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Make Circuits and Switches

Experiment with simple circuits and create
your own switches using everyday materials.

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You will need:

  • A string of mini light bulbs
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Thin cardboard
  • Paperclips
  • Brass fastners
  • Aluminum foil
  • Batteries (AA)

Safety note for parents: Please cut the plug off the string of lights and discard the plug.

To experiment with homemade circuits, first prep some basic components including light bulbs, wires and switches. From the string of lights, cut out individual light bulbs, leaving as much as possible of the plastic coated wires attached to each bulb. Using scissors or a wire stripper, carefully strip about a half inch of the plastic coating off the ends of the coated wires leaving the metal wires exposed at the ends.

To make additional “wires,” simply fold strips of the desired length of aluminum foil into thin lines. Then experiment with circuits using tape (as needed) to attach foil strips to batteries, switches and light bulbs. Remove the batteries when not in use since they can get warm when left on too long.

To add a switch to turn your circuit on and off, experiment with variations that involve moveable parts of metal contacting metal to complete the circuit and act as a switch. Paperclips, brass fasteners and pieces of foil all work well.

  • What types of touch switches can you devise that use your hands or feet?
  • Can you find a way to incorporate a penny or a steel ball into a switch?

Stores like Radio Shack® carry small motors and buzzers or alligator clips and battery holders for additional materials for circuit building.

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Make your own Straw Oboe

A drinking straw can become a wind
instrument with just a couple of snips!

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You will need:

  • Scissors
  • Plastic drinking straws
  • Tape

Flatten about 1" of one end of the straw with your teeth or another tool. Then trim the flattened end into a triangular shape. This makes a reed, a strip of material that can vibrate and produce sounds. To play your oboe, put the trimmed end in your mouth, past your lips and teeth so the end can vibrate freely, and blow forcibly.

Note: the two points of the trimmed end should be close together but not touching,
so air can pass through the opening. It won't work if you bite down.

  • What kind of sounds do your get when you blow into the straw?
  • What happens to the pitch if you cut the straw shorter and shorter while blowing continuously?
  • What happens to the pitch if you lengthen your oboe by adding one or more straws on the uncut end, either by taping the ends together or squishing one end into another? 

You can also cut little holes on one side of the straw at regular intervals. This lets you modulate the pitch by controlling how far the air travels before it exits.

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An Opposable Thumbs Experiment

How useful are our opposable thumbs? Let's test it out!

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You will need:

  • A partner
  • Tape (masking or clear)
  • Paper, pencil, and paper clips
  • Clothes or shoes with zippers, buttons, laces or other fasteneing devices.
  • A watch or clock with a second hand, stopwatch, or timer app on your phone that can track seconds.

Have your partner tape your thumbs to the sides or palms of your hands so that you cannot use your thumbs at all. Now let’s see how handy you are!

What do you notice when you experiment with trying to:

  • Write your name on paper
  • Fasten papers together with a paper clip
  • Fasten or unfasten clothing or shoes

What is the time difference between accomplishing those tasks with and without your thumbs? Can you adapt and change your technique to improve your outcomes? What other tasks might require your opposable thumbs?

Opposable thumbs, ones that can move around and touch each of the other digits on that hand, have been very useful to humans and to the handful of animal species that also have them, like chimpanzees and gorillas. These more flexible digits have played a key role in human evolution and adaptation, allowing for increased manual dexterity, the development of finer motor skills, and an easier time manipulating tools. Some animal species like opossums even have opposable toes! 

  

 

Colors on the Run

What colors are hiding in a brown M&M® or in a black marker?
The answer may surprise you!

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You will need:

  • M&M's®, or Skittles® or similar candy
  • Water-soluble markers
  • White coffee filters (best) or white paper towels
  • Water
  • A cup
  • Scissors
  • A few clothespins (optional)

Cut the coffee filters or the paper towels into strips of about 1 inch wide and 4-5 inches long.

Candy test: Transfer as much as possible of the food dye from the coating of a piece of candy onto a strip by slightly wetting the candy with water, and gently rubbing it on the strip about half an inch away from the bottom.
Marker test: Instead of rubing candy, in the same spot on the filter strip, make a dense, round spot of marker ink about 1/4" in diameter.

Fill your cup with about half an inch of water, and place the strip so that the bottom end touches the water but the colored spot remains above the water line. The strip will usually stay put, but pinning it to the cup with a clothespin helps.

In candy and marker chromatography, the water moves up the strip and carries with it the water-soluable dyes. Since the molecules in the dyes have different sizes and properties, they move at different speeds up the strip and separate out over time.

Things to explore:

  • What do you notice happening to the colored spot in a span of a few minutes?
  • Do different candy types or marker colors produce different color separation patterns?

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Soap Films

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You will need:

  • Pipe cleaners (chenille sticks)
  • Dish soap ( Dawn or Joy works best)
  • Plastic tub deep enough to submerge your wands
  • Water

While free floating bubbles are spherical, soap films can take on many different shapes. It all depends on the wand.

To make your soap solution experiment with the type or concentration of the soap.
A typical mixture uses a dilution of about two tablespoons of soap per cup of water.

For the wands, experiment with pipe cleaners to create a variety of shapes. To help form shapes, you can bend the pipe cleaners around small tubes or boxes. Twist or braid a few pipe cleaners together to increase their strength when you dip them in the soap solution.

  • Does the shape of the wand make a difference in the shape of the bubble formed?
  • What do you notice about the colors and the patterns of the soap film on the wands?
  • Do they change over time?

You can also experiment with bending the pipe cleaners into three-dimensional shapes.

  • How many different shapes can you make?
  • What do you notice about about the shape of the wand?
  • Do the films rearrange into a new shape if you pop some of the sides?

Pipe cleaners make good bubbles because they hold a lot of liquid, but they drip a lot! You can try other materials for your bubble wands such as plastic or metal wires, canned beverage six-pack rings, yogurt lids cut into spirals and more! Explore this website for more ideas on geometrical wands.

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