A friend writes me “We’ve been working on the sugar crystal experiment, but we haven’t been able to get a single sugar crystal to grow. The science fair is a week away and I’m feeling like we need a back-up experiment.”
“Who knew first grade science could be so stressful!”
I wrote back encouraging them to stick with the experiment “An experiment that did not work out as expected is not a failure — if you learned something. Really! Most science experiments do not have expected outcomes, but they teach us something about how not to do it next time.
“We should not teach our kids that experiments which do not work out are failures — when, in fact, they are the very stepping stones of good science. Ask your science teacher, I’m sure he/she will agree.”
“The more important lesson here is that science is hard work, most often doesn’t yield instant and expected answers — but that we stick with a method of experimentation (the scientific method) that yields incremental knowlege. You’ve learned something about how not to grow crystals: What is that?”
To make the child feel better about the outcome I suggested: “Turn his display board into a massive Crystal Quest comic book with the narrative of your experiment in speech bubbles and captions. It’ll be super cool! Dress him up in some super science hero t-shirt and take photographs. Unfortunately, as in most super hero sagas, the forces of evil survive to return and mess with some other kid’s science experiment!”
To which she replies “I agree. We are trying to figure out why nothing is growing, but as of yet we don’t know what went wrong. I’m not giving up on the sugar crystals yet … There is a line from the movie Meet the Robinsons (which if you haven’t seen it is an excellent movie and right up your alley) — ‘From failure we learn, from success not so much’. I will be sure to explain to the boys that our sugar crystal experiment is a learning opportunity. It’s just a little disappointing that our first science fair project is not cooperating.”
As I trawled the internet for some quick fix solutions to growing crystals fast and how to frame experiments with unexpected outcomes I came to the slow realisation that many parents fret about science faire experiments, especially when they “fail”. How unfortunate. More especially that so little is written about following through on “failed” experiments — and why lessons learned from them are so critical to the evolution of knowledge.
Take heed of little Lewis when he says “From failure we learn, from success not so much” and embrace the lesson with pride.
Suggested reading: If you landed here to find out how to grow crystals fast read this article from Wayne Schmidt’s THIS AND THAT site — it includes information, based on experimentation, what doesn’t work. But don’t stop there, scroll down to the “Science” section on his home page to find other fascinating subjects to experiment with. I know there’s a vortex machine in my future, I have all the parts in mind, I’ve just never gotten to it yet! And then there’s this: Wintergreen Lifesavers emit a flash of light when crushed. Who knew? What other candies react with electrical storms on being bitten into?