step means I never get around to doing the science. For the busy (lazy) parents like me, we need a different acid-base indicator. And I love tea.

In a previous post, my daughter made me violet flower tea, which is blue but turned pink when lemon juice was added. She also gave a good explanation on how this happened. If you have some violets, it’s a simple recipe to try (and pretty! and tasty!).

How about regular tea? Tea (Camillia Sinensis) contains tannins, which can act as acid-base indicators with color: Acidic lemon juice and tea turn light yellow, alkaline baking soda and tea turn reddish-brown.

Kashimiri Tea, Pink Tea, or Noon Tea are all the same names for a distinct tea recipe from Kashmir, a region near the Himalayas in South Asia. (A quick geography lesson would be appropriate here too.) The tea turns pink! And you can drink it! Yummy science!

Pink Tea
5 cups water
1 tablespoon semi-fermented tea, such as oolong (some recipes use green tea, so use it if that’s what you have)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (traditional, but sugar can be substituted)
cream, half and half, or whole milk (Yak milk is often used, if you have it…)
cardamom seeds and star anise (optional)

1. In a sauce pan, combine a quart of water with the tea and baking soda. Let it come to a boil and then lower to medium heat for a half hour.
2. Turn off heat.
3. Add cold water.
4. Mix the tea by lifting a ladle filled with tea up about 8 inches and letting it pour back in the pan. A parent or older child should do this since it will splash. Repeat 10-20 times. This is the fun and messy part!
5. Add some cardamom and star anise.
6. Add salt (or sugar).
7. Let sit for a few minutes.
8. Strain the tea.
9. Pour in cream until the color is pink.
10. Drink up!

As you can see in my picture above, I didn’t get a super pink color, but since I really liked the flavor, I’ll be trying it again. Here is an explanation of tannins and color changes. Remember, if you have acidic water, it won’t work! What other acid-base indicators are in our kitchens? And did you like the tea?

10 Signs You’re Raising a Science Nerd

A workbench in a chemistry laboratory. Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire (Nièvre, Burgundy region), France. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A workbench in a chemistry laboratory. Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire (Nièvre, Burgundy region), France. CC BY-SA 2.0.

You might be the parent of a science nerd if the following 10 things go on in your house:

1. You come home from shopping and the following conversation occurs:

Parent: Why is there dirt baking in the oven?
Child: I’m sterilizing dirt for science.

2. You tweet, “I wonder what construction is happening upstairs but I’m too afraid to ask.” Your child responds to the tweet with: “Oh, that’s just me shaving my magnesium block.” (You know, as you do.)

3. You walk into the bathroom to see the following:

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Bathroom science. Image by Jules Sherred.

4. Your child never uses the generic names for household items. It’s always things like: NaCl, Na2CO3, 570–590 nm, etc.

5. You hear an, “Oh, crap!” Followed by running footsteps to the bathroom. Followed by somewhat calmer footsteps descending the stairs. Followed by, “I think I need to go to the emergency room.”

6. You tell your child, “Hey! You dropped some of your science on the floor. You need to clean it up.” Upon showing your child where, in a very dire tone they respond, “Oh. That’s not good!” Upon your child learning someone stepped on it, the following is said in a very serious tone, “You should probably go to the doctor for that.”

7. You ask your child what they are making, and they respond with some of the following in an “as you do” tone: Copper (II) Chloride, Copper (II) Acetate, Magnesium Chloride, Ethyl acetate, and Iron (III) Chloride

8. Your child has chemicals they purchased online held for weeks at Customs while they test it for drugs, anthrax, and other dangerous substances that come in a fine white powder.

9. You can’t find side burner, pots, and measuring cups because they are currently in use, because science.

10. The following happens on a regular basis at midnight on your porch:

If you are the parent of a science nerd, what are some other signs?

This post inspired by the actions of Kid1.

Musical Love Chemistry

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Image By Lilianna Maxwell

They say that love is just a drug
An addiction you keep thinking of
But don’t get the wrong impression
We’ll teach you all a science lesson
About the chemistry of love

Ah, those sweaty palms, the obsessive thoughts, the dopamine rush. Yes, geeks fall in love and we like to be specific about it, thankyouverymuch. Infatuation has lots of chemical components, and desire can be broken down into an excellent lesson on biochemical processes. Boring? Not at all! Especially when you learn about it in song.

Here’s a song called “The Chemistry of Love” by The Midnight Society, which should lower your levels of serotonin, just like falling in love. With geeky stylophone! Free listen and download here.

Now, go boost someone’s testosterone tonight!

Mad Scientist Halloween Tablescape on a Budget

Mad Scientist Tablescape. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Mad Scientist Tablescape. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Looking for something eye catching and spooky for your Halloween decor this year? Maybe a Mad Scientist tablescape is just the right thing for you!

It all started when GeekMom Natalie sent me a link to a fantastic tablescape from Pottery Barn featuring a periodic table. The gears in my mind immediately started turning as I wondered how I could do something similar in my own home and on a budget. Recently, I started creating a new tablescape on my kitchen table each month, and I decided to concoct a chemistry-themed tablescape for October and Halloween.

Choosing the Glass

I knew I needed some spooky chemistry glass, and I thought my local thrift store would be a great place to start looking. Let’s face it, I’m a thrift-store-aholic with my favorite being the non-profit Guardian Angel in Fuquay-Varina, NC, which raises money to fund Alzheimer’s research. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found in their “Vases” section. I just about danced in the isle as I filled my cart with amazing glass finds!

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Thrift Store Glass. Photo: Maryann Goldman

For $20, I walked away with the majority of glassware that I thought I would need to fill up my kitchen table. I would love to have used real chemistry Pyrex glass, but after pricing some beakers and flasks, they were way over my budget with each piece being $5 or more. I decided that vases with a flared outer rim at the top would work best. Luckily, they had quite a few of those. I felt the rim disguised the vases enough so that they didn’t look like they were for flowers. I also realized that coffee pots with the handles removed did a great job of simulating real flasks. Most of the clear glass was in the $1-$2 price range. Quite reasonable for my budget.

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My Glass Selections. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Making the Labels

Next I did a lot of research on Halloween bottle labels and created a Potion Bottle Labels board on Pinterest. I was going to make my own bottle labels, but I ended up ordering some glow-in-the-dark labels from Amazon and Oriental Trading Company. I decided that I wanted the glow-in-the-dark look and the ease of application of the store bought labels. Maybe I’ll make my own next year!

Getting Just the Right Bottle Glow

I also needed to figure out what to fill my bottles with so that they would look great in daylight and also under a blacklight. I created a Halloween Chemistry board on Pinterest as I did my research. What I found out is that there are quite a few options for getting liquid to glow. To summarize, you can use glow sticks, highlighter pens, tonic water, and neon paint, to name a few techniques.

I decided to go with neon paint because I thought it would be the least expensive and least toxic. This is the same paint kids use in preschool to fingerpaint. Just make sure you get neon colors. To make a bottle glow with the paint, just squeeze in several tablespoons of paint, add tap water, and stir.

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Washable Neon Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I tried this special blacklight paint for the purple and pink, but it was not as bright under the blacklight as the neon paints that I used. Next time I would just get neon pink and neon purple paint.

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Blacklight Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Picking Some Other Elements

So what other items did I think would look good on the table and complement the glass? I pulled out my microscope which I thought would fit right in. I also found a ceramic piece shaped like a stack of books labeled “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” at Michaels that I figured would be a perfect addition to the table. I used a few candles and to fill one of the glass jars with cotton balls and plastic, glowing spiders. I picked up a sparkling, tiny owl to clip onto one of the glass jars too. I also included a small sprig of the yellow wildflower tickweed, currently growing near my home. I got the idea to put green food color tinted water into plastic medical gloves for a spooky hands effect. And, I created a creepy brain by filling one of my larger bowls with cooked spaghetti and green food tinted color water. I picked up some ping pong ball style eyeballs too. I didn’t want my table to be too gory, but I just couldn’t resist the eyeballs. Last but not least, I used some Water Beads. Have you ever used those in a vase? They are so much fun to look at and play with! My kids can’t get enough of them. Check out this post by GeekMom Cathé where her daughter does an interesting experiment with water beads. Just make sure to put your water beads in water 4+ hours before you’re ready to debut your table or take pictures of it. The beads need some time to absorb water and grow bigger.

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Glass Beads. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I spent a long time hunting for just the right periodic table of elements poster.  I wanted the largest poster I could find for the cheapest price; I also needed it sooner rather than later.  I ended up buying one off eBay for $10, and I was pleased with it.

Laying Out the Table Foundation

Before you can start laying out your table, you need to decide if you want to use a tablecloth, and what placemats, napkins, plates, and even silverware you want to use. I ended up using a green and white checkered piece of fabric that I found in the attic for the tablecloth. I had two orange and black checkered tablecloths, but I decided against them because I felt they would be too dark when I had the blacklight on. I knew that I wanted purple placemats and couldn’t find any locally, so I used rectangles of purple felt. That left me looking for just the right napkins. Walmart has some pre-cut rectangular fabric pieces in their craft department, and I picked up a pack of various patterns all with a purple and green theme to tie the tablecloth and placemats together. The fabric is pretty easy to fold like a napkin.

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Turn Fabric Into Dinner Napkins. Photo: Maryann Goldman

For daytime use, I decided to stick with my Country Cottage and Melissa (green and white checker) Corelle plates, but at night, I decided to go with clear plates that I could light up with necklace size glow sticks.

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Melissa Corelle Plate. Photo: Maryann Goldman
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Clear Plate With Necklace Glow Stick. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Assembling the Table

When I had gathered all the items I wanted to use, and on the day I was ready to assemble the table, I started out by filling one bottle at a time with the paint and water mixture and placing it on the table. I repurposed a few margarita glasses as risers so that the glass could be displayed at varying heights. I saved a few of the bottles for the water beads, and mixed them up, and placed them on the table too. And most importantly, I enlisted help from the kids who were very excited about the project.

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Johnny Mixing Neon Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman
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Johnny Preparing the Spaghetti Brain. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Once you have the bottles laid out in a way that makes you happy, you can add the other elements such as bottle labels, ribbons, flowers, etc. Just keep adding elements, adjusting the layout, and tweaking things until you are satisfied. There is no right or wrong with this.  Just have fun!

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Johnny With a Water Filled Rubber Glove. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Checking the Blacklight

I was very pleased with how the table lit up the first time I put the blacklight on it, but there were a few items that didn’t light up. The owl and the “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece were just as dark as could be. I scratched my head for a minute and decided to try painting them with some glow-in-the-dark dimensional fabric paint that I had lying around. The paint is pretty transparent and easy to apply, so you don’t have to be an expert painter to make this work. Just get a small brush, and apply a thin layer of the paint to anything you’d like to have glow.

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Dimensional Glow-in-the-Dark Fabric Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

In just a few minutes, my “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece went from being black and obscure to being one of the most eye catching items on my table!

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Glowing “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I just love how this turned out and couldn’t imagine my table without it! I almost wish I had more items that I could have painted with the glow-in-the-dark paint.

Getting the Most Out of Your Glow Sticks

Although I avoided using the chemicals inside glow sticks to make the majority of my bottles glow, I ended up with one glow stick that broke open accidentally while we were snapping it to make it glow. Instead of throwing it away, I wanted to put it to good use. I had some large and somewhat see-through Glitter Flakes that I poured into a teardrop-shaped bottle. Then I added all the liquid from inside the glow stick. I used an old, but sharp, steak knife to open the glow stick plastic enough to get all the chemicals out. Sometimes you can use scissors, but many of the plastic tubes are too thick to cut easily. Whatever you use, be careful not to cut yourself and to thoroughly wash your hands when you’re done. Otherwise you can have a lesson in how germs spread in your home by turning off your lights and seeing where all the little hands have touched with the glow chemicals. To finish, put the cap on the bottle, our hold your thumb over the opening, and shake up the glitter and liquid. You’ll be amazed at the results!

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Glitter Flakes. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Remember those jars of fireflies you collected as a kid? Well, your glowing glitter bottle will look very similar! Bottles lit up this way are truly mesmerizing to view. Since glow sticks only glow for a limited amount of time, bottles prepared this way will only look this beautiful for one evening. However, if you want to light the bottle up again, say the next night, you can always just add the contents of one more glow stick and a bit more of the glitter flakes.

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Magic Bottle with Glitter and Glow Stick Chemicals. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Explaining Fluorescent and Phosphorescent

All the kids I’ve ever spent time with are fascinated by things that glow in the dark after being charged under a light or by things that glow under a black light. When I turned on the black light over my table for the first time, my boys were amazed at how it lit up. I even got lucky, and the tablecloth glowed. Another way to include your kids in setting up this tablescape is to take a few minutes to talk about why things glow under various conditions. Take the time to explain the difference between items that are fluorescent versus phosphorescent.

Taking Your Pictures and Sharing Your Result

Make sure to take some pictures to save all your efforts for posterity.  I took many shots with the light on and using my flash.

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Neon Concoctions. Photo: Maryann Goldman

 

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Daylight Table Wide View. Photo: Maryann Goldman

 

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Daylight Table Tight View. Photo: Maryann Goldman

 

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Daylight Table Tight View #2. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I also took a bunch of pictures with the lights off and the blacklight on. I used a stick-style blacklight and my guy held it for me as I took the pictures, but you could also put a black light into your dining room table light fixture or a lamp (freestanding or tabletop). I used a tripod to keep my camera still, but you can keep your camera still by leaning on your kitchen counter or against a doorframe. The Auto setting on your camera will probably work just fine as long as the camera is still.

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More Glowing Table Elements. Photo: Maryann Goldman

 

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Glowing Table Tight View. Photo: Maryann Goldman

 

Mad Scientist Tablescape with Blacklight. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Glowing Table Wide View. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Feeling inspired to create your own chemistry-themed Halloween table? You can get some more ideas by checking out my Halloween Tablescape board on Pinterest. I’ve seen some tablescapes that make use of beautiful natural light and various types of foliage from your yard. There are others that gore up the items filling their bottles. You can use traditional Halloween black and orange colors if you like. Or maybe you’d like to have an old manual typewriter that the Mad Scientist can type up his research notes on. If the Mad Scientist gets hot in his lab, an old, black metal fan might be just the prop to add to your table. A black chalkboard could be just the thing for the Mad Scientist to write up his notes on. The Mad Scientist might even have some old tools and scissors for working on his experiments and patients.  How about the perfect old clock? Set your creativity free, and see what you can come up with!

Get Creative! Win Money! Inspire Science!

Muse of Nerds By Lilianna Maxwell
Muse of Nerds By Lilianna Maxwell

I love science fiction and fantasy. Although fantasy is a great escape, there’s a sadness when I finish a book or movie. It’s not real. But science fiction? I know it’s not real, at least not yet. Could it happen? Often the answer is “I certainly hope not!” because the stories can be warnings about paths we don’t want humanity skipping down blindly to our destruction. But sometimes, like the Star Trek universe, we can be inspired by a hopeful future, and dream of all that cool stuff!

The Society for Science and the Public, in collaboration with the Tomorrow Project, Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, and the Intel Foundation, is hosting “The Future: Powered by Fiction.” It’s a contest for stories, essays, videos, and comics in the science fiction genre with a cash prize. The competition is open to people ages 13-25 anywhere in the world. Entries due November 14th, 2013, so get going!

But wait, there’s more!

As a kid, my dad would regularly take my sister and I into his biology lab to try out simple experiments. My sister is now a biology professor, and I have a life-long love of science. It would be nice to say it was because of my science classes in school, but really, it was being able to play with cool stuff, make up new experiments, and having science fun-time with my dad at his work.

Not everyone has a parent in the science field, but that shouldn’t stop anyyone from having fun with science. Another competition, this one sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is the Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK): Reimagining the 21st Century Chemistry Set. It is for those eighteen and older, with a longer deadline (January 2014) and a bigger prize. Entrants are asked to create or make the plans for a chemistry set that will engage both children and adults to become more hands-on with science.

Encourage your kid to imagine science and technology in the future with the first competition, and why don’t you imagine the coolest chemistry set there could ever be?

‘Scrabble’ Meets the Periodic Table in ‘Elemensus’

Elemensus © Elemensus
Elemensus © Elemensus

Hands up, who has ever tried to make words from the elements on the periodic table? It’s a game that most people who have ever spent time in a science lab have played at some point, and Elemensus has evolved the concept into a full-fledged board game that will have you tearing your hair out trying to think of a word that incorporates the chemical symbol for lead or magnesium.

At first glance Elemensus looks very much like its popular cousin Scrabble, and there are some definite similarities in gameplay. Each player draws a number of tiles then attempts to form them into words to be played on the board, placing them either vertically or horizontally and making them intersect with other words already played.

Continue reading ‘Scrabble’ Meets the Periodic Table in ‘Elemensus’

Blue to Pink: The Magic Chemistry of Violet Flower Tea

Violet Tea Image by Lilianna Maxwell
Violet Tea Image by Lilianna Maxwell

My daughter is a student at the Boston School of Herbal Studies. She came home from a weekend class excited about making violet flower tea. She collected a handful of violet flowers from our lawn and placed them in a jar. Then she poured boiling water over them and let it sit for 24 hours. The concoction turns a lovely shade of blue that can be sweetened with sugar.

Violets steeping Image by Lilianna Maxwell
Violets steeping Image by Lilianna Maxwell

On Mother’s Day, she put out the violet tea for me along with a small pitcher of lemon juice and told me to watch as I poured some in. It turned pink! It tasted delicious!DSC_1057

Continue reading Blue to Pink: The Magic Chemistry of Violet Flower Tea

Wonderful Life with the Elements: Getting personal with the periodic table

In Bunpei Yorifuji’s new book, Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified science comes alive as elements get personalities and become a lot more fun.

Many of us years ago memorized the periodic table, names, abbreviations, atomic numbers, periods, and families. But for whatever of it you even remember, do you have any idea what most of them do? Are used for? Where they’re found, and what they’re like?

You may not even realize you care, but in adorable two-color illustrations with clever writing, it’s hard not to.

Yorifuji writes in the preface, “We’re not usually aware of the elements in our daily lives. We don’t look at a desk and instantly think, ‘Carbon!'” And so with this book, he makes you look harder at the elements you encounter every day, through sections with titles like “Elements in the living room” and “How to eat the elements.” You might not remember everything from high school science class, but you’ll definitely look at your spinach differently. Continue reading Wonderful Life with the Elements: Getting personal with the periodic table

Pensacola MESS Hall: A Hands-On Science Experiment Museum

A temporary sign for a temporary location. My sons in front of the Pensacola MESS Hall. This unique concept in science museums needs to become the standard. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

This summer my sons and I have already paid two visits to Pensacola, Florida’s newest science museum, the Pensacola MESS Hall. Where MESS = Math, Engineering, Science, and Stuff.  My husband is now asking us to join us this week (we had previously gone while he was at work) and we’ll be squeezing in one more visit before the facility temporarily closes on August 18th.

What is the MESS Hall?

At the MESS Hall, everything — and we mean everything — is meant to be hands-on. There is guidance for math and science activities, but the kids can follow the directions… or take things in a completely different direction. There is no wrong answer at the MESS Hall.

Like a real mess hall, museum patrons “order” an experiment at the counter. The experiment choices are offered on a “menu” which is seen on the counter towards the right. The materials for the experiment chosen are presented on a cafeteria-style plastic tray. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

The MESS Hall has this cafeteria feel when you walk in. There are tables with cafeteria-style trays filled with experiment supplies, kids are sitting at the tables performing experiments. There’s a counter in the back corner. Again, like a cafeteria, there’s a menu of “MESS Kit” experiments available, and the kids (and adults!) can walk up to the counter and “order” an experiment to perform.

There is a guidebook to accompany the materials. The guidebook follows the scientific process, presenting the procedure, prompting hypotheses, observation and changing of variables. Then the experimenter is asked to form conclusions.  At the end of the little guidebook is a more thorough explanation.

Where have you been all my life? After years of visiting kids’ museums filled with a few interactive exhibits here and there, projects such as those offered at the MESS Hall are typically tucked in a back corner at other places.  The museum visitors experiencing the scientific method are generally in a large auditorium, participating in a Mr. Wizard’s World-type of program.

A Brief History

The MESS Hall is the brainchild of Dr. Megan Pratt, a chemist and neurobiologist by education, who current serves on the Pensacola City Council and is the education director of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), a research non-profit affiliated with the Florida University System.  Dr. Pratt’s Science Saturdays at the IHMC were so immensely popular, she sought funding to expand the style of hands-on science exploration to a full-time prescence in downtown Pensacola.

As described in this article from earlier this summer, Dr. Pratt received enough funding to run a trial-version of the MESS Hall in Downtown Pensacola during the school districts’ summer vacation. A science experiment in and of itself, so says Dr. Pratt. After this summer trial run, which ends on August 18th, the Friday before school starts in our community, the museum board plans to embark on a fundraising campaign to raise enough capital to establish a larger permanent location in Downtown Pensacola starting in 2013.

My youngest son with another famous face.  He’s taking part in the “Taste Test” experiment, where the subject will taste a strip with the compound “PTC”. PTC is a genetic marker that relates to the ability to taste bitter substances. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

Why Do My Sons and I Love the MESS Hall?  Let Me Count the Ways.

  1. There is no right or wrong answer to these experiments.  There is no timeline for conducting the experiments.  Kids can be as messy as they want (or as messy as their parents can handle).
  2. The experiments available cover a wide spectrum of science disciplines: biology, robotics, chemistry, geosciences, electromagnetism, optics and chromatography…among many others.
  3. Your kids don’t want to sit still for experiments?  That’s okay. There are many activities on the periphery: a harmonograph, a Van De Graff generator, hands-on math puzzlers, a wall on which kids can build marble runs, and hallways filled with optical illusions.
  4. Kids are exposed to the scientific method, something I hold near and dear to my heart, in a safe and fun way.
  5. At $5 per person, consider what one gets: unlimited access to experiment materials, space for conducting the experiments — and making the messes, and kids being able to interact with others all in the name of science.
  6. Parents can partake, too!
In this slime experiment, you can see how the materials are presented on a cafeteria-style tray and there’s a laminated booklet that guides the experimenter through the process. Photo: Patricia Vollmer

I hope this idea of a hands-on-only science museum catches on in other locations. Many other museums already have very excellent hands-on/interactive areas within their larger facilities. San Francisco’s Exploratorium led the way as one the earliest hands-on-museum experiences. The Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, the Discovery Place in Charlotte, North Carolina and the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska all have outstanding programs. My family has also seen awesome traveling programs that are completely hands on, such as the rooms fully of Kapla blocks and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Moneyville program.

Can you tell we like museums just a little?

I can’t wait to see what the future of the Pensacola MESS Hall brings. I overheard one of the volunteer directors mention that the facility has been so popular, he’s confident in their ability to raise the money to continue Dr. Pratt’s dream! I’ll help out as much as I can!

YouTube is the New Substitute Teacher

Image Credit: NASA/Goddard

School, like most of everyday life, is at times boring and occasionally a waste of time. We can place blame for that squarely upon the education system and teachers, or share it with parents if we’d like to keep diplomacy in the PTA. But although it’s true that the adults who shape and deliver education as we know it are largely responsible for what we learn and how well we learn it while we are children, we have nobody but ourselves to blame for allowing ignorance to persist after we grow up.

No matter how dreadful your education experience was as a child, if you reached adulthood literate enough to use the internet, then you should find developing a passing acquaintance with basic science concepts both convenient and entertaining. The idea that learning should be fun and easy is so compelling that YouTube is positively swarming with video bloggers enthusiastically sharing knowledge.

Because I am a science enthusiast and a lifetime devotee of independent study, I’ve compiled a video playlist of some of my recent favorites in that genre. To eliminate some common misconceptions, the playlist opens with the definition of science. From there, it builds from some interesting basics about water and carbon, covers some of the science frequently botched by Hollywood and in other fiction, and demonstrates that girls plus math equals win. Then follows a musical interlude, but it’s all science, so it’s all good. The last few are a sampler of videos posted by universities and science publishers for viewers who prefer productions with bigger budgets.

Now all you have to do is watch and learn.

 

(This post originally appeared at the Science in My Fiction blog.)

Carnival of Chemistry

When you need safety goggles, you know it’s going to be fun.

I love living in a university town! My kids get a lot of great chances for supplemental learning because of where we live, and this November was no exception, with our annual Carnival of Chemistry. The Kansas University Chemistry Club (Rock CaCO3 Jayhawk!) puts on this regional, accessible science event for children. My son was a big fan of the exploding balloons featured in the Frozen Fire demonstration, while my daughter really enjoyed learning about acids and antacids.

Other fun events included making molecules out of marshmallows, viewing sound waves, testing drinks for vitamins, experiments with the light and the spectrum, super conductors, and the ever popular Van de  Graaff generator. Some activities were completely hands-on, while the more dangerous ones were observation only.

Here’s a bicycle wheel gyro experiment.

If you’ve got a university near you, check to see if they have a similar event. It’s a blast, and you can pretend that your kids are the ones most excited to see frozen tennis balls shatter and hydrogen filled balloons explode.

YouTube Geek: Say the Right Words

If you’ve spent much time on YouTube lately, you’ve probably heard about VidCon, the great big vlogbrothers-organized convention for the amusement and edification of YouTubers that happened in Los Angeles last weekend. By all accounts, it was a smashing success, a rocking good time, and caused jealousy in the hearts of vloggers everywhere who were unable to attend (myself included).

Fortunately, this was a convention by vloggers and for vloggers, so you know every minute of every event at VidCon was captured on video by someone. And thank goodness, or else the rest of us would have missed out on a real treat: A stirring performance by geeky rapper and spoken word artist George Watsky.

(Fair warning: Adult language and high levels of inspiration.)

Also for all the word-lovers out there, we have a video blog from OhItsJustKim, who only recently discovered savethewords.org, a website where all sorts of odd English words retire after they’ve been kicked out of the dictionary. My two favorites from the site are murklins (in the dark) and veprecose (prickly) – what are yours?

Continuing today’s fun education theme, the next video takes gives us a tour of an extraordinary museum exhibit featuring very various versions of the humble periodic table. Watching this gave me several great ideas for how to introduce my son to chemistry without the often intimidating classroom chart.

From there we move on to something relevant to geek culture in general, but especially to geek moms. We love our media and we love our families, but sometimes the former is a poor support for the latter. How often have we found ourselves halfway through an otherwise enjoyable sci-fi television series, only to be disappointed when the writers finally include motherhood in the script? Motherhood itself isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the way pregnancy and birth and the events that follow tend to be abused for the sake of shock value. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my media-viewing career, I’d actually be more shocked to find a realistic mother character in a sci-fi TV show.

Finally, we arrive back where we started; at a convention. The following video was shot ahead of Otakon – an unrelated, yet simultaneous convention on the opposite side of the continent from VidCon. Not surprisingly, attendees of the anime fan-gathering are every bit as talented and geeky as the vloggers assembled a coast away. There’s probably a lot of overlap between those two sub-cultures, come to think of it…

(Fair warning: The featured song is ‘Raise Your Glass’ by P!nk, which includes a well-timed F-bomb part mid-way.)

Science in Short: Leading Ladies

So I was walking down the internet one day (doo-dah, doo-dah) and I found something small but significant to me as a woman and a science-lover. It sounds a bit dull at face value. After all, it’s a very brief video of several chemists telling the tales of how, as children, they first became interested in chemistry. But as I watched, I noticed a coincidental detail that most of the chemists’ origin stories had in common: Some of the scientists are women, and most of the men were either directly or indirectly introduced to chemistry by women.

I doubt this little video was intended to be groundbreaking, but it is a subtle treasure. Without really trying to, it reminds us that girls belong in the “hard” classes at school and that women contribute to science in many ways, including some that aren’t very obvious. Of course, there’s nothing quite like a lady in a lab coat, but sometimes all it takes to make a little bit of scientific history is sharing your interest in it with someone you love.

New Year’s and Weight (Atomic and Otherwise)

It’s that time of year again, when old calendars hit the recycling bin and humans hit the gym. Yes, brace yourself for the annual flood of blog posts demonizing food and canonizing exercise. Or, as I prefer to call it, the season of shrinky self-destruction.

But this New Years Resolution post is not like the others. There’s very little new to say about weight loss, after all; we may be on the eve of 2011, but our backsides are still prehistorically accurate. No, let’s forget about our jiggly butts long enough to geek out about something even more interesting…

Chemistry. Yes, chemistry! It’s the science of matter and reactions – what’s not to love? And 2011 happens to be the International Year of Chemistry. As if we Geek Moms needed another excuse to dust off our periodic tables and make a mess of the house, right?

But wait! The periodic table of elements is changing in 2011. Ten elements are having their atomic weights updated from a single average number to a range of values. And since we’re somehow back on the topic of weight and value, don’t you think it’d be more interesting to acknowledge that, like other exciting things found in nature, human bodies occur in a range of forms, and that ‘average’ is just a number in the middle, after all? And like the periodic table of elements, sometimes that number needs an update? Food for thought.

Speaking of humanity’s vast range of forms, that number is getting bigger, too. The human population is supposed to top 7 billion in 2011. According to National Geographic, all of us could theoretically stand shoulder-to-shoulder in an area the size of Los Angeles, but one assumes they used an average value to arrive at that estimation…

With all that said, we finally arrive at my family’s New Year’s Resolution for 2011: We’re going to do more chemistry experiments together. If we happen to discover a better way to help the planet cope with obesity and 7 billion human inhabitants while we’re at it, that would be great. However, with New Years Resolutions as with fitness, the exercise itself is the goal.

Geek Cinema Gets the Vapors: Oxygen

If every element on the periodic table got this sort of treatment in school, future colleges might be overrun with chemistry majors. This funny little piece of edutainment could only be better if it was the trailer for a video game.

For related educational amusements, read on:

Rather like a latter day version of Tom Lehrer’s classic, They Might Be Giants sing a catchy song about the elements (thank BoingBoing for the clever video).

If you have an iPad, you can study the periodic table in 3D.

If not, you can still enjoy the Periodic Table of Videos.

While you’re at it, the history of the periodic table makes for a surprisingly good read.