Skip to main content
Science and Technology

Ice Cream and Lava Lamps: Student-Led Learn by Doing Lab Gets Kids Excited About Science

Written By Gabby Ferreira

“Please, please, with burgers and cheese, get situated!” says Seth Bush, the program director for the Learn by Doing Lab, as he settles himself in front of a Zoom screen. At the same time, other screens on the call show dozens of children and adults finagling supplies, most in their kitchens.

Lucy Beck poses with multicolored waters during a Learn by Doing Lab experiment.
Lucy Beck poses with multicolored cups of water during the Learn by Doing Lab. Courtesy of Jenny Beck

Over the next two hours, the kids — ranging from third- to eighth-graders — followed along with household science experiments, guided by cheerful Cal Poly students in blue shirts. The kids learned how to make ice cream, lava lamps, a naked egg and a rainbow in a glass, as the Cal Poly students talked about different scientific principles behind the experiment in a kid-friendly way.

It’s a little different from how the lab runs during a typical quarter, when the lab functions as a field-trip destination for kids both local to San Luis Obispo County and from further away, including areas like Fresno and Santa Cruz, Bush said.

“They try hands-on science, meet college students, and see what it’s like to be at Cal Poly,” Bush said. “The primary purpose is for Cal Poly students to try teaching, and the secondary purpose — which supports Cal Poly’s mission — is to show that we are a resource for kids in this state and college is a place they should be going.”

At the start of the spring quarter, with the coronavirus forcing a shift to virtual instruction, Bush, along with co-teacher Jenny Cruz and students, were determined to find a way to deliver the experience to kids — and give the Cal Poly students Learn by Doing experience in teaching.

A girl mixes together colored water for a science experiment with the Learn by Doing Lab.
Lucy Beck follows along with a science experiment during the Learn by Doing Lab. Courtesy of Jenny Beck

Their solution: a virtual Learn by Doing Lab, which would take place over a few Fridays in the spring quarter.

“We settled on a group of activities we thought would be fun, would be safe and involve materials most kids would have access to in their kitchens,” Bush said.

In a virtual lab, the Cal Poly students are divided into separate teams that teach one experiment each. The kids are divided into Zoom breakout rooms, and rotate between the instruction teams.

Kyle Katzenmeyer, a fourth-year biological sciences major, said the most rewarding part of the lab is when the kids start to understand a concept. He and his group designed a lesson plan to teach kids about density and polarity while making lava lamps at home using baking soda, vinegar, vegetable oil and some food coloring.

“This class really reinforced my desire to become a teacher,” Katzenmeyer said. “I was originally nervous because I was unsure how welcoming the environment would be, and I did not want to mess anything up in front of the kiddos.”

But the Learn by Doing Lab instructors, including Bush and Cruz, showed him that it was okay to mess up and learn from those mistakes.

“Learn by Doing has a lot of failing, realizing midway through that your great idea wasn’t perfect,” Bush said.

During a lab session in May, fourth-year biochemistry and music major Michaela Donofrio and fellow student Spencer Paine walk the students through making ice cream, talking about the particles in matter as the kids scoop ice and salt into a bag. As they shake all the ice cream ingredients, Donofrio plays “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.

“When I party, I like having music!” she says joyfully, as the kids onscreen dance along with the song. 

A young boy follows along with a science experiment during the Learn by Doing Lab.
Shad, one of the Learn by Doing Lab participants, follows along with an experiment. Courtesy of Kristi Weddige


As the kids open their bags of ice cream, which they made using sugar and milk, Donofrio talks about the chemistry process behind what they made.

“How does your ice cream taste?” she asks, as the kids happily dig in to their frozen treats.

Donofrio said she’d wanted to participate in the Learn by Doing Lab for a long time. But she had no idea what would happen at the start of spring quarter — and it’s exceeded her expectations. She especially likes how accessible the virtual lab has been to kids.

“It’s been really, really good. It’s so fun to see all these kids in their excitement,” Donofrio said. “These kids are being homeschooled right now and it’s hard. To give parents that little break and make kids excited about science again, even though we have this massive pandemic going on, is really awesome.”