Thursday, January 20, 2011

Weird Science: Mythbusters Science Fair Book by Samantha Margles

It's back to the grind, and with the holidays behind, it's that time--science fairs loom ahead for schoolkids. What to do with the reluctant amateur scientist who'd would rather spend a weekend researching Genghis Khan's boot camp?

Sandra Margles' forthcoming Mythbusters Science Fair Book (Scholastic/Discovery Press, 2011) may provide just the jolly little paperback guide for the task. Margles knows her prospective readership and leads off in Chapter I (Sweet Secrets) with what must be the most ubiquitous do-it-yourself "experiment" in the pop culture--the Mentos/Diet Coke lift-off. If they haven't seen it, most kids have at least heard of this one, and the author does a good job of describing the scientific method and guiding kids through this relatively safe procedure. But more importantly, she provides alternative directions for trying out other combinations of liquids with those five or six Mentos candies--water, regular Coke, lemon-lime soda, and the real deal, phosphoric acid from the hardware store--with instructions for measuring the ensuing chemical reaction for height and length of reaction and charting findings for that requisite project display and writing the all-important conclusion.

Junk food + explosions! What kid could resist an excuse to try out this one?

Margles skillfully plays on this "hook" to lead kids through related experiments, first the common belief that soaking in Coke shines up a dirty penny and the old chestnut that Coke will disintegrate a piece of steak overnight. How about the old household tip that Coke will loosen immovable rusty nuts and bolts? And then there's the myth that eating Pop Rocks with Coke will cause a deadly stomach explosion? (This one is tried out with a pop bottle and a balloon, not the kid's tummy.) And then there's the perennial question that has plagued mankind for, well, quite a while: Does toast ALWAYS fall butter-side/jelly-side down?

Although these "experiments" themselves won't change the world, they appeal to the inherent curiosity of kids while promising some real fun along the way. Materials required are inexpensive and readily available, and safety reminders are built into all procedures (including for the Mentos experiment, the final step in the instructions--"Run!") Margle's Mythbusters Science Fair Book provides the proper framework--hypothesis, materials, procedure, observation, and conclusion--to give foot-dragging kids a little push toward putting together their own scientific investigations in time for that deadline.

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