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The Science Explorer --Family Science Experiments from the World's Favorite Hands-On Museum

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Megan Welch

The Science Explorer: Family Science Experiments from the World's Favorite Hands-On Museum, published by the Exploratorium, is for use by parents who want to help their elementary-school-aged children to explore the scientific world. The book encourages participants to "fool around" with the activities while also introducing them to the scientific method. The book is fun and easy to use: it's designed for facilitators with no scientific background, and all materials are readily available. Although created for use in the home, it could be easily adapted for afterschool use. It would be important to ensure that your program has adequate staff for larger classes, however, because many activities require adult assistance.
Full Review:
The Exploratorium's publication, The Science Explorer: Family Science Experiments from the World's Favorite Hands-On Museum, is designed to help parents who want to promote playful world exploration and discovery in their elementary-school-aged children. These hands-on activities encourage children to experiment or "fool around" with the activities, while actually receiving an introduction to the scientific method. The book is geared towards adults with little to no science experience to use with children. Science information is provided in the "What's Going On?" sections, and science terminology (terms such as: acids and bases, constructive and destructive interference, refraction, chromatography, rods and cones, electrons, protons and neutrons, frequency, and Newtonian fluids) are italicized and clearly defined.

All of the activities involve household items used in everyday life. There is something inherently entertaining about taking something familiar and creating something novel and unexpected. The content and structure promote social interaction—all activities involve at least one child and adult, and some are designed to include multiple children. Scientific explanations are provided in the form of conversations initiated by a child's question. The focus of the activities is curiosity, rather than the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Therefore, Exploratorium staff suggest that parents only share the scientific explanations if the child asks, "What is going on with this experiment?" or "Why is this happening?" The explanation section gives parents the tools to address these questions, but ensures that they function as facilitators rather than instructors, providing scientific knowledge as a supplement to exploration.

Its easily accessible materials and variety of activities are important features of this publication. There is something for everyone and every occasion: whether you have 15 minutes or 1 hour or 2, whether you're indoors or outdoors, and whether you have a small or large group. Comprehensive outlines are provided for each activity, so choosing the one that is appropriate for a particular situation is easy. There are 44 activities categorized into nine thematic units; each unit presents ideas for further exploration. In addition to science, some activities cross disciplines, integrating art and music. At the beginning of each activity, the time and materials required are clearly listed. Although all activities require adult supervision, extra caution is needed for the "Taking Apart a Camera" activity.

Hundreds of families have "tested" the Science Explorer and their suggestions have helped make it easy to use and highly accessible. The book even includes their suggestions to supplement activities. Almost all of the materials are low cost and easily obtainable at a grocery or drug store. There are suggestions for an "Instant Science Box," a collection of items to help children explore their surroundings independently, giving them a sense of ownership and easy access for exploration.

Because the book is written for families exploring science in their own homes, it will be necessary to make adjustments to make the transition into the afterschool environment. Many experiments take place in the kitchen and require water or other liquids. Other activities require adult assistance at various steps. Therefore, adequate resources and staff are needed to use these activities with larger afterschool classes. However, since the necessary resources for each activity are well-defined, easily obtained, and often minimal, the accommodations for using this material in an afterschool program seem reasonable. There is also potential for children to share their afterschool experience with their parents by trying one of the suggestions in the "What Else Can I Do?" section at home. Since each chapter opens with a section connecting projects to a museum exhibit, it serves as a good introduction to science centers or museums as an alternative environment for exploration and learning, enabling a child to connect their projects to science exhibits or possible field trips.

In keeping with this publication's theme of encouraging exploration, activities include suggestions that children alter elements of the activities to see if the outcomes change. As with the scientific process, results are not always predictable, but these activities give students the chance to observe what happens when one experiments. Due to this orientation towards experimentation each activity is repeatable and there is always something new to learn by repeating an activity, if only one aspect of it is changed. Overall, this book provides a wealth of ideas for fun exploration in the home, and with a little planning, can also be adapted for an afterschool setting.