sand and water

We cleaned up Science in the Parks today. I came home with specks of white powder all over my shirt from when I was taking out some garbage that included the remnant of a 50-pound bag of corn starch. I had a rainbow of food color staining my hands from washing out the bin with our elephant snot. We’d wiped off counters in the cave that we call our “parks room,” and items got reorganized and stowed. A list of items to replace for next year is written on the chalkboard, and I found a few additional bulbs and motors that we never got to pull out for this year. But there’s next year; and now that we have a clear work table again it feels a little more bittersweet that we have to wait until the summer of 2017.

(That said, it will also be nice to have a vacation before we gear up for classes that start in August.)

The program is a giant mess in so many ways. Having finished the tenth year, I know that “giant mess” was ever part of the explicit mission statement, but I don’t think it would be inappropriate, either. There’s a lot that we can do at parks that we can’t do in a classroom or a living room, at least not easily. Besides having the space that allows us to launch rockets and butterfly cups, no one is going to be upset if a little sand and water gets spilled on the grass.

For a few years, we’ve had some of the hardware to make erosion tables, but it wasn’t until this year that we were brave enough to do it. Misti, a soon-to-be science teacher in a local junior high, had the gumption to put together a system that was comprised of 50 pounds of sand and 10 gallons of recycling water, shared between four different troughs, a terrace of tables, and interconnecting tubes. From this, we not only have a way to shape the sand, but produce a dynamic and interactive display of erosion. We added palm trees, dinosaurs, cows, and a host of other figures to spice it up. The stakes are a little higher if there’s a possibility that Stegosaurus gets washed away.

Although we’ve had several new activities this summer — magnetic filings, x-ray imagery, ping-pong ball roller coasters, and more — the erosion table is my favorite new addition. Water spills everywhere and kids have sand and grit all over them, and yet no one complains. I’ve seen kids spend most of an hour just figuring out how to pile up sand, how the water interacts with it, and even how to make sure the plumbing continues to operate. The few times I’ve heard crying were only when it was time to leave. And, when we needed to put all of our sand back into our buckets, kids were happy to help us scoop it all out of the troughs by hand, one pile at a time.

The chair of the Department of Geosciences at Weber State stopped in one day to see how this was all working, and he ended up playing along with the kids in the mix of grit and water. (I don’t think that this is much different than his job as a researcher, except that his associates in the park were shorter.) Later, he stopped by to tell me how much he liked all of this and the program in general. We talked about how we each can trace back our own scientific curiosities to playing in a sandbox. For myself, I remember trying to figure out how high a mountain I could build, how deep of a cave I could dig, and how water would run down in rivulets and soak into the ground through the porous grains. I don’t remember anyone telling me what I should do with the sand or challenging me to make a deeper pond or a taller castle; I just had a shovel and started carving out my own world.

I think this is what I like about the sand and water in the parks. It isn’t just that it’s a sandbox that kids might not have at home, but because it’s a new world that they can create and re-create themselves. They can construct a dam and see how well it holds; or they can watch the water pour and form patterns on the other side. Or, sometimes, they just want to stack a bunch of sand and see how tall it can get. We’re fine with all that. Working alongside the kids, we can imagine: where will we build our shopping mall and where will we live and what happens when the dam breaks and why is this hose plugged? It’s play; and it’s science. These are two things that humans — and kids in particular — do especially well. It’s fun to realize that it only takes heroic amounts of sand and water to see this in action.

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