The children watched as the ink spots they drew onto circles of paper began to separate before them, slowly blurring and extending, sometimes into different colors.
Alexis Schmidt, 6, and her parents examined their results. Alexis stared pensively before concluding, “Mine needs to go further.”
“She’s obsessed with dinos, dragons and space,” said Alexis’ mother, Leslie Schmidt, of Baton Rouge. “So if she wants to be an engineer, we’re not gonna complain. We need somebody to take care of us when we’re old.”
Alexis was one of the kids who arrived at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum on Sunday morning for Kids’ Lab, a twice-monthly family event that lets children ages 6 to 12 learn basic principles of science in a relatable way.
With tools as simple as paper and wet-erase markers, Lisa Chumney, the lead educator for Kids’ Lab, led a small group of children and adults on a tour of a complex phenomenon: chromatography, a chemical-separation process with a range of applications. For example, in forensic science, ink from a letter can be analyzed to figure out more about the person who wrote it.
Previous weeks have included a double helix shape with pipe cleaners, lotion made from emulsifier and other chemicals, and an experiment with a mashed banana in a bag. That week was messy, Leslie Schmidt said with a laugh.
Chumney said she most enjoyed helping kids understand the principles behind some of science’s most surprising moments.
“Science gets a stigma of being overwhelming,” she added. “I think this helps to make it more relatable.”
Chromatography works in part because water is unusually sticky, though Chumney said we may not think of it that way. As she points out, two wet cutting boards made of plastic can prove strangely difficult to force apart, and no one can dry themselves instantly when they step out of a pool.
That “stickiness” is a force that can be harnessed to help separate chemicals. On Sunday morning, children marked rings on chalk, only to find that when they placed part of the chalk in water, the ink separated — in some cases stretching it into primary colors.
The process works with the help of “capillary action” — the same way that plants absorb water from the ground.
Chumney said kids attending workshops can begin to understand some pretty complex processes in the form of fun activities. “It just takes observing what’s around us,” she said. “It’s cool to show people in the smallest (ways) there’s still chemistry.”
Kennysha Payne, 20, took her 5-year-old nephew, Jaidyn Payne, for the first time on Sunday because she had fond memories of attending an event at the museum while she was in elementary school.
“I just wanted him to experience some of the stuff I experienced when I was little,” Payne said.