Thursday, September 18, 2014

I Don't Care Much For Soldering After All

Secret: I never soldered anything when I was in college.

You're saying, "So what?" 


I mean, how many people solder in college? Not many. Unless their college degree is in Engineering or Physics.

Which mine was.  And one of our final year projects was a pre-amplifier circuit. We had to turn in a completed circuit board for a working pre-amp as part of our final grade. With all the resistors and capacitors and whatnots neatly soldered on.

Clearly I passed the course, so I must have turned in my circuit board. 

But I didn't touch a soldering iron. I had an awesome lab partner. He did all the soldering. He volunteered. Maybe he didn't trust me not to completely ruin the board and jeopardize his grade. Maybe we had a deal in which I contributed the theory and calculation and he did all the menial labor. I honestly can't remember. I only remember a conversation we had in which he turned up in class one day, all excited, saying he'd found this computer program that plotted all our graphs for us - all we had to do was type in the data. Revolutionary!

Hey! Don't snicker. This was the 90s!

"Is it allowed?" Was my only (and lackluster) response. I was on some government (or federal, as we say here in the US) scholarship that monitored my every move and grade, and I didn't want to be kicked out of school for accidentally breaking a rule.

He snorted and assured me that it was indeed allowed, and more efficient, besides, than manual plotting.

"Well, I like plotting my graphs on paper by hand." All one million coordinate points. On the subway. On the way home from school. While half asleep from mental exhaustion. Because I am incurably set in my ways, I conveniently left out.

He was incredulous. Was his illustrious and brilliant lab partner and nationally-renowned scientist-in-the-making choosing archaic documentation methods over technological advancement? What possessed the government to rest the future of the country's scientific progress on the shoulders of such as hers? And, more importantly, what manner of backward stupidity would she reveal next?

Someday I must tell you another story involving developing 35 mm film (yes, more charming old-fashionedness) in a darkroom for another Physics experiment, and my blood smeared all over the cabinets and walls. I like to think my lab partner was absent from this scenario. I hope he was. I can't remember. All I know is my Physics college years were quite eventful.

But back to the graph conversation. I think we eventually reached a cunning turn-taking compromise that involved him handing in computer-generated graphs for half of our reports and I, my exquisite hand-drawn green-gridded works of art for the other half. I suppose that set the stage for us similarly dividing our tasks when it came to that final year project.

So I never used a soldering iron. I'd watched many other people use it, like Dad, my brother, my lab partner and random technicians at computer and electronic stores. But not me. Soldering was not interesting the way cutting up cardboard and designing stuffed toys or bags are interesting. And Not Interesting is not worth doing, I decided. I did, however, entertain the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I should at least try it some day. A person can't possibly dabble in electric and electronic circuitry without eventually needing to solder bits to other bobs, right?

Then along came Emily's Science Party. And I thought it was as good a reason as any to try soldering. So I found the soldering iron I'd gotten for Christmas years ago (still in its blister pack), and the solder (also still in its blister pack), read an online tutorial, and got to work.

Guess what? I hate it after all. It's so slooooooooooooooooooooooow.

Which is totally useless for mass-production. I'd be soldering till Emily's graduated from college herself and still wouldn't have finished those 100 circuit joints. Because nobody in their right minds would solder 100 floating circuit joints. Even me, who, as a habit, isn't usually in her right mind.

Enter electrician's tape. My circuitry BFF for years, and likely to continue in that role unchallenged. Unplugged, cheap, and (very important to us crafty people) comes in different colors.

And with this no-solder approach, I'm back on track for Saturday. We're making an optic fiber lamp (among other things) with paper cups and tape. Lots of tape.

Back soon with pictures. Over and out now!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Our House Is A Party Lab


Science Party this Saturday.

I have sixteen optic fiber bundles to make and about a hundred circuit joints to solder before the kids get home from school. 

After I procrastinate by having lunch and listening to music, I mean. And maybe cutting fabric for a project I don't even need to make.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Groovy Lab In A Box


Today, I am excited to introduce you to Groovy Lab in a Box!

Anything Science is obviously cool in our house, so I was very excited to say Yes, please! to the Groovy Lab team when they contacted me with the invitation to review their box. 

Ours was the Here Comes The Sun box. 
When it arrived, we unpacked it carefully and took some photos for you. 

It's wonderfully organized, with individual experiments/activities packed separately,

and accompanied by a formidable Lab Notebook.

Let's take a peek inside before we further unpack the box. Right at the start, the ultimate aim of this Box is explained: to design a survive-and-rescue operation using Science (and some craft materials).  

The premise, according to the team that conceptualized and created this product, is that children are natural engineers and, with a combination of scientific inquiry and engineering design, are capable of ingenious and deliberate inventions that solve problems. It's a timely new angle on the ubiquitous craft crate-kit, given the popular STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) wave on which educators all over the state, not to mention the world, are currently riding.

And this is not a kit, its creators emphasize. It is a scientific experience pitched at a level at which kids 8 and older may be engaged to engineer a design based on knowledge and accumulated learning. 

Which sounds a tad high-brow, I know, so let me translate with photos. Each monthly box is based on a theme (see some examples here). There is some foundational literature related to that theme in the lab notebook,

lovely step-by-step instructions and diagrams to guide you through each of the stand-alone investigation activities, 

to prepare you to tackle the big challenge at the end: 

There are hints on the website if you need a little more direction.

You'll need a password that's in your Notebook,

to access supplementary (or, as teachers call it, "enrichment") material 

and fun add-ons.

So that's the overview.

Now, let's unpack each experiment.

First: a solar balloon.

Here's ours.

The instructions called for a hot, uncloudy, unwindy day. We waited a long time for such a day, but believe it or not, the Minnesota summer failed us. Finally, when the children refused to continue holding out, we constructed our balloon on the very next non-rainy early summer afternoon. There was a fair bit of wind, and it was not as hot as we'd have liked. 

We did our best. Our balloon leaked slightly and shrank at a small but noticeable rate, so we reduced the volume continually, to keep the internal air pressure constant. It lifted off the ground but it never got anywhere near high-altitude airborne. Maybe if we lived in Texas. . . or Kuala Lumpur. . .

Experiment 2 was to build a working solar oven. I absolutely loved it, primarily because it utilized the cardboard box in which the materials were packed. I've reviewed other activity crates in the past and none of them included an activity that actually involved the box itself. What a pity, because the box is the best part of any package! But you all knew I was going to say that.

So we cut up the box. We had some issues with the sticky tape and masking tape that were provided,

so we used our own. Incidentally, I mentioned this in my feedback to the team, and they were fabulous and said they'd be working on making it better.

Here's Emily lining the oven with foil-backed paper.

When it was done, we put in a little cupcake liner of crayon bits (all provided) and our own oven thermometer (because we're such Science geeks) to monitor the goings-on.

At the start

After 10 minutes (125F).

30 minutes later (200F).

Experiment #3 was a conductivity sensor.

Following the instructions completely, the connection in the resulting circuit was a little intermittent, but we fixed it with a tiny bit of improvisation. Problem-solving, after all, is part of the scientific process, isn't it?

So here's how it works - you need a closed circuit to make the buzzer sound. You'll get a closed circuit if the thing between the two wire ends conducts electricity. When the thing is pure water, the buzzer doesn't sound, therefore pure water doesn't conduct electricity. When the thing is salt water, the buzzer sounds, therefore salt water conducts electricity. 

Emily wrote her observations here. She and I also discussed at length the concept of conductivity and its link to a closed circuit, to help her fully grasp the theory. You obviously don't have to do this because you are normal. I, on the other hand, have a problem discerning where Science Teacher ends and Mother begins. 

And then it was time for the Design Challenge. 

Loads of fun assimilating all the experiments into conceptualizing the desalination plant.

There is a guided-report section to help kids process their learning.

I did the actual drawing of Prototype 1.

This was our "lab".

This is how much pure water we collected before the sun disappeared behind wretched clouds, yet another instance of being played out by the Minnesota summer.

We tasted the water and circuit-tested it to verify that, indeed, it contained no salt.

Just for fun, we postulated another prototype, to see if we could collect more water.

Super fancy, but even without carrying it out, one can tell we were going to lose a fair bit of our precious pure water by either spillage or side flow leakage.

The last activity was an stand-alone fun craft: sun print paper.

We set out the two sheets provided and exposed them to the sun. All it took was a few minutes to turn white (see the paper on the right). Unfortunately, the wind (thanks again, Minnesota) messed up our final images, so there are no photos of them. Instead, you can go see the ones we made indoors some years back here

Now, wasn't that fun?

We really enjoyed working with this Groovy Lab box. We took our time with it because I wanted the kids to be able to assimilate their learning at their own pace instead of simply devouring all the activities at face value. This was a well-thought-out theme and the experiments are straightforward and engaging. I love the step-by-step instructions and diagrams and the Notebook that reads like a mini-manual. I especially love that the answers aren't spoon-fed to the kids, and that all the experiments, taken together, equip them to knowledgeably and independently design that big challenge at the end. 

Now, while all three of my kids worked on some aspect of the contents of the box, I'd say that older kids would probably enjoy it most. Therefore the age rating (8+) is spot-on. I'd also say that while an analytical mind helps you get the most out of the Groovy Lab Box, you don't need to be Science-oriented to appreciate it. Children, especially, will be thrilled to tinker with the materials and if your kids are anything like mine, they'll love being able to make things that "actually do stuff". And if you're all geeky and/or want to use it in an educational setting, it has loads of potential for side discussions and more theoretical applications. 

Here is some info on how you can get your hands on these Groovy Lab Boxes.

First, you can buy them by subscription, so they are sent to your home monthly. Each box contains single-serving experiments, but multiple children can easily work as a team (or take turns to repeat some of the experiments) without having to purchase one-box-per-kid. Subscriptions can be for 1 to 12 months. Read more about subscriptions and pricing here.

Second, you can buy single boxes here, which would make perfect one-time gifts.

Third, there is a giveaway of a Groovy one-year subscription on the Groovy Lab website here, which ends tomorrow (Sep 15). If you go to the website before midnight tomorrow, a pop-up window will appear to allow you to enter the giveaway, so hurry!

Fourth, the Groovy Lab team have generously offered a coupon code to my readers, valid for the monthly subscription. The code "GROOVYNOW20" will get you a 20% discount off your first month's box.

Disclaimer: I received this box for free but the opinions in this review are mine.