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When a balloon becomes a magnet. Young students delight in hands-on experiments with the `Backyard Scientist'

Fifty children are blowing up balloons and rubbing their heads with them. Is this a birthday party gone awry? No, it's a workshop with Jane Hoffman, also known as ``The Backyard Scientist,'' who is teaching the youngsters about static electricity and magnetic attraction.

``Can you turn a balloon into a magnet?'' she asks. They eagerly place their charged balloons above the paper plates of dry gelatin and watch the crystals leap up to the rubber spheres. Their squeals of accomplishment answer her question.

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For Ms. Hoffman of Irvine, Calif., curiosity is a major component of her success - her own curiosity, and that of children in general.

Eight years ago, when her young son Jason, then 5, came home from school wanting to experiment, she could find no guides or books with easy science projects for him to try. So she began creating her own, using simple household materials to demonstrate scientific concepts.

From there, Hoffman taught a class through the local parks and recreation department, using the same approach. It became so popular, she had to train 14 assistants to teach the class to neighboring districts that wanted to offer the course.

After a spot on ``Hour Magazine'' television show in 1982, she received over 10,000 letters, which prompted her to write a compilation of her most popular experiments called ``The Original Backyard Scientist.''

``Many parents and teachers are so intimidated when they hear the word `science,''' says Hoffman, then ``when they see me do my experiments with the kids they say, `I can do that!' and I say `I know!'''

Not a teacher or scientist by training, the bespectacled blonde Hoffman has a degree in business administration. When she saw the positive response to her workshops, however, she knew she was onto something. Her own curiosity and energy are a large part of the appeal of ``The Backyard Scientist.''

``I love watching the kids learn, watching them begin to think critically,'' she says. ``I believe that science makes a difference in the way a child learns.''

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Hoffman's main thrust is the hands-on aspect of her experiments. She uses common, inexpensive items (paper clips, sponges, string, food coloring, etc.) and has a specific question for each assignment so that the children see the results and answers to the problem right after doing the experiment.

The success of the learn-by-doing approach was apparent at a ``home-schoolers'' workshop held recently at the Saddleback Christian Academy in Mission Viejo, Calif. ``Home-schoolers'' are people who teach their children at home. They have support groups and frequently convene for field trips and special classes like this one.

As an experiment was explained, the children, ages 6 to 10, would listen politely. Yet when it came time for each child to actually do his or her experiment, a different kind of concentration took place. Their faces became studious, gleeful, or puzzled - depending on how well their experiments were going.

Afterward, Hoffman would immediately ask the class what they observed, what actually happened, and why. With this quick connection between doing and discussing, many of the children had that ``aha!'' look of understanding.

This enthusiasm for learning seems to power an endless loop between Hoffman and children. She spurs them on to think and ask questions - and they, in turn, always surprise her with new questions and ideas for experiments.

The youngsters seem to take that enthusiasm home with them, according to some of the parents who attended the workshop.

``What she did with the kids was great,'' says Michele Driskell. ``My son and daughter wanted to do all the experiments again at home.''

Reni Fuller says ``The Backyard Scientist'' class evoked in her sons ``a real interest in why things happen. They've begun to notice that things are going on all the time around them. One of the boys even got interested in the swirling soapy dishwater while washing dishes!''

Jerry Monson, another parent who teaches his children at home, agrees that the hands-on method is a great learning tool.

``In other studies, everything is concrete, and the teacher or parent is in control. Science is a sort of unknown,'' he says.'' By experimenting and coming up with their own answers, the kids get a feeling of control, of confidence.''

Hoffman believes that with early exposure to experimenting, children would not have the negative connotations that most American youngsters seem to have of science.

``In other countries, the sciences are learned at a much earlier age, when the kids' natural curiosity is greatest,'' she says.

``If you start them in science only in junior high, you have lost many young minds to apathy. I mean, Do you remember anything from the books you read in your seventh-grade science class?''

Another problem, according to Hoffman, is that experiments in science classes are usually only occasional events, and many times only a demonstration by the teacher. What's missing is the hands-on learning.

Her second book, ``The Backyard Scientist, Series One,'' was published again by popular demand. Similar to the first in its straightforward, easy style, her most recent book asks questions like: ``Which is heavier - air or water?'' ``Can sound travel through a liquid?'' and ``Can you make a substance go up instead of down?''

By doing each experiment, the reader not only learns the answer, but is taught a scientific concept (water pressure, acoustics, and capillary action respectively) by using simple items found around the house.

Hoffman's most enthusiastic and vocal supporters have been the ``home-schoolers.'' She is frequently asked to speak at their conventions and workshops around the United States. She hopes to continue her series of books and is planning to make a video soon.

Hoffman says she has a backlog of hundreds of experiments.

``In fact, in the middle of doing something else, I'll get an idea for an experiment, and I have to try it right away. I spend half my days doing experiments!'' she exclaims.

Her goal, however, is broader. She would like to see the public school system adopt an ongoing, daily, hands-on science curriculum.

No one can say that Jane Hoffman isn't doing her part to try to achieve this aim. But, as she says, ``I'm only one person, and sometimes even I get tired.''

That is, until she thinks of a new experiment.

For more information, write to Jane Hoffman at: PO Box 16966, Irvine, CA 92713.

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