No doubt your kids are looking forward to a chance to chill over winter break. Even though school is out, you can boost your child’s learning with these cool science projects.
Snow provides plenty of opportunities to explore science but even if you don’t have actual snowflakes around, you can still introduce your kids to their basic crystalline structure. Crystals are what make snowflakes so much more fascinating than, say, their cousins the raindrops.
Science, Sweet Science
Rock candy is science that doubles as a snack. What’s not to like? You need to plan ahead for this, though. Making rock candy is a study in patience as well as a study of crystals. It will take 7-10 days to produce a good amount of this crystalline candy, so start this project early in your school break.
How to Make Rock Candy
To make large sugar crystals, you’re going to start out with small ones. Dissolve two cups of sugar in one cup of boiling water. This solution is dangerously hot, so be sure to take the lead or supervise as needed.
Let the solution cool for five to 10 minutes and then pour it into tall, clear glass like a mason jar. Wrap a chenille stem (formerly known as a pipe cleaner) around the middle of a pencil leaving a four to six inch tail. Rest the pencil on the rim of the glass so that the stem tail hangs down into the solution. Some suggest wetting the stem and rolling it in sugar to “seed” it. A serious scientist will want to build two stems of rock candy — one with a seeded stem and one with an unseeded stem as a control, each in its own glass.
Leave the glasses out of direct sunlight and away from a vent or a door. You also want the glasses to set in a location where the temperature remains relatively constant.
Each day, spend a few minutes observing the progress and noting the amount of crystal growth. After 7-10 days, remove the pencils and stems from the jar. No worries if there’s a layer of hardened sugar on top. Just gently break it up with a spoon.
You may want to give your candy a rinse and set it on a piece of waxed paper to dry off so you can get a good look at the large sugar crystals before you eat them. Make note of which method, seeded or unseeded, created the best and largest candy.
If you want to get more serious about sweet science, the Exploratorium has detailed, but kid-friendly, information about rock candy as well as a host of other food science facts and activities.
The More You Know
While waiting for the rock candy to crystallize, send the kids outside to catch and observe the crystalline structure of real snowflakes. Dark-colored construction paper provides an ideal background for examining the white flakes. If you have a magnifying lens, be sure to use it to inspect the details. Do your young scientists think there’s truth to the maxim that no two snowflakes are alike?
Snowflakes tend to fall into one of several patterns. The folks at CalTech have a handy printable field guide to snowflakes. How many styles can your group identify? If Mother Nature isn’t cooperating, practice those classification skills at CalTech’s Snow Crystal Photo Galleries.
Make Your Own
Now that your kids have learned about the types of snowflakes, how about making a few? Here’s a simple tutorial for six-sided snowflakes. Why six-sided? Take another look at the field guide. Notice that it’s the most common shape. Sure there are some with three, or even 12, sides, but you won’t find a five or eight-sided snowflake on that sheet. That’s because they don’t exist in nature.
Just Build It
I’m a mom. I know that activities like making candy and classifying and cutting out snowflakes only takes up a small percentage of what can seem like a very long school break. Set your kids loose with a variety of simple building materials. Then unplug the computers, stash the cell phones and spend some quality time making things. Offer up daily challenges like who can build the silliest sculpture, the strongest bridge or the tallest building. Let the winners pick the next snack, TV show or movie as a reward.
Don’t stress about putting the schoolbooks aside for a few days in favor of hands-on science fun. Not only will your kids pick up on some new science concepts but their brains will also be buzzing with new family memories that last for years.