How to build a better volcano

This week has been full of explosions. Tame ones, to be sure, predictable and nicely contained, but explosions all the same. And we’ve been loving it.

No, we didn’t blow up the kitchen… we built a volcano. And it erupted. Multiple times. Some more successfully than others, but isn’t that what scientific experimentation is all about?

It all started when our Young Scientist Club kit arrived in the mail. The kids started jumping with excitement the minute they saw the familiar white bubble-wrap envelope with its brightly coloured mailing sticker and it didn’t stop for days. Seriously – they bounced for days and days and days — even before we cracked open the kit and started work.

Here’s what we did.

Day 1: building a mountain

We started with a large piece of cardboard. I had wanted the cardboard bottom to a case of soft drinks, but we didn’t have one lying around, so we improvised by folding up the edges of a flat sheet of cardboard and taping them together to make a tray. This step was very important! Without some sort of tray underneath to catch the lava flows, you will have a very big, very smelly, very wet mess all over your floor.

Next, we took a 1L plastic bottle and taped it to the tray in an upright position. We taped it very securely, maybe more securely than we needed to, but better safe than sorry. We wrapped two sheets of cardstock around the bottle to make a mountain-ish shape and taped them in place, and then filled in the gaps on the sides with construction paper.

Once the underlying structure was relatively secure, we started building it up with layers of newspaper dipped in thinned-down school glue, otherwise known as papier maché. B dove right in, hands instantly covered in glue.  

I had expected K to jump in just as enthusiastically. This isn’t the first time we’ve done a papier maché project together, after all. He had loved building a paper Death Star, and a french fry factory, and a two-story tall animal habitat. But this time, K hesitated. Because of the mess? No… because we had cut up the flyers that had landed on the porch that afternoon and he was distraught at the idea of gluing down a great deal on hockey equipment. But only for a minute.

Bit by bit, the volcano grew sturdier and stronger. One interesting happening was that where we had used regular construction paper for the sides, the weight of all the newsprint and glue made them cave in a little, lending the volcano a delightfully realistic looking profile rather than just being a regular old cone. Instead, it had hills and valleys where the paper had sagged around the sides that would eventually become wonderful channels for lava flows.

Building a volcano turned out to be a multi-day process, since we needed to give the papier maché time to dry. The delay only added to the fun as it gave us plenty of time for reading books on volcanoes and how they work. We also read about some famous volcanoes, including Mount St Helens and Mount Vesuvius, and dove into what little we could find in our home library on the earth’s core and crust and how they formed.

Tomorrow, I’ll post more about how we built the volcano and what we used to make it erupt. Stay tuned!

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