'Having a ball' as a science lesson

Children learn to concoct, and conduct experiments with, polymer spheres that bounce

November 02, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Scientists from the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center have found that the simplest experiments can easily engage a child's curiosity and just might spark an interest in chemistry, physics or biology.

They take their lab to schools and libraries to give children hands-on experiences. A demonstration at the Bel Air Library last week involved the creation of polymer balls.

Place one tablespoon each of liquid vinyl and rubbing alcohol in a cup and stir rigorously with a wooden spoon for at least five minutes. It may smell a little, but be persistent. Or see what comes from mixing glue, cornstarch and borax.

A bit more patience is required, but hold a plastic container filled with sand and glass under warm water for several minutes. "You hold it under water and it will start to get gooey," said Luke Auer, 8. "Then, you let it dry and it'll be a bouncy ball."

As Luke and about 40 young children soon discovered, all three experiments eventually resulted in a ball that bounces. They were "having a ball with chemistry," the National Chemistry Week theme.

Volunteers from the Edgewood center see firsthand how their impromptu sessions are generating interest in science. "Chemistry can be fun," said Alissa Roberts, 9. "If I had these materials, I probably could do this again at home."

The experimenting took place at Abingdon and Bel Air libraries last week and comes to the Edgewood branch at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

"The idea is to show kids how chemistry is part of their everyday lives by focusing on things that kids are really into," said Suzanne Procell, program coordinator for Kids & Chemistry at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "This year we are talking about all the different materials designed for sports."

The children easily pointed out the differences in sports balls she showed them. At 5, Khiyali Pillalamarri showed off her knowledge of shapes, noting "the soccer ball has hexagons and the baseball has lines."

Ben Fox, 8, knew that if the baseball was like the one professional teams use, there would be another red rubber ball inside it. And Kelly Lipscomb, 8, correctly figured a baseball hit with a bat would travel farther than any soccer ball she might kick.

Procell and several volunteers walked the children through several workstations where they created polymer balls. Then the children tested their creations, measuring for bounce, durability and distance.

"You will become materials chemists who make balls out of chemical reactions," Procell told the children. "Then we will test the balls to see if temperature or weight change their properties. You can try them on our obstacle course."

Twin 6-year-old sisters Taylor and Ashley Hurte measured the height of bounces each time a ball was soaked in heated, chilled or plain tap water.

"They both love science and experimenting," said their mother, Tela Hurte. "This is really something fun we can do together."

The final test involved bouncing the newly formed balls on a tough obstacle course. The budding scientists quickly realized they had to drop the ball through a cylinder with enough force to hit three cups in a row.

"With a little luck, you can hit all three," said Barry Williams, chemist and volunteer obstacle course builder. "If not, you might change the ball's property a little."

George Alatzas, 10, hit a "hole in three" on his first try and offered advice to other experimenters.

"You gotta make the ball bounce but keep it heavy enough to stay on the course," he said.

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