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About Rock-It Science

Known to his many homeschooled students as "Mr. Mack," John (an Engineer by training) teaches the popular Rock-It Science Classes for Homeschoolers in Santa Clara, California.

John's classes use a sort of "fractured fairytale" to introduce a science puzzle, that the students must then attempt to solve through hands-on science experimentation.

Kids in John's classes get to use wonderful resources like welding tools, laser technology, and dangerous chemicals (albeit under the strictest safety guidelines). He blends the use of real science tools, with real science techniques, to give kids a real appreciation for science. Many of his experiments do not require sophisticated equipment -- and can be replicated at home. View a 5-minute video of Rock-it Science's "Mr. Mack" on Google Video.

In fact, through Homefires exclusive arrangement with Mr. Mack, he has developed three Rock-It Science story-experiments you can do at home with your kids:

Each lesson is free. Get one or all 3 of Mr. Mack's Rock-It Science Stories Now!

Homefires' Virtual Homeschool Conference presents...

Science Q & A With Mr. Mack of Rock-It Science

In this Question and Answer session conducted with homeschool parents, you'll discover some of Mr. Mack's best ideas for learning science with your kids. He offers ideas about teaching science to kids ages 5-15. To preview some of Mr. Mack's cool science experiments and to see a schedule of the classes he offers in the San Francisco Bay Area visit his website. You can also purchase some of his Rock-It Science Stories and Experiments to do at home.

Science with Trains?

Q: I have a child with a consuming interest in trains. He will be 6 soon. We do language arts with trains, math with trains, social science with trains, etc., but I'm a bit at a loss of how to do science with trains. Any ideas would be most welcome.

A: Regarding science with trains for a six year old boy; I would buy an inexpensive train set, find some cheap electric motors at Radio Shack, cut up a string of the small Christmas lights, and pick out a few dozen things that could be tested for conduction of electricity.

The train set alone can provide many experiments:

  • How much weight can the engine pull?
  • How steep can the track be?
  • How can you keep the train on the track for a fast curve? (Tilt the track)
  • How does the electricity get into the engine?
  • How can you get the biggest sparks from the transformer?
  • What happens if a spare piece of track falls across the rails when the train is running? The key is to spend time with him and find things that spark his interest.

Don't use this as a way to keep him busy while you do something else for safety purposes.

The transformer and rails alone can be used to test low voltage lights.

Christmas tree lights, when cut out of the string, will work fine across the train tracks (don't turn the voltage too high at the beginning because they burn out). Lights can be connected individually with each end of each light touching a rail (a parallel circuit) and they can be chained together with just the two ends touching a different rail (a series circuit). The electric motors can be hooked up the same way. Any object can be placed on one rail with one wire from the light on top of it and the other wire on the other rail to test for conductivity (pencil lead works but it may get hot!). That's a few of the things you can do with an electric train; if you get a steam engine the experiments can become fascinating!

Science and Dinosaurs?

Q: I have a basic question about oil and dinosaurs. What is the specific relationship? I would like fossil fuel details. My grandson is asking - we have checked websites on dino's, but I haven't seen this discussed.

A: I've also heard reports that our oil was created from the bodies of dinosaurs and forests that have decomposed under just the right conditions. There is some basis for this (at least with the forests) because when we want to make charcoal for our barbeque all a person has to do is put some pieces of wood in a covered iron pot and place the pot in a hot fire. After awhile, flames start coming out from the cracks around the cover. If the pot has a metal tube coming out from the bottom, there will be some oily-looking liquid that comes out (terpentine, liquified pitch, and other flammable stuff). So with a small jump of the imagination one could envision an entire forest engulfed by the earth and heated to such a degree that it could decompose into oil. The only problem is that no one has been able to do this! We can turn carbon into diamond and we can turn coal into a flammable liquid by exposing it to very high temperature steam but getting crude oil has escaped us.

If anyone can figure this out they could then win $64,000 by answering the age-old question: "How many dinosaurs does it take to make a barrel of oil?"

Ideas for Electronics Experiments?

Q: Can you recommend some good books (appropriate for a 9 year old) with electronics experiments in them? My son has already checked out every book they have on the subject at our small library (some of them more than once) and wants to move on to something new.

A: Electronics projects are available at Radio Shack but you have to ask a clerk for the catalog of project kits. There are also a number of outfits that sell electronic components and every so often they will publish a booklet of projects. Try these sources:

Outdoor Group Science Activities for Kids Ages 5-8?

Q: I am looking for some good outdoor science activities to do with a group. A friend and I are starting a homeschooling science field trip group. The group will be geared towards younger kids aged 5-8 or so. The purpose of the group is to explore the many different ecosystems that we have here in Sonoma County, and get to know about where we are living. The way we want to do the group is to start with a short hands on activity, and then spend the rest of the time exploring and playing. Any suggestions?

A: Outdoor Science Activities for Children 5-8:

LEAF SEARCH: You first wander around and pick leaves from a variety of bushes and trees. When the group is together you give a leaf to each child and let them run around and try to find another leaf just like the one you gave them. We then do rubbings of the leaves and then the children get to make up a name for their leaf. This can be adapted for insects, rocks, types of soil, bark, moss, etc. In areas of poison oak or stinging nettles we make sure everyone is aware of these!

TREE CLIMBING: Far too many children haven't had an opportunity to climb trees! Find a parent with the ropes and climbing harness and have them set up a belay system in an easily climbable tree like a redwood or cedar then the parent can take some time to explain the equipment before the children get a chance to do some climbing. While up there they can look for bugs and birds and differences in the tree bark and leaves.

COAT HANGER HABITAT: Give each child a coat hangar, some white cardboard, and a magnifying glass. They then choose a spot for their hangar and draw pictures of any critters they find within the boundary of the hangar.

Outdoor Science Activities for Teens?

Q: The outdoor activities sound great -- are there suggestions for outdoor science activities for teens -13-16?

A: For teens I usually stress survival and teamwork skills:

  • Throw a stout rope over a branch and have a group of 6 try to lift only the one holding the knotted end of the rope. (Caution pullers to stand as far apart as possible on alternating sides of the rope so they won't fall in a heap).
  • If you have a pulley, try it again with the rope going through the pulley.
  • Tie a stout rope to the bumper of a car and a tree about 20 feet away. Make the rope tight. (Caution! Nylon ropes will whip back if they break! We use hemp rope.) Let everyone try to tight-rope walk without help at first and then with help from one, two, and then 4 others.
  • Make a bow with heavy twine or nylon and a green stick, bring along two small boards (about the size of a hand), find some dry moss and a straight dry stick. Spin the stick between the boards with the bow and try to get the moss to burn.
  • Lash together some sticks so that they can support the weight of 5 gallons of water in a garbage bag at least three feet above the ground.
  • Using a big blue tarp or a parachute have everyone try to launch an orange as high as possible. (Water balloons can choke birds when left in a field).
  • Give each group of 4 a stick, a string, and a rock. Tell them to go out and make as many different TYPES of measurements as they can. (length, area, volume, speed, angle, weight, etc).

Hope this sparks some ideas for your group.

Ideas for Robotics?

Q: I have a 6 year old that loves robotics. I am not robotics inclined and am looking for ways to facilitate his interests. We have Lego Mindstorm and Robotix systems. I would like to give him a foundation from which he can follow his interests but I am uncertain as to what basic information and skills would be. What can I do with him to build his skills?

A: A six year old boy could get a lot out of taking apart robotic toys. This is best accomplished with toys that are reasonably old with some broken features. With pliers and a screw driver he can disassemble the toys and see what makes them work. This process will teach the use of tools, how strong the materials are, and how things can move. As he progresses, keep a box of useful parts available (motors, batteries, lights, etc.), and wait until he starts putting parts back together in different ways or (hopefully) reassembles the toy so that it works again!

If this play time is organized as an appropriate way to learn about machines and you take time to share in his discoveries, he'll be on his way to making machines that can become robots. My children branched out into disassembling other things around the house so some rules must be set that provide safety for the child and your other stuff.

Marine Biology?

Q: My 4 year old loves marine life. His favorites are squid, octopi and hammerhead sharks. Any ideas or suggestions for activities?

A: As far as the marine life I wouldn't recommend a fish tank just yet. Trips to the beach can be a lot of fun if you plan on being there at low tide for the shells and a better view of the tide pools. We try to arrange it so that one parent finds cool stuff and secretly places it so that the children will find it. Don't worry about knowing the correct names for the creatures; the important thing is sharing your time and enthusiasm with your children.

Preserving Bones?

Q: My grands and I have an entire deer skeleton! It has been picked visually clean, but I think that there may be more to sanitation safety than that. We would like to reconstruct it in the manner that they would in an exhibit. So that in the end it would be standing upright. Any directions or resources would be welcome.

A: What a find you have! I've never done this before but this is a perfect opportunity to contact some experts to see what they have to say.

The sanitation of old bones is a good question. I've soaked them in a bleach solution of 1 ounce household bleach to 1 gallon of water with some success. We left the bones in for two days. To remove the bleach smell just spray the bones with 3% hydrogen peroxide. Drying needs to be accomplished immediately and thoroughly or the bones (especially the intricate sinus passages in the skull) will begin to mold. Again, I would check on-line for hints about the marrow bones and how to keep them from developing bacteria.

Human skeleton reconstruction is easier because it can be hung from a wire. Building a structure to support a deer is another thing if you want the bones easily visible. A friend in the welding business may prove valuable.

Let me know if you run into problems with it.

Resources for Bright Future Scientists?

Q: I have a 15 year old daughter who is extremely bright. Her written language Score is grade 16! She has had an interest in becoming a veterinarian since she was 5 years old, and is extremely self motivated. At her last public school she was in honors science. Can you recommend some materials/activities for her in the areas of science and or biology?

A: My daughter was in the same boat but with the complication of not having good teachers available at the high school. We were able to enroll her in the Middle College program at De Anza College and that suited her perfectly. A number of home schooling parents are taking advantage of the excellent resources in the community colleges for individual courses. The only problem is finding the good teachers. It would be wonderful if someone would create a rating system for their teachers (we used to have one at San Jose State).

Advice for Girls Who Love Science?

Q: My nine year old daughter is very interested in robotics/AI, spaceship and lunar colony design, and zoology. That's a bit of a range! I think we're doing okay in letting her be challenged in the robotics and space arenas--there have been some terrific books published lately, such as "Robo Sapiens" and "Mission to Mars". We have also done the Robotix kits with her (she found it too difficult physically to snap the pieces together herself)--these are also usually out for anyone to use at the Tech Museum in San Jose if anyone else's children are interested! We've pulled apart computers and camcorders and cameras with her and examined their insides.

And recently she built a lunar colony out of Lego. Still, any ideas would be great-- The zoology part is more difficult. She knows and learns a great deal about individual animal types on her own, but wants both to put it all in a larger framework and to examine animal and animal/plant differences at the cellular/microscopic level. Do you (or anyone else) have any suggestions for books or web sites or kits that might help? She reads at a young adult level. I would love to interest her in any relevant (organic?) chemistry--any suggestions of demonstrations or experiments that might be appropriate? Any good books or ideas about genetics that aren't too difficult?

A: It sounds like you have the academics covered and your involvement with your daughter is commendable. Now consider the gender thing... being female in a technical field is not easy! My oldest daughter is now 22 and studying materials engineering at San Jose State, she is attractive and intelligent but could not possibly survive in that environment if it weren't for her ability to handle the guys and their constant struggle to exert their leadership over hers. So, anything you can do to give your daughter assertiveness training, kick boxing, and the ability to give a disapproving look to sexist remarks all with a sense of humor will improve her chances of survival a lot!