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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer is for Science!: Part 4 Chemistry

Posted by Alana T.

Back in the day, I was one of those geeky kids who took things apart and (tried to) put them back together.  I was also fascinated by chemistry and, growing up in the country, I had access to some pretty horrific chemicals.  This was also back when safety wasn't a big concern.  In retrospect, it's a wonder I survived.

If you are of a particular age, you may recall playing with a chemistry set and want to buy one for your kids or grandkids.  Let me tell you now, you will be disappointed; safety is a major concern, so none of the 'fun' stuff (explosions, electric sparks, acids) is in the modern kits.  Fear not!  The library saves the day...

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf.  This book is great for parents who want to brush up on the the basic chemistry concepts with their kids and/or save money buying a chemistry set.  The book starts with a grocery list (literally) of common items to be used in the forthcoming activities; most of these items will already be found around the house.  After creating some stock solutions, you are ready to jump into the science. Each short chapter starts with an demo, then dives into the explanation of what happened and why.  All the major chemistry concepts are covered and explained clearly.  I think the activities are a little simplistic for older kids (13+), but fantastic for the younger set.  For adults, it's an interesting read and some of the demos are really cool.

What Einstein Told His Cook (with Recipes) by Robert L. Wolke
This is a great resource for parents who like to make everything a teaching moment and for people learning to cook who have a lot of 'why does that happen?' type of questions. There aren't experiments in this book, but there is a lot of basic and intermediate chemistry info.  This is the friendliest of the cooking chemistry books (and there are quite a few).  Sprinkled throughout are recipes that highlight a particular concept. 

Perhaps the previous books don't provide that edge of your seat excitement you remember as a kid.  Two online options that are nearly guaranteed to create thrills and cause addiction are Foldit and EteRNA.  The concepts behind the programs are simple: 1) the human brain is better than any algorithm at interpreting patterns, 2) get lots of brains interpreting, 3) brains love games.  Your brain (and those of the kids) will be helping scientists solve real-world chemistry problems.  Hop over and and begin by learning rules of protein or RNA chemistry.  The interface for eteRNA is classier than FoldIt, but both are straightforward.   Foldit has a YouTube channel to provide help. These are great games for teens and adults, but young kids are pretty quick on the uptake.  Shhhh, real learning will take place.

Summer is winding down, but that doesn't mean the chemistry fun has to end.  When Halloween rolls around, have the kids sort their loot and dedicate a hefty portion to science.  Hop over to and let the fun begin.  The site is great for young kids, and a good primer for older ones.  Because many of the activities involve microwaves and sugar (which gets super hot), adult supervision is necessary.  But let the kids take the reins here, let the featured experiments be a guideline to try new ones.

If you want some great chemistry reads, hop over to my previous post "Better Living Through Chemistry".  I hope you've enjoyed this summer series, but don't let the science fun end now.  Keep at it!

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