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Spontaneous Science
A Dozen Ideas for Research and Field Trips in Everyday Life

This article, by Sue Smith-Heavenrich, was originally published in the May-June 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.



The myths about science is that it takes lots of equipment and requires special knowledge to "teach". Then there are those field trips that you have to prepare for... planned outings requiring lunch and money for admission to the museum, zoo, or whatever. Sometimes the obstacles seem insurmountable and science ends up being shoved off to the side while children explore books, do math and mess around with painting.
Fortunately, doing science doesn't have to take a lot of time, and can be inexpensive. As for field trips... well, a field trip can be anything that takes you out of the realm of book-learning and into "the field" where science is actually happening. Field trips can be as short as 15 minutes, and as close as your backyard or the neighborhood park. Some of our best field trips have been spontaneous - a result of capitalizing on some interesting observation and learning from it.
Spontaneous field trips can happen anywhere - a vacant lot, garden, lawn, mudpuddle, even the sidewalk.
Though the "field trip" itself is unplanned, the study of science can be quite focused. We've even studied alien life in our wading pool Mostly diving beetles, but... where do they come from? You don't need a Ph.D. to do field studies, but you do have to be open to new possibilities, be curious, and ask questions.
Spontaneous science usually happens when you're least prepared. With no field guides or outlines to follow, without even a pencil and paper, you are forced to depend on your skills of observation and memory. Since my memory tends to leak, we've developed a cooperative method of collecting notes. As we make observations we share them aloud. If there's something in particular we want to remember, like the coloration of a frog, we describe what we see and make one person responsible for keeping this piece of information. Later, when we get home, we can look through our field guides and compare our observations with the descriptions. Often what we learn is how much we didn't notice!
Cooperative data collecting encourages working together. It also encourages us to put our observations into words, and to refine our descriptions (kind of like editing a rough draft). Perhaps just as important are the tons of questions generated for later discussion. But best of all, spontaneous field trips are short, usually 15 minutes intervals which can fit into almost any schedule. A field trip can be squeezed into a walk home from the playground, a picnic at the park, or a trip to the garden to harvest tomatoes.
To get some ideas humming in your head, I've listed a dozen of our favorite close-to-home field experiences. I confess to a certain bias towards the six-legged beings who share this planet with us, and make no apology. After all, they outnumber us.
1. Late winter snow walk.
On warm end-of-winter days when the last of the snow is melting, we head out to see what sort of critters we might find on the snow, or under the snow, or around the snow. The texture of the snow is always different at this time of year. We sometimes find animal and bird tracks, but more often find holes where twigs and leaves have melted their way to the ground. Sometimes there are small black specks, like ground pepper shaken over the snow, near the trees. These are the "snow fleas". If it is sugaring season there may be small "sap moths" flying about (they like to get into the sap buckets). We wonder, "what do these early arrivals of spring eat?" and, "do they have antifreeze in their blood?"
2. Nightwalks.
Not just when the moon is full, either. Even on cloudy nights we take off to explore the night world. In the late winter we might notice the amount of light reflected from the clouds and snow, or watch mice scurry away from the bird feeder. On clear nights there ate stars, and in the summer bats and fireflies. Then there are the noises - sometimes we just take a quiet walk to listen to the trees and frogs.
3. "No. mom. Those aren't lichens."
As we were picnicking at a neighborhood park, the children noticed some patches on the trees. I didn't pay much attention and commented that they were probably just lichens or moss. "No, mom. Lichens don't move!" Well, I got up pretty fast to see what these mysterious patches were. They turned out to be masses of bugs (homoptera) molting from their last nymph stage into adulthood. We watched them for awhile, then went around sampling trees in the park. We wondered why there were so many, and what were they doing?
Two days later we happened to be at the park again, 80 we did a follow-up study. The bugs were still there, but this time we noticed something new. Nymphs of the spined soldier bug (a predator) had found our bugs too, and were having lunch. This time we surveyed the trees for predator populations. In a short period of time we'd discovered that the predator population was very low compared to the prey.
This all led to discussion of why "large fierce animals are rare", the role of natural predators in pest control, and the comparison of the incomplete metamorphosis of the bugs to the complete metamorphosis of butterflies and beetles.
4. Watching butterflies or bees.
This can be done just about anywhere there are weedy places, or lawns with dandelions. As we watch (and sometimes follow) our chosen creature we might notice what plants it goes to for food, and possibly for egg-laying. We have watched swallowtail butterflies lay eggs on Queen Anne's Lace, and then later in the season watched the caterpillar grow and develop.
Bees are particularly fun to follow from flower to flower, as they tend to go about their work more slowly and don't seem to be bothered by the watching. When there are a variety of "bee" flowers available, it's fun to see whether an individual bee visits just one kind, or many kinds, and how far she flies between flowers. Another time we simply sat still in our flowering asparagus patch and watched the multitude of bees that had come to collect pollen. Not only did we see details of the pollen-gathering, but we were amazed by the incredible diversity in bees we saw in just a few minute's of watching.
5. The pace of a snail.
We don't have many snails for some reason. Lots of slugs, but few snails. So when we do come across a snail it's automatically understood that we'll spend at least a few minutes getting to know the guy, and it's not too difficult to turn this time into a field trip. All you need are a few good questions like: How big is the shell? Does it like moist or dry soil? sun or shade? How fast does a snail move? We measure distance using hand-spans and count off seconds, as I usually have no watch. Questions can help focus your observations and, (on a busy day when you really think you don't have 15 minutes to waste watching a snail) can help you justify this time out from your schedule.
6. Digging holes in the dirt.
We've learned a tremendous amount just by digging in the garden (or anywhere else digging is allowed). There are lots of soil critters to become acquainted with: worms, centipedes, beetles, sow bugs. When I'm. spading the garden I try to pull out different types of plants so we can compare their root structures. The fibrous grass roots are often so tangled that we can't pull them apart, which leads to great discussion on erosion control and "grassroots organization". Sometimes we turn up fossils, ancient relics of the Devonian ages when our garden was under the sea.
7. Food preference in ants (or bird).
We began our studies with ants because we didn't even have to leave the house to conduct our research. Instead, the ants came to us, invading the kitchen each morning in search of sweet things to eat. So we decided to find out what foods they preferred. We offered a selection of food (molasses, sugar, peanut butter, bread crumbs) on a flat yogurt lid, and noted which food had the most ants. Once we determined their preferred foods, we could get down to serious research, such as: determining how long it took them to recruit other helpers once they'd discovered a food source, and how long it took to extinguish the food-collecting once the food source was gone. Outside, you can look at how far they travel from their nests to collect certain foods. You can do the same kind of food-preference studies using birds by offering three choices of seeds and watching the birds as they come to feed.
8. How far things jump.
Trying to catch pickerel frogs one day, we were astonished by how far they jump. Since then we have tried to determine the jumping distances for a variety of creatures: toads, frogs, grasshoppers, crickets, even jumping spiders. You can mark distances with twigs and measure in hand-spans if you have no tools. It is fun to compare jumping distances of different animals, but you can also compare jumping distances and animal's size within a particular species. Another interesting study is to see how jumping distance changes with consecutive jumps. For this, it's handy to have chalk and a sidewalk, so you can release your animal at a starting point and mark each hop.
9. Variation among ladybugs.
Sometimes I do have an idea for a short field trip - such as the afternoon I wanted to walk to our weedy hayfield to look at insects that feed on milkweed. Coulter, however, noticed that there were two different kinds of ladybugs. He spent the rest of the time scouting the field for ladybugs, and bringing back samples of each kind he found. Ladybugs, we discovered, come in a variety of sizes, with almost any combination of background color and spots. Over the summer we introduced ourselves to ladybug larvae (voracious predators and excellent for pest control in the garden), and in the late fall got to watch a few pupae emerge to adulthood.
10. What's under a stone?
There's an old joke that you can't go for a walk with a preschooler 'cause they'll want to turn over every stone along the way. Well, if that's the case, do it. We've discovered lot's of great things under stones: ants, salamanders, newts, centipedes, beetles, plant roots... You can compare what you find under large rocks to what you find under small rocks (is there a minimum size for salamanders?) You can compare similar sized rocks from wet and dry areas. The rocks themselves are worthy of study. How heavy are they? What minerals are in them? Be sure to replace the rocks when you are finished looking under them.
11. Anyplace wet.
Ponds, streams, indeed all wet places, hold a certain fascination for my children. Every time we go to one particular park they must be in the stream, turning over stones and exploring the river bank, hunting for frogs, turtles, buried pirate treasure. Wet places rate high on our list of spontaneous field trips, good for at least one a month. They are learning experiences that need no further justification.
12. Charlotte's Web.
Some mornings we wake up and there are spider webs all over the lawn. The webs, spun by funnel-web weavers, are covered with dew, and sparkle like gems. We can never resist looking inside them to see if there's a spider home. One day we paced off an area and counted the webs. Then we measured the whole lawn (using paces) and calculated the spider population. We then went to an unmowed area and did a quick survey there, pacing off an equal study area and counting the webs.
It's an amazing thing - once you become aware of spiders, you see them almost everywhere. Soon we were watching jumping spiders, and large yellow and black garden spiders. And then, there's always the population of cob-web weavers that live in the house. Because spiders are predators and eat garden pests as part of their diet, they are part of the "good guys", our friends. So when a neighbor kindly offered to "get rid of" a spider crawling across my kitchen floor, the children cried out, "No she belongs in the garden. She's a good spider!"
Even if you "never did well" in science during your school years, you can enjoy leading field trips. Science is part of life. Life is all around us. Plan to do some short, spontaneous field trips this spring and summer. You'll be surprised at how quickly even the simplest observations grow into "real" science.
1995 Sue Smith-Heavenrich

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