Before You Start (1)

Some advances in science happen accidentally. We all know the stories of radioactive samples left on top of photographic plates, mold getting into your bacterial colonies, etc. It’s great when it happens. And you should take advantage of random opportunities to present science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) to your child.

But that’s not how most science happens, and that’s not how an aquarium should happen.

Most science happens while going through a set of steps. Now, most people don’t think of these steps as steps, and they may rearrange the steps, combine them, or just do it subconsciously. But the steps look approximately like this:

  1. Thinking
  2. Planning
  3. Calculating costs
  4. Purchasing
  5. Assembling
  6. Performing experiments & taking data

At this point, I’m supposed to put “Evaluating “ as #7. In real life, evaluating happens all the time. During the “thinking” phase, evaluation happens naturally. That’s part of thinking. The same goes for planning. Unlike comic books where Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) have unlimited funds, a lot of evaluating can happen during the “Calculating costs” and “Purchasing” parts of the experiment. A researcher might ask herself questions like these:

  • Can we afford this?
  • Is there a cheaper way to do this?
  • Does someone else have this piece of equipment that I can borrow?
  • Do I want to look for another topic to research?

Evaluation can occur during “Assembling,” especially when the researcher finds out things don’t go together like the instructions say. Think “Ikea furniture.” I know of one case where it really was Ikea furniture that didn’t go together like the drawings showed and changed the experiment.

Some of the most important evaluation occurs during the first couple runs of the experiment. Even when doing a double blind study, a researcher will check to make sure things are running smoothly. Most of the time, they don’t. The researcher may not have ever done this particular experiment before. Perhaps no one has done it. The first couple times, researchers check to make sure everything works as planned. Often it doesn’t, and the researcher goes back to the beginning and work through the steps again with the new knowledge.

Sometimes things don’t work as planned. And, if you look at all those serendipitous discoveries, you’ll find that those wonderful accidents were found during the evaluation phase of going through these steps.

What’s the one thing common to all of these steps?

Taking notes.

Seriously. Everyone knows that scientists record data. there are even cute aphorisms about data collection like “Document or it didn’t happen” and “Collect data; it makes it look like you’ve been doing something.”

But think about it even in your own life. Ever come up with a great idea and forget it during lunch? If you’d kept notes, that wouldn’t have happened. Think of something when planning a party but forget about it until the first guest knocks at the door?

So your first homework assignment is to go out and buy lab notebooks: one for you and one for each child with whom you’re working.1

You don’t need to get the big expensive professional lab books. Composition notebooks are wonderful, especially if they happen to have the numbered pages. Everyone keeps their own data. The adult will keep the adult version, but each child should keep his or her own. Yes, there should be words and numbers in the book, but there should also be drawings of things observed. If you take a picture of the aquarium or the supplies, printing out the picture and taping or gluing it in the book is wonderful. Scientists use drawings, photographs and more to record things–as well as words and numbers.

By keeping a notebook yourself, you’re modelling the behavior for your child or children. The children are practicing important skills like writing and drawing.

Also, when something goes wrong, that notebook might help you figure out what it was or keep you from making that mistake again!

  1. I’m keeping my notebook on a computer. The first time the data files get corrupted, you can laugh at me. Lab notebooks are things the child can touch and hold and look back on years from now. It’s a simple thing, but your child will benefit. []

Science in 80 Liters (20 Gallons)

In 1967, I was in third grade and got a book by Beverly Cleary titled “Henry Huggins.” In the book, Henry goes to a pet store and buys a pair of guppies. The two guppies had babies. Soon Henry’s room and life are over-run with jars of fish. This story disaster inspired me to ask my parents to let me have an aquarium. My parents agreed, and soon there were three aquariums in our new house.
Recently, I looked back on those experiences with tropical fish and realized just how much science I learned from them. Making the water safe for the fish taught me a lot of chemistry. Learning about the fish, keeping a balanced tank the fish could live in, and breeding them introduced me to topics in biology long before I had them in my classes. Even mathematics, physics and a touch of engineering came into play.

Today, scientists and educators are making a deliberate attempt to interest children in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—it’s abreviated STEM. In the past, such activities tended to be aimed mostly at boys. Now, the goal is to interest everyone, no matter their gender.

I learned through books. My first book on aquariums taught me how to set up a small 5 gallon tank. As I got bigger books, I got bigger tanks. My Dad was an engineer, but for the most part, he stuck to lifting heavy objects, curbing some of my excesses, and suggesting how to look up an answer. It worked for me.

Part of me would love to write a book for third through fifth graders explaining the science as they set up a modern aquarium. Unfortunately, my wife and I weren’t blessed with children. I’m not sure if I’d know how to write for third to fifth graders.

As I thought about it, I realized I don’t want to write for those third to fifth graders. I want to write for their parents. The parents can guide their children, pick and choose the topics that are appropriate, and interpret the lessons for their children’s level of understanding. With any luck, the parents and children have fun together with the tank.

And who knows? Maybe the parents will gain a little more understanding and appreciation for science.

As I see it now, I’ll write a lesson about once a week, focusing on the particular topic involved with that stage of the aquarium setup. That might seem slow, and, as I get a feel for it, perhaps the frequency of the posts will increase. But one of the tricks to setting up an aquarium is to take it slowly. If, in a single day, you purchase an aquarium, set it up, and put the fish in, there’s a high probability that you’ll waste a lot of money and kill the fish.

If anyone is going to follow along, I would appreciate getting feedback. What was clear? What wasn’t clear? What was too difficult for your child to understand? What was too simple? What was too expensive? What better ways are there to do this? A comment section is available at the end of each article. I’ll make every effort to answer questions and learn from any suggestions.