Science At Home. Developing a love for science on the kitchen table.

On a recent drive home, I was accompanied by the beauty that is New Hampshire in the fall.  All along the roadway, sunlight filtered through flashes of orange, red and yellow, relentlessly telling me that fall was here, despite the summer-like temperatures.  I was then reminded of many science lectures in which the teacher seemed to magically reveal the assistant behind the curtain: the orange, red and yellows that had been in the leaf all along, but were hidden by the green-producing pigment, chlorophyll.  Once food production stops in the fall and the trees start to prepare for a long winter, the green goes away and what is revealed is the spectacle we see of fall in New England.

When I pulled into my driveway, I grabbed a handful of leaves from the surrounding trees in my yard and setup my experiment in leaf color extraction chromatography.  In other words, I wanted to see what colors were in the leaves without waiting for nature to run its course.  It’s a pretty simple experiment that requires the at-home scientist to make a slurry of shredded leaves and rubbing alcohol and then use a coffee filter to extract the colors of the leaves from the slurry.  The rubbing alcohol, like a school bus at the end of a long school day, drops off the pigments at different stops, or different heights along the coffee filter, depending on their weight.  Heavier colors will be dropped off first and lighter colors will be dropped off last.  The greatest reveal is that of what color is in your leaf.

What was revealed in a few days was a kitchen table full of miniature autumn rainbows.  On some strips, greens turned into yellows, while on other strips, greens turned into oranges followed closely by reds.  Each tree was revealing its post-summer beauty that I could soon anticipate in my yard.  More amazing than the changing season occurring on my table was the fact that all of this wonder was created with just a few common household items and required little to no effort to prepare.  The science that resulted was a menagerie of scientific concepts and skills, such as leaf pigmentation, solutes and solvents, and paper chromatography.

Science can and should be done at home.  It’s okay if you or other family members don’t know the concepts of the science you want to experiment with.  It’s even okay if you mess up.  These are just a few of the great advantages of science.  Science is discovering the unknown and being able to mess up time and time again and to learn from those mistakes.  Just think, the 3M Company thought they were inventing a new kind of glue, but instead that mistake lead to the invention of the Post-It note.  (As a science educator, I have found that this invention is up there with the invention of the microscope!)

The best way to approach science at home is to just go for an experiment and have your kids ask the questions later.  Watch them observe how baking soda and vinegar react and ask why this reaction happens.  Why does the vinegar react with the baking soda?  Would it also react with sugar or baking powder?  Try to steer them towards questions that asks the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the science behind the experiment, rather than more succinct and concise questions.  This will lead to a richer understanding of the science being conducted on your kitchen table.

Lastly, if anything is gained through doing science at home, it is a better appreciation of the field of science and this can be accomplished by spending time together as parent and child, which we all so desperately seek in our hectic schedules nowadays.  Like I tell my students, I am not looking for you to become scientists.  Rather, I am hoping you will take the time to ask yourselves questions about how the world works and seek the answers to these questions through your own experimentation and problem-solving abilities.  You can do the same as a parent.  Just like those pigments hiding in the leaves all summer, there are so many science concepts for you and your child to reveal through time, simple experimentation, and, of course, on a kitchen table!

To try some simple experiments at home, please visit the following links:


 Shawver Selfie w cat Blk Whit- Josh Shawver, COA STEM Teacher