Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 8, 2014.
Before the holidays started, my seven-year-old participated in his first science fair. It was a science fair for homeschoolers, and it was hosted by the Sandy Creek Nature Center. I had suggested to the good people at the center that we would like the opportunity to learn how to participate in science fairs, and since they are such good people, they created one. They arranged to have it coincide with their annual Rock and Gem Show in November, and they invited families to do a project together.
My son loves science, so my purpose in suggesting the science fair was to teach him about science fairs and show him that he could participate in them. I also wanted him to learn the most rudimentary lesson in science: the scientific method.
This is the method that all good scientists use: 1) Ask a question, 2) Do background research, 3) Construct a hypothesis, 4) Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment, 5) Analyze data and draw a conclusion, and finally, 5) Report your results – was your hypothesis correct?
I also wanted my son to have fun and as much control over his project as possible, but as it turned out, his original ideas were either too simple, we didn’t have the equipment, or it was too destructive, such as, “What happens to paint when we microwave it?” Hmmmm…
So we turned to Google. I looked up first grade science fair project ideas, and we found a list of ideas. Slowly, I began to read all the headings. When I came to “How Are Sedimentary Layers Formed?” my son asked me to read that one. He liked it. We read some other ideas, but then he picked the one about Sedimentary Layers.
For the experiment, we gathered various kinds of soil and sediment from different locations. We carried some zip lock bags and a trowel to Harris Shoals Park, and we took two scoops from the edge of the river and two scoops from the bottom of the river. We labeled our bags. We also collected three other bags with red clay from our yard, topsoil from our garden, and also sand.
Back at home, we found a jar with a lid, and my son put two big spoonfuls from each bag into the jar. Then we filled up the jar with water, secured the top, and my son shook it well. His question was, “Will these different kinds of sediment separate into layers after being mixed up in the water?”
When I asked him what he thought would happen, my son said he knew the dirt would settle on the bottom of the jar, but he didn’t know if it would make layers. Then he said he thought it would take one hour for the sediment to sink to the bottom and possibly make layers. I wrote that down as his hypothesis.
We watched the jar for an hour, and I helped him document the results by writing down what he told me he observed, and I took photographs of the jar. As expected, most of heavy sediment settled to the bottom quickly, but we were happy to see a thin layer of fine dirt form at the top. My son noted how the wood chips from the garden topsoil floated at the top. We put the jar in a place where it wouldn’t be disturbed, and we were surprised that after a week, the jar was still cloudy with sediment suspended in the water. After four weeks, the water was much clearer, but some of the particles from the top were still falling. We could definitely see two distinct layers at the bottom of the jar.
After this, we had fun making a big project board. I typed up my son’s observations and printed out the photos. My son was very specific about how he wanted to arrange the items on the board, and he helped write the title at the top.
The day of the Rock and Gem show was very special. Since the science fair wasn’t well publicized, we were the only participants, but that meant his board was displayed in the hallway, and visitors entering the show could see it. He got some special treatment, and he had a blast at the rock show. My son told me he wants to participate in the next Science Fair, and since he now understands what a science fair is all about, I think the next one might be even better!
If you’d like to see the photos of the jar at different intervals of time, click here to see that gallery. Below are the best, though.