How to Encourage Failure With a Cheap At-Home Science Lab
You thought it would be a parenting moment worthy of Instagram Stories. But after you and your kids bought all the ingredients and mixed them together ... nothing.
You didn't do anything wrong. You're just not done with your experiment yet.
One of the problems of Pinnable science project "recipes" is that parents and kids have all forgotten that experiments take time and careful repetition. Although there's no formal record
of how many attempts Edison needed to perfect a commercially-viable light bulb, there are plenty of false quotes attributed to him, nearly all of which emphasize the following: every new attempt of an experiment shouldn't be viewed as a failure, but as one step in the long process of discovery.
Your kids don't have to have their own Menlo Park to practice in. You can help set up their first scientific failures with just one trip to your preferred big box store. A well-stocked workbench will give you sufficiently large amounts of supplies so that you can test variants of each activity – what explodes, what flops, and what truly surprises you.
Equipping your lab
All conscientious scientists need a clean and organized workspace, so you'll want to stock up on paper towels and bleach wipes. If you prefer an easier post-experiment clean-up, you may also want to buy disposable plastic cups and plates to use as your lab's "glassware."
The baking aisle offers lots of cheap ingredients for experiments, including the classic baking soda and vinegar. But there's plenty to find in the produce, cleaning, and pharmacy sections, too. Scroll to the bottom for a good starter list.
Many science projects are masquerading as "experiments": they tell you how much of each ingredient to use and then walk you through how to use them. But to have a true experiment, you need variables. That's why you'll only find rough proportions below. It's your job to experiment and find which amount works best.
1 | Sandwich bombs
- baking soda
- white vinegar
- plastic snack bag
- plastic sandwich bag
Forget volcanos. These sandwich bombs will give your kids a little more agency in designing and testing their own experiments. Pour baking soda into the sandwich bag and leave open. Pour vinegar into the snack bag and seal to close. Place the sealed snack bag inside the sandwich bag and close the sandwich bag. Then hit the snack bag to pop it open. As the baking soda and vinegar mix, the sandwich bag will begin to expand.
Change the amount of baking soda and/or vinegar to develop your best sandwich bomb recipe. You can also experiment with the size of the bags, using gallon and sandwich bags to make bigger sandwich bombs.
2 | Elephant toothpaste
- an empty plastic bottle
- hydrogen peroxide
- liquid dish soap
- a small paper cup
- warm water
In the empty plastic bottle, mix the hydrogen peroxide and liquid dish soap. In the small paper cup, mix the warm water and yeast. The next part is a bit easier to do if you have a funnel, but if not you can always pinch your small paper cup to form a spout. Add the yeast solution to the plastic bottle and stand back!
Change the amount of yeast, soap, and hydrogen peroxide to see what combination will give you the foamiest results. The hydrogen peroxide you can buy at big box stores is likely to be 3 percent, but if you stop at a beauty store you may be able to find 6 percent. Check out Science Bob to see what happens if you get the lab-quality stuff
3 | Expanding soap
- bars of soap
- paper or plastic plates
This is the simplest experiment on the list. Unwrap a bar of soap, put it on a plate, put the plate in the microwave, turn on the microwave, and see what happens!
Although the experiment is simple, it offers a valuable lesson about trusting what you read on the internet. If you google around for this one, you'll see that Ivory soap is the only acceptable bar for this experiment. A budding young scientist might buy every other brand and publish a thorough review debunking those claims.
4 | Bouncy egg
This experiment is a great lesson in patience, because it takes seconds to set up but days to complete. Add the egg to a mason jar and pour in enough vinegar to cover it. Seal the jar and leave it on the counter. Check in every day to see what happens. After a few days, you'll note that the egg has increased in size and "lost" its shell (which has been dissolved by the vinegar).
Make multiple eggs and leave some to sit longer than others. Which bouncy eggs are the hardest to explode? Also add food colorings to the vinegar to change the color of the bouncy eggs. If you're buying eggs in bulk-store volume, consider hard boiling some and doing this egg-in-a-bottle experiment
. Unlike the bouncy eggs, these will still be safe to eat ... if you can get them out of the bottle.
5 | Crystals
- pipe cleaner
- mason jar
- boiling water
Kitchen-grown crystals are all over Pinterest, and for good reason: they're awesome. But they're also a frequent subject of science fails, because they require even more patience than vinegar eggs. Use your pipe cleaners to create a nest shape. Tie one end of the string around your pipe cleaner nest and the other end around a chopstick. Pour boiling hot water into a heat-safe container. Mix in borax until you can't dissolve any more without leftover borax sitting at the bottom of the container. Place the chopstick over the container and leave to sit for a while. Some crystals may grow overnight. Others may take over a week. And sometimes no crystals will grow, because your solution isn't saturated enough.
Many crystal recipes make it seem as though you need a particular ingredient, but all you need is any household product with a crystalline structure. Your science lab is equipped with crystals already. Many salts (epsom salts, plain old table salt, baking soda, even driveway salt) all have crystalline structures, as does sugar. Experiment by dissolving different salts and sugars in water and trying to grow crystals. Just make sure they're carefully labeled so you know which ones you can eat (rock candy!). You can also experiment with what to grow the crystals on. Different materials (a hair tie, a piece of yarn, a metal washer, eggshells) will grow crystals at different rates.
6 | Lava lamp
- bottle or vase
The best reason to equip your workbench using a big box membership is that you'll need large quantities of oil. For this experiment, get a empty bottle or vase and fill it three-quarters of the way full with whatever oil you've bought in bulk. Top off the bottle with water. Add Alka-Seltzer and see your lava lamp in action.
Play around with the proportions of oil, water, and Alka-Seltzer to see which yields the most mesmerizing lava lamp. If you're not sure what else to do with all that bulk oil, check out these citrus candles
7 | Invisible Ink
- baking soda
- paint brush or cotton swab
- grape juice
Mix baking soda and water. Use a paintbrush or cotton-swab to write a message and allow to dry. Paint the paper with the grape juice to reveal the message.
Try painting your invisible message with lemon juice instead of baking soda and see how the grape juice interacts with it. Why is the lemon juice message a different color from the baking soda message? To answer that, check out one last experiment.
8 | pH Tester
- all of your science lab supplies
- purple cabbage
If you can find a purple cabbage at your favorite big box store, you're in luck! The cabbage can work as a pH tester. Mix a few cabbage leaves and water in a blender. Strain out the cabbage pulp so that you have a purple liquid. Pour the liquid into small clear cups. Try adding lemon juice to one cup and baking soda to another. Then test the various supplies
in your home science lab to see what happens.
The following list will allow you to complete all of the above experiments:
- Purple cabbage
- White vinegar
- Canola oil
- Active dry yeast
- Baking soda
- Grape juice
- Liquid dish soap
- Sealable plastic bags
- snack size sealable plastic bags
- sandwich size paper cups
- bathroom size plastic drinking cups
- Plastic plates
- Bars of soap
- Hydrogen peroxide
Food coloring is often added to experiments to make it easier to see. Some big box stores don't sell food coloring, but don't let that stop you! Many sell products that can act as stains, such as onions, saffron, turmeric, as well as berries and juices that you can use to create your own dyes.