I am an arts girl. Show me some dusty historical tomes or a shelf of classic fiction and I am in heaven. English was always my favourite class, and I am never happier than when I am reading or writing. That's why it's such a shame that my school age boys are science mad.
I still remember the dread I would feel before double chemistry, the complete mystification that would descend as my physics teacher started talking about electrical circuits.
In the end I managed to fail all but one of my science GCSEs and promptly left behind that rarefied world with cries of joy.
Trouble is my total lack of scientific ability has come back to bite me as my sons continually ask me questions which I am entirely unqualified to answer.
Which planet is furthest away? What do white blood cells do? What makes a steam train's wheels move? My stock response is 'Ask daddy when he gets home', but since they have usually forgotten by then I feel as if this isn't really feeding their thirst for knowledge.
Just in case you were wondering Google tells me that the answers are: Neptune, as apparently poor old Pluto has been demoted and is no longer considered a proper planet; white blood cells are a part of our immune system and help to fight infection and, put simply, a steam train uses the energy released by burning coal to power its engine which drives the wheels.
But while science may be shrouded in a veil of mystery for me, I know it is my job as a mum to encourage all signs of enthusiasm for education, particularly as I am well aware that it is boys who tend to struggle more at school. Thus I took up a challenge laid down by the L'Oréal Young Scientist Centre , which has been set up as part of the Royal Institution of Great Britain to inspire children to enjoy science.
It sent me two experiments to try out with my sons – both had the potential to make untold amounts of mess so they couldn't wait to get started. The first involved skewering inflated balloons to make a sort of kebab – it took several noisy attempts, but they boys loved all the pops and bangs. The second is called pepper scatter and even I was amazed by the results, if not all the mucky puddles the boys managed to create in their makeshift lab (i.e. my newly cleaned kitchen).
If you fancy trying out these experiments to inspire your budding boffins then here are the instructions along with a proper scientific explanation of what is happening:
What you will need:
A wooden kebab skewer with a sharp end
Some Vaseline or vegetable oil
What to do:
1. Inflate the balloon to about 2/3 its full size.
2. Smear a thin coating of the Vaseline onto the end of the skewer.
3. Find the top part of the balloon where the rubber is not quite as taut, and start to push the sharp end of the skewer into the balloon.
4. Keep pushing the skewer until it reaches the opposite side of the balloon then repeat the pushing and twisting until you have the whole balloon on the stick.
5. The balloon might burst and it may take a few attempts but with a bit of practice and some luck you may be able to get two or three balloons on the same stick.
What is happening?
If you could see the rubber that makes up a balloon on a microscopic level, you would see many long strands or chains of molecules. These long strands of molecules are called a polymer, and the elasticity of these polymer chains causes rubber to be stretchy. Blowing up the balloon stretches these strands of polymer chains. You wisely chose to pierce the balloon at a point where the polymer molecules were stretched out the least. The long strands of molecules stretched around the skewer and kept the air inside the balloon from rushing out.
What you will need:
A large shallow tray (must be clean and well rinsed)
Black pepper in a shaker
Small measuring jug
Metal kebab skewer or handle of fork
Shampoo or washing up liquid
What to do:
1. Fill the tray with a shallow layer of tap water.
2. Next make up a 1 in 10 dilution of your shampoo, for example if you have a 5ml teaspoon measure of shampoo you need to put this in the jug and add water up to the 50ml mark. Stir gently to mix.
3. Now the water is still, scatter a layer of pepper over the surface of the water.
4. Now dip the clean handle of a fork or spoon into your diluted shampoo, this will leave a small drop on the end. Touch this to the centre of your tray and watch what happens.
What is happening?
The pepper is there simply to make the surface clearly visible, what you see is the result of the reduction in the water's surface tension when detergent is added.
Detergents are members of an amazing chemical family called surfactants (short for surface active agents). Every detergent molecule has two distinct ends which chemists call the head and the tail. The tail strongly repels water while the head is strongly attracted to it. As a result, detergent molecules prefer being on the surface of water with their water repelling tails sticking up and out into the air.
Please let us know how you got on with these.
Even better, upload your experiment photos.
More science experiments on Parentdish here.