In which we home-school science: introducing #HomeSci, a social media experiment

Joshua channeling his inner boffin at dress-up time

From this coming Monday in the United Kingdom, all schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that many parents will be working from home and looking after their children at the same time. And not just looking after them, but having to support their education too. Other countries are or have already faced school closures.

As daunting (and sometimes frightening) as these times are, I have been heartened by how people have banded together to support one another and stay grounded, especially the online community, where we’ve seen everything from virtual choir practices to book groups chats rolling out via screen.

Yesterday on Twitter I was musing about how I might do a weekly scientific experiment with Joshua to keep him engaged with his home-school studies. My dear friend Sally Lowell suggested that we do it as a community: commence weekly experiments on Mondays, and report back on Fridays on Twitter with the results, including plenty of pictures. This would, she reasoned, mimic what happens at school, where kids work together on a project and get to see the outcomes. A number of parents expressed interest, I proposed the hashtag #HomeSci to keep track of everyone, and the idea was officially born!

For our first experiment on Monday 23 March, we decided to do something topical with micro-organisms. Paul Ko Ferrigno suggested the following [with my clarifications in brackets]:

Dissolve a stock cube and a cube of sugar-containing strawberry jelly [warning: this is the British term for Jell-o or gelatine…don’t use jam!] in hot water. Divide between 2 [paper] cupcake holders. Make as many as you want. When set, use moistened earbuds to sample around the house, wash/unwashed hands, swabbing and streaking. [Rub the moistened bud onto your surface of choice, then rub that gently onto the set gelatine as a smear. After a few days, bacterial colonies should grow. They will grow faster in a warm environment. It might help to put them into an enclosed Tupperware container that contains some wet paper towels at the bottom, to keep them moist.] Who can grow the grossest bug?

We all agreed this sounded like great fun, but I was keen to develop something a bit more hypothesis-driven. I’ve written before about how school science seems to be more about facts, figures and description than in learning how to actually ask and answer questions. So with a bit more discussion, we decided that people should choose parameters to test, whatever their child was most interested in: see what grows better if you vary the ingredients of the culture medium. Look at the effect of temperature. See which surfaces in the house are the most bug-ridden. And my personal favourite: determine whether hand-washing can affect whether microorganisms can grow – or whether 20 seconds is better than 10 seconds. Or even better: is the “five second rule” actually a thing?

We will be looking at bacteria, not viruses, but I like the idea of showing Joshua that such interventions really can affect the microbial world, as he’s been hearing so much about the right way to wash hands at school.

Do feel free to join us – the more, the merrier! Leave a comment below if you have any questions or suggestions.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Domestic bliss, Joshua, Research, Scientific method, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In which we home-school science: introducing #HomeSci, a social media experiment

  1. Zoe Adams says:

    Hey Jenny,
    Sally Lowell is an old pal, and she mentioned your plans for home school weekly experiments which I’m very excited about (just excavated some gelatin from the back of the pantry)! I’m going to get in early with my suggestion for a future science project as this one is taking place right now.
    It’s Bee Fly emergence season and every year we at the Dipterists Forum hold Bee Fly Watch They are very charismatic little critters that will easily engage the kids, plus they should be able to identify them without much support from a grown-up. The web-page provides lots of background and explains how to spot Bee Flies and log your records.
    This one does require us to go outside on a nice sunny day so those without a garden will need to talk to the kids about how to do that responsibly in the new-normal.
    If your kid enjoys gruesome facts then investigate what the immature stages of Bee Flies get up to! Otherwise stick with the fluffy adults that just go round being cute and drinking nectar from flowers.
    A suggestion for some hypothesis thinking: show the kids the Bee Fly watch 2020 map as it is now, then show them the NBN atlas map for Bombylius major; ask them to spot any differences and see if they can come up with any good explanations for why the two might be different.
    Happy recording!
    Recommended gruesome reading: What’s eating you? By Nicola Davies ISBN 978-1-4063-1354-3

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