22 March 2016

5 earth-science things you can do at home with kids, and no fancy words used!

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Rolf Hut

dear Rolf Hut,
I’ve read your book and am making the portal-infinity-mirror-side-table with my dad. I am 9 years old and our teacher asked us to write a formal letter to one of our hero’s, so I am writing you this letter.

I stop reading because I’m tearing up. Forget Nature papers1. Forget invited talks. Forget tenure. A 9 year old just said that I am his hero. I can now safely retire – mission accomplished.

My science is about making environmental sensors from household appliances2. Since the link with “normal life” is very easily made, the PR department3 of Delft University of Technology pushes me to do interviews in popular media, not only explaining my work, but also the role of Delft-trained MSc and PhDs4 in society. One thing led to the next and suddenly I was writing a monthly column in a national newspaper on technology projects you could do at home. Which got bundled in my first book that a 9 year old apparently read.image001

When I was 9, my school got a visit from an engineer from the electricity provider. I vividly remember not only his jokes (cows & power lines → hot dogs), but also the take home message: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) makes our lives easier, better, safer. But above all, STEM is fun! I honestly believe that that single presentation about cows and power lines set me on a path to become a STEM engineer myself. So whenever I get an invitation to speak at a school, I make a point of conveying that same message of fun to kids, hoping to set them on a path to a career in STEM as well.

Colleagues and friends often mention that, given my research topic, it is easier for me to talk about my science to kids than for them. They are right. I can refer to the Wii that kids know about. Numerical hydrologist or deep sea oceanographers do not have that luxury. Therefore, I started compiling a list of simple STEM experiments that anyone can do, at home, with kids. Any opportunity I get, I present “5 experiments in 5 minutes”5.

I got a great response to the presentation. People who tried them with (not on!) their kids were enthusiastic. There was, however, one problem: I use a lot of jargon: terms that kids don’t know yet. So I jumped at the opportunity when the AGU Fall Meeting organized an “Up-Goer Five” session in which you present your work using the 1000 most used English words. Although the results can be borderline caricature, the process of coming up with “simple” descriptions for complex processes flexes your creative, teaching, and language muscles, and is very rewarding.

Below is a video me demonstrating the “5 experiments in 10 minutes”, all explained using only the 1000 most used English words. The entire session was extremely fun. I remember the talk about satellites (space-eyes) equipped with gas sensors (machine noses) to detect methane (ass-gas). It was a perfect way to end an already very good conference and I advise everyone to attend, or submit to, the 2016 edition. It is extremely important, but most of all, it’s fun!


1 You can see here that I have not published any Nature papers. Yet!
2 For real. Did I already mention that my work is totally awesome?
3 Which I am not allowed to call Public Relations. I should be saying “communication”. (Sorry Michel and Roy)
4 Whom, in the Netherlands, are called “engineers”, an official title equivalent to a Master of Science. Although engineer has a different connotation in English, we (alumni from Delft) are proud bearers of the engineering title.
5 See http://rolfhut.nl/2015/04/15/5-experiments-in-5-minutes/ for a video of me doing the 5 experiments and for a shopping list per experiment.
6 Inspired by the “Up-Goer Five” comic and the “Thing Explainer” book by Randall Munroe, writer and artist of XKCD.com

Rolf Hut is a scientist at Delft University of Technology who turns consumer electronics into environmental sensors.