Play and Learn with Fischertechnik: Introduction to STEM 1

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When the Fed-Ex truck pulled up and the driver rang our door bell, my son raced to answer the door. He’d been anxiously awaiting the arrival of a cool new construction toy, fischertechnik, since I first shared with him their website the week prior.

My son loves to build and like many children his age is fascinated by robotics and construction. I knew the fischertechnik system was going to grab his attention and pull him into the STEM concepts we have so enjoyed.

Play & Learn with Fischertechnik

Open the World of Technology

fischertechnik is the flexible and innovative construction system built around the unique fischertechnik building block, which allows attachment to all six sides. fischertechnik is used widely in schools around the globe to enable students to explore, hands-on, STEM concepts such as Mechanics, Statics, Pneumatics, Renewable Energies, Electronics, and Robotics.

I am excited to share with you the recently released pair of new products called the fischertechnik Education “Introduction to STEM” I & II. These sets are specifically designed for introducing students in grades 2 thru 5 to STEM concepts and methodology, with the focus on simple machines, and an introduction to robotics and programming.

fischertechnik Introduction to STEM I Kit

Jeffrey immediately began to sort the 500 pieces into the compartments provided within the sturdy storage box (I love this!). As an experienced builder, he knew the time he spent organizing at the start would save time searching for a piece later.

“The pieces are so cool, Mom! They connect on all sides, you can change some around, and they lock in place. These are better than Lego!”

As he continued to sort, I scanned the detailed, full-color 170 page instruction booklet and shared with him some of the projects he could build: a manual transmission, block and tackle, wind turbine, a beam balance, and more.

He was immediately drawn to the merry-go-round, one of the more complicated projects, and construction was soon underway. The Introduction to STEM I Kit is a great introduction to how simple machines work.

Play & Learn with Fischertechnik

Activities & Curriculum

As an educator, one of the things I love best about the Introduction to STEM I Kit is the curriculum. The standards based curriculum provides everything you need to conduct the various lessons; from activity sheets and step-by-step instructions, to rubrics for assessment purposes. For classroom teachers, the education materials are laid out by grade level and establish a quick look at the goals and models to be constructed.

Having traveled quite extensively, we have had the opportunity to observe windmills in many locations (Maui, HI; Tehachapi, CA; San Francisco, CA, and most recently on the island of Mykonos, Greece). The optional project based research activity was the perfect way to integrate Jeffrey’s real-life experiences with STEM concepts.

Play & Learn with Fischertechnik @EvaVarga.netWindmills transform the motion of the wind into rotary motion that humans use to accomplish work. We discussed the windmills we had observed and how each had been designed for specific work.

The wind turbine project described in the enclosed instruction manual requires students to turn a crank which causes the blades to turn and thereby move wind. The problem is to reverse the energy process from the wind turbine project. Utilizing the education materials I had downloaded as a guide, I challenged him to remove the crank and design a method of attaching gears or pulleys to transfer the power to another device. He loved the challenge!

I am confidant kids will love building the models, performing the activities, and then taking it apart to build another project. Join me next month when I share our experiences with the fischertechnik Introduction to STEM II Kit.

Misconceptions in Chemistry and Physics

In a series of posts this week, I will be sharing 5 Misconceptions in Science and providing lessons and activities to help dispel these conceptual misunderstandings. Today’s post focuses on common misconceptions in chemistry and physics.

Misconceptions in Chemistry

Identifying & Dispelling Misconceptions

The first step in dispelling misconceptions is to identify them and to recognize their sources. To identify misconceptions, homeschool parents and teachers can:

  • use open-ended questions to assess what students know about the topic of a lesson.
  • listen and observe students’ answers
  • use direct questioning to discover the students’ reasoning process

Simply correcting a mistaken impression through discussion,  however, may not work. Instead, provide an opportunity for students to test out their theories. This is not only more convincing but develops their scientific reasoning skills.

  • First, help students to verbalize their understanding and thereby formulate a theory.
  • Secondly, guide them to set up an experiment to test their theory.

By using inquiry to test misconceptions, teachers can also foster respect for people, ideas, and scientific inquiry. Teachers can use misconceptions to provide unique opportunities to practice science process skills and interest students in scientific exploration.

Misconceptions in Chemistry & Physics


Comparing and contrasting physical and chemical changes, students may believe that because physical changes are often reversible, chemical changes are irreversible.

Many chemical reactions are NON-REVERSIBLE CHANGES .You cannot turn a baked cake back into its raw ingredients. Some chemical reactions can be reversed, and re-formed into the original substances. These are REVERSIBLE CHANGES.

A reversible change is a change that can be undone or reversed. Sometimes we also call these physical changes. A reversible change might change how a substance looks or feels (changing the physical appearance), and it is easy to turn it back again, but it doesn’t produce new substances.

For example, to demonstrate a reversible chemical change: Dip a heat-sensitive baby spoon and other objects that might change color into a beaker of hot water. Ask students to record their observations or results.

Students might notice that a baby spoon turned white when it was dipped in hot water and returned to its original color as it cooled. Ask students questions that will help them evaluate the results and draw new conclusions: “Did the baby spoon undergo a reversible chemical change?”

5 Misconceptions in Science & How to Dispel Them

Misconceptions in Science & How to Dispel Them (series introduction)

Misconceptions in Astronomy 

Misconceptions in Geology & Meteorology

Misconceptions in Biology (coming Friday)

You might also be interested in my travel hopscotch,  Discovering Peru, where you’ll have the chance to win a travel guide of choice from DK Publishing.

My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.


Science Milestones: Marie Curie

During the 19th century scientists knew little about what went on inside an atom. However, by the end of the century there were startling new ideas about the structure of the atom resulting from the discoveries of X-rays, radioactivity, and the electron. Marie Curie was amongst the leaders whose discoveries of radioactivity led to a new understanding of atomic structure.


In 1896 Henri Becquerel was using naturally fluorescent minerals to study the properties of x-rays, which had been discovered the previous year by Wilhelm Roentgen. Becquerel exposed potassium uranyl sulfate to sunlight and then placed it on photographic plates wrapped in black paper, believing that the uranium absorbed the sun’s energy and then emitted it as x-rays.

Believing his experiment had failed due to the inclement weather in Paris, he decided to develop his photographic plates anyway. To his surprise, the images were strong and clear, proving that the uranium emitted radiation without an external source of energy such as the sun. Becquerel had discovered radioactivity.

“I am amongst those who think science has great beauty.”

The term radioactivity was actually coined by Marie Curie, who together with her husband Pierre, began investigating the phenomenon recently discovered by Becquerel. The Curies extracted uranium from ore and to their surprise, found that the leftover ore showed more activity than the pure uranium. They concluded that the ore contained other radioactive elements. This led to the discoveries of the elements polonium and radium. It took four more years of processing tons of ore to isolate enough of each element to determine their chemical properties.



Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the daughter of a school teacher.  As a young girl, Manya (as she was affectionately called)  received a general education in local schools and some scientific training from her father. She was a brilliant student and dreamed of studying at the Sorbonne in Paris but it took eight years of saving before she could afford to go. Despite very poor living conditions and a lack of French she graduated in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894.

“All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”

She met Pierre Curie, Professor in the School of Physics in 1894 and in the following year they were married. Her early researches, together with her husband, were often performed under poor laboratory conditions. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies in their research which led to the isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth.

Pierre was tragically killed in 1906, leaving Marie with two daughters; Irène aged 9 and Eve aged 2. Determined to continue their work, Marie became the first ever woman professor at the Sorbonne and as well as teaching, she discovered how to isolate radium in metallic form. In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”

During World War I, she established a front-line X-ray service in the battlefields of Belgium and France, tirelessly fundraising, training staff, and driving the X-ray vans. After the war, Marie continued her research and to raise funds for a hospital and laboratory devoted to radiology. She eventually died in 1934 from the cumulative effects of radiation exposure.

My daughter is pictured here giving a living history performance as Madame Curie.

Bring it Home

  • Research Marie Curie and her life’s work and create a living history presentation to present to others.
  • Watch the BrainPop video on Marie Curie to learn about her early days, from her humble beginnings in Poland, to her professorship at the Sorbonne.
  • Visit the EPA‘s Radiation Protection Pages to learn about radiation and radiation protection.
  • Write a brief story that describes what Marie Curie might have felt when she realized that she had discovered a new element.

Science Milestones

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

Explore additional November Birthday lessons and unit studies with iHomeschool Network bloggers.

Science Milestones: The X-Ray

On 8 Nov, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered an image projected far beyond the possible range of the cathode rays (now known as an electron beam) cast from his cathode ray generator. Further investigation showed that the rays were generated at the point of contact of the cathode ray beam on the interior of the vacuum tube, that they were not deflected by magnetic fields, and they penetrated many kinds of matter.

x-raysA week after his discovery, Röntgen took the very first picture using X-rays of his wife Anna Bertha’s hand. When she saw her skeleton she exclaimed “I have seen my death!”   The photograph electrified the general public and aroused great scientific interest in the new form of radiation. Röntgen named the new form of radiation X-radiation (X standing for “Unknown”), hence the term X-rays.



Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born on March 27, 1845.  He first attended the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich as a student of mechanical engineering and graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich in 1869.

Röntgen was married to Anna Bertha Ludwig and had one child, Josephine Bertha Ludwig.  Röntgen died on 10 February 1923 from carcinoma of the intestine. It is not believed his carcinoma was a result of his work with ionizing radiation because of the brief time he spent on those investigations, and because he was one of the few pioneers in the field who used protective lead shields routinely.

Like other contemporaries, Röntgen did not take patents out on his discoveries and donated the money for his Nobel prize to the University of Würzburg. Following World War I, he fell into bankruptcy, He spent his final years at his country home near Munich. In keeping with his will, all his personal and scientific correspondence were destroyed upon his death.

In honor of his accomplishments, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry named element 111, Roentgenium, a radioactive element with multiple unstable isotopes, after him in 2004.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Almost everything that we know about distant objects in the universe comes from studying the light that is emitted or reflected by them. The entire range of energies of light is called the electromagnetic spectrum. Arranged from high energy, short wavelength to low energy, long wavelength, the electromagnetic spectrum is divided into gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, optical (visible light), infrared, microwaves, and radio waves.  All electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed in space. Our eyes are sensitive only to a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation called visible light.  To learn more about the spectrum, NASA has a great website devoted to the Chandra X-ray Observatory with photographs and activities you can download for free.

In medicine, an x-ray is sometimes used to produce images of the structures inside the body. Because of their short wavelength, x-rays can pass through the body, but are absorbed in varying amounts depending on the density of the material they’re passing through. This is why bones appear white on x-ray images. They are the most dense, and therefore block the most x-rays from getting through; muscle and fat are less dense, and appear in varying shades of gray; the air in between is not very dense at all, and shows up black. X-rays are often used to quickly examine the bones and teeth. Sometimes a contrast medium—such as iodine or barium—is introduced to provide more detail in the chest and abdomen, as well. This substance blocks x-rays and shows up white on x-ray.

A computed tomography scan or CAT-scan uses x-rays to create images of the body. However, an x-ray and a CAT-scan show different types of information. An x-ray is a two-dimensional picture and a CAT-scan is three-dimensional. By imaging and looking at several three-dimensional slices of a body (like slices of bread) a doctor could not only tell if a tumor is present, but roughly how deep it is in the body.

Bring it Home

  • Visit your doctor or dentist and ask to see our own x-rays
  • Do a Google search of x-ray images and compare the skeletons of different animals
  • Obtain a set of old x-rays (with patients’ identifying information removed) and use it identify and label the skeletal system (large windows work well as light boxes)

Science Milestones

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

To find out about more people born in March hop on over to iHomeschool Network’s March birthdays page.

Quercetti Marble Roller Coaster – Intelligent Play

A year ago, my kiddos took part in a summer science camp that focused on engineering and technology.  One of the many manipulatives or activities they had access to during the week was an elaborate marble run manufactured by an Italian company called Quercetti.  I was not previously familiar with the product or the company but each day the kids returned home, they talked so much about the marble rollercoaster, I knew I had to learn more.  marble run

The Quercetti company started in the 1950s from a vision and determination of founder, Alessandro Quercetti. Today, the second Quercetti generation enthusiastically carries on the family business under its original principles: making toys that speak kid’s language and that address their natural developmental needs.

The Quercetti rail system is a great product that introduces the child to a love of learning and builds upon that foundation for a lifetime of creativity. Students increase their own knowledge through self-initiated experiences.

I love that the kids are experimenting with different size marbles and how they affect speed.  Their play elicited questions that opened up opportunities to talk about surface area, volume, and Newton’s laws of motion.

 This is a great tool for math and engineering minded kids

The  Quercetti Skyrail Mini Rail Rollercoaster allows kids to build fantastic marble runs with suspended tracks up to 8 meters long. It has been specifically designed so that marbles of different sizes and materials can be used.  The design prompts kids to make interesting observations, while experimenting and discovering the world of physics (speed, gravity, centrifugal force, friction) and to intuitively understand its fundamental principles. We started with the Mini Rail system but additional expansion sets are also available including motorized elevators and pulleys.

I was not compensated for this review.  I purchased this product myself because it appealed to me and it fit our current curriculum.  The opinion shared here is honest and is solely my own.

Science at Home – Air Has Mass

I’m excited to participate in my first Google+ event … Science at Home.  This month, the topic is Air and I have put together two activities that I know you will enjoy, both of which I have used with my own kiddos.  The focus of the demonstrations is to show that air has mass.  When doing these activities with your children, however, try not to reveal the objective of the demonstration.

Allow students to observe the process without knowing the outcome.  This will help them to write their own title and objectives. Instead of standard after-lab-questions, ask students to complete the missing title and objectives. It is a fun twist and makes the lab more creative and inquiry based.

Science at Home HOA2

Air is the sea of particles in which we live. Wrapped around us like a blanket, students sometimes mistake air as being without mass or weight. I shared two science demonstrations today to prove to students that air does indeed have mass.  

Air Has Mass

In the first activity, two balloons filled with air, will be used to create a balance.  Inflate the two balloons until they are equal in size and tie them off. Attach a piece of string to each balloon. Then, attach the other end of each of the strings to the opposite ends of the meter stick, keeping the balloons the same distance from the end. The balloons will now be able to dangle below the ruler.

Tie the third string to the middle of the meter stick and hang it from the edge of a table or support rod. Adjust the middle string until you find the balance point where the meter stick is parallel to the floor. Once the balance scale set-up is completed, the experiment can begin.

As the kids sketch the set-up, ask them to predict or make an hypothesis about what will happen if you were to poke a hole in one balloon.  Do so and encourage them to record their observations in words or pictures in their journal.

The balloon that remains full of air will cause the ruler to tip showing that the air has weight. The empty balloon’s air escapes into the surrounding room and is no longer contained within the balloon. The compressed air in the balloon has a greater weight than the surrounding air. While the weight itself cannot be measured in this way, the experiment gives indirect evidence that air has mass.

CO2 is Heavier than Air

Another fun demonstration you can do easily at home illustrates that carbon dioxide gas is heavier than air. It takes a little practice but once you’ve got it down it’s pretty fun!  You’ll need two glasses, baking soda, vinegar, and a small candle.  Measure a tablespoon of baking soda into one glass.  Light the candle.  Measure a tablespoon of vinegar and pour it into the glass with the baking soda.  Allow it to bubble for a moment and generate the carbon dioxide gas.  Depending upon the size of your glass, it may bubble over.  No worries.

When the bubbles have receded a little, carefully lift the glass and pour the carbon dioxide gas into the second glass.  Be careful not to pour the liquid; you won’t actually see anything pour – but trust me.  Then, gently lift the second glass (which appears to be empty) and pour it over the burning flame. In just a few seconds, the flame will be extinguished.

In order to burn, fire requires oxygen. Fires start when a flammable material, in combination with a sufficient amount of oxygen gas (or another oxygen-rich compound), is exposed to a source of heat, and is able to sustain a rate of rapid oxidation that produces a chain reaction (the fire tetrahedron).  Fire cannot exist without all of these elements in place and in the right proportions.  When the carbon dioxide gas is poured from the glass, gravity pulls it down and it pushes the oxygen rich air away.  Without oxygen, the flame is extinguished.

Take it Further

Can you find ways to test the mass of different gases?  How could you compare the mass of helium and carbon dioxide?  What can the periodic table tell you about these elements?

In addition to two activities I shared in the hangout today, I also did a few other simple activities with my kiddos which I have described in more detail in an earlier post, Air Pressure and Wind Activities.

If you missed the hangout on Google+, you can see the full video recording at Science at Home.