Note: These excerpts are adapted with permission from Evil Mad Scientist Lab co-founder Windell Oskay’s new Make: book, The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory, originally published by Raymond E. Barrett in 1963 and just given an update by Windell for the 21st century. We’re increasingly surprised and gratified to discover how the original edition inspired the childhood ambitions of many Makers. Read on to get a taste.
When I was 10 years old, in 1984, at Ainsworth Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, my fifth grade classroom made regular trips to the school library. It was at one of our regular trips that the librarian spoke to us all about the Dewey Decimal System, and how the library was organized. While I was already an avid reader, I had always simply browsed (as kids of a certain age do) among the books on display whenever I visited the library. Learning about the Dewey Decimal System changed all that. The science books were in the 500s, and since I already knew that I was going to be a scientist when I grew up, the 500s were where I should be spending my time.
The science book section in a school library is apt to be inhabited by all kinds of titles, including the abstract, the esoteric, the dull, and (hopefully) the amazing. Perhaps it is little wonder that this one caught my attention, with its bold and inviting title: BUILD-IT-YOURSELF SCIENCE LABORATORY, by Raymond E. Barrett. Because, well, that was exactly what I wanted to do. What I didn’t know is how many other people had this kind of experience growing up.
Raymond E. Barrett was a teacher in the Portland school district for seven years before he was hired in 1959 as the education director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) — a post at which he remained for 22 years. At OMSI, Barrett developed new, hands-on, experiential approaches to teaching science. He broadened the appeal with classes, workshops, and camps. He provided leadership for science education both in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, teaching teachers better ways to teach science.
During his years as a teacher, and later in his first few years at OMSI, Barrett began to develop a set of lesson plans for do-it-yourself science projects targeted at middle and high school students. The plans were designed to stimulate interest in the sciences, invoking Galileo, Newton, and Faraday, who (as the story goes) constructed their laboratories from the simplest possible materials. Through the plans, one could build or improvise some 200 pieces of laboratory equipment from mostly household materials, and use them in over 2,000 experiments.
The early 1960s were in so many ways a different time. There was the Sputnik crisis, still lingering. America’s Cold War adversaries were smart and technological; we had to compete. The space race was on. The United States had a credible human spaceflight program, and putting earthlings on the moon was a realistic priority. Science education was booming. And people were hungry for better ways to teach science.
For all of these reasons — plus the fact that it was simply good — Barrett’s “build it yourself science” program became so popular that individuals and institutions across the U.S. ordered more than 4,000 sets of his mimeographed lesson plans. It even led to Barrett having his own local television show, teaching science with home-built equipment. The program’s fame eventually attracted the attention of Doubleday, which contracted Barrett to collect his lesson plans into book form. Barrett refined and expanded his plans, and the results are in the book that I have updated. By the time that I had come across it in the mid-1980s, the book was 20 years old and Barrett had already retired from OMSI.
As a child, I remember being particularly delighted at one little “discovery” that I made while working on a project from the book. I had been looking at tiny protists in drops of pond water through my school-grade microscope, but found them hard to see, since they were small, fast, and transparent. A project in the book talked about using crossed polarizers in a microscope to look at crystals or a fish tail, but it seemed like they would be able to solve the problem with the microbes. I modified my microscope to have polarized filters above and below the sample, having scrounged the filters from a set of improvised 3D glasses. Through crossed polarizers, you can only see things between them that rotate the polarization of light; everything else will simply be black. And wow, what an effect: the protists were still small and fast, but now they were glowing white on a black background. I had (re)discovered a primitive form of dark-field microscopy, and it was amazing.
In modern times, our contemporary Maker and Maker education movements have helped to rekindle our cultural interest in hands-on education, especially in the STEM and STEAM fields, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s — which is why it’s such a good time to bring this book back.
From Raymond E. Barrett’s Original Preface
You as a student or teacher can begin your real understanding of science in the same way as Newton, Galileo, and Faraday did hundreds of years ago. These early scientists had none of the modern tools of science, and yet from simple materials they were able to make the great findings that are the basis of much scientific investigation today. Each of these scientists built his own laboratory and his own equipment. You, as a pioneer of the twentieth century, can work much the same way. You can design and build your own experimental equipment and use this equipment to find out things for yourself.
The basic idea behind the book is to encourage students and teachers to build their own science laboratories in the home and at school. With this homemade equipment the young scientist can experience the thrill of creativity, and the desire for and satisfaction of personal discovery. Ideas or problems are suggested after many of the instructions to open part way the doors to the many paths that lead to an understanding of the universe.
Where do you start? It really does not matter. As in exploring a new country, there is no certain place to begin or to end. Each time you travel the path, you will make new observations and arouse new curiosity. Start where your interest lies. A practical suggestion might be to build the basic pieces of science equipment that are starred in the table of contents. These are tools to build tools, and with these you are well equipped to start down the path of your choice. You will find that many paths cross again and again. It’s fun to explore. Each path traveled will give you greater understanding of this adventureland we call science.
Windell Oskay is the co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, a Silicon Valley company that has designed and produced specialized electronics and robotics kits since 2007. Coming soon to our MakerShed, The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory is available at O’Reilly and Amazon, as well as local booksellers.