Aaron Berenbach just set his hand on the fire.
Inside a classroom at the Mobius Science Center on Main Avenue, Berenbach rolls up the sleeve of his flannel shirt, revealing a heavily tattooed forearm. He drips a bubbly mixture of water and dish soap (plus a secret flammable ingredient) into his hand. With a flick of his lighter, a quivering yellow-orange flame bursts from his palm and dissipates in seconds. He smiles; his hand is dry, unscathed.
“It’s all about where the energy is flowing,” he explains. “The idea is flame travels, which direction?”
“Exactly, so most of the energy is trying to travel up,” he continues. “The other thing [that] is left in my hand is a small amount of water from the outside of the bubbles. Energy will travel wherever it is easy for the energy to travel.”
In this case, he’s referring to the water, which just sopped up all the energy from the fire without burning his hand. As the education coordinator at Mobius, Berenbach specializes in a kind of DIY science that enthralls and mind-boggles children. He loves projects that are messy, fun and super-simple, meaning that even you could do them on a summer afternoon with your kids, whether it’s lighting yourself on fire (which is extremely dangerous and highly unrecommended) or combining household products to make mad-scientist slime.
MAKE YOUR OWN GOO. The ingredients you need are likely sitting in your pantry. To make putty, add 1 cup of Elmer’s School Glue to ¾ cup of water. Mix a tablespoon of 20 Mule Team Borax with ¼ cup of water. Combine the two mixtures.
“It’s called a polymer, a chain of repeating molecules,” Berenbach explains. “When the Borax mixes with the glue, it causes the glue molecules to all the hook together so you form something like a slime or a putty.”
For another lesson in kitchen chemistry, add two parts cornstarch to one part water and create “oobleck.”
“It’s what we call a non-Newtonian fluid,” he says. “So it acts like a fluid, but it also acts like a solid, depending on how much energy is interacting with it.”
BUILD A ROCKET. On a hot summer day, have handy an old two-liter bottle, a bicycle pump, and an Aquapod water-rocket launcher, which you can buy for about $30 on Amazon.com.
“A rocket works on Newton’s third law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Berenbach says. “So you need stuff inside the rocket that will go down [that’s the water], and as it pushes down, the rocket will push up into the air.”
Stomp bottle rockets are another option. For those, you’ll need a 10-foot-long PVC pipe with a 90-degree elbow fitting, another 2-liter bottle to make the launcher and a lightweight, airtight paper rocket. When you stomp on the bottle connected at the mouth to a horizontal section of PVC pipe, your rocket, snugly affixed to the top of a vertical pipe section, will soar.
If you want your kids to actually learn something from these experiments, Berenbach recommends asking a lot of questions. It’s OK if you need to look up the answers together.
“These are really cool opportunities to spend time with your kids and do a cool, enriching activity that will make them think,” Berenbach says. “For the parents, it’s a chance to learn too.”
Your kids: restless, bored and cranky. You: slowly losing your mind. On rainy days and afternoons indoors, maintain your sanity and build a fort that will entertain your kids for hours. Here’s a blueprint for a simple one; all you need is a big plug-in fan, fitted sheet and something sturdy like a chair or small table. Place the fan near an electrical outlet and tuck the short end of the sheet around it. Make sure the side with the blades is covered. Stretch out the sheet and tuck the other end under a chair. Now plug in your fan, turn it on, and watch your billowy sheet transform into a “no parents allowed” hideout.
If you’ve ever fancied yourself an amateur paleontologist, investigating crusty stains and mysterious messes, pack a picnic and spend the day with your kids digging for prehistoric remains at the Stonerose Interpretive Center in Republic, Wash. The fossil site is located on an ancient lake bed, where Eocene-era impressions of insects, plants, fish and birds are encased in rock. You can bring your own chisel and hammer, or rent a set from the center. While admission is cheap ($8 for adults, $5 for kids and teens, free for children under 6), the 50-million-year-old treasures you and your kids bring home will be priceless. For hours and membership prices, check out stonerosefossil.org.
Prepare to toss your cookies: The SpinCycle is now open at Silverwood Theme Park near Athol, Idaho. At 104 feet tall, the park’s latest thrill ride is its biggest yet, sending riders spinning and swinging, upside down and right-side up, in a giant purple pendulum for two to three minutes while their legs dangle in the air. If the mere thought of twirling through the sky like a T-shirt in the wash cycle is enough to make you green, take a gentle ride on the brand-new, biplane-themed Barnstormer. Buy your tickets or season pass at silverwoodthemepark.com.
Help Mudgy Moose find his miniature friend Millie Mouse in a game of hide and seek! First pick up a copy of Mudgy & Millie, a children’s picture book by Spokane native Susan Hagen Nipp, at Figpickels Toy Emporium in Coeur d’Alene. Starting at the base of Tubbs Hill, follow the book as you and your kids wander down the 2¼-mile Mudgy Moose trail. As you make your way along the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, through downtown and finally to Independence Point (where — shh! — Millie was hiding all along!), look at out for five life-size bronze statues of Mudgy. Top off your tour of the city with an ooey-gooey peanut butter cup sundae at the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s Dockside restaurant.
Calling all aspiring marine biologists, zombie hunters, crime scene investigators and roboticists: This summer, Mobius Science Center and Children’s Museum are offering one- or two-day camps where kids can learn anatomy, physics, chemistry and engineering while still having buckets of fun. While your preschooler tears apart squid innards and writes her name in blue-black ink-sac goo, your older kids can learn how to analyze forensic evidence and program LEGO robots, or how to best bludgeon to death an undead zombie by applying Newton’s Laws of Motion. The cost for each camp varies, but Mobius members will snag slightly better deals. Space is limited, so sign up soon at mobiusspokane.org.