Lava might not be a fun novelty in places like Hawaii or Iceland, where residents have to occasionally deal with rivers of molten rock. But in the relatively geologically inactive planes of New York, it’s a cool DIY project being used to investigate the properties of lava flows while also getting kids interested in science.
A trough of super-hot lava might be among the last things you’d expect to see when strolling around the campus at Syracuse University, but that’s just what you’d find a few times a year. The Lava Project is a collaboration between professor Bob Wysocki (an artist), and professor Jeff Karson (a geologist). The experiments are pitched as a unique blend of science and art, as researchers observe the properties of molten rock while younger onlookers toast marshmallows.
The lava flows are created in much the same way all lava is; with lots of heat. Piles of basaltic rock are tossed into an outdoor furnace and heated to around 2200°F. The homemade lava is poured out on a variety of surfaces. These are not amounts likely to be dangerous, but still much more molten rock than most researchers work with.
While this is a good opportunity for informal education of kids, the primary purpose of the Syracuse University Lava Project is scientific. Active flows are rarely witnessed up close, so there are still many unanswered questions about how basaltic lava behaves. The undulating structures left after lava cools are often informative, but by working with larger quantities in these experiments researchers are more able to test theories. See? Science can be fun.