Science starts at home...

A Space for Science

Creating the Ultimate ExplorationStation in your home

By Michael Sheppard
Is it Love or is it Science?

Childhood is a time of love and connection, when our windows of perception are open wide. Babies, it is said, experience oneness with their caretakers. We learn who we are by bonding with the warm bodies that nurture us. From that root we branch out and connect with the world that surrounds us, first by melding with this world and then by differentiating ourselves within it. Childhood is the time of first encounters, of pure unbiased connection withour given corner of the universe. Could this be our prime time to connect in meaningful, intentional and thoughtful ways with our surroundings? Is this starting to sound like “science”?

Children are “natural scientists.” Without lab coats ordiplomas, they are on the job. Children don’t just learn, they learn with anemotion close to affection. This deep sense of wonder and unity guided the works of our greatest artists and scientists. Sift through the quotes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla and discover that they speak of science with words of reverie that compare to love letters.
Is it Art or is it Science?

I get a kick every time I ask a group of campers at our summer technology and design camp (Big Sky Build It!), “What is the difference between art and science?” First come the crooked eyebrows as if to say, “You’re the teacher. If you can’t see such an obvious difference then we might need some new leadership around here.” Then some unassuming 5-year-old pipes up with, “Art is painting and science is learning about stuff.” An older thinker chimes in, “Art is for fun and science is for exploring things.” Just to throw confusion into chaos I ask, “What about the difference between math, writing, history, art and science?” The conversation is off and running and a hive of brilliant minds starts buzzing. By the end of circle time the eyebrows are again skewed – this time from the sheer logic of the camper who said, “Science is all of thesethings. It is math, writing, history and art all mushed together.”

Let’s get Constructivist!

Rather than take the “basic skills” approach (old school style)let’s take the “constructivist” approach. Constructivism refers to the creation of rich educational environments where students learn from active exploration. Less like a classroom and more like a good children’s museum, constructivist educators create a place where learning moments can happen. Constructivist teachers acknowledge that kids create their own understandings through direct experience and spontaneous interaction with their peers and mentors.
The UltimateExploration Station

Let’s make the Ultimate Exploration Station, a compact kid-friendly laboratory that will grow along with your budding scientist.

(Warning: Creating an exploration station may result in the presence ofslimy, green, noisy, stinky, bulky and/or moving phenomena in your home. Additionally, you may experience accumulating piles of artifacts, including but not limited to old electronics, magazine clippings, leaves, shoe boxes, etc. Limited available parking space in garage may result in later years. Proceed with caution, or better yet, throw caution to the wind.)

While a shoe box and empty peanut butter jar are all you really need to get started, here is a more comprehensive list drawn from our work at Big Sky and from interviews with some of our students about their home exploration stations:

The Work Space

A trip to the local big-box store or a creative encounter with an appliance box will get you a surface large enough (and low enough) for your child. I am a fan of 90-degree corner stations. Cover the worktop with well-fitting rectangles of cardboard. Science is hard on tables.

A small stool is optimal. Desk chairs with wheels can become unsafe while working with delicate, sharp, hot or breakable materials.

Long rolls of thick red or brown “construction” paper can be found in the paint section of Home Depot. Use blue masking tape to fix the paper tothe floor under and around your workstation.

Teach your children the importance of good desk lighting. Scienceis about observation, and observation is mostly about seeing what is going on. Good lighting is essential.

Storage deserves careful thought. Random sized topless boxes soon overflow. Plastic rolling drawer units are cheaply had at Target. A few vintage suitcases and makeup totes from Open Hands allow for portable science toolboxes and project storage. Similar sized, plastic bins work well, and be sure to include a few multi-partitioned craft boxes from Hobby Lobby for little stuff. Label everything.

Whatever storage system you create, it will surely evolve overtime. A disorganized work area can take your young scientist down one of two roads: a discouraging path of frustration or a path toward valuableorganizational skills. Help your child down the latter road.
Reference Area

While a computer can produce images and text about everything from Albuquerque to Zanzibar, a book can do what computers can’t. Computer research is fraught with distracting advertisements and temptation to skip from site to site (to game, to chat, to eBay, to ...). Books invite concentration and offera cohesive narrative about a subject. It’s much harder to be distracted whenreading books. Pushing on a book’s cover does not result in instant access togames or chats with friends. Books and magazines are still important, and a shelf of them deserves a place at your exploration station.
Display Area

Science is about documenting ideas and observations. Make sure there is plenty of wall space and a cork board for that unusual fall leaf orthat blueprint of an oil slurping robot in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gear Up

The stage is set, and it’s time to tool up. A quick call to the relatives for any spare tools usually results in a windfall of equipment. Who doesn’t have old tools in the garage that they would rather see in the hands of a bright young tinkerer? Specialized science tools will have to be ordered, and the Web will make quick work of that.
Early Science can be broken down into three skill areas:

1. Observation

2. Classification (identification)

3. Communication
Each of these areas requires its own toolbox. “The right tool for the right job”goes the timeless proverb, although I prefer the words of my hero Benjamin Franklin who said, “You have to learn to file with a saw and saw with a file.”

A truly comprehensive equipment list is just way too long for a Tumbleweeds article, but here are some ideas to get you going, divided by the function they serve:


• Eye Loop. The top tool of budding scientists. Hang one around your child’s neck and they will inspect their toothbrush bristles, shoe bottoms and dinner veggies with 10x magnification.

• Binocular Microscope. Worth the investment. Try your luck on eBay or Craigslist, or order one from Edmund Scientific.


• Ruler

• Tape measure

• Measuring spoons/cups

• Scale or balance. Digitals are neat, but searchout a triple beam lab balance or a mechanical postage balance, commonly foundat garage sales.

• Thermometer. Meat or candy thermometers are easyto get at the grocery or cooking store. Infrared non-contact thermometers makea great stocking stuffer and are found in wide variety on


• Paper. Invest in a roll of paper with a quality dispenser (

• Pencils and a respectable sharpener (Ex-Acto hand-crankmodel from Office Max)

• Crayons and markers

• Small cheap video camera and still camera

• Magnetic bulletin board or corkboard. You can make your own out of a piece of sheet rock and a set of heavy duty T pins (found at Joanne’s) or oversized thumb tacks (Hobby Lobby).


See our evolving list of resources at bigskylearning.comfor more ideas; look for “Exploration Station” in our News and Resources section.

Some of you might now be quietly muttering,“Building an exploration station is akin to feeding a stray puppy. It seems innocent enough until you find yourself one day living with a big dog drooling on your furniture and eating you out of house and home.” There is some validity to this concern. More than a few Santa Fe parents have thrown up the white flagof surrender as their child’s bedroom becomes unwalkable, the garage unparkableand the garden shed unopenable (lest a tower of stored “science supplies”tumble out and bury the unsuspecting gardener).

“There is nowhere to walk in his room, “ explained Dahlia Cummings, mother of Big Sky camper Anasha Cummings. At age 6, Anasha shuffled in to his first Big Sky robotics camp. At age 20, he is finishing his junior year at Rensselaer Polytechnic, and his room, according to his mother, is still a mad scientist’s laboratory, an exploration station run amuck. 

Aaron Ross, our current project manager established his exploration station during his early years at Big Sky. Each week he surprises me with the current news from his bedroom. “My rare earth magnet motor is working now.” “You know, it’s very easy to build an iron forge. I made one with a few bricks and some junk from under my bed." “Through my microscope,”he explained recently, “I am seeing forms of life in my biosphere that I cannot identify.”

I encourage you, oh fearless parent, to still your concerns about smelly bedroom biospheres and set your young scientist upwith an exploration station of their own. Great minds grow from these teetering piles and slime filled jars. And you can always park your car in the driveway.

We would love to post a picture of your child’s explorationstation for other kids to see. Send us a picture or additional items you have found useful, and we will post it. Good exploring!
Michael Sheppard directs Big Sky BuildIt!, a summer art and science program for learners 5 and up, and is a  education at the Santa Fe Community College.