Grow a Crop of Young Scientists This Summer

Updated June 24, 2013

Summer is the ideal time to grow juicy, ripe tomatoes, but it’s also the perfect season for a different kind of crop — a bountiful yield of young scientists eager to learn about everything from crocodiles to chemistry. With the great outdoors (and indoors) as a laboratory, science can be hands-on fun beyond the boundaries of lectures and dull experiments.

Without ever setting foot in a classroom, children can learn about chemistry, physics, biology, ecology, meteorology, geology and more. A few minutes mixing common substances in the kitchen can result in anything from quicksand-like goop to invisible ink. And a short trip to nearby parks and museums can lead to adventures such as a fossil expedition, nature hikes or a close encounter with an alligator.

On a recent day at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, wide-eyed children touched a baby alligator and learned from Sunny Allen, the exhibit hall programmer, that they have stripes for camouflage.

Katey Ahmann, coordinator of exhibit hall programs, remembers the first time she touched an alligator. “When I see the kids in the program and see their faces when they touch an alligator for the first time, I can relate because it was really cool,” she adds. The museum has a rotation of 30 Meet the Animals programs and includes story time once each day related to the topic.

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham offers a wide variety of highly interactive indoor and outdoor exhibits. The Magic Wings Butterfly House, an indoor tropical environment, brings visitors into intimate contact with more than 100 different species of exotic butterflies. From July 1-31, the butterfly house turns blue with the release of more than one thousand Blue Morpho butterflies. Kids can also collect their own dinosaur fossils at the Fossil Dig Site along the Dinosaur Trail and perform hands-on health and wellness experiments in the Investigate Health! exhibit.

Science in the community

Many Triangle parks offer fantastic, and often free, programs to help young naturalists learn about the environment. At the Eno River State Park, for example, children can engage in water bug hunts or butterfly expeditions. Or request a rock box and take a walk in the park at your own pace.

Edith Tatum, who has been birding for nearly 20 years, also leads bird watching and dragonfly hikes at the Eno for children ages 12 and older.  “A large part of our mission is to provide programming in the hopes that it will increase a stewardship ethic as well as educate the public,” says Christopher Ammons, a park ranger and coordinator for interpretation and education at the Eno.

Lake Crabtree County Park in Morrisville also offers family-friendly birding walks, orienteering classes and educational programs on all sorts of animals and insects. Decomposers are the focus of a nature program in July at American Tobacco Trail in Apex.

At Crowder District Park in Apex, kids can learn about frogs, the water cycle and the power of the sun. Historic Yates Mill County Park in Raleigh offers families an educational morning hike into the wet and wooded lands surrounding the pond. July programs at Raleigh’s Blue Jay County Park encourage kids to learn about dandelions and flying squirrels, as well as the world of water and how plants and animals use it. Kids and parents can explore nature with hands-on sessions at Stevens Nature Center and Hemlock Bluffs in Cary, some even at night.

Or turn your sights to the sky with the Morehead Planetarium’s sky-watching sessions at Jordan Lake State Park. Free programs in July and August offer celestial enthusiasts a closer look at Venus, Saturn and the moon.

Some private businesses, like Science Safari in Cary, also offer science programs at minimal fees. Manager Sean O’ Neal offers hands-on science and nature-oriented classes for up to 10 students ($12 per student). Topics such as Shells of the Sea, Newton’s Forces and Colder than Ice Chemistry pique children’s interest.

For details on many of these programs, check out our online daily calendar.

Kitchen cupboard science

When stifling summer heat calls for an indoor activity at home, look no farther than the kitchen cupboard for fun with a scientific bent. Many Web sites provide easy instructions for kids’ experiments (see resource information below for some top sites), but if you prefer a book, try one of Janice VanCleave’s, such as 202 Oozing, Bubbling, Dripping and Bouncing Experiments or the Science Explorer series published by Henry Holt.

Here are two simple science-based activities to get kids hooked:

Quicksand-Like Slime

Cornstarch, Water

1. Mix 1 cup cornstarch with cup water. Stir with your hands. It’s fun!
2. Add a few drops of food coloring (if desired).
3. Move your hands through the goop and let it slide through your fingers. Does it move slowly or quickly? When do you get stuck the most?

The Science (Physics and Chemistry)
The cornstarch and water mixture is a suspension, or a mixture of both a solid and a liquid. When you press down on the mixture with your hand, it is like stepping into the sand near the water at the beach. Your hand sinks into the cornstarch mixture as if it is disappearing into quicksand.

What is quicksand? Quicksand acts like both a solid and a liquid. On the surface it appears to be a solid mass of sand, but it is actually so saturated with water that it will disperse and engulf anything that puts pressure on it.

While real quicksand can be difficult to get out of, it doesn’t really suck people under according to a September 2005 article in the journal Nature. It’s like a trap because it liquefies and then collapses, but humans cannot be completely submerged because they are less dense than quicksand. If you happen to get caught, slowly wiggle your arms and legs.

Tornado in a Bottle

Two empty 2-liter soda bottles
Duct tape
Or a “cyclone tube” found at and other retail stores

1. Fill one bottle full with water.
2. Fasten the cyclone tube or use duct tape to secure the empty bottle on top of the full bottle. If using tape, be sure the spouts are lined up to prevent leaks.
3. Turn the bottles over so the filled bottle is on top. Swirl the bottles rapidly in a circular motion. The water will begin to swirl into the bottom bottle.

The Science (Physics): Swirling the bottle creates a vortex, which is a spinning turbulent flow of fluid around a center. When the bottle is swirled, the water pushes against the bottle and leaves a space filled with air. The water then flows from one bottle to the other. This type of water movement is called a whirlpool, which is basically a tornado in the water. This experiment really should be called “Whirlpool in a Bottle.”

Backyard Science Adventures

Try these outdoor activities on a sunny day to kick off some scientific fun in your own yard. Both experiments are excerpted from

Grow Your Own Crystals

Black construction paper
A pie pan, cake pan, or shallow bowl
Warm water
Epsom salt (near the health products in the grocery store)
A sunny day

1. Cut the black paper so it will fit in the bottom of your pie pan.
2. Add 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt to 1/4 cup of warm water. Stir until the salt dissolves.
3. Pour the salty water onto the black paper in the pie pan.
4. Put the pie pan out into the sun. When the water evaporates, you’ll see lots of crystal spikes on the black paper!
5. Check the crystals out with a magnifying glass or under a microscope

The Science (Chemistry)
The Epsom salt dissolves in the water. The black paper absorbs the heat of the sun, which causes the water to evaporate. The salt forms crystals shaped like long needles. If you tried this experiment with table salt instead of Epsom salt, you wouldn’t get crystal spikes, because table salt and Epsom salt are chemically different, so they make different types of crystals.

Rainbows from Reflected Light

A compact disc or CD
A piece of white paper

1. Hold the CD in the sunshine. If it is cloudy outside, turn out the lights in a room and shine your flashlight at the CD.
2. Hold your piece of white paper so that the light reflecting off the CD shines onto the paper. The reflected light will make fabulous rainbow colors on your paper.
NOTE: Don’t reflect the light into your eyes. This can cause injury.

The Science (Physics): Like water drops in falling rain, the CD separates white light into all of the colors. The colors you see reflecting from a CD are interference colors, like the shifting colors on a soap bubble or an oil slick.
Light is made up of waves that reflect off of the CD and overlap and interfere with each other. Sometimes the waves are added together, making certain colors brighter, and sometimes they cancel each other, taking certain colors away.

One of the best things about growing a summer scientist is there are an infinite number of subjects to explore. The threat of boredom, that summer nemesis, is essentially nil, and activities can be geared to a child’s interests, whether it is rocket launching, playing with slime, catching butterflies or taking a birding hike.

Carol McGarrahan is a Triangle-area health writer who likes nothing better than doing some wacky and weird science experiments with kids, indoors or out, and thinks baby alligators feel a lot less slimy, and bumpier, than expected!

Family-Friendly Local Programs

Several area museums, parks and nature centers have periodic or ongoing programs for families and children that focus on hands-on science and nature fun. The following are a few places to look into. Many require registration, and some have a fee, so check details.

Morehead Planetarium
250 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

Museum of Life and Science
433 Murray Ave., Durham

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St., Raleigh

American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd., Apex

Bass Lake Park
900 Bass Lake Rd., Holly Springs

Crowder District Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd., Apex

Eno River State Park
6101 Cole Mill Rd., Durham

Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd., Raleigh

North Carolina Botanical Garden
Old Mason Farm Rd., Chapel Hill

Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd., Cary

Wake County Parks

Find a variety of family-friendly programs at and in the Carolina Parent print and online calendar of family events at

More At-Home Science Activities
* Build a stomp rocket.
* Grow special corn for popping.
* Make ice cream in a bag.
* Build a toothpick bridge.
* Make (or buy) your own mini-butterfly house.
* Make invisible ink.

Cool Science Web Sites (includes retail products) (includes retail products)

Categories: Early Education, Family Fun, Food + Fun, Preschool Activities, SK Activities, Things To Do