Category Archives: Summer Science

Geodes and Diamonds – Backyard Geology

Oh, the memories of geodes!  When I was a little kid, I played a lot in the alley that divided our block in two. All of us kids played in the alley. It gave us access to the back yard of every house in the neighborhood, and it was cool in its own right.

Cracking geodes

Alleys were always lined with sunflowers and hollyhocks. In, among, and around the trash cans were the occasional doghouse and small garden. The Pryors had a strawberry patch, which we kids never dared to bother.  There was one huge tree on the alley that was the meeting place for every bird in the county, just before dark. You could hear that tree all over town, as the sun was going down. It was also the only tree in the neighborhood that we kids never played under.

Any day, a kid could find treasure in the alley. Sometimes there was broken glass, which we were forbidden to touch.  Sometimes there were pennies.  Occasionally, there was a quarter, which meant candy bars for all of us!  And there were always geodes.

I never played in that alley without finding geodes. Where they came from each week I’ll never know, but every few days, after we’d gathered them all up and mined the diamonds out of them, more always appeared.

Here in southern Indiana, geodes are everywhere. You can’t plant open geodesflowers without digging up geodes. Any batch of crushed stone you have dumped in your driveway will have geodes in it. It might also have arrowheads; you have to hire your young children to search for those. (That keeps them busy and in plain sight for HOURS; it’s fantastic.)  We can’t mow the lawns here without dulling the blades on geodes.

Geodes come in all sizes and colors; some are as small as marbles, and others are absolutely immense.  I’ve seen people using huge geodes for seats around an outdoor table.  Geodes the size of basketballs on fence posts are a common sight here.  I’ve seen geodes larger than grown men.  People here – including me – line their flower beds with geodes the size of cauliflower heads.

opengeodeWe kids used to gather a pile apiece and take turns ‘busting’ them open with a hammer. The inside is usually a wonderment of sparkly delight. Look up ‘geodes’ and check out the pictures; no two are alike and all have something enchanting inside. We used to pretend we were finding diamonds and rubies and emeralds; once in a while, there will be real amythyst in there.

Clean them, and polish them, and put them where they catch the light. The jewel-lined cavern inside a geode will enhance your dreams and make your wishes come true.

That’s the story, anyway.

I do love finding the geodes, though. You can’t tell by their outsides, what they’ve got on their insides, but you do know that no two are alike, and they’re all beautiful.

Kind of like people.

 

Jane GoodwinJane Goodwin is a professor of expository writing at Ivy Tech Community College, a hands-on science teacher for College for Kids, a professional speaker and writer, and a social media liaison  for Steve Spangler Science.  She wanted to be a ballerina and an astronaut, but gravity got the better of her.

The Flashing, Color Mixing, One-of-a-Kind White Lightning Stick

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

One of the biggest hits of the summer is the White Lightning Stick. On the Fourth of July, we held a small firework show in our front yard with our neighbors.

Along with the traditional sparklers and black snakes, we also shot off several film canister rockets and Mentos soda geysers. While the kids were waiting for the next activity, they played with the light sticks. Naturally, the sticks were first used as swords and weapons, but as the sun set, they began to really look at the light sticks and made observations.

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Patriotic Layered Density Drinks for 4th of July

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

As you know, all of us at The Spangler Labs enjoy a good liquid density column. Our 9-Layer Density Tower is shared across the internet. It is one of our most popular Pinterest experiment pins. We are always looking for new combinations of liquids to stack (we have a lot of free time).

One popular density column found around the internet is a summer drink recipe perfect for the 4th of July. There are many alcoholic versions of the density drink, but we are going to focus on kid-friendly recipes.

Density Drinks - Layered Kid-Friendly Drinks for 4th of July

This red, white and blue drink recipe uses a little science to delicately stack different drinks on top of each other. Your guests will think it’s magic, you will know it’s really science at work.

The different colored drinks are stacked by sugar density. The heaviest, or most sugary drink goes on the bottom, followed by the next sugary and ending with the least sugary. When choosing red, white and blue drinks, look at the sugar content per serving. Many bottles use an 8-ounce serving, while others use a 12-ounce serving. The bigger the difference between sugar contents, the better. A drink with 18 grams of sugar stacked on a drink with 21 grams may mix more than 18 grams of sugar on top of 40 grams of sugar. There are a lot of calorie or sugar-free drinks available. These are best for the top liquid.

Types of Drinks Used and Sugar Content

  • Berry Blue Propel Zero – 0g
  • Black Raspberry Red Glaceau Fruit Water Sparkling zero calorie – 0g
  • Cool Blue Gatorade  – 21g per 12oz serving
  • Fruit Punch Gatorade – 21g per 12oz serving
  • Pina Colada SoBe – 25g per 8oz serving
  • Berry Lemonade Blue Jones Soda – 41g per 12oz serving
  • Fruit Punch Welch’s Chillers – 30g per 8oz serving
  • Squirt Soda – 38g per 12oz serving

Density Drinks - Layered Kid-Friendly Drinks for 4th of July

Step by Step for Stacking

  1. Refrigerate the drinks before starting so the ice doesn’t melt as you pour.
  2. Fill glass with ice to the top.
  3. Pour the heaviest or highest sugar content drink first.
  4. Slowly and carefully pour the next highest sugar content drink. Pour or drizzle it into the ice or along the side of the glass to reduce splashing and mixing.
  5. Pour the lightest or lowest sugar content drink on top.
  6. Enjoy!

Learning Opportunities
Take your kids with you to the grocery store and compare sugar contents in different drinks. Ask a few questions while you are there.

  • Why are the 0 grams of sugar drinks also calorie free?
  • How many sugar packets equal the grams of sugar in each drink?
  • Why are drinks with 0 grams of sugar still sweet?
  • Why does the sugar content give the drinks different densities?
  • Are drinks with 0 grams of sugar healthier or better for you?

Density Drinks - Layered Kid-Friendly Drinks for 4th of July

It’s Not Science, But…

  • We’ve seen a few blog posts that dress up their drinks with star ice cubes or Pop Rocks around the glass rim.
  • You can also place red, white and blue food-safe sparklers or other umbrella decorations on top of the drink. 

How Does This Work? 

The same amount of two different liquids will have different weights because they have different masses. The liquids that weigh more (have a higher density) will sink below the liquids that weigh less (have a lower density).

Density is basically how much “stuff” is smashed into a particular area… or a comparison between an object’s mass and volume. Remember the all-important equation:  Density = Mass divided by Volume. Based on this equation, if the weight (or mass) of something increases but the volume stays the same, the density has to go up. Likewise, if the mass decreases but the volume stays the same, the density has to go down. Lighter liquids (like the 0 grams of sugar drinks) are less dense than heavy liquids (like fruit punch or soda) and so float on top of the more dense layers.

 

 

The Science Behind Fireworks – How Do They Produce the Brilliant Colors and Designs?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

** This article is strictly for the entertainment and information of our readers. Leave the display fireworks creation, development and launching to the professionals. It is a violation of federal, state and local laws to make or use fireworks without the required permits. 

Fireworks are as much a part of the Fourth of July as hot dogs, watermelon and red, white and blue. How do they get those brilliant colors, sparkling trails and heart shapes? There’s a science to creating the perfect firework display.

 

The Science of Fireworks. What makes the patterns, designs and colors? A fireworks decoder included. | Steve Spangler Science

Before we dive into the science behind fireworks, let’s start with a little history. The Chinese invented fireworks somewhere around 960 and 1279 AD. They shot off fireworks to ward off evil spirits and used them during celebrations, like the Emperor’s birthdays and Chinese holidays.

Fireworks were first used to celebrate independence in the United States on July 8, 1776. They were used in England to celebrate the birthdays of kings and queens. The fireworks were fired in America to celebrate the “death” of royalty and their power over the U.S. Fireworks were used to celebrate our independence each July 4th but not in an official way until July 4 was declared a federal holiday in 1941. Currently, fireworks are almost synonymous with Independence Day.

Designing and building the ultimate firework display or just a firecracker requires a strong knowledge of chemistry and physics.

Colors – Different metal elements and metal compounds create each color.  When you watch a display this year, try to name each element in it. Blue-greens and vivid violet-blues are the most dangerous and difficult to create. They are unstable and extremely dangerous.

Effects – the use of different elements also creates special effects.

What’s Inside of a Firework? 

  • Black Powder – the propellant. It is an old formula made from potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. When it is ignited, the nitrate oxidizes the sulfur and charcoal which results in hot gasses.
  • Mortar (container) – the outer cylinder chamber made of plastic or metal. It can be a short, steel pipe with a lifting charge of black powder in the bottom or surrounding stars.
  • Stars – the pyrotechnic compounds that explode and create the colors and effects. They are spheres, cubes or cylinders about the size of a pea to a tennis ball.
  • Shell – a hollow sphere made of pasted paper and string. The shell is cut in half and packed with stars.
  • Bursting Charge – inside the middle of the shell to ignite the firework. The charge ignites the outsides of the stars, which burn with showers of sparks.
  • Fuse – allows a time delay for the explosion.

How Do They Create Multi-Explosions, Effects and Colors in One Firework?

Multi-break shells create multiple stages for the firework. Stars of different  colors and compounds are used to make different effects. The shells are filled with other shells or have multiple sections that are ignited with individual fuses. After the first section bursts, the next fuse is ignited and bursts the second, which then ignites the third fuse and so on.

The Science Behind Fireworks - How do they create the brilliant colors and patterns? | Steve Spangler Science

How Are Patterns Created? 

When the firework explodes, the stars are thrown out into a pattern. If they are packed into the shell in a star pattern or happy face pattern, they maintain that shape in the sky as they are thrown from the shell. Popular Mechanics has an interactive slideshow with pictures of shells with layouts of stars and charges that displays how some of the most complex designs are created.

Are The Booming Sounds from Fireworks All About the Ignition? 

Actually no, some fireworks contain sound charges that use perchlorate.

References – HowStuffWorks, eHow Fireworks, eHow Fireworks History, Popular MechanicsAnatomy of a Firework from PBS,

 

Take a Science Vacation – Summer Learning in Yellowstone National Park

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

My family and I visited Yellowstone last week. The girls and I had never been, but my husband had spent a few summers in the Youth Conservation Corps back in his youthful days. I knew Yellowstone was full of geothermal features and a lot of wildlife, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much science abounds in the park. If you are looking for an unplugged, family learning vacation, head to Northwestern Wyoming and Yellowstone.

Yellowstone was the first national park established in 1872.

As we drove into the park on a hot Friday evening, it was quiet. Just the forest and the setting sun. Until we reached the center of the park and the edge of the caldera. Steam was rising into the air from vents along the road. Even more steam was rising from the edge of the lake. The edge of the lake!! I felt like a kid as I was surrounded by geology. Living geology. The stuff I read about in school – geysers, vents, mud volcanoes, hot springs and fumaroles. Even after reading about Yellowstone, I wasn’t prepared to be this excited.

I grew up in Colorado – visited the hot springs, hiked and camped in the mountains, seen elk and deer. I thought I had already experienced the majority of natural wonder and magic in the mountains of Colorado. I’ve also visited Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala crater in Hawaii. I’ve seen lava flows and volcanic cones. I’d I had no idea what I was missing (besides Old Faithful).

Yellowstone holds half of the earth’s geothermal features in its more than 3,400 square miles. You can walk, hike and even just drive up to many of the 300 geysers and 10,000 thermal features. As the mud bubbles and the steam blows over the crusted earth, you know you are standing on top of a live volcano.

If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone, prepare for a lot of science.

Junior Ranger and Science Badge

Young scientist badge at Yellowstone National Park

The Junior Ranger program is free for children ages 5 to 12 visiting the park. Stop at any Yellowstone visitor center and request a 12-page activity guide. Based on age, children will need to complete a required number of pages inside the guide as well as attend a ranger talk, hiking on a park trail and completing activities. Although at least a day or two to complete the packet. Return the packet to the visitor center to receive your badge.

Yellowstone also offers a Science badge at the Canyon and Old Faithful areas. (My advice is to do the Old Faithful badge – it involves the geysers and geothermal features.) Children ages 5 and up purchase a booklet at the Canyon Vistor Education Center or Old Faithful Visitor Center for $5. Learn more about the science of Yellowstone by completing the booklet. The rangers will also check out a Young Scientist Toolkit that includes a thermometer, stopwatch and other gear needed to complete the assignment. This activity will take around three hours to complete as you explore the geyser basin near Old Faithful. Young Scientists will earn a badge or keychain.

Geothermal and Hydrothermal Features

Yellowstone has a diverse collection of geysers, hot springs (which can reach temperatures of 400 degrees +), mudpots (bubbling and boiling “muddles”), fumaroles (steam vents), hot spring terraces, and lava flows. Park rangers, visitor centers and maps will direct you to these features. I also tried several apps while we were there. The best one was from Chimani. They offered a driving tour which described several of the best features and areas.

Don’t miss Old Faithful…a spectacular earth science show that will excite. This isn’t the fountains at the Bellagio. Our planet puts on this show. After watching it erupt (about every 90 minutes) take a walk around the other geothermal features in the area. Hot springs and smaller geysers are gorgeous and just as spectacular. You can also hike up to a nearby hillside and watch Old Faithful erupt from a different angle. There are so many features close together, you can spend an entire day in the Old Faithful area.

Just up the road from Old Faithful is the Midway Basin. This area offers several parking areas, walkways and hikes to waterfalls and more hot springs. Don’t miss the Grand Prismatic. This hot spring is about 200 meters across and is the biggest of its kind. Just don’t wear a hat on a windy day. The pools are full of hats, even just a few feet off the path, lost forever.

And one more thing – keep in mind these are natural features, not wishing wells or trash cans. Morning Glory Pool – one of the most beautiful springs in the park, gets plugged up from people throwing trash, coins and other items into the hole. As the hole clogs, the water temperature changes and many of the microorganisms in the pool are killed. The organisms are what create the beautiful colors. Treat the living earth with respect.

Microbiology and Microorganisms

My 8-year-old budding microbiologist found a book in the National Park gift store on all of the tiny creatures living in Yellowstone. Algae, and bacterial mats live in the springs and the rock, giving Yellowstone its color. There are unseen, fragile forests of bacteria that stretch out from the hot springs in brown ribbons. Astronomers study these tiny life forms in Yellowstone in hopes of gaining knowledge on potential life on other planets. If these micro-animals can live where nothing else can on earth, they may also hold the key to life across the universe.

Flora and Fauna 

The park abounds with wildlife. Bison are everywhere – walking down the roads, in front of cabin ice machines (it’s a long story), in open meadows and anywhere they want to visit. We saw bison hoof prints in the mud volcanoes and along the dangerous and unsteady land near the hot springs. Even with all the bison in plain sight everywhere, you realize that this is still a small percentage of how many roamed the west before they were almost wiped out.

Deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, fox, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are the most searched for animals in the park. You may spot one in the back trails or alongside the road. It all depends on luck. The Yellowstone website has a map and checklist of the best places to spot certain animals.

Wildlife watchers hang out on overlooks in Hayden Park, watching for anything that moves. We observed some wolves across the meadows nipping at a bison, testing it for weakness. There is nothing like watching wildlife behave like the wildlife you see on nature shows right before your eyes.

There are more than 1,350 species of plants and wildflowers in the park. We apparently weren’t there in wildflower season, but wouldn’t have had any idea. A huge variety of plants and flowers were everywhere.

Even More Geology

The park has diverse geological features. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was formed from erosion. There are also glacial deposits, rhyolite lava flows, faults and my favorite, hoodoos. Hoodoos are tall, skinny spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of basins. Look closely at the rocks in the canyon – they contain a variety of different iron compounds. Exposure to the elements causes the rocks to change color or oxidize. The canyon wall is rusting.

Wildfire Science

Yellowstone’s landscape has been shaped by fire. There is still a lot of evidence from recent and past fires, including the 1988 fires, in the park. We looked closely at the landscape and tried to make educated guesses on how long ago fires had burned in a specific section. Some areas had few blacked trees standing, while most had fallen to the forest floor, and small to medium sized trees growing. Other areas barely had new grass on the forest floor with most of the burned trees still standing. For more on Yellowstone wildland fires, the 1988 fires and how fires are a part of the ecology, visit the Yellowstone website.

Even if you aren’t headed to Yellowstone in the near future, you can take a virtual tour and learn more about what the park has to offer through its Kids Online website.

What are your favorite places to explore in Yellowstone? Where do you take a science vacation?