Geeky spring science experiments

Nicole Bremer Nash describes five science experiments that would be fun for the entire family. Geekend readers, share your science experiment suggestions in the discussion.

Spring arrived rather suddenly in my neck of the woods, and we are all scrambling to get outside. My household is preparing beds for flowers and vegetables, and repairing the damage that our landscaping suffered over the soggy winter. As we work in the dirt, we can't help but notice what plants are already waking up, and which insects are already hatching (it seems the soggy winter made for early mosquito hatching).

Gardening is a science experiment in itself, but here are a few science experiments to make the outdoors more fun, even for the gamer geek who prefers to stay inside. (Note: These experiments are not from the book 365 Simple Science Experiments with everyday materials, which is featured in my TechRepublic gallery Children's books about Star Wars, science experiments, and space. The book image cover is courtesy of

Scents of Spring

What you need
  • Plants
  • Paper and pencil
  • Nose (and a sense of smell)

Every plant has a different scent, even in the leaves. These scents tell insects and birds a lot about what is edible, and what they should avoid. As the new leaves come in, take a walk with a small notebook. Crush leaves from different plants you encounter, and take notes on what they smell like. Consider which plants smell like they might be toxic, and which smell edible. Then use resources from your local library or the Internet to look up the plants you found and see if your guess about toxicity is correct. Many leaves have strong scents, such as rosemary and basil. Others, like oak tree leaves, have very faint scents. This experiment is best done on a low-wind day.

Critter Count

What you need
  • A yard
  • Eyes
  • Paper and pencil
  • Bug box and magnifying glass (optional)

Learning about what bugs live in your yard is a great way to plan for summer lawn maintenance. Plus, insects are pretty interesting. Mark off a section of your yard (you can use spray paint on the grass, or string to mark it off) and then, get down and dirty. You'll need to get on eye-level with the grass to see what is going on in there. Move slowly and systematically across the marked-off section, and take notes about every type of bug and insect, and how many of each you come across. Use the magnifying glass to spot tiny critters, and a bug box or a jar with holes in the lid to collect particularly interesting specimens. Then use resources from your local library or the Internet to look up what you found and to learn what purpose each critter serves in the natural habitat.

Meteorites from the Sky

What you need
  • A white sheet
  • Rocks or other weights
  • A clear night
  • A magnet
  • A magnifying glass
  • A glass jar or a clear plastic container

Tiny particles of iron fall from space on a pretty regular basis. Don't believe me? Try this: On a clear night, spread a white sheet out on the ground. Make sure nothing is hanging over the sheet, and weight it down well with rocks or other weights. In the morning, the sheet will look dirty from dust and other things blowing onto it (that's an experiment in itself -- see what detritus is on the sheet and figure out where it came from). Some of the particles that look like dirt will actually be iron that fell through the atmosphere. Use the magnet to pick up the iron particles, and then wipe them off into the container. This experiment is best done on a night when a meteor shower is expected, because the iron actually comes off meteors.

Light Pollution Solution

What you need
  • Clear night skies
  • A toilet paper tube
  • Paper and pencil
  • Flashlight

Light from human civilization and astrological bodies (like the moon) has a negative effect on the number of stars that can be seen on any given night, from any given location. This is called light pollution, and it is worse in urban areas, where there is more artificial light at night. This experiment is a great excuse to go camping, as you need to do it in several places to get the point. The experiment is simple: look through the cardboard tube at a set place in the sky. In the Northern Hemisphere, you can use the constellation Orion to orient yourself. At the same time each night, but from various locales, look through the tube at Orion and count the number of stars visible to the naked eye. Be sure to note weather conditions, such as cloudiness, and of course the amount of light pollution in the area. Keeping notes in a little notebook makes it easy to do this through all your Spring and Summer travels. At the end of the season, you'll have a great record of how light pollution affects star visibility.

Tadpole Viewer

What you need
  • Large coffee can, with the ends removed
  • Plastic kitchen wrap (the store brand works better for this)
  • Duct tape
  • Large rubber band

First, cover one end of the coffee can (remember to remove the ends) with plastic wrap. Use the rubber band and duct tape to attach the plastic wrap to the sides of the can (make sure it's well attached). Then, simply use the wrapped end of the can under the water and look in through the open end. The water pressure causes the plastic wrap to bubble into the can, making it into a concave lens that magnifies tiny underwater creatures.

Have you ever seen frog eggs? They are kind of translucent, and you can see the tadpoles changing in there. Head over to the local duck pond with this tadpole viewer, and you're likely to see more than tadpoles under the water. Tip: Frog eggs are more easily found in the mucky, plant-chocked areas along the pond bank.

For more geeky science experiment ideas, check out some of the titles in my TechRepublic gallery Children's books about Star Wars, science experiments, and space.