I exchanged a bit of banter on twitter a few months back about one of my favourite authors of children’s books, Pamela Allen. She’s lyrical, uses fantastic onomatopoeia, and creates her own simple coloured drawings. She’s also not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, like lonliness, the pain of love, the unwritten rules of friendship and imaginary monster friends.

After participating in the June edition of #onsci twitter chat around The Audit of Australian Science Engagement (#aussciaudit), I got thinking about Pamela again. Sometimes the best examples of science engagement work well without explicit reference to science. They’re just good stories. Many of Pamela’s tales are good examples.

In Mr Archimedes Bath, poor old Archimedes tries to work out which of his animal friends is causing his bath to overflow. In a ‘Eureka!’ moment mirroring that  experienced by the ancient Greek scholar by the same name, he realises that it’s the cumulative upwards movement of water with the addition of each bath-sharing creature which results in the water line reaching the top and then overflowing. Sounds trivial, but it was this discovery which purpurtedly led to a method for accurate measurement of the volume of irregular solid objects (see here to read more).

In Who Sank the Boat? and  Alexander’s Outing, water movement is also covered. This time, the crux of the story is based around whether items float or sink in water. Confusingly enough, this theme is covered in Archimedes Principle, which states that ‘the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the displaced water’. The details don’t matter – from the perspective of Pamela Allen, the points are that (1) there are only so many animals you can add to a small wooden boat before it will sink and (2) a wee little baby duck floats, and hence can be miraculously rescued from a deep, dark hole by the gradual addition of water.

Now, dipping and tipping, dipping and tipping, skipping and dripping, quacking and flapping, dripping and skipping, from the fountain to the hole and back again they danced.

Slowly the water rose….up and up and up…until….

Out popped Alexander like the cork out of a bottle.

[excerpt from Alexander’s Outing]

Moving on to another concept in science, Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion states: The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

It’s a mouthful at the best of times, and darned hard for a kid to wrap his/her head around even as a teenager. Instead, imagine this; what if two friends spotted a delicious looking pear on the branch of a tree. The pear was so irresistible, they decided to grab it off the branch then and there. Darned thing was up too high though, so they got a ladder. Things went a bit wrong when one pal got stuck on the top rung, and ended up being flung through the air to land in a pond nearby.  Just how the physics of Newton’s 2nd law was applied to create a tale whereby the bird resident in that pond ended up delivering the pear into the hands of the two amigos is told in The Pear in the Pear Tree.

A final taste of science can be found in Brown Bread and Honey. While as adults we’re all well-aware of our increasing waistlines, and the ‘kilojoules in’ versus ‘kilojoules out’ rule for maintaining healthy body weight, it can be hard to teach children the message without it boiling down to the ugly mantra ‘if you eat too much, you will get fat!’. Instead, in this beautiful tale we see how the king’s friendship with the stable boy and his appreciation of a sandwich teaches him to love simple food and learn the pleasures of creating it himself.

Conclusion: if you’ve got a kid or two, or even if you don’t, do yourself a favour and get some Pamela. You’ll learn some science and not even know it.

[image taken from Brown Bread and Honey]