Friday, June 6, 2008

That's Hot: The Solar Science Lab

Remember when you were a kid and you would use a magnifying glass to torture poor helpless ants? Well, me neither, but I've seen it done on TV and always wondered if it was actually possible. I thought about that when I was asked by the Parent Bloggers Network to review the Solar Science Lab. I don't know much about science but I do know the sun makes stuff hot and then I pictured my driveway littered with dead ants.

The first thing that came to mind when I opened the Solar Science Lab was how much it reminded me of toys I had when I was a kid. The kit is very low-tech, with several of the components made out of cardboard and requiring some simple construction. But this is what I actually liked most about it - the fact that it was a toy that was a throwback to things I had when I was growing up, that were simple and required some hands-on participation. We wouldn't just be inserting batteries, flipping a switch and then watching the thing perform for us while we sipped our Frappucinos and watched Nickelodeon on the side.

The purpose of the Solar Science Lab is to teach kids about the sun and how you can harness its power to do everything from warming a glass of water to making a motor run. It comes with a book that has around 30 experiments you can perform using a variety of items they provide and some you provide yourself. Some of the things that come with the kit include a small electric motor, a test tube (mine was missing), a thermometer, a parabolic reflector and incidentals like paper fasteners and rubber bands. It also came with a magnifying glass although instructions for frying ants were nowhere to be found.

I told my two daughters (ages 10 and 12) to pick out two experiments they would like to perform for the purpose of this review. They immediately were drawn to the first one that is listed on the box: Frying an egg with the sun's heat. This made me think of something else I had seen on TV and wondered about - can you really fry an egg on the sidewalk? Turns out the experiment used the sun and the test tube to just fry a small teaspoon of the egg white which dashed my hopes of an eggs benedict lunch, but we were intrigued enough to try it anyways.

(Note: The instruction manual suggests you complete the experiments in the order they are presented, since each activity builds on what you learn on the previous one. However, because we are renegades we decided to ignore this and choose activities at random and out of sequence. Some of the experiments presented early in the manual are simpler in nature and involve things like measuring the temperature of a bowl of water at different times and observing your reflection in a mirror bent at different angles. These might only hold the attention of younger kids or the very curious science student.)

The egg-frying experiment required us to first assemble cardboard stands for the reflector and the test tube. These were very simple and things my girls could easily do on their own, and probably by children much younger. (Nice to have tasks the kids can do by themselves.) My test tube was missing from my kit, but luckily I found a suitable vessel that we could place in the stand to hold the egg white. For the first time I appreciated that bizarre flower holder I received as a party favor at a wedding shower.

Next we went outside and set up our elements - this proved to be the tricky part, as you had to position the reflector and the test tube so that the egg white in the tube was at the focal point of the sun's rays bouncing off of the reflector. This took a little while to do, but when we finally got it in place we were surprised to see that the egg did in fact start to harden. It never cooked completely, but I could see where it could on a warmer day. I could also see how you might be able to cook an ant. As you can see I can't quite let this one go.

The next experiment involved using the small electric motor and a light bulb to power a propeller. Again, this required some simple assemblage which my girls were able to do easily by themselves. Next we plugged the solar cell into the motor and attached the small plastic propeller to the front of the motor. The idea is that electricity from the light bulb would power the solar cell which would in turn make the motor turn the propeller.

This experiment didn't prove to be as fruitful as we could never get the motor to run. I'm not sure whether the connection between the solar cell and the motor was faulty, or whether the motor itself wasn't working. We tried using the sun as the power source as they suggest in the previous activity, but had the same results. This was a little disappointing as the girls had already cooked up (no pun intended) an experiment where they were going to use the contraption as an economical and earth-friendly way to dry their nails after a manicure.

While we had mixed outcomes with our experiments I would still recommend the Solar Science Lab as a tool for teaching kids some basic ideas about the sun and its power. However, its $24.95 price tag seems a little steep for this modest toy, and I might be more inclined to purchase it as part of a comprehensive science kit, one that had other activities and experiments not just dealing with solar power, but maybe with recycling, conservation and pollutant reduction. I could see this being very useful as tool to teach my kids ways to responsibly utilize our earth's resources. And don't worry - that wouldn't include a lesson on frying ants.

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Asianmommy said...

Cool! It's great to introduce kids to science at home.

Rachel said...

I wish they had this stuff when I was a kid...

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