In science education, a “discrepant event” is an attention-grabbing experiment or demonstration that upsets the viewer’s preconceived notions about how the world works. The more dramatic, the better! Discrepant events are a lot like magic tricks, at least in the sense that they want to make us want to get to the bottom of what we saw happen.
This impulse reaction is hugely valuable for teachers, as it prompts their students to follow through on the natural inclination to approach the world with a scientific mindset: apply background knowledge, make a hypothesis, and see if the results of the demonstration can be reproduced when different variables are changed. The best part? Plenty of students will be intrinsically motivated to do all of the above on their own if they’re shown something cool enough. Check out four of our favorite discrepant events from Education.com’s Science Fair section below.
Why does the water balloon get sucked into the bottle? Kids will apply what they know about pressure, states of matter, and condensation to make educated guesses and figure it out.
This experiment periodically makes the rounds on the internet and often gets accused of being fraudulent! It’s very real, very cool, and because it makes little visual sense when kids (and many adults!) are first confronted with it, it enriches their intuition regarding important physical principles like center of mass and torque.
When a pan is heated to extreme temperatures, water droplets released into the pan demonstrate some cool behavior. But what’s going on? And what explains the mind-boggling fact that water droplets evaporate more quickly in a pan that isn’t as hot?
This one is totally bizarre. Smoke itself isn’t flammable, right? Then something else in the air must be…
These projects require adult supervision to ensure that everything goes smoothly. But don’t jump the gun, parents! Let your kid make a hypothesis before you explain what happened in each project.
In a matter of months, the sun’s magnetic field will completely invert itself, an event that will create ripple effects throughout the entire solar system. Don’t freak out! Solar magnetic field reversals are relatively common occurrences in our cosmic neighborhood (they happen once about every 11 years or so).
Our planet’s polar regions change, too—they just do it very slowly. Then again, the earth isn’t a humongous churning ball of burning gas that’s constantly rearranging its matter, so count on your compasses continuing to point north until scientists say otherwise. Right now, however, our sun’s north pole has already switched its sign, and the south pole is racing to catch up.
Because the orientation of the sun’s magnetic field is constantly in flux, it induces a small electrical current in all matter in the solar system (that’s right—all matter in the solar system, including stuff beyond Pluto!). The inverse is also true—the flow of electricity induces its own magnetic field, giving objects with an electrical current the ability to attract and repel other magnets. See this for yourself by checking out this great science fair project where kids build their own working electric motors.
To further honor this relatively obscure (but pretty darn cool!) cosmic event, check out these sun-related science fair projects that will have kids doing everything from testing the optimal angle for solar cells to learning how to cook hot dogs with parabolic mirrors.
We at Education.com are proud to announce our partnership with Scientific American’s Bring Science Home. Every Thursday, Bring Science Home provides parents with a fun, science-related activity to do with their six- to 12-year-olds that can be completed with simple household materials in under an hour. The projects themselves are fantastic because they give parents and children the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning together, and are written in such a way that the scientific content is enlightening to people of all ages. It’s a truly fantastic feature.
Bring Science Home: No Experience Necessary
“As a kid, I often spent an afternoon after a big rain storm with my brothers tromping down to a local drainage stream to see what the water had washed in,” writes Katherine Harmon, associate editor for Scientific American and managing editor of Bring Science Home, in her introduction to the feature last spring. “And it wasn’t unusual to find sitting around the kitchen table with our hands coated in a green, oozy cornstarch-and-water mixture, wondering at its weird properties. My parents aren’t scientists or university professors, and my brothers and I didn’t think of these diversions as science. But they were—and these simple activities, along with the questions and conversations they prompted, have stuck with me into adulthood.”
Bring Science Home is built on this guiding principle: you don’t have to have any formal background in science whatsoever in order to promote science literacy in your home. Even American astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson acknowledges this in an American Scientist interview, as he recounts his two-year-old daughter spilling a glass of milk on the dining room table: “When she watched it drizzle between the leaves, and then drip down to the floor, she was performing experiments in fluid dynamics. Let ‘em play. When you do, the kids do not have to be reintroduced to ways of questioning nature, and the task of promoting science would be a trivial exercise.”
By contributing content to Bring Science Home, Education.com helps parents facilitate an environment where kids can easily follow through on their own innate inquisitiveness. The content we contribute is structured in the sense that it gives parents and kids a clear procedure to follow and accessible scientific explanations that are tied directly to what parents and kids saw happen—but it’s informal in the sense that the content isn’t designed to lecture. Instead, it encourages kids (and their parents) to ask questions think critically about what they’re exploring.
Whenever we choose an article to rewrite from Education.com’s vast library of science fair project ideas, we make sure that the article lends itself particularly well to creating these kinds of enriching experiences…but we must admit that we have a strong bias towards selecting projects that make kids and parents go “Whoa.”
Check out what we’ve contributed to Bring Science Home so far. These projects are sure to be a big hit with your little evil geniuses.
The middle school book club I teach on Saturdays just completed a piece of fantasy literature: The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. The book functions on the premise that Alice in Wonderland is real — but Lewis Carroll distorted Alice’s story while she was here on planet earth. The real Wonderland is a realm of violent warring factions who wage battle using sophisticated magic and technology. It’s a cool concept, and was definitely a nice break from the tougher stuff I tend to give my middle school class (This Boy’s Life was met almost unanimously with groans and I spent way too much time in class explaining why Toby can’t simply be dismissed as “a bad kid”).
The Looking Glass Wars was definitely a fun book, and Frank Beddor (the producer of There’s Something About Mary) basically basically wrote it as a blueprint for a Hollywood film. The book itself loaded with some befitting tropes: characterization happens really rapidly, people in the book embody the classic hero and villain archetypes, and themes like the power of imagination are delivered in a pretty in-your-face manner. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it presented me with a cool opportunity to get kids thinking about the elements of a Hollywood movie and common Hollywood character types.
But then there was this: the publisher inserted several glossy pages featuring very detailed “concept art” in the middle of the book. Upon seeing the illustrations, one of my students exclaimed, “They’re all white!”, a comment that elicited a chorus of giggles from her peers. (more…)
Early in the morning, on the grounds of Bartow high School in Bartow, Florida, Kiera Wilmot conducted a science experiment by mixing some common household chemicals in a plastic water bottle. The chemical reaction produced a small explosion that caused the top to pop off and some smoke to rise out of the bottle. Nobody was hurt, and no damage was caused to school property.
In addition to being expelled from school, Wilmot is being charged for “possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds” and “discharging a destructive device.” There’s a chance she will be tried as an adult.
There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.
As one of the “new kids” in the Education.com office, I find myself asking a lot of questions—about processes, the back end of the site, policies for freelancers, and just about everything. Like many of people in the working world, I’m chary of creating the impression that answers to these questions don’t stick when I’m provided with them. The problem is that I always tell my students that “there’s no such thing as a dumb question”—that is, unless your question is disingenuous or deliberately disruptive. I’m pretty bad at taking my own advice.