Category Archives: Informal Science Education

Buried In Snow: The Button Lamp

Being pretty much buried in snow these past few weeks has made me think about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter.”

The Long Winter

While we are not experiencing bone-wrenching cold and eave-deep snow from October to April as history shows that the Ingalls family did indeed experience, the winter has been severe enough, thank you.  Some days, it was impossible to get to the grocery store, but we did not have to grind seed wheat in a coffee mill to survive.  And while we did have a few hours when the power was out, we did not have to smear axle grease in a saucer and make a button lamp.

But if we ever need to, here’s how.

Ma told Carrie to bring her a button – one of Pa’s old overcoat buttons would do.  We will assume that this button was made of metal, because otherwise it just would not have worked.  I didn’t have a large metal button, so I used a quarter.

We'll use a quarter instead of a metal overcoat button.
We’ll use a quarter instead of a metal overcoat button.

Then Ma took a small square of fabric and tied the button up in it.

button tied upShe then smeared some of Pa’s axle grease in a saucer.  I used Vitamin E oil, but cooking oil, lard, Crisco, machine oil, or any kind of oil or grease will work.  Ma then placed the wrapped and tied button into the grease and rubbed a little all the way up the fabric.

button lamp in oilThen she asked Pa for a match, lit it, and touched the flame to the top of the fabric.

button lamp, litIt made just a little light, but what a difference it made in the dark!  The flame burned the grease but not the fabric; it was like a little star in the dark room.  The heat drew the oil up through the cotton fabric and the flame fed on it and not the fabric!

Pa commented that people got used to new-fangled things like kerosene too easily, and forgot how to make do when times got hard.  I would say that a winter so cold that the cattle’s breath froze their heads to the ground and smothered them was one of those hard times, but families back then still managed to get through it.

The snow here is almost gone today, but this time last week it was almost knee-deep.  And just because we probably will never have to actually use a piece of knowledge doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have to learn it.

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves–they’re good things to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

People who aren’t afraid to experiment and find different ways to do things are scientists.  We don’t all wear white coats and work in labs.

Some scientists put on heavy coats and go outside in double-digits-below-zero temperatures to make sure everything and everyone are all right and that nobody and nothing’s breath has frozen it or them to the ground.  Other scientists smear grease in a saucer or bowl and set wrapped-up buttons on fire so little children can see to go to bed in the cold and dark.

All those things our ancestors did to “make do” when they didn’t have or couldn’t afford the “normal” way to do something?  Science.

And when you think of some other way to do something when the “normal” way is out of your price range or reach?  That’s science, too.

You are a scientist.  We all are.  Any time your imagination or intense need or creative streak or budget, etc, inspires – or even forces – you to do something in a different sort of way, you are a scientist.  Whether it works or not, you are a scientist, and the world is your lab.  Whatever kind of coat you are wearing – or if you aren’t wearing a coat at all – you are a scientist.




Vivipary and the Tomato on the Kitchen Counter

A few days ago, I bought some tomatoes at the grocery store.  They were on-the-vine tomatoes, so it’s safe to assume that all of them were about the same age.

I assumed these were quadruplet tomatoes - all the same age!
I assumed these were quadruplet tomatoes – all the same age!

Mom told me to never keep tomatoes in the refrigerator. She said cold tomatoes lost their flavor quickly, and that tomatoes should be kept on the windowsill or on the kitchen counter. She also claims that tomatoes should be stored upside-down so the flavor is evenly distributed. I’m sure that’s true because it’s my mom saying so, but I’m not sure how that one works. But I do it anyway. Because, you know, Mom.

Two days ago, I selected one of these very nice-looking tomatoes at random and cut a slice off the top.  This is the sight that greeted me.

I thought those were worms at first!
I thought those were worms at first!

I was so startled; this was NOT what I expected to see when I sliced open that outwardly attractive tomato!  What WERE those creepy squiggly things?  Were they worms?  Had I purchased a wormy tomato?

A closer look told me that I had not purchased a wormy tomato; I had, however, purchased a tomato with a little well-preserved age on it, and the two days upside-down on my kitchen counter had added to the aging process in a rather unique way.

Instead of getting mushy, like most tomatoes would do after a few days, this tomato got fertile.

A tomato is, biologically, a fruit, since its seeds are on on the inside, and those seeds had germinated.  When this happens, it’s called Vivipary, which is Latin for “live birth”  My tomato, meant for salad, was experiencing live birth.

It’s not just tomatoes that can do this; almost any fruit will occasionally experience Vivipary.  Apples, peaches, pears, melons, squashes, pumpkins. . . almost any fruit’s seeds can germinate while still inside the fruit.   Another pretty cool thing:  Seeds germinated inside the fruit will eventually poke right through the skin of the fruit!

Check out my Viviparious tomato today.  The sprouts, still watery but now with room to grow tall, are doing just that.

They're growing really fast, too!
They’re growing really fast, too!

I looked up this phenomenon on the internet and discovered that it’s not really a phenomenon at all; it’s quite common.  It’s just that most people will say “GROSS!” and throw the sprouted tomato away, rather than put it in water and take pictures of it.  And maybe plan to separate the seedlings and plant them when spring finally arrives.  And probably serve the resultant fruit to unwary friends and family and not tell them the origin until they’re already eaten them.

Of course, my family and friends would probably think it was really cool, which, of course, it is.

Be aware that any tomatoes you do get from a Viviparious tomato will probably not be the same kind of tomato you bought, since commercially grown tomatoes are usually hybrids, but there is no reason your tomatoes won’t be real tomatoes, and they’ll probably taste great.

Know, too, that “Vivipary” is not a kind of tomato, like Brandywine; Vivipary is merely the name for the germination-inside-the-fruit process.

As for the other tomatoes on that very same vine. . . . they were fine.  They were just. . . . tomatoes.  We ate them.  They’re gone.

But their Viviparious sister?  If all goes well, she will live on and on.

Come on over for dinner.  Care for some salad?  It’s, um, home-grown.


Hands-on Science at Home: Needless or Necessary?

Some of us grew up with fantastic science teachers. Mrs. Russell, Mr. Steward, and Mr. Landis are names that you won’t necessarily recognize, but they’re the three science teachers I’ve had in my entire lifetime. I will never forget them, because they were and are awesome science teachers. (Forget the fact that I graduated with less than 20 kids in my class and that the last of those teachers is my best friend’s dad, or that my sister married my best friend’s little brother… Hooray small towns!) But some kids will never have that, that’s why you need to get hands-on science at home.

Classroom Thumwar with DJ
I assume that not everyone had the beneficial science teacher experience that I did, but it blows my mind. How can that even be possible? Then I discovered that the “science teacher” is an endangered species.

Especially when it comes to elementary-aged chitlens, there aren’t teachers dedicated to educating 6- to 12-year-olds on the FREAKING AMAZING WORLD OF SCIENCE! If you were to remove science education from my elementary education, I can personally guarantee that I would not have graduated. Math never made sense unless there was a scientific application. Science is the answer to “when will I ever use this?”

Tomorrow. You'll use this tomorrow... what's the squiggly line mean, again?
Tomorrow. You’ll use this tomorrow… what’s the squiggly line mean, again?                            (Source)

I’m definitely NOT saying that the current teachers being tasked with educating the youth on science are incompetent. They’re already stretched beyond their means, for Bill Nye’s sake. I’m saying that science deserves its own special time, teacher, and even room in the school. I want to scream, because it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

When I worked in customer service here at Steve Spangler Science, I cannot count on all of my fingers and toes how many times I heard that there’s no budget for science, or that it is being cut, or that teachers had to squeeze it into after-school programs. DEAR SCHOOL BOARDS: Science is the reason that there is a school in the first place, that your children aren’t dropping dead from small pox, and is the basis of all advancement for our planet.

Math = important. Language = important. History = important. Science = meh.

Yeah. That looks super boring and unimportant.
Yeah. That looks super boring and unimportant.

That just doesn’t add up. And again, I’m not arguing importance of anything except science, here. Without language, how could results be replicated? Without math, how would we understand measurements necessary to science? And history… well, there’s the whole saying about it repeating itself. Then there’s science, down at the bottom of the budget list below the coffee expenses.

But, as we’ve seen in recent history, schools take for-eh-ver to change their ways, and the government takes even longer. So how do you inject science into your children’s education? YOU have to do it. You don’t need to home school your kids, but I’ve got all kinds of props for parent/teacher hybrids that I like to call Parajucators. But, take some time out after dinner, before bed, or when the kids get home from school to do some hands-on science.

I'm partial, but may I kindly suggest...
I’m partial, but may I  suggest…

Don’t have a lot of dough for science supplies? You don’t need it! There are plenty of simple experiments, projects, and activities that can be done right at home and there are plenty of resources to go off of… *cough* *cough*

I’m not going to toot my own horn. Instead, I’m going to conduct the entire band. Have you seen our Sick Science videos? They’re less than 10 minutes long, every time, and walk you through the steps of simple hands-on science projects to do at home. Worried about cost? You probably have well over 90% of what you need right at home!

I’ve spent over 4 years writing the step-by-step instructions for our write-ups, but when I finally started doing the activities with my 6- and 8-year-olds at home, I realized just how easy it is to get them excited about ciencia (that’s science in Spanish). Now, even if there just isn’t time for the actual hands-on experience, they mix in science how-to videos with all of their usual video games and talking cats. Your kids can do it, too, I bet. But I don’t gamble.



Fresh Prince of the Science Fair.
Writer for Steve Spangler Science.
Dad of 2. Expecting 1 more.
Husband. Amateur adventurer.

Expert idiot.

5 Non-Volcano Kids’ Science Activities Using Vinegar

Want science activities using vinegar? Look no further than Classroom Thumb War with DJ.

Vinegar is a smelly staple of science educators everywhere. The solution of acetic acid is the most often-used, simple acidic solution in the lab, and it’s non-toxic and safe to be handled. It’s no wonder that vinegar is a key component of tons of activities and projects for all sorts of chemically based experiences. What’s that? You only know that classic vinegar and baking soda volcano? C’mon, science-based blog reader!

Continue reading 5 Non-Volcano Kids’ Science Activities Using Vinegar

Kitchen Scientists: Let’s Make Jam!

Hello kitchen scientists.  Whenever you mix two or more things together, you’re doing science – specifically, chemistry.  In the kitchen, chemists are at work every day!  Kitchen science is something we can all do, and usually the results are yummy.  So, let’s be chemists,  and create something new (and yummy)  by mixing a few simple things together!  Let’s start with some fresh strawberries.

mom's strawberries

Continue reading Kitchen Scientists: Let’s Make Jam!