Doing Experimental Science at Home

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Doing Experimental Science at Home

With distance learning happening in many schools, what can you do to teach or learn about science? As you might expect, at Make: we believe that the best way to learn these subjects is through experiential, hands-on learning. In other words, “learning by doing.” If you want to learn science, do science. How can you make that happen at home?

Books are best for in-depth learning — in particular, those books that show you to do something and explain what is going on. Books can unlock the secrets of computers, engineering, electronics, chemistry, and biology, especially if you approach them with a “learn by doing” mindset. Books can provide the structure for learning a subject, and your learning can be supplemented by YouTube videos and software programs more meaningfully because you have that structure to work from. In other words, a book can help you take advantage of all the amazing resources online but also ground and guide your own learning experience.

I’m happy that we are publishers of many useful books to help you to learn and do science. We have published over 80 titles. Not surprisingly, book sales have been up during the pandemic.

Illustrated Guide Series

On a list of book sales since March, several of our bestsellers jumped out at me:

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments

Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments

All of these books have a tagline: “All Lab, No Lecture.”

The Chemistry book was written by Robert Bruce Thompson. Robert, who passed away in 2018, ran a website, The Home Scientist, which served the homeschool community. Soon after we published the Biology book, in which Barbara Frichtman Thomspon joined her husband as co-author, followed closely by their Forensics Science book.

These are not books for young children. They are great for teenagers and adults who are looking for the deep dive into experimental science.

Robert explained in the Preface to the book that his own love of chemistry was sparked one Christmas when he received a chemistry lab set as a present. However, he set out to write the book because of Jasmine, a friend and neighbor.

At age 14, Jasmine is a bright kid who’s interested in science as a career. I asked her one day how much science she was learning in school. “Hardly any,” she replied. Although Jasmine attends a good public school, like most schools it devotes little time and few resources to science and has only limited lab facilities. No doubt the school would list money and safety concerns as reasons, but such excuses do nothing to help Jasmine.

With her mom’s approval, I could give Jasmine access to my basement chemistry lab, but that would solve only part of the problem. If Jasmine was to do more than make pretty colors and stinky smells, if Jasmine was to do real chemistry, she’d need more than just access to a lab. She’d need detailed instructions and some sort of structured plan to guide her through the learning process. She’d need to learn how to use the equipment and how to handle chemicals safely. She’d need well-designed experiments that focused on specific aspects of laboratory work. In other words, she’d need a home chemistry lab handbook, one devoted to serious chemistry rather than just playing around.

I concluded that the only good solution was to write a new book, one devoted to learning real chemistry at home, and one that would also be useful for the many thousands of other people out there—young people and adults—who wanted to experience the magic of chemistry just as I’d done on that long-ago Christmas morning, and to do so on a reasonably small budget with readily available equipment and chemicals. And so the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments was born.

Thompson’s book has been widely used by homeschooling families and curious adults.

Here’s what Kevin Kelly had to say about the book in Cool Tools:

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is a fantastic teacher for chemical literacy. It will show you or your kids how to work with chemicals, and why they are fun. Some of the experiments are visually entertaining. Others are scientifically important. It’s got wise advice about the few bits of equipment you’ll need for your lab.


And finally, you can escape the bonds of Earth with the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, by the same authors.
So we have you covered from microscopes to telescopes!

At a time when homeschooling is the new normal, these books by the Thompsons are even more relevant than ever.

Buy the Illustrated Series Bundle here

For a limited time, you can get the entire “Illustrated Guide” four-book series in PDF through the Maker Shed for $59.

Build-It-Yourself Science Library

Another book of ours I’d recommend is “The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory,” by Raymond E. Barrett and Windell H. Oskay. A teacher and science educator, Barrett published this book in 1980’s and although it found an audience, it went out of print. Windell Oskay, the Bay Area Maker behind Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, found the book as a 10 year old and loved it so much that he wanted to see it back in print. Oskay has annotated Barrett’s original book to update it, writing:

Learning how to build things is an important part of developing physical intuition, learning about how the world really works, and helping to hone critical thinking skills. And for me personally, this is the book that taught me how to make things.

Here’s the cover of the original book.

Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments

Based on his popular column in Make: Magazine, Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments provides many examples of doing real science as an amateur from one of the great amateur scientists, Forrest Mims, who is also known for his classic Radio Shack Electronics Handbook. Mims captures the spirit of the amateur scientist as truth seeker, explorer, and adventurer.

The book includes simple projects such as an LED tracker for hand-launched rockets at night, how to connect LEDs to optical fibers and how to transform strings of data into unique musical compositions. A variety of photography and imaging projects are included, one of which describes a simple gadget that can be attached to a camera to photograph the solar aureole (the glow around the sun caused by haze).

Books on Maker Shed

You can also find these books as PDFs and more on Maker Shed.

DIY Science Projects

We have a lot of free content on this website that will help you do science. You can be inspired by and learn from many DIY science projects in’s Science category.

Chemistry Sets

In Make: Volume 16, Keith Hammond wrote about building your own DIY Chemistry Set i which can also be found as an online article. Keith writes that the chemistry kits available today pale in comparison to what was available for most of the 20th Century, but you can still put a home chem lab together.

It’s true: chemistry sets today don’t measure up to the classic kits that once scorched Formica kitchen tables across the nation. But you can still find respectable kits if you know where to look. More importantly, anyone can make their own flaming, fuming, booming DIY chemistry set as good as those from the golden age — or better.

Keith found that there were chemicals in the older sets that were thought to be safe at the time but later were considered toxic. One such ingredient was lead acetate, a highly toxic substance that was known as sugar of lead and used as a sweetener in Ancient Rome.

The point is that you can do science at home safely and inexpensively but it will help if you have a reliable guide.

Open Source Tools for Doing Science

Bronwen Densmore of Public Lab wrote about their open source tools for doing science in this Make: article: “Build Yourself Some Science.” Among the DIY tools featured in the article are a microscope, air sensor, and spectroscope.

Public Lab celebrates a diversity of projects, skills, and types of contributions — in addition to tech oriented projects, our Open Hardware contributors include gardeners, emergency responders, illustrators, kite and balloon enthusiasts (obviously!), biologists, community organizers: people with skills of every type and level who are excited to learn and share with others.

One of the most important lessons that you can learn about science is once you start doing science, you will meet many other people also doing science. You can learn from them and with them. You might need to DIY to get started but soon you are part of a community that is doing science together.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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