By Lisa Justice
On a recent Thursday morning, a class of 20 fifth-graders trooped into a classroom at Explorit Science Center. There were no tables or desks, and only a few chairs in the back for the grown-ups. No lab coats, test tubes, Bunsen burners or any of the trappings commonly associated with a classroom lab.
Yet these fifth-graders had come to participate in one of Explorit’s Inquiry Lab programs. Eager faces expressed mild confusion. How to explore the physics of gravity without sophisticated equipment?
When the Explorit educator welcomed her young scientists and asked them to confirm that they had brought their science tools with them, mild confusion moved toward perplexity. Most students brought only a coat or perhaps a water bottle. But with a little prompting, everyone realized that they were fully equipped with eyes to observe, hands to try things out and brains to analyze. With these core tools accounted for, scientific inquiry could begin.
But what would they observe or try out? Three small desk fans were discovered in the corners of the room, lying face-up on the floor, each with a paper tube reinforced with wire coat hangers around it — homemade wind tunnels! With nothing more than scissors, rulers, pencils, masking tape, scrap paper and a couple of feet of string, these explorers designed and conducted their own gravity experiments testing aircraft designs that would float and not fall in the wind tunnels.
But the real challenge came later in the morning when students were presented with a marble and a section of the classroom wall approximately 2 feet by 4 feet. Within this wall space, they must build a roller coaster for their marble, but it must be the world’s slowest marble roller coaster. The lab team that keeps their marble moving through the roller coaster for the longest amount of time wins! Their construction material included recycled objects like toilet paper tubes, cracker boxes and yogurt cups.
With a couple of rolls of masking tape and a box of things most people would just throw away, these students got to grapple with gravity, experience the forces of friction and air resistance, and learn more about physics in one morning than many children do in a year. They also worked collaboratively in teams like many professional labs and discovered that science doesn’t always require high-powered microscopes or toxic chemicals.
Instead, science is actually happening all around us all the time. We can use the tools we already have at our disposal, plus our innate curiosity and thoughtful questioning, to investigate and discover what makes our world tick.
Get a taste of this down-to-Earth, hands-on type of scientific inquiry with our current exhibition, “Beyond the Table: A Look at Agriculture and You.” Plus, join us Saturday and Sunday to make spaghetti spider webs and learn how spiders construct different types of webs. Participation is free with paid admission to the exhibition.
* Astronomy Club meeting: ”Telescopes and Accessories,” 6 p.m. Saturday. We also will look at the stars in the night sky following the main program, weather permitting.
* Legend of the Christmas Tree Spider Workshop: 2 p.m. Saturday Dec. 15. Make a glass-beaded spider while you sip hot cocoa. The fee is $9 per person. Space is limited for this workshop, so visit christmastreespider.brownpapertickets.com to reserve your spot.