Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Magnetizing Pencil Lead Experiment [#dswyk]

My (newly 9yo) daughter is a sensory girl who likes to mix things and ask questions while doing so. Over the course of her short life she has created all sorts of goopy, colorful, muddy, tasty inside and outside concoctions out of food, paint, mud, sidewalk chalk, bubbles...all the while narrating non-stop about what she's going to do and how and why.

This is great but she is very messy and I am, in all honesty, sometimes low on tolerance for daily messes (and for long-running verbal narrative) but I know this is the kind of thing that lights her up. So when she asked:

"Can I take salt and pepper and pencil leads and try to magnetize them in water?"

I said:

"Yes, as long as you clean up after you're done. And make sure to record your findings."

And she said:


She put water, salt, pepper and magnets from our fridge into a bowl along with the pencil leads. Her essential question was: "Can I magnetize these pencil leads?"  Here is what she wrote down about her experimenting (edited only for spelling):
If I put a pencil lead in water with pepper and salt and rub it to the non magnetized side: 
Will it still work if it's just water and pepper? YES
Will it work with just water? YES 
Will it work without water? NO. It does not work if both are not in water. It only works if one is rubbed! 
Will it work with a different magnet? YES 
When it's wet it sticks to me! Will it work when I don't rub it on the magnet? YES, but it does not stick for long.
Her ultimate conclusion was that she could "magnetize the pencil leads but they could not stick to other magnets beside themselves" and that "water has something to do with it."

I recently picked up a book at our public library used book store called Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist.  The book is a collection of essays from interesting scientists who were asked to write about how and when in their childhoods they became interested in an idea that led them to go into the sciences.  My favorite essay is from Mary Catherine Bateson who is the daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. She talks about how she grew up in a household where "the how" of science was the focus. "The what" her father and mother studied changed over time, but it was her childhood experiences of looking for patterns and asking questions that really brought her into her field.

So, when my husband pointed out that the leads stuck together because they were wet, not magnetized as she had concluded, I agreed.  We did not succeed in convincing her otherwise, which is just fine with me.  What is most important about her sequence of question asking is that she was engaged in THE PROCESS (the how) of science.  To me, at this point in her life, the feel for the process is what we want her to have -- the curiosity, the personal agency, the flow of question asking.

After all, if you talk to real scientists and mathematicians they will tell you their work is about days and months and years and decades of wrong turns and the resulting new questions. In today's fast paced world it's hard to muster patience for this idea of building understanding over time but the truth is this: Coming to know often means you may not have all the answers you want or need right away but as long as you have new questions to ask you can be sure you are heading in the right direction.

1 comment:

  1. My hypothesis (which you can test): she uses the word "magnetism" to mean what we would call "attraction" or "cohesion". If so, it's a metonymy.

    Children often stick (ha) to their metonymies, because they take pride in naming things. A poetic name is their own, while the "official" name is not. Naming things is one of the coolest part of the scientific process.

    You can probably test my hypothesis by asking her to show you more examples of things that are magnetic to one another. What will she put in her category?


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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