Turn your kitchen into a science lab

By Andrea Howick & Lianne Castelino on October 25, 2012
You want to introduce your kids to the wonders of science, so you plan a trip to your local science centre for a day of exploration. When the day comes to an end, all the fascination and inquisitiveness that the excursion sparked in your children’s minds is put on hold until the next field trip.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We are surrounded by science every day of our lives, and nowhere is that more evident than in the kitchen. Food is one of the most tangible and accessible gateways to the world of science that we can offer our children.

“Everyday stuff is not so every day, it’s really quite wonderful,” says David Sugarman, senior researcher at the Ontario Science Centre. “All cooking involves science.”

If your kids under eight are not quite ready to be sous-chefs, or if they need a little nudge to be inspired in the science lab, David suggests these simple experiments using common household items that are sure to dazzle.

Check out David Sugarman perform these experiments.

Onion tears

You’ll need:
  • 1 onion 
  • Ski or swim goggles
  • Tap water
  • Cut the onion in three pieces. (You can precut it and help your child use a regular knife.) 
  • Cut the onion in three different ways, leaving some time between each: Without goggles; cutting the onion under water without goggles; wearing the goggles.
What’s happening? Onions release compounds that irritate eyes to the point of tears. The goggles prevent the compounds from affecting the eyes, while cutting under water prevents the compounds from being released into the air and irritating the eyes.

At McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, a department devoted to demystifying science, founding member Dr. Ariel Fenster has given numerous lectures on cooking with science. This is one of his experiments.

Acid indicator

You’ll need:
  • Torn-up red cabbage leaf 
  • 1 cup hot tap water
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp ammonia, such as window cleaning solution
  • Soak the red cabbage leaf in the hot water for 30 minutes. The water will turn blue. Divide the liquid into three cups.
  • Add lemon juice to one cup. The liquid will turn pink.
  • Add window cleaner to the other cup. The liquid will turn green.
What’s happening? Lemon juice is an acid. Ammonia (in the window cleaner) is the opposite – a base. The pigments in red cabbage are sensitive to both acids and bases. This means the colouring of the cabbage adapts to outside influences. Recipes for cooked red cabbage often call for some lemon juice or vinegar to preserve the red or pink colour during cooking.

Hot air balloon

You’ll need:
  • 1 narrow-necked bottle 
  • 1 package quick-acting yeast
  • 2 tsp sugar • About 1 cup hot water (60°C)
  • A bowl larger than the bottle
  • Place the water, sugar and yeast in the bottle and swirl together. 
  • Stand the bottle in the larger bowl of hot water.
  • Stretch the un-inflated balloon over the top of the pop bottle.
  • After about 10 minutes, the balloon starts to inflate!
What’s happening? Dry yeast is in suspended animation. The sugar in the water is essentially food for the yeast. As the yeast consumes the sugar, it gives off carbon dioxide bubbles. These bubbles are infl ating the balloon...or more commonly, the bubbles are what make bread rise.

Moms Andrea and Lianne cofounded WhereParentsTalk.com and co-host Parents Talk on Rogers TV. Together they have produced several award-winning parenting DVDs and web videos.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.

By Andrea Howick & Lianne Castelino| October 25, 2012

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