Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Give yourself a chance to fail

Yesterday was a bad day for me and science. First of all, I forgot to write my Monday post -- oops! Sorry about that.

Then, there was the science experiment.

My son got a kit for Christmas for growing sugar crystals. Part of this kit consists of little, sugar-seeded sticks. You suspend them in a sugar solution and then supposedly, over time, the sugar crystals "grow" on the sticks.

Well, we never got that far. The kit came with one (count it, one) package of super-special sugar that was supposed to grow super-special big crystals. It claimed to be pure sucrose, although the box itself admitted to sugar and egg in the ingredient mix.

To make a long story short, I burned the solution. Everything was going swimmingly, the sugar was dissolving in the water I was heating -- turning the solution from murky to clear -- when things began to boil and the solution went all frothy and bubbly. The bag clearly stated that if you overheated things, no crystals would grow.

Why? My husband, the kindly Itinerant Cryptographer, figures that I denatured the protein from the egg. I'm wondering if I somehow managed to bind the egg protein to the sugar. Otherwise, what difference would it make?

But the frustrating part of the experiment was that there was no going back. I was given exactly one bag of special sugar -- one chance to get it right.

I think too much of science education is presented this way. We believe that if we fail one test or struggle with one subject, we are bad at science. And science is all about embracing failure.

Think of Thomas Edison, the American inventor who held over 1,000 patents for things like the light bulb and the phonograph. Edison was not afraid of failure, and, by all accounts, didn't see it as something negative. Exactly how many times did Edison fail? The numbers may vary, but you can bet it was a lot.

"Invention is ninety-nine percent perspiration, and one percent inspiration," Edison is quoted as saying. His quirky enthusiasm and willingness to try anything is captured in this fascinating article, The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison by Kathleen McAuliffe in Atlantic Monthly. She writes of one incident in his lab:

" ... Edison and his colleagues behaved with the goofy abandon of high school kids set loose in chemistry class. Searching for a liquid with specific properties for an electrochemical device, they tried caraway oil, clove oil, oregano oil, nitrogen chromate, and peppermint oil. But as night stretched on into the wee hours of the morning, they adopted a more freewheeling approach. The next notebook entry records that they tested coffee, eggs, sugar, and milk ..."

So, maybe I should try that sugar experiment again. This time, I'll make my own sugar mix, using light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, table sugar, Easter candy ...


CricketB said...

And that is example 273 of why even Grandpa has sworn off science kits. They're guaranteed to convince kids that science is an incomprehensible form of magic, which only works for a select few. It's as bad as thinking science only exists in textbooks. The kids who already love science are doing it without the kits.

Seriously -- the kits that worked could have been made from scratch for the same cost. Well, except for the electronics kit made 30 years ago; that one was good.

Yes, it's a bit more research and prep before bringing in the kid, but it's also more realistic.

So, your challenge is ... find a good old-fashioned recipe for rock candy.

jublke said...

Well said, cricketb. I think the lure of science kits is that they are so shiny and fancy and new. It's easy to forget that all you really need to conduct science experiments is a healthy dose of curiosity. (That said, some kits can be quite fun -- especially a quality electronics kit, like you mention, or a good chemistry set.)