from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1996

Good publications for your professional library

The Exploratorium Science Snackbook series:

The Magic Wand and Other Bright Experiments
on Light and Color.
1995.125 pages.

The Cheshire Cat and Other Eye-Popping Experiments
on How We See the World
. 1995. 114 pages.

The Cool Hot Rod and Other Electrifying Experiments
on Energy and Matter.
1996. 100 pages.

The Spinning Blackboard and Other Dynamic Experiments
on Force and Motion.
1996. 112 pages.

Copyrighted by the Exploratorium (San Francisco, California).
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 605 Third Avenue,
New York City, New York 10158.

The Genius Is Still There

Lawrence S. Lerner

The Exploratorium, the famous science-learning center in San Francisco, is a cavern full of wonders for children and adults alike. It has a multitude of scientific exhibits, and almost all of them invite -- no, compel -- the visitor to use his hands, his eyes and his mind. This is, of course, the way to learn science.

Some years ago the Exploratorium staff undertook to export this experience to the classroom and even the home. Working with a group of classroom teachers, they designed 107 activities based on Exploratorium exhibits, and they published these in a single paperback volume called The Exploratorium Science Snackbook. I had the pleasure of reviewing the Snackbook for The Textbook Letter, and I found it delightful: a treasure chest for anyone having even the slightest interest in natural science. The activities, called "snacks," were simple, cheap and easy to construct, and they didn't interpose barriers of mysterious, intimidating equipment between the observer and the phenomena being observed. [See "This Delicious Scientific Buffet Is Strongly Recommended" in TTL, May-June 1994.]

Now the Snackbook has been acquired by John Wiley & Sons, a major commercial publisher, and Wiley has converted it into the Exploratorium Science Snackbook Series -- four paperback booklets that reproduce 96 of the original 107 activities. Wiley possesses the resources to market the Series nationally, and one hopes that this will make the Exploratorium's clever work available to a far larger audience.

Apart from the elimination of eleven activities (the reason for which is not clear to me), the differences between the Series and the ancestral Snackbook are not great.

One welcome difference is an improvement in organization. In the Snackbook, the activities were arranged alphabetically by their somewhat arbitrary titles, rather than being arranged by subject. Hence, for example, the activity called "Moiré Patterns" (dealing with light) was followed by "Momentum Machine" (dealing with mechanics), "Motor Effect" (dealing with magnetism), and "Non-Round Rollers" (dealing with geometry). In the new Series, the activities have been divided among four subject categories, with each category commanding one of the four booklets: The Spinning Blackboard and Other Dynamic Experiments on Force and Motion covers mechanics, The Cheshire Cat and Other Eye-Popping Experiments on How We See the World covers perception (mainly visual), The Magic Wand and Other Bright Experiments on Light and Color deals with geometric and physical optics, and The Cool Hot Rod and Other Electrifying Experiments on Energy and Matter deals with electromagnetism and thermal phenomena.

Each booklet has some pleasant but unimportant front matter, and the activities have undergone some copy-editing, mainly for style. Curiously, though, two experiments in The Cool Hot Rod are still titled "Circles of Magnetism I" and "Circles of Magnetism IV," though there is no II or III. "Circles of Magnetism IV" happens to be one of my favorite snacks: a qualitative demonstration of Ampere's law, employing a strip of aluminum foil, a lantern battery, some wire, and some Tinkertoy supports. Another of my favorites is "Balancing Ball," which not only demonstrates Bernoulli's principle but also gives a correct qualitative explanation of how an aircraft wing generates lift. Another is "Inverse Square Law," which provides a quantitative demonstration of how the intensity of light from a point source diminishes with distance.

Within each booklet, the experiments are still presented in alphabetical rather than logical order, and this is now a greater drawback than it was before. The original Snackbook measured 8.5 by 11 inches and was three-hole punched, so one could easily tear the book apart, change the order of the snacks, and store the pages in a loose-leaf binder that would lie flat when it was opened on a table or a laboratory bench. The Series booklets (which measure about 7.5 by 9.1 inches and are not punched) do not lend themselves to such rearrangement.

A much more serious matter is the booklets' failure to show the reader where to obtain necessary supplies. The Snackbook had lists of companies that would send materials, equipment and publications by mail, but the booklets have no lists at all. This will seriously compromise the booklets' usefulness to readers who do not reside in urban centers and who can't easily find a store that sells, say, diffraction gratings or polarizers.

Finally there is the matter of cost. The price of the Snackbook was $24.95, or 23 cents per experiment. The Series costs $43.80, or 46 cents per experiment.

In converting the Snackbook into the Series, Wiley has made some changes for the better and some changes for the worse. But what is most important is that the genius of the original Snackbook is still there. The Exploratorium Science Snackbook Series is a fine resource for teachers who really want to teach science, for students who want to learn science, and for people of all ages who want to have fun. I recommend it strongly.

Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He served on the panel that wrote the current framework for science education in California's public schools, and he is a director of The Textbook League.


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