Thursday, 29 May 2014

Colourful Ooohs and Aaahs

Chemistry is one of those subjects that conjures up the image of a mad scientist playing with wonderfully coloured potions, aided by much fire, smoke, and explosions.  Well, at least that was what I had thought of the subject as a child!  In my school days (that was a very long time ago), we were not allowed to learn chemistry in school until 15 years old, and only to prepare for the O-level exam.  I waited in excited anticipation to start studying my dream subject only to drop it promptly after two lessons when my then-chemistry teacher insisted upon having us memorise the entire periodic table which she would then test us on our memorisation skills in the third lesson before we were deemed "good enough" to conduct any chemistry experiment!  That killed my interest for the subject on the spot.

Tiger's experience with chemistry has, thankfully, been very different.  We approach it in as much a hands-on way as possible.  At this stage, I seek to maintain a healthy level of interest and a sense of curiosity in Tiger rather than to require him to memorise information.  There may come a time when he needs to memorise the periodic table, but not just yet.

In the past six weeks we have been busy following the Kitchen Chemistry course offered by FutureLearn.  Lucinda has written an informative piece about their experience with the same course so I won't repeat the information but I will share some highlights of our experiments from the course.

One of the early experiments to demonstrate rising hot air called for a special kind of teabag that I couldn't find from the supermarkets but we carried on with the experiment using our normal teabag.  Alas, it didn't work.

video

Next, we explored the concepts of states of matter via physical and chemical changes.  I shall expand more upon the candle experiment (see Lucinda's post for more details on this topic) in a later post.  What I will show you is the standard bicarbonate soda reacting with vinegar video, which is a stanard 'erupting volcano' experiment that many children are familiar with.  One can't go wrong with this experiment!

video

In the third week we learnt about solubility.  The standard oil-in-water experiment was part of that week's set of experiments.


We found the experiment to separate soluble substances to be particularly interesting, no less because we got to play with the iodine solution, which has become a rare item in the UK since 2009 due to an EU 'recommendation'.


What's facinating in the above experiment is that iodine actually dissolves better in oil, as shown in the righthand-side photo.  If you look closely at the video clip below, you can see the liquids separating:

video

Tiger then became curious about the density of water versus that of oil, so he dropped a few drops of water using the pipette into the mixture and saw how the water droplets travelled through the oil-and-iodine mixture (at the top) to the water (at the bottom).

video

Chromatography is an extension of the solubility test.  We did separate experiments using felt-tip pens and food colourings, and found that we had better results with the felt-tip pens.  It may be due to the quality of the food colourings we have.  Nonetheless, the process of chromatography is always very colourful and somewhat magical.


Next, we made red cabbage indicator to test for acids and alkalis using various household items: lemon juice, washing up liquid, table salt, washing soda, toothpaste, and vinegar.


Out of all the items we tested, the most visible change in colour came from the washing soda (sodium carbonate), which is an alkali and therefore turned the red cabbage indicator from light red into a dark green colour almost immediately.

video

As we boiled a whole red cabbage, we had a large quantity of red cabbage indicator at our disposal so we continued with the acid/alkali experiment using milk of magnesia (an alkali) and vinegar (an acid) to play around with the different levels of pH.


When the indicator was added to the milk of magnesia, the solution turned green, indicating its alkalinity.

video

When vinegar was added to the solution, the solution turned pink, indicating its acidity.

video

We also used iodine to test for starch (cornflour mixture).


Using two iodine solutions (one bottle is the control), we added the starch solution to one of them.  The change in colour was immediate, indicating a presence of starch.

video

The course has given us a reason to take an interest in chemistry again so we will be spending a few more weeks exploring it.


This post is linked up to:
  1. Hip Homeschool Hop - 5/27/14
  2. The Homeschool Mother's Journal (5/24/14)
  3. Science Sunday - 10 June Science Ideas for Kids
  4. Weekly Wrap-up: The First Week of Summer Break 2014

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Simple Childhood Pleasures

I have been quiet on the blogging side lately but life has been very busy with activities.  This past week we have all been down with a horrible cold so I am using this down time to organise my records, photos and to provide some much-needed updates here. 

Before the weather (and our health) went horribly wrong, we were spending most of our time outside.  I was especially looking forward to having summery meals in the garden.

Note: the drink is for the adults, not for Tiger.

As a result of some home improvement projects, we have quite a few big cardboard boxes laying around.  Instead of putting them straight into the recycling bin, the boys made a cardboard house which kept Tiger entertained for many happy hours.  Watching Tiger use his imagination with the cardboard house (the house has been a pillbox, a manor house, an air-raid shelter, an army barrack, a nuclear bunker, and even a sulking room at different times) reminds me of the story in a pre-reading book that I had used with him when he was little.  It still amazes me how much enjoyment my son derives from playing with the simplest items.


His childhood so far has been filled with simple pleasures like this.  Can you spot him reading a book about mythology while eating a bowl of pomengranate seeds in his reading hut?


Tiger's childhood so far has been uncomplicated, perhaps even unsophisticated by some measures, but he is noticeably happy, motivated, and contented within himself most of the time so the lack of 21st century sophistication doesn't bother us.  For example, he still plays with bubbles...


and draws with chalk on the patio.


When Tiger got together with the other homeschooled children (there were about 12 of them on that day, mixed ages from 6 to 14), they had good fun playing in and out of an old pine tree.  No props, no prompts, no instructions from adults.  The children just got on with it and made up their own games spontaneously.  Later, Tiger told me that they had been in and out of a 'secret world', the entrance of which lies in a certain opening among the branches of the pine tree.  The adventures the children had inside the world of the pine branches sound no less exciting than the world of Narnia through the wardrobe!


I am still very unwell so another week has gone by without much academics being accomplished.  I hope to get up and running very soon because feeling woozy all day is not fun.

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Self-Determined Education: Who's Teaching?

Besides reading from books and watching documentaries at home for his military history study, Tiger and I have been out and about a fair bit, looking for a more hands-on experience, if that's possible.  We came across The Muckleburgh Military Collection one day, and decided to go in and take a look.


It is certainly one of those places that, had it not been for Tiger's massive interest in this subject, I would never have stepped into.  For a private collection, the number, range and types of military vehicles in it are very impressive.


The many historical artefacts are exceptionally wide-ranging and extensive.

The Anderson Shelter and signbaords from WW2.

Different countries' gas masks in WW2 and a photograph of nurses and babies in gas masks.

I saw many artefacts that I have not seen anywhere else.


For example:
  1. Post WW1 souviner from Belgium and France.
  2. Knives used by the Hitler Youth and the SS.
  3. WW1 flare guns and pistols.
  4. Modern guns.

The collection doesn't look very big from outside, so we were thoroughly surprised to find the exhibition halls packed with actual military weaponry and vehicles.


Even though the exhibits were displayed by category rather than by time period, the sign boards were very clearly written so I learnt a lot just by reading through each board, while Tiger raced ahead because he already knew all about the different artillery...

A 13-Pounder Field Gun, a mainstay of WW1.

Argentinian 155MM Field Gun, used in the Falkland War.

Then, in another gallery we were wowed by the number of artillery vehicles and tanks there.  For the life of me, I can't remember any of the names of those vehicles so I won't risk looking silly by giving them wrong labels, but there are many, many tanks!


Every now and then, I tried to test Tiger's knowledge by asking him what type of tank a certain one is, and which war it was used in (not that I knew the answers but I had the signboards for help).  What amazes me is that not only can Tiger correctly identify each tank, he can also tell me accurately their individual specifications such as:
  • the type of ammunition it used;
  • which war(s) it was used in;
  • the firing range and firing power;
  • which country designed or built it;
  • which country used it;
  • what its strengths and limitations were.



Here is an example of what Tiger told me:
  1. Photo 1: AMX 13 Light Tank.  Post WW2, French-made, can take different types of guns but mostly uses the 75mm, very popular in Africa.
  2. Photo 2: A41 Centurion.  Used at the end of WW2, powered by Rolls Royce engine, best tank at that time but slow at about 20mph and range of about 100 miles, British made, later also used in the Korean war, Vietnam war, and Yom Kippur war.
  3. Photo 3: Chieftain Tank.  British made, to replace the Centurion, used in the Iran-Iraq war, best in the world until the Leopard tank were used by the Germans in the 1980s.
  4. Photo 4: Panzer.  Swiss made but British-designed guns, used mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, secondary armament either a 20mm cannon or a 7.5mm machine gun.



To be honest, that freaked me out a little.  Nobody has asked Tiger to memorise anything.  Evidently, he has somehow remembered these facts from his volumninous reading of this topic and by paying attention to details such as the length of the guns that are mounted on each tank, the paint work that differentiated the tanks, the track designs, etc, whereas to me, every tank looked the same... (the difference between a Russian T-55 and a Patton tank, anyone?)

"The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners."

I was further educated about the differences between a tank and an armoured vehicle...


Although we couldn't get into any of the vehicles, we did have a good nose around the interior whenever they were made available for looking into.


I have to admit that 90% of the time I really didn't know what I was looking at.  I have no idea what the buttons, controls, or gears are for, and Tiger had to explain to me what each does as we walked around the collection.


As if the collection so far wasn't impressive enough, there was even an anti-aircraft gallery!


At this point, I was starting to feel totally saturated by military weaponry but Tiger was absolutely in his element as he happily went around as my tour guide (we were there on a weekday so had the entire collection all to ourselves) and explaining what each machine does, almost as though he has been living in the collection all his life!

Anti-aircraft Search Light, used in WW2 during the blitz.

Rapier Missile, used by the British forces in 1970s, could reach 6800 metres.

I only intended for us to spend two hours at the Collection, but we spent an entire day there.  It is a treasure cave for Tiger, both inside the buildings and outside.  We were able to get really up close to the few displays outdoors.


  1. Photo 1: a 12-Pounder Naval Gun used on merchant ships in WW2.
  2. Photo 2: a German V-1 Flying Bomb used in WW2, with a pulse jet engine.
  3. Photos 3 and 4: checking out the Harrier jet that can go 735mph.

I often wonder whether our path might be "easier" if Tiger's passion were in something more conventional like science, maths, art or music, in the sense that:
  • I know how to guide him in those areas whereas I'm totally out of my league and comfort zone with military history;
  • I won't get so much stick from the PC crowd for allegedly encouraging and glorifying warfare; instead, I might even get lucky and be honoured for producing the next science/maths/art/music prodigy!
That doesn't seem to be the way for us, at least for the foreeseable future.

“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret.” 

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