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Bring back the volcano

Posted 14/01/2010 by RoseS

I finally threw out the traditional chemistry set we bought my then ten-year-old nephew a couple of birthday’s ago just last week. After a couple of spectacularly unspectacular experiments to produce hydrogen by adding Mg to dilute HCl or relight a glowing splint with oxygen, it had sat for months gathering dust on a shelf at the back of the garden shed. The final nail in the coffin came on reading the article Whizz, bang, fizz… in the Christmas issue of C&I(2009, 24, 21), where one online educational toy retailer commented dismissively: ‘Chemistry sets sell to grandparents’. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times; with so many more exciting computer games to compete against, adding a few chemicals into a test tube and watching a few bubbles emerge no longer holds the same attraction.

More worrying than the declining appeal of chemistry sets, however, is the alleged decline in practical hands on experience of chemistry in schools and universities. Already, according to University of Oxford microbiology professor Keith Gull, writing in the Evening Standard (7 January 2010), ‘the average UK undergraduate science experience has declined’, while the £2700 extra government funding for laboratory-based subjects is ‘totally inadequate’ to account for the higher costs of teaching science, he added. With the recently announced £533m cuts to UK university budgets, Gull warns that we are being drawn into an ever more Blue Peter-style ‘here’s one we did earlier’ approach to the teaching and learning of science, where lab demonstrations, group work, essays and electronic ‘virtual’ classes take the place of practical classes.

Chemistry school teachers would appear to agree, arguing that the modern obsession with health & safety is making it increasingly difficult to do ‘wow’ experiments without prescribed outcomes. While spectacular lecture demonstrations such as the phosphorus sun undoubtedly have their attractions, there’s no substitute for carrying out your own DIY experiments in the lab and learning from your successes - or more often failures.

There are plenty of ideas about experiments you might try with the kids at home, but my own personal favourite – and oft repeated with my niece and nephew especially as all the ingredients are readily available in the kitchen cupboard - is still the volcano. Simply add sodium bicarbonate to vinegar and stand back. Of course, it adds to the special effects if you have the right set: a colourful paper mache volcano. And be sure to add plenty of bicarb. Definitely not a reaction for grandparents.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor

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