Knowing My Place

I’ve become accustomed to small explosions.  For several days, my older enjoyed dropping aluminum foil balls into a test tube of sodium hydroxide capped with a stopper and tube that led to a bowl of soapy water.  Hydrogen bubbles soon would coat the top of the soapy water. Add a  lit match to the bubbles, and BOOM!  Very satisfying.

My older son is obsessed with chemistry.  For Christmas 2009, he asked for (and received)  the Thames and Kosmos Chem3000 kit.  No more baking soda and vinegar for him, he announced.  He wanted the real thing, and the Chem 3ooo kit is certainly that.  For several years, we’ve had a respectably stocked science cabinet with an assortment of glassware and a dozen or so compounds we’ve used for experiments.  When we started homeschooling five years ago, science education was a top priority for my older son and I, thus the collection.  While the glassware has seen regular use over the years, many of the chemicals have been used only once or twice.  Now they’re  regularly on the lab bench desk, and I’m delighted. 

Aside from the kit itself, his inspiration and information come from Theodore Gray’s books, The Periodic Table and Mad Science:  Experiments You Could Do at Home…but Probably Shouldn’t,  an assortment of websites,  and a few friends.  He’s a pretty cautious kid, thank goodness, so my safety-concious self is coping well, thank you.  It’s fire that worries me the most.  He’s fairly likely to forget the burner is on and pass a paper/sleeve/hand through the flame.  No injuries yet, but no flame allowed if I’m not on the same floor as my young scientist. I’m actively seeking an adult mentor for him, largely to keep myself out of the path of his learning.  Years of  special interests (space, electricity, meteorology, and more) have taught me my role in these interests: facilitate, don’t teach.  I may approve chemical purchases, suggest technique (obliquely is best), and keep the fire extinguisher handy, but I should keep my instructional hat off.  Ask probing questions?  Yes.  Insist on answers backed by research?  No.

Of course, formally,  we’re studying biology this year, not chemistry.  Chemistry is next year, at least on my schedule.  But for my older, the best part is now.  So I’ll drive to the library, find a mentor, answer questions when asked, and insist on eye protection.  But mostly, I’ll stand back and delight in his true satisfaction of teaching himself.

Here are a few favorite chemistry websites:

United Nuclear (Chemistry supply retailer now in Michigan.  Can you say “field trip”?)

Digital Lab Techniques (MIT open courseware videos)

The Periodic Table of Videos (These are quite fun, if you’re really into the elements)

Theodore Gray’s Website (The guy who wrote the books.)

The Elements Song  (By Tom Lehrer)

MakerSHED (Associated with MAKE magazine.  Great supplies)

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4 thoughts on “Knowing My Place

  1. I think this is a very nice post. He’s a smart kid… and you’re wise to let him learn as his interests drive him. You write about topics of substance, while I write about the symbolism of circus peanuts. One day I’ll grow up and be like you and Christine and write about meaningful topics.

    • Keith, I really love your blog. You tell a terrific story, make me laugh, and yet I know a bit more about you. You’re quite a writer, and not everyone can make poetry out of mallwalkers and computer hate. Keep it up.

  2. I’m grateful for the advice on advising your young scientist. I plan to use the probing questions strategy myself, though I’m not ready for the Chem3000 yet.

    • Thanks, Breanna! You probably have a few years that kit, but those years go quickly. I wish I could keep my hands off and mouth shut more of the time with the boys. Some of my intervention is pure excitement. I love to learn and share what I know. Some is just bossiness — pushing a further “learning” agenda on them and ruining a great inquiry they’re doing. I’d never make a good unschooler, but I do try to stand out of the way when a passion presents itself.

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