March 07, 2019
(++++) HOMESPUN DISCOVERIES
Maker Genius: Creative Science Projects for Budding Geniuses. Scholastic. $19.99.
It starts with a book cover that is really a box, within which are circuits that are activated by pressing buttons on the book’s cover (after flipping a switch inside to produce the necessary battery power). The buttons are drawn to look as if they connect to four bananas – that is, it looks as if pressing them somehow activates a banana circuit. What actually happens is that pressing each button produces musical tones, so the front of Maker Genius can be used to play a tune. But it is not quite that straightforward, since each button produces multiple tones: each time a button is pressed, the tone changes. Figuring out just what tones each button delivers, and in what order, is necessary in order to take full advantage of the banana-music maker, which is definitely not as simple as it looks.
In much the same way, Maker Genius only seems to be a fairly undemanding romp through 70 or so science projects suitable for doing in the kitchen and other rooms at home, or in areas just outside it. The book has four sections: “Actions and Reactions,” “Garden Science,” “Science Rules,” and “Super-Charged Science.” The idea here is that “you’ll be surprised how many science experiments you can do with some really basic stuff that you probably already have at home.” The “stuff” includes eggs, water, diet cola, food coloring, lemons, salt, baking soda, marbles, dish soap, scissors, rubber bands, pencils, nails, and yes, even bananas. And much more. Each experiment starts with a “what you need” section describing the required materials and explaining how long it will take to go through the steps – from minutes to days.
The especially neat thing in Maker Genius is the balance between instruction and fun. The book assumes young readers will want to watch things blow up (under suitably safe circumstances), will enjoy getting slimed, and will even like to use science to play jokes on friends. For example, “The Amazing Bottle Trick” involves partially filling a plastic bottle with water, then poking holes near the bottom with a thumbtack. “Now all you have to do is get someone to either pick up the bottle or unscrew the lid. Shower time!” That is a pretty mild practical joke (assuming the victim is not wearing good clothing). But what is important is “the Science Stuff” (a regular feature of the book) underlying the effect: “When you lift the bottle to pour, air rushes in[,] letting the water fall out. …Squeezing the bottle forces the water out. [Or] when you release the cap, the air rushes in, pushing the water out of the holes.”
All the experiments here can be done without paying much attention to “the Science Stuff,” but the way most of the projects work is intriguing enough so that young readers will likely become curious about why and how things happen. That is the whole point of the book: doing science while finding out not only what can be done but also how and why experiments work. “The Amazing Bottle Trick” takes only 15 minutes, but other projects take much longer. “Germination Jar,” for example, requires two to three days. It requires a sheet of paper towel, a clean jar, a bean seed (“runner beans or broad beans work well”) and water – nothing else. The excellent photographic illustrations (another feature of the whole book) show how to cause a bean to germinate without getting moldy, what you will see when the first part grows (it “is called a radicle and it always grows downward”), and what stages will occur until it is time to give the growing plant a chance to live outdoors. This experiment and many others offer a section called “Now HACK IT!!” That involves expanding the basic experiment – for instance, by planting avocado or apple seeds instead of beans. Or, in a 30-minute “Invisible Ink” experiment showing how to use lemon juice to write secret messages, there are suggestions to try milk or vinegar instead, or to write with a paste made of baking soda and water, then rub the message with grape juice to produce a color change in the paper.
There are only 128 pages in Maker Genius, but there are weeks, even months of experiments here for kids intrigued or motivated enough to try them all. There is, however, no reason whatsoever to go through the book sequentially or to do everything in it. There are, for instance, multiple pages on “how cabbage juice can magically turn liquids into rainbows of color” (well, this is science, not magic, but you get the idea); but it is just fine if some readers want to skip the creation of indicator paper that tests pH levels and go on to soak a white T-shirt in a red-cabbage preparation and then use an eye dropper to make patterns on the shirt. And if the elaborate five-hour “Fizzy Wiggly Volcano” project just seems too drawn-out, kids can just turn the page and find out how to use white vinegar and salt to cause dull-looking pennies to shine almost immediately.
There is a great deal of emphasis being placed in schools today on the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and most of the material is handled with great seriousness, even portentousness. From an adult perspective, a societal perspective, that is understandable. But from the viewpoint of the young people who will grow up to be tomorrow’s scientists, it would help if these super-important subjects could be a little more, well, fun. Experimental laboratory work in real-life settings involves a lot of drudgery, a lot of failures, a lot of time-consuming note-taking, and a lot of intense attention to detail. But science for young people need not be like that: it can be, and ideally should be, enjoyable as well as informative, providing a frisson of pleasure that hopefully will grow into full-fledged dedication in the future. Maker Genius provides just enough thrills to engage and delight readers as young as age eight – and just enough scientific knowledge to encourage at least some young people to explore scientific experimentation in greater depth over time.