For molecular biologist Liz Heinecke, one of the perks of having a physicist father was getting to try out some of the cool physics apparatus at Kansas State University, like a big rotating table that provided hands-on demonstrations of centripetal force. Not every family has a physics lab handy for inspiration, though, so Heinecke made it her mission to highlight how parents can teach science with everyday household ingredients. We talked to her about her plan for putting science in action on the home front.
“I decided it would be fun to try to make it easy for parents to do science with their kids without having to go buy a kit,” says Heinecke. After working in research laboratories for 10 years, she took time off to be a stay-at-home mom, and once her own kids were old enough to start trying out science experiments, “I didn’t want to run to the store every time,” she says. “I’d rather use what I already had on hand.”
This is the driving force behind Heinecke’s website The Kitchen Pantry Scientist, her KidScience app, her appearances on local television news shows—and now, her new book, Kitchen Science Lab For Kids. In her family activities, Heinecke takes a lot of the old standby kitchen science experiments one step further.
For example, you might be familiar with the trick of making a “rubber egg” by soaking an egg in vinegar. (The acid in the vinegar breaks apart the calcium carbonate molecules of the eggshell, leaving just the thin membrane behind). In Heinecke’s “Alien Monster Eggs” experiment, kids can get a firsthand look at the principle of osmosis by putting the rubberized egg into a jar of corn syrup: Because the rubbery egg membrane allows water molecules to pass through, they’re drawn into the water-poor environment of the corn syrup. The result is a weird, shriveled egg; to get the full “alien monster” effect for your Halloween party, Heinecke recommends putting green food coloring in the corn syrup.
Kitchen standbys like vinegar and baking soda make regular appearances, but there are some other versatile ingredients in the kitchen pantry scientist’s lab that might surprise you, like red cabbage. Red cabbage juice reacts differently to acids and bases, so the vegetable can be used to turn ordinary coffee filters into litmus paper.
“When kids do experiments, the greatest thing is not the experiment itself,” Heinecke says. “The greatest thing is when they take it a step further and ask, ‘Well, what if I do this? What if I use that ingredient instead of this one?’ Learning to ask good questions is invaluable, and there’s no greater gift you can give a kid than to encourage their curiosity.”