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Finn Folds

Finn Folds

My sincere apology. Mrs. Brainiac, the long-suffering better half of Brainiac Jerry, is here today to offer a huge apology. I promised Jolene Brainiac I would faithfully write a blog every Friday about creative tinkering, maker spaces, science, engineering, STEM or other engaging hands-on learning activities. Whoops. The last two weeks I neglected this important duty and Jolene Brainiac is on my case to get it done, so here goes.

See Finn Fold

See Finn Fold

I don’t want to make excuses for why I didn’t post my blogs, I just want to EXPLAIN. I’m not sure what the difference between the two is, seems like explaining why I didn’t do it is the same as making excuses but in the interest in getting this blog on the road, let’s continue on.

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

I’m busy. Really busy. I know everyone says that, but I really am busy. Yes, my four kids are grown up and on their own so that should save me some time. And I sold my house and bought a condo so my yard work is done for me. And I don’t volunteer for the fire department since I moved to my condo. I work more regular hours than I used to, not so much overtime.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac's work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac’s work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy. She should use a stopwatch to keep on schedule like Finn does.

So, why am I so busy? Don’t know. Seems like the fewer activities and events I’m involved in, the more busy and frazzled I am. I’m guessing there is a math lesson here somewhere, like “if volunteering (V) plus working (W) plus kids (K) plus overtime (OT) plus cleaning (C)  plus husband (H) equals busy (B), then having less V, W, K, OT and C but the same amount of H should equal less then B.” And yet it equals 2B.

So, what is the common denominator here? And why am using a math metaphor in a science blog?

Let’s look at those equations again.

Equation one: V+W+K+OT+C+H=B

Equation two: H=2B

Comment on this blog post if you think you can explain how these two equations correlate to Why I’m Too Busy to Post My Blog Every Friday Like I Promised.

The explanation will be published in my blog next week. If I’m not too, well, you know.

Air Pressure Experiments (IV): The Big Can Crush

I have a series of air pressure experiments (Air Pressure I – The Small Can Crusher, Air Pressure II – Prank, Air Pressure III – AnticsBernoulli’s Principle), that I’ve done over the years that always amaze my students. I have fun doing these, too. I think when I enjoy a classroom demonstration, my students tend to enjoy it more and participate more, too. Our air pressure science experiments are hands on and applicable to real life. Plus, they’re impressive (or hilarious – check out Air Pressure Prank and Air Pressure Antics). These science activities gets students thinking about air pressure which is an ambiguous concept for students to grasp. We take air pressure for granted. We don’t think about it very often. We notice it in our bags of chips when we’re flying on an air plane. We notice it in the wind and weather. But overall, it’s not as obvious as it is with this Big Can Crush experiment.

What this video doesn’t show are the steps we took before doing this demonstration. We used a clean can, marked square inches, discussed various math concepts like square units and cubic units, and of course air pressure! We heated up some water in this can, removed it from the heat and screwed on the cap. What do you think will happen? Most of my students think it will explode!

Watch what happens:

Air pressure is a force acting on us and in us every moment. If it wasn’t for air pressure in our bodies we’d flatten and crumple like this can! Check our bundled download to try all of these experiments in your own classroom.

Hydroponics 101.1 Chemical Nutrients


We talk about hydroponics and aquaponics around here like it’s NBD. Jolene suggested that I do a hydroponics and an aquaponics 101 for the classroom for those of you who are new to this gardening technique. Hydroponics provides a great opportunity for hands on, authentic learning in the classroom. Since hydroponics deals with nutrients only and aquaponics deals with fish, I will start with the less complex of the two: hydroponics. We’ll first take a look at the nutrients used in hydroponics. Further posts will describe the procedures you can use to set up a hydroponics system in your classroom. After we describe the hydroponics system we will move to the aquaponics system for your classroom. Yes, it is possible to do both in the confines of a single classroom!


Hydroponics is the use of chemical nutrients to grow plants in a medium that does not contain soil. The nutrients used in a hydroponics system contain the typical N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) that we are taught that all plants need for growth. But the nutrients also contain numerous micro-nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. If you think that you can use the fertilizers from a garden center, think again, fertilizers like Miracle Grow are not suited to hydroponics because they lack the micro-nutrients. So while your plants may grow, they will not do as well as if you used the proper nutrients for a hydroponic system. But don’t fret, I’m now going to tell you where and how to get these nutrients very inexpensively!

Nutrients PH-Down

The three nutrients I have used are Epsom salt (Walgreens), calcium nitrate 15.5-0-0
(Amazon) and Tomato 4-18-38 (Amazon). You should also be concerned about the pH of your water. Where I live, in Wisconsin, our pH is about 8.0. Plants like a pH of about 6.5-7.0, so I use a chemical called pH down in my hydroponics tank which holds about 25 gallons (Brew and Grow).


If you have children growing individual plants and your water is alkaline, I have them add a drop of lemon juice to each of the containers every day or two.Hydroponics-101a

Watch for hydroponics 101.2 methods in a future blog post.

A Curious Encounter

Last week our local paper featured an article about a man in our area named Ben. Ben has converted a bicycle to an electric bike by mounting batteries and a motor on to the front wheel. For his next project, he converted a motorcycle to all electric. Finally, he converted a small car to all electric. His mileage for each vehicle is 60-70 miles per charge, which makes each of the vehicles practical for short trips in our area. If you convert the energy used to travel 60 miles using electricity, it comes to about 300 mph of gasoline. Recently, Ben lobbied our city council and convinced them to put in a charging station for electric vehicles behind city hall.

I called Ben and spent about an hour meeting with him at a local coffee shop. I found him to be a fascinating person. We spoke about maker spaces and how important they are in learning. I also found myself reflecting on my shortcomings in regard to learning. I consider myself to be a creative person, but when I compare myself to Ben, I see a fear of mistakes holding me back. The fear of injury when working with electricity. My lack of knowledge with electricity. He pointed out that these problems can be overcome by building knowledge in small steps.

I have resolved that I will begin this summer by building an electric bike using a kit. The best way to get something done is to DO it. Through trial and error I will succeed. We also spoke about how schools are great at teaching kids how to take tests. Where schools fall down is that we don’t teach kids to love learning, to create, to try new things, and that failure is okay. I was brought up in a traditional classroom and learned in traditional ways. What has made me the curious person I am today? I will have to do more thinking on this…stay tuned.

Why It’s Time to Make Learning Fun Again

Yesterday afternoon I visited a former student, Tanya. She was in my fifth grade class in 1993. What a joy it was to see her and meet her family. She is tapping maple trees on her property to make syrup. This is something that she learned in my class. We reminisced about all of the things we did in fifth grade. The many field trips, edible wild plants, rockets, and camp.

Tanya, who is now a school board member at my former school, is passing this passion for learning and trying new things to her children. Her family also raises beef, chickens and sheep on four acres of land. Tanya’s husband, Dave is a tool and die maker and is adept at fabricating tools. This led us to a discussion about educational philosophy. We discussed how schools have developed a culture of testing and the negative effects on children. We spoke about how learning should be novel, hands-on and authentic and the importance of play and imagination in the learning process. We talked about how maker’s labs can foster that kind of learning.

Tapping a sugar maple tree!

Sugar maple tree tap.

Too often as teachers, we are overwhelmed with all of the things that we have to get done in our classrooms and it is difficult to step out and develop new things. I want to encourage you as a teacher to put aside the textbook, and engage in something fun and novel for both you and your students.

Yes, it is scary to step out of your comfort zone, but it is equally rewarding for both you and your students. Will you fail? Yes, you probably will at some aspect of your activity. This is how you learn. Revise what went wrong and then set the activity aside for next year and try a new activity. 



If you set a goal of developing a hands-on activity once a week or even once a month it will make your job a lot more fun and will provide for an enjoyable learning experience for your students. Build your repertoire of activities and soon your classroom will be the talk of the school!