Sunday, October 1, 2000

Teacher gives OK to make a mess

In class with Janet Parks Chahrour

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Janet Parks Chahrour is hearing a lot about messy kitchens these days.

        “It comes from parents. Their kids use the book and sometimes they get messy.”

        The book is Flash! Bang! Pop! Fizz! (Barron's; $14.95), a collection of activities and science experiments kids can do at home with basic household materials.

[photo] Science teacher Janet Chahrour demonstrates her Instant Merinque science project she makes out of water, baking soda, egg white and citric acid.
(Brandi Stafford photos)
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        It's a book she wants 5- to 14-year-olds to use. Like maybe flip to experiment No. 9, make a Ping-Pong ball dance and then wonder why the heck it did that.

        To get from wondering to knowing she ends each experiment with a series of questions that force the experimenter to draw small conclusions that eventually lead to that light bulb going on above the head.

        “I want them to make connections from there and apply them to life. Like the ball: Once they understand why it does what it does, they have a grasp of Bernoulli's Principle and all of a sudden can understand the air pressure phenomenon behind lift on airplane wings.”

        Ms. Chahrour's book is new, but her habit of whipping up experiments and asking questions isn't: The 47-year-old Loveland resident has been doing it for the past 22 years teaching physical science to middle schoolers at Cincinnati Country Day.

        The book is just an expansion of her class.

        “I've been using similar books in class for years, but I always had a problem with them because they'd describe the experiment, then right away explain what happened. They never got to the meat of the issue — why it was happening. My goal was to get at the concept, but to do it simply enough that anyone could understand.

        “The tricky part was coming up with things that are safe but still cool and interesting.”

[photo] Ms. Chahrour demonstrates the elasticity of her Fabulous Play Gloop she makes out of Elmer's Glue-All, Sta-Flo Liquid Starch, and food coloring
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        And messy.

        “Yes, I do hear about wrecked kitchens every now and then.”

        No wrecked bookstores . . . yet. Since Flash was published in early summer, she's been taking it to stores and doing demonstrations. Like “Be A Swinger” at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. It involves balancing a glass of water on a tray then swinging over your head.

        “It has the potential for mess, but really, science is on your side here. We had laughs and a lot of shocked expressions, but no mess.

        “And a lot of questions.”

        How about a few more? Say a game of fill in the blanks?

        “Ask it.”

        The one thing I want people to take away from this book ...

Is that anyone can do science and understand enough to connect it to life. I want them to understand that the universe is orderly and that these amazing things do make sense in such a straightforward way that anyone can figure it out.

        Some people are afraid of science because ...

        They are sure they can't do it. They think you need a really high IQ or something. But learning begins with a good experience and that's what I want this book to be.

        One thing I keep hearing about this book ...

        How much they like stuff they can play with, touch, feel. Especially Fabulous Play Gloop, a mixture of Elmer's Glue, liquid starch and food coloring. It feels neat, plus you can make all kinds of neat shapes.

        One thing I would really like to hear someone say about this book ...

        That kids' understanding of physical science and the scientific method improves as a result of using it.

        Something even non-scientific minds can take away ...

        There's really no such thing as a non-scientific mind. Nobody is out of the running, because everyone can develop a greater appreciation for physical laws.

        In 22 years of teaching science, it still surprises me ...

        That people don't automatically make the connection and apply what they learn in class to what they do at breakfast or on the soccer field.

        Sometimes, I ask kids to write down eight chemical reactions in their day. Things like burnt toast, they never get it. I ask them why their coach has them crouch down on the playing field. They know they do, but they don't connect it to their center of gravity.

        I think I can teach anyone science because ...

        I love it, and I'm not so smart that I can't relate to what it's like not to understand. Physics didn't come easily to me, so I do relate. But if I can find some connection to their experience, then I think I can teach the law behind it.

        One mystery of science I'd like to see solved ...

        Cold fusion. It would be a cheap, endless source of energy that would revolutionize life as we know it.

        My students most frequently ask ...

Why? And it's the most difficult question to answer. To observe and describe is easy, but to say why, we don't always know. That's when you realize we know so little about so much.

        The other really popular question: Is this going to be on the test?

        Janet Parks Chahrour speaks and demonstrates at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 at Barnes & Noble's Fields Ertel branch; 683-5599. Free.


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