The home lab

Science projects that can involve the family

Science projects that can involve the family

December 09, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - This fall Robbie Mann, 12, and Zane Mokhiber, 11, built rockets and endeavored to understand what scientists went through to safely land a Mars rover.

They demonstrated that science isn't just for the classroom. They did it at their homes.

The rocket work taught them about force and mass, and they constructed egg carriers to simulate the Mars landing.

The egg carrier project was done as part of the JASON Expedition: Mysteries of Earth and Mars. The JASON Expedition is available through the JASON Project, a nonprofit educational group that provides content and tools to teach middle-school science and inspire students to learn about science, math and technology throughout their lives, according to information at

Building a carrier that would protect a raw egg dropped 7 feet and land within a 20-inch-by-20-inch area shows students like Robbie and Zane how difficult it was for scientists to figure out how to safely land a Mars rover, says Pam Mann, one of the teachers for a home-schooling group in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle.


"They found out it was a lot of work," says Mann, of Great Cacapon, W.Va. "They had to make a lot of changes to their landers because of things they didn't think of the first time, minor things."

Zane, of Berkeley Springs, built a four-sided triangular carrier that bounced out of the landing zone the first two times.

"I added tripod legs and that made it so it didn't bounce when it hit the ground," Zane says.

While Zane made the egg carrier by himself, he enjoys doing science projects with family members. He and his brother, Nico, 8, built rockets in their backyard. (See instructions on page D9.)

The small rocket shot up about 5 feet, Zane says. When they made the rocket bigger, they found the added mass shortened the launch distance.

"I like science stuff. I guess because I just like all the math and chemicals and stuff. It's fun," he says.

In addition to learning about science, projects like the egg carrier are activities the entire family can do, Mann says.

While her son was making his egg carrier, Mann made her own for fun and to see if she could do it.

"Mine, unfortunately, bounced a lot," she says.

Mann and fellow instructor Tammy Ponder provided a suggested list of materials for the egg carrier, but students could use whatever they wanted, Mann says. The carrier could not weigh more than 5.3 ounces and could not measure more than 6 inches in any direction.

To test their carriers, the group went to the Morgan County Public Library in Berkeley Springs, where Mann stood on a bench out front and dropped the students' egg carriers, aiming for the cardboard landing pad.

Her son, Robbie, used a badminton birdie, duct tape, cotton balls, foam rubber and coins as counterweights, Mann says. His bounced too - but not far from the landing pad.

In addition to parents having fun by being involved, they should decide what projects are safe to do at home and help younger children when needed.

When setting off the rockets, Mann recommends parents do the final steps leading up to the launch and everyone wear goggles. Launching the rocket and dropping the egg carrier should be done outside because they can get messy.

Here are some other projects families can do at home:

Build a rocket

Use a plastic film canister, Alka-Seltzer tablet, water and paper to learn how the mass of rockets affects the force of takeoff, Mann says.

Wrap and tape construction paper around the film canister, leaving enough room uncovered by the open side of the canister, which is the bottom of the rocket, for the lid to fit on later.

Hold the rocket (canister with paper) upside-down and fill the canister a quarter of the way with water. Add half of an Alka-Seltzer tablet and quickly seal the lid on the canister and place the rocket (lid side down) on the ground, stepping away.

Experiment with bigger rockets using longer pieces of construction paper to learn how different masses affect the force of takeoff. Short or tall fins, made of paper, can be taped onto the paper wrapped around the canister.


Take a small piece of scrap paper and a pencil, and rub the point of the pencil on the paper until you have a more-than-fingertip size area of carbon on the paper. Rub your forefinger on the paper to coat it with carbon. Then press your carbon-coated finger on the sticky side of a piece of transparent tape. Tape the tape to another sheet of white paper. You should be able to identify one of the main fingerprint patterns, whorl, arch or loop. (Do an Internet search for images of these.) Have every member of the family do a fingerprint of the same finger. Does everyone have the same pattern? Are the kids' fingerprints the same as their parents' or other relatives'?

This teaches inherited characteristics, data collection, graphing and looking for relationships.

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