Entropy Academy: SCIENCE IN THE KITCHEN #homeschool

Emily Hagenburger March 29, 2020 No Comments

Are you suddenly homeschooling? Maybe you’ve made the choice to do it long-term. We’re here to make sure it’s a joyful and fun experience—it doesn’t have to be daunting and overwhelming. We’ve created a four-part series of easy homeschooling tips and inspiration for anyone starting out (and for veterans too!).  These tips are from Entropy Academy, a homeschooling parent’s memoir full of guidance and inspiration for anyone educating their kids outside of the institution of public education, temporarily or otherwise. In this memoir, Alison Bernhoft recounts how she discovered that she could train her messy home to do half her teaching, while much of the other half unfolded “entropy style”—in the natural process of everyday life. You can homeschool too!

Science in the Kitchen

All the growing of plants and sprouting of seeds that went on both in and out of the kitchen taught the children worlds about science, as did cooking. Especially bread. I never lacked for an enthusiastic helper when it was time to bake, and each child in turn learned that yeast needs three things to thrive: water, food, and warmth. What do people need to thrive? Water, food, warmth—and love. Studies in Russian orphanages found that even when babies were kept warm and adequately fed, they failed to thrive in the absence of a loving touch. Maybe a little TLC wouldn’t hurt the “yeasties” either: water just the right temperature, a pinch of sugar for food, and being left to rest undisturbed in a warm place (sounded pretty idyllic to me). We chose strong bread flour for its high gluten content, and noticed how stretchy the dough became as our vigorous kneading strengthened the gluten. One year, I ran out of strong flour to bake my traditional huge recipe of Christmas bread. A special trip to the store seemed far too much like hard work, so I made do with what happened to be on hand: low-gluten all-purpose flour. Never again! Even after the dough was kneaded the regulation 150 times, and a half-dozen stiffly beaten egg whites folded in, the yeasties were evidently on strike. The loaves were as sorry a sight coming out of the oven as they had been going in.

The only means of transporting live yeast across the continent during the Westward Expansion was sourdough. As part of a history unit, Fiona and I mixed together a cup of flour, one of water, and a quarter teaspoon of yeast, leaving it to sour for several days, loosely covered, on a counter. A second batch was made without commercial yeast, and left uncovered to be colonized by naturally occurring, “wild” yeast. The image of us lassoing wild yeast, rounding it up, and herding it into our bowl of starter had Fiona and me in stitches.

We baked loaves from both starters, after taking out enough dough to start up the next batch of bread, five days down the trail. I wondered if our family’s appetite for bread could possibly keep pace with two sourdough starters, but the wild yeast batch soon turned rancid, and was summarily discarded.

Quick breads are leavened not by yeast, but by baking powder. This combination of an alkali (usually baking soda) and acid (typically cream of tartar) gives off carbon dioxide when mixed with a liquid. The gas bubbles introduce air into the bread just as the yeast bubbles do, the main difference being that yeast takes some time to work, while baking powder works instantly. “Double-acting” baking powder keeps working longer, but even so, without the strengthened gluten of yeast bread, quick breads are crumbly when cut. To demonstrate how acid and alkali combine in a chemical reaction, I had the children make three small piles of baking soda. To the first we added water, which is neutral. No bubbles. To the second, we added water and a solid acid such as cream of tartar, and noted the resulting fizz. In the third pile, the addition of an acidic liquid—buttermilk or lemon juice—caused an equal exuberance of bubbles. We deduced that if a recipe for biscuits contains buttermilk, some of the acidic baking powder needs to be replaced by alkaline baking soda. We also realized that if, in the course of making buttermilk pancakes, we found we were out of buttermilk, we could “sour” the milk with a little vinegar or lemon juice.

A child who has helped cook chicken at 350°F and at 500°F will not be surprised to learn that heat accelerates rate of change, nor will one who has watched potatoes cook at a hard boil versus a gentle simmer. Those same potatoes can demonstrate osmosis: we left a potato in a bowl of water tinted with food coloring for a few hours, then cut the potato in half to see how the color had been absorbed.

While we had the food coloring out, I put a stick of celery in a jar of red-tinted water. Once the color had tinged the leaves, Evan carefully cut across the stalk and found that the vesicles carrying water up the plant were dyed bright red. One Fourth of July we made a white carnation patriotic by splitting its stem three ways and putting each end in a jar of red, blue, or clear water. Capillary action never looked prettier.

On Tuesdays, we enjoyed a snack that reinforced our knowledge of the Earth’s structure: Earth Balls. A chocolate chip formed the core, and this was surrounded by peanut butter play dough representing the mantle. (To make the play dough we smooshed together one cup of peanut butter, half a cup of dry milk powder, and honey to taste—about 1/4 to 1/2 cup.) Each ball was then rolled in finely crushed graham cracker crumbs, which approximated the Earth’s crust. Looking at a cross section diagram of the Earth, we realized that our “crust” was about one hundred times too thick, but it tasted good, and we never forgot the sequence: core—mantle—crust.

The center of the Earth is both liquid and solid: liquid, because the heat is so extreme that it melts even the hardest rock; and solid, because the pressure is so colossal that matter is super-compressed. How can something be at the same time liquid and solid? We never tired of answering that question with cornstarch and water. Made into a paste that could be thick or runny according to the whim of the moment, the cornstarch feels solid when tapped with a finger; but let that finger rest on the surface awhile, and it sinks into a pure liquid. All five fingers together can pull up an angular chunk, but once that chunk is airborne it will slip between the fingers and pour back into the bowl in a steady, liquid stream.

Excerpted from Entropy Academy by Alison Bernhoft, full of easy and comforting homeschooling guidance and available here! Looking for more tips? See “Bath Time,” “Visual Materials,” and “Reading Aloud!”

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Emily Hagenburger

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