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<   No. 3327   2014-04-13   >

Comic #3327

1 {photo of a science demonstration at the Exploratorium, San Francisco}
1 Caption: Science with Kids

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Tools for explaining atomic theory to kindergarten kids
Tools for explaining atomic theory to kindergarten kids.
As I begin writing this, I am sitting in a public primary school, setting up for a day of teaching children from kindergarten to year 6 about the rudiments of atomic theory. I'm here as part of the Scientists in Schools program I have mentioned before. I spend a few days a year visiting a school and interacting with the kids about various science topics.

Now, when you ask anyone to think of appropriate subjects to teach kindergarten kids, atomic theory probably isn't at the top of the list. But I believe you can engage children on pretty much any subject and allow them to absorb something useful if you just frame it right. To this end, I am using a few demonstrations today to illustrate the concepts of atoms and subatomic particles to the children.

Firstly, I'm making use of my collection of LEGO bricks to demonstrate interactively the concept of atoms, and how they behave in solids, liquids, and gases. I've built a nice "crystal" by locking together a bunch of bricks. I've placed another bunch of bricks loose in a colander (see-through, so the kids can see the bricks inside), which will demonstrate how a liquid works as I stir my hand through the loose bricks. And for a gas, I have placed a handful of loose bricks in a large clear plastic storage tub, and will shake them around to simulate the high thermal energy of a gas (relative to liquids and solids). The LEGO "atoms" will bounce around off all the walls of the container, making a pretty good and visible model of how a gas works.

But atoms alone are barely scratching the surface. Naturally these kids will wonder what atoms are made of. I have diagrams to show them the internal structure of an atom, with its nucleus of protons and neutrons, and a swarm of attendant electrons buzzing around at a distance.

I can demonstrate this by using party balloons and the hair of some eager volunteer to generate static electricity. Rubbing a balloon on a head of hair pulls the electrons off some of the atoms, generating an imbalance of electrical charge which many of the children will be somewhat familiar with. This will explain something they have probably noticed, and give them insight into how it is connected to the concept of atoms.

The final demonstration I have in store is to give each child two sheets of kitchen towel paper and have them scrunch them up into balls. They'll hold one in each hand. Then I'll tell them that they are to pretend to be uranium atoms, and the balls of paper are their neutrons. If they get hit with a neutron, and only if they get hit with a neutron, they are to throw their two neutrons at other students. Then I stand back and toss a ball of paper into the middle of the group of kids.

Kids asking questions
Me answering questions (photo from a previous visit).
Now, writing after the event, I can tell you that after this uranium reaction it took the teachers a good few minutes to calm all the kids down again. (I'm so glad that part isn't my job!) I told the kids that this is how a nuclear reaction works. If you take a piece of uranium, full of uranium atoms, and fire some neutrons into it, it generates lots of energy, which you can use to make electricity. And here I showed them a slide of a nuclear power station, which looks very similar to the coal powered station I showed them earlier when I was talking about carbon atoms (and how coal, as well as the graphite "lead" in their pencils, are made of exactly the same atoms as diamonds).

I told the kids they could go home today and tell their parents they learnt how a nuclear reaction works. I really hope some of them did!

At the end of my demonstrations, the kids had some time to ask me questions. Some of them were on topic, but other kids ventured out into whatever area of science they were curious about. I got questions about planets and aliens and black holes. The best question I was asked was from a girl in year 3. She asked me, "What's the best thing about being a scientist?" Here's what I said, as best I can remember:

That's a really good question, a really, really good question. In fact, I think that might be the best question I've heard all day! To answer it, I'm going to tell you a little story.

You've all seen rainbows, right? (Kids shout "yes!") Rainbows are beautiful and pretty, right? ("Yes!") Well, a long time ago, one or two hundred years, I forget exactly, there was a man who lived in England, and he was a writer. He wrote poems. And he liked rainbows too.

(At about this point the school bell went off, indicating the start of lunch time.)

Oh, that's your lunch time. Do you mind if I keep you here for just a few more minutes? (Kids: "No!!")

Okay, this man once said that rainbows are beautiful and wonderful, but if you learn about how rainbows are made, then they don't seem so amazing and beautiful any more.[1] Now that's an interesting thing to say.

Do any of you know how rainbows are made? (Kids look around, then "No.")

Grand Rainbow
Yep, still beautiful.
All right, I'm going to tell you what makes a rainbow. (I walked over to a nearby whiteboard and drew a ground, a sun, and some rain clouds.) You know that rainbows appear after it rains, right? ("Yes!") Well, what you need for a rainbow is raindrops in the air, and the sun. The raindrops in the air are just little drops of water. I'm going to draw some big so you can see them. (I drew some circles on the board.)

Now, when the sunlight shines and hits a raindrop, what happens? The raindrop bends the sunlight, like a lens or a crystal, and it splits up the sunlight into different colours. The sunlight that we see all around us is made of different colours, all mixed together. And when it hits a raindrop, the different colours go in different directions, like this. (Drawing rays of light on the board, making a rainbow.) And so what you see is the different colours in the sky, which is what a rainbow is.

Now I have a question for all of you. Now that you know how a rainbow works, is that less wonderful and beautiful, or more wonderful and beautiful?

(Every last child yelled out "More!")

What scientists do is we learn about how the world works. About how everything around us, including ourselves, is made of atoms (I'd just been telling them earlier about atoms), and how the atoms mix together to make all of the different things we see. And we learn about stars and planets and dinosaurs and all sorts of things. And everything we learn makes the world a more wonderful and beautiful place. And that's the best thing about being a scientist.

(At this point all the children were wide-eyed and quiet. I let them sit for a few seconds in absolute silence, then focused on the girl who had asked the original question.)

Did that answer your question?

The girl could only nod in amazed silence. The looks on the faces of everyone in the room, all the kids, and their teachers, was absolutely priceless. I wish I had a photo of that moment to show you. But it will live in my memory as something wonderful.

After a moment the teachers spoke up to ask the kids to thank me, and then usher them out to lunch. Several kids stayed back to ask me more questions. It was a really great day.

I hope some of those kids grow up to be scientists.

[1] This is a simplified version of the story of the famous toast which poet John Keats made, which I have previously talked about at some length. For the sake of my narrative to the school kids, I left out a lot of the details and context of Keats's toast.

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Last Modified: Sunday, 13 April 2014; 03:09:53 PST.
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