Adventures in Ethics and Science

Younger offspring padded in and climbed into bed with us at 5:58 this morning. In a rare show of solidarity (or alertness), younger offspring was the one to hit the “snooze” button when the alarm went off at 6:00.

Dr. Free-Ride: Good morning.

Younger offspring: Why do you say it’s morning?

Dr. Free-Ride: (drowsily) Huh?

Younger offspring: How do you know it’s morning? It still looks pretty dark.

Dr. Free-Ride: I know from the time on the clock. But you’re right, it is pretty dark. Maybe it’s not morning yet. Maybe we should just stay under the covers for awhile.

Younger offspring: No, if you say it’s morning, I think it’s probably really morning.

Dr. Free-Ride: You decide now is the right time to accept authority?

* * * * *
Dr. Free-Ride’s better half got to visit younger offspring’s kindergarten classroom yesterday as a volunteer on a science unit. The following is a description on what the kids did in this lesson, plus my thoughts on possible follow-up at home — where there’s no recess bell to end the inquiry abruptly.

The kids had been talking about apples — how they grow, the pattern of seeds you might see if you cut the apple in half perpendicular to the stem, etc. Now, the main activity was an apple tasting.

There were chunks of apples of four different colors (red, orange, yellow, and green). The kids each tasted samples of each kind of apple, then they were asked to decide which color apple tasted the best.

It turns out, that was a hard decision for some of the kids to make (“My favorite is the red. And the yellow. And the green!”). When pressed, each of them eventually decided on one that they though tasted best.

The main idea behind the exercise seemed to be that substances like apples can have multiple distinct properties — like color and taste — that we can observe. The kids were pretty good at not picking the apple whose color they liked best, but really concentrating on the flavor when they were asked to.

Dr. Free-Ride’s at-home continuations*:

Does seeing the color of the peel affect how the apple tastes?

Prepare peeled chunks of apple. Set up plates where the chunks are sorted by apple type, but labeled neutrally (A, B, C, D). Do the taste-test. Rank the flavors of the apple chunks.

Then, do a second taste-test with chunks of the same four apples that have the peels still on them. Rank the flavors of the apple chunks.

Do we end up with the same ranking from both tests?

Does the tasting order make a difference?

For four distinct apple varieties, there are 24 possible tasting orders. Unless your kid really likes apples, you might not want to run through all 24 (especially because you’d want to let the tongue rest between each trial)! But, try:

  • tasting with the sourest apple first and the sweetest last
  • tasting with the sweetest apple first and the sourest last
  • tasting with an “intermediate” apple first and the sweetest and sourest ones in the middle

Compare the flavor-rankings from each tasting order.

This is a good place to discuss flavor more precisely than “best” and “worst”. Do some kids prefer tart apples to sweet ones? Can the kids agree on characterizations like “tart” and “sweet” even if they disagree about which tastes best? Which of our descriptions of the apple properties are (more) objective, and which are subjective?

Flavor and color as independent properties.

Find different kinds of apple with the same skin colors but different flavors. Taste chunks of each (skin on or off) and describe their flavors. Can you tell from an apple’s peel what it will taste like?

*You probably wouldn’t want to do more than one of these in the same sitting — especially with a kindergartener. Indeed, palate-cleansing time between various tastings might be advisable.


Younger offspring’s favorite apple product is cider, perhaps because we have actually made it before. Once, both Free-Ride offspring got to take turns turning the crank on an old-timey manual cider press at Ardenwood Farm. Another time, we took apple chunks from our own apple tree to the monthly pressing — with a super neato hydraulic cider press — at Fermentation Frenzy, which yielded both cider and a discussion with the sprogs about pasteurization. (Why apple chunks and not apples? Because we have a coddling moth problem and we wanted vegetarian apple cider.)


  1. #1 Vitis
    September 22, 2006

    A big part of my training at UC Davis was Sensory Analysis of wine as well as statistical analysis of that data. It turns out order is always important and that would be a fun thing to see kids discover and discuss.

  2. #2 Thomas Winwood
    September 22, 2006

    Wouldn’t the fact that the authority figure in the first story is deliberating and therefore clearly unsure of themself be reason enough for the underling to exercise freedom of mind in deciding whether or not it is morning, or (if the underling is of a scientific bent) performing an independent test to aid the authority figure in making up their mind? The test might consist of logging onto the Internet and asking someone in a different part of the world what time it is, and then reasoning that X time there is X+6 (say) hours here, and concluding independently of both daylight and clock whether or not it is in fact morning.

  3. #3 zwa
    September 22, 2006

    Im curious about your vegetariansm (as one myself) and whether your kids are. If yes, did they choose it, if no did you try to convince them?

  4. #4 ceresina
    September 22, 2006

    re: first at-home continuation. Doesn’t the peel itself have flavor, that might not be related solely to color?

  5. #5 David Harmon
    September 22, 2006

    That adds up to a lot of experimentation! Given limited attention spans of the investigators, perhaps you could break those up into a series of “snacktime survey” experiments?

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    September 22, 2006

    Mid-afternoon data-collection. (You don’t want to collect data too close to dinnertime!)

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