________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover Science on the Loose: Amazing Activities and Science Facts You’ll Never Believe.

Helaine Becker. Illustrated by Claudia Dávila.
Toronto, ON: Maple Tree Press, 2008.
64 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $22.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-897349-19-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-897349-18-2 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Science-Juvenile literature.
Science-Experiments-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4


Scientists have found a glue in the wild that is three times stronger that anything else out there. It’s the stuff that lets slimy green algae stick to rocks in a stream. The single cell bacteria, called Caulobacter crescentus, uses sugar molecules and proteins to make the glue. It’s so strong that two cars, driving in opposite directions, couldn’t pull it apart! There’s only one problem with the super glue – it’s so sticky the scientists studying it can’t wash the glue off their instruments!


Don’t let the cover fool you about the quality of the contents of Helaine Becker’s Science on the Loose. This is one of the very best books of science activities for students in upper elementary school and adolescents that I have come across. I suspect that, if teachers taught the way Becker presents science and encourages scientific investigations, there would not be the falling enrolments at the post-secondary level that presently concern many faculties of science and engineering.

      Becker invites readers to find answers to questions that may seem “a little weird” to others but are of interest to them, and she gets them going by guiding them to scientific explorations about themselves. As unremarkable as this may seem, it isn’t. Many of the suggested explorations are new or set in a context that is original, very well-suited to the age of reader for whom the book was written, and, where possible, connected to the results of current or historical research. One example of this is the section on proprioception, a sense that the brain relies upon to determine the position of the body and its extremities in space, or, more specifically, the joint, sight, sound, and touch information that tells the brain that you’re “stretched out on a sofa, remote in left hand.”

      Becker proposes five activities that activate the proprioception sensors, and she sets them up in a way that encourages participants to think about the results. The first of these, “Ring Around Rosie,” requires participants to use their body-size sense and determine the accuracy of their body-size image. All that is needed are two friends and a jump rope. The rope is arranged in a circle on the floor. You watch as your friends gently pull of the two ends of the rope to make a smaller and smaller circle. When you think the circle matches the size of your waist, you shout “Stop!” Your friends stop pulling, you step into the centre of the rope circle and, without changing the circle’s size, lift it to determine if it fits around your waist. According to Becker, we generally shout “Stop!” when the rope’s diameter is greater than the measurement of our waist. In a text box near the margin of the page, she refers to researchers who “think” people have an inner idea of what a body should look like and that the brain has trouble matching this ideal, mental image with one’s real figure, especially when one’s body is changing. Both her presentation and language are carefully selected. Becker wants readers to realize that this is a hypothesis. She prefaces the section with the sentence, “Researchers don’t know exactly why most people have a distorted body-size image,” and, in so doing, she implicitly teaches aspects of the nature of science.

      This format continues as one progresses through the pages of the book, and each new page is as interesting as the previous one. There are investigations that: test the reliability of eyewitness reports; reproduce Pavlov’s theory of conditioning and help to distinguish automatic reflex reactions from responses to sensory receptors; and, finally, determine whether an “innie” or “outie” belly button collects more lint, yawns are contagious, baked beans produce more “farts” in boys than girls, and being right-handed means you are also right-footed and have a dominant right-eye. Readers also learn about a robot at McVitie’s laboratory in England that chops cookies all day to determine baking techniques that result in cookies with the most crumbs, Peter Gabriel’s experiment to teach bonobo apes to play a keyboard, non-Newtonian fluids that stretch, bounce, and flow, wheels that look like they’re spinning backwards, and the list goes on and on.

      Claudia Dávila illustrates the pages of Science on the Loose with colourful, computer generated images, charts, question marks, ant tracks, and dialogue boxes of varied shapes and sizes. This is a design that complements the “amazing real science” presented, and it will likely appeal to Becker’s pre-teen readership.

      I highly recommend Science on the Loose. One hopes, as the publisher Maple Tree Press suggests, it will let loose each reader’s “inner scientist” and, perhaps as an end result, generate an interest in a science discipline that wasn’t previously recognized.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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