Hands-on Science: An Interview with Aurora Lipper

October 5–9, 2015   |   Vol. 124, Programs 56–60

What science topics should you should be teaching to your child—and in what order? Tune in to Homeschool Heartbeat, as your host Mike Smith discusses science options with Aurora Lipper, a real rocket scientist and an online science teacher.

“Science isn’t about what we know; it’s about how we handle what we don’t know.”—Aurora Lipper

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Wondering what to teach your child in science? Looking for step–by–step guides for lab experiments? Follow the link to obtain these free resources from Supercharged Science, designed specifically for Homeschool Heartbeat listeners!

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When something doesn’t work the way you thought it would, don’t get upset. Why not turn it into a science experiment? Today on Homeschool Heartbeat, rocket scientist Aurora Lipper shares her tips for fun and easy science experiments.

Mike Smith:I’m joined today by Aurora Lipper. She’s a rocket scientist and a former university professor. And she’s the creator of an online science curriculum called Supercharged Science. Aurora, welcome to the program!

Aurora Lipper:Hi, Mike! Thanks for having me. It’s really a privilege to be with you here on the show.

Mike:Well, thank you. Aurora, you clearly have a healthy respect for science. What makes this such an important subject for students?

Aurora:Well, if you just look at the world around us, science and technology, I mean, it’s everywhere, you know—the phone in your pocket, or the rockets that are launching satellites into orbit. Whether you’re looking at renewable energy sources, or even in the medical field, science is really the foundation for all of these things.

And not only that, it’s also the foundation for a lot of critical and analytical thinking, so kids have a true understanding of this amazing world that we live in.

Mike:But not every student will go on to be an engineer or a chemist. So how will studying science benefit them?

Aurora:Well, even if they’re not planning to go into science, having an understanding of science helps kids develop (believe it or not) a more creative thought process. You know, true science involves a great deal of innovation and creativity, as you can imagine when you look at these great scientists through history.

So even if a child grows up to be an artist or a business–person, this creativity and innovation that they learn through hands–on science, together with applying the things in the world around them, will help them do their jobs even better.

I mean, think about Benjamin Franklin. He was a great scientist, but he also was an amazing political and social innovator. He applied his scientific techniques that he used with his thinking to solve the social and political problems in his day.

So kids that have a solid science and technology background, they’re also going to be better equipped to go to college, and will have many more choices once they get out into the real world.

Mike:Well thanks, Aurora. You’ve said that many children today are bored by science. Why do you think that’s the case?

Aurora:Well, science is about figuring out how things work. And unfortunately, most science curriculums, they focus on using a textbook and having kids remember facts and equations that the kids have no connection with the real world. It’s like reading a book on how to drive a car, but you never actually get to get in the car and learn how to drive. So since textbook theory is so disconnected from what real scientists and engineers do, it’s no surprise that kids find it totally boring.

However, I’ve found that when kids learn science through hands–on projects and experiments, 90 percent of the kids who were bored by science before suddenly become interested, if not totally fascinated by it. And this shift is so huge to watch, it’s almost unbelievable until you see it.

Now most kids, for example, learn how gasses expand when they are heated. And they probably get bored and yawn when you tell them that. But if you tell a kid to put a bar of Ivory soap in the microwave and watch what happens, then come back and explain why it works to you—I have yet to see a kid who was not fascinated and curious about why the soap does what it does in the microwave.

And by the way, it does have to be Ivory soap when you do this.

Mike:Well is that kind of dangerous to the microwave, though?

Aurora:No—you can use the soap and the microwave when you’re done!

Mike:So how can parents make science exciting for their children?

Aurora:It’s really two simple steps. First, you’ve got to get the kids genuinely interested and excited about a topic by giving them hands–on activities and experiments that make what they’re learning about meaningful.

And then, once a kid does the experiment or the project, they’re naturally curious about how it works or how to make it better. And this is when you introduce the academics, strategically, to help them use it as a tool to answer their own questions. After all, you know how easy it is to teach kids something once they already want to learn it.

We use this approach not only to teach kids to learn academics more easily, but also so they understand it on a deeper level and remember it for years.

Mike:Aurora, you’ve built an online science curriculum called Supercharged Science. What inspired you to start this program?

Aurora:When I was working on my PhD at Stanford University, I had a part–time job teaching science at a children’s museum. And after that, I went on to teach hands–on science in classrooms all over the county. And teachers were so intrigued by how their kids were excited to learn science when I taught using this special hands–on approach that we talked about earlier. Word got around quickly.

And I realized, though, that I was really limited in the number of kids that I could teach and I could reach. So I teamed up with my husband to bring what I was doing in the classroom online, so I could share it with kids all over the world.

Mike:On your site, you talk about finding science topics that are appropriate for different grade levels. Can you give us some general principles for picking science topics that will work for our children?

Aurora:This is such a great question, Mike! It reminds me of a lady who wrote to me in an email basically shouting the question, “Just tell me what I should be teaching in science!”

A lot of parents are frustrated by this. But it doesn’t have to be hard. So let me give you some quick guidance here.

As kids advance through science, what they learn builds on what they studied in the previous levels. So the goal here is to make sure that they get the right topics in an order that makes sense. And (for example) in grades 1–3, kids learn about life science, earth science, physics and motion, light, and the basics of how to do an experiment. But when they hit grade levels 4 and 5—and by the way, the actual grade levels for a given topic will vary, depending on the interest and ability of the kids—the kids should be learning things like electricity, and magnetism, and energy waves, in addition to more advanced experimentation techniques.

Now, I’ve put together a complete guide that outlines every grade level, and exactly what kids should be learning and by when. And parents can download it for free by going to the link in my bio.

Mike:What are the key ingredients of a great science experiment?

Aurora:First, you want to pick something that doesn’t work the way you want to, or something that you don’t understand how it works.

Suppose you’ve got, like, one of those balsa wood glider airplanes, and it doesn’t fly the way you want it to. Maybe it nose–dives. Well you’ve got to get curious about why it does that. What happens if you move the wings forward a bit? Or what if you take off the rudder? The best experiments start with having the kids do things like this, and having them be curious about why it does what it does.

Science isn’t about what we know; it’s about how we handle what we don’t know. It’s not a textbook of facts to memorize, but it’s something you do. Science is when you ask questions about something that you don’t understand, and you figure out the answers based on what you see.

Mike:Can you give us some fun and easy science experiments for our listeners to try at home?

Aurora:Oh, sure! This one’s really cool, and it’s pretty simple.

In science fiction movies like Star Trek, they use energy plasma to power their spaceships. Well, energy plasma, it’s a real type of energy—it’s actually the fourth state of matter (the first three are solid, liquid, and gas). And you can actually make some right in your kitchen.

You’re going to take a grape and you slice it in half the long way, but leave a little thin bit of skin connecting the two halves, so it opens like a book. And you put it on a plate and microwave it for 10 seconds. You’ll get a colorful plume of energy to rise up from the grape after just a few seconds. And this is energy plasma. (It does take a few tries to get this right.)

I actually do have a step–by–step video guide on how to do this and more. It’s available on the link in my bio.

Mike:Normally you’d hear someone say, “Don’t try this at home.” But these experiments are perfect for young scientists. So do try them in your home!

Aurora:I had one more. Did you want me to do one more?


Aurora:Most kids have done the baking soda and vinegar experiment. But what do you think might happen if you put the baking soda in a small container with a tight–fitting lid, and then put the vinegar in just as you’re closing the lid? Well, you just made yourself a small rocket.

Mike:It just takes off, huh?

Aurora:It does! They go about 20 or 30 feet, and they work way better if you use Alka–Seltzer. But most people don’t have that in their home, so we just say baking soda and vinegar. But anything that you combine that will make bubbles will work.

Mike:Many homeschool parents want their kids to excel at science. But they may not feel equipped to teach it themselves. What advice do you have for these parents?

Aurora:Great question. The key is to find a program or a curriculum that really does get kids excited about science. Now, maybe it’s another parent who’s an engineer or a pilot, who’s passionate about science and also about homeschooling. Or maybe it’s choosing a hands–on curriculum, like my e–science curriculum. And honestly, one of the main reasons I created my curriculum is, it’s put together in a way that lets parents who don’t have a background, or time to teach it, give their kids a great science education.

However you teach science, the key is that the teacher needs to be excited about it themselves. Now if your teacher is bored, the kids are going to learn very little. I mean, think about your own education. Aren’t there a few teachers who really stand out as being really great? Most often, these are the ones that were really passionate about teaching.

So science—if it’s not something that you’re excited about personally, that’s OK. Find a curriculum that is taught by someone who is excited about science, and who can share that enthusiasm with your kids.

Mike:Well, what are some of the most important things to remember about teaching science?

Aurora:Well, science is about inspiring curiosity and excitement about science in kids. It’s not just about cramming a lot of facts and equations into their heads. If kids are genuinely interested and excited in science, they will want to learn the academics. And then teaching them these things is easy. So at this stage, we want kids to be doing a lot of hands–on experiments and projects to help build that curiosity.

Mike: Well, Aurora, it’s been a real pleasure to have you on the show this week, and I hope our listeners are encouraged to get out there and start exploring the world of science. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Aurora LipperAurora Lipper

Aurora Lipper attended Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering (with a minor in Mathematics and senior project in Rocket Science) in June 1996. While in California, Aurora received an Air Force sponsorship to pursue further studies in a master’s program with Edwards Air Force Base in Dryden, California. She was also a student pilot and shortly thereafter received her private pilot license. In June 1997, Aurora received a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cal Poly State University, with a thesis in flow patterns of F–15 engines and a 4.0 GPA, and was awarded Graduation with Distinction.

Aurora returned to the university and taught for several years as an engineering instructor at Cal Poly State University while creating her own unique set of physical science lessons for younger kids based on the college lectures. Those lessons became the foundation for Aurora’s business, Supercharged Science, which provides inspiring and exciting science education to families and educators. For more information, visit superchargedscience.com.

To get your free resources from Supercharged Science, follow the link in the “Offer” box above.

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