Friday, September 30, 2011

Salamanders in The Garden

We often find newts in our garden. Red-spotted newts hiding in the mulch or laboriously crawling towards the shade cast by towering cosmos. But last week, while harvesting potatoes, we unearthed two salamanders. They were long – mostly tail – with stubby legs and glistened deep red, almost black.

At first glance salamanders look a lot like lizards, but they are amphibians. Like frogs. Salamanders have moist, often slimy skin with no scales. They use that moist skin to breathe. And while lizards have scratchy toenails (claws), salamanders do not.

Salamanders need moisture, and after all the rain we got last month – a record 12 inches on our hill – the garden beds were just the right soggy-ness for them. The crawled under the mulch and dug into the wet soil of the potato hills – the perfect salamander home until hungry gardeners came along…

This fall as you pull out the weeds and get your garden ready for winter, pay attention to the small critters living there. And, if you can, leave a few big rocks and some cover for shelter.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Go on a Pattern Hike

If you’re looking for a way to connect math to nature, start paying attention to patterns. Patterns are lines or shapes that repeat – and you can find them just about everywhere you look: the back of a caterpillar, butterfly wings, the way a wasp’s nest is built or the honeycomb of a bee hive.

There are patterns in the way clouds gather in the sky, and the V’s geese make as they fly.

There are patterns left by waves on the beach, and by snakes on the desert sand. Look closely at a cactus and you’ll find a pattern in how the spines come out; same thing for pine needles.

There are patterns in rocks and trees – and even in the food you eat. Ever cut an apple across the middle and see the star inside? Take a closer look at blueberries and you’ll see that same star pattern at the blossom end of the fruit.

So, next time you head outside go on a “pattern hunt”. Take along a journal or camera and record the neat patterns you find.

What to share the patterns you find? Just send a low-resolution photo to sueheaven at gmail dot com and I’ll post them here (it might take a couple days).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

STEM Friday: You are Older than the Stars!

Welcome to STEM Friday – that’s where we share nifty nonfiction that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. You’ll find links to more reviews below. But first, a book I love – and brief chat with the author.
Older than the Stars
By Karen C. Fox, illus. by Nancy Davis
32 pages; ages 5-10
Charlesbridge 2010

This is a book that begins with a bang. Karen Fox hangs her tale of how the universe began on the structure of a nursery rhyme: “This is the star of red-hot stuff that burst from the gas in a giant puff that spun from the blocks that formed from the bits that were born in the bang when the world began.”

Early stellar chaos, well-illustrated with Nancy Davis’s bright potato prints and computer graphics, eventually resolves into form: planets, earth, plants, animals, and people. Fox shows how matter created in the big bang gets recycled over the eons – now some of that primordial stardust may be inside of each one of us.

Fun as it is, Fox includes plenty of sidebars explaining what scientists know about how the universe formed. Not only are the sidebars kid-friendly, but they put the story on two reading levels. She concludes with a not-to-scale timeline of the universe and a glossary of useful terms.

Fox, it turns out, has a degree in physics and English. “I had always meant to be a physics major,” she says, “but I was also a constant reader, so … I registered for a double major.” She was inspired to write this book when she saw a call for astronomy picture book ideas. Fox had just finished a book for adults and thought it would be a breeze to take all that information and make a kids book on the big bang. “The joke was on me,” she says. “This book took much longer to get to print than any of my adult books!”

I asked Fox how she came to structure her book like “the house that Jack built”. The initial draft had some repetition in it, she said. “But it wasn’t until the third draft that I realized that of course the book was supposed to be a poem.  The whole book just sort of came together after that.” It was, she said, an excellent lesson in why good writing almost always requires lots of re-writing – and a good editor.

Was Fox surprised by the bold prints that accompany her science story?  “I submitted all kinds of realistic images with my first draft,” she says. But once her editors sent a portfolio of Davis’s artwork, “I agreed that her style seemed fun in a way that would lend itself to illustrating some far out concepts.”

Every writer learns something when they write. Fox says, “I never knew that stars only make the first handful of light elements. It takes explosions as big as supernovae to fuse those atoms into the big stuff like gold and iron.”

Here's what other people are reviewing today:

Jeff Barger reviews How Does My Garden Grow over at NC Teacher Stuff where you can find lots of book reviews on everything from art to sports.

Over at Simply Science Shirley Duke reviews the newly released Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia. she says it's got a great technology section.

Anastasia Suen warms up our day with a review of Geology of the Desert Southwest: Investigate How the Earth Was Formed with 15 Projects at Chapter Book of the Day.

NOTE for STEM Friday reviewers: If you have difficulty leaving comments, please email me your link at sueheaven at gmail dot com.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heading South: Monarchs on Migration

Last month a monarch caterpillar found a nice cozy spot under a cabbage leaf and decided to pupate there. It walked a fair distance before finding shelter, because the nearest patch of milkweed is a football field's length away.

After 24 hours it had changed into a chrysalis.It was well protected from wind and weather and, apparently, anything interested in munching on chrysalides. Not to mention that the chrysalis blended well with the color of the cabbage leaf...

Now it’s waiting to join the vast Monarch migration southward, to Mexico – which, given where we live (42nd parallel) should peak over the next two weeks. 

If you live south of the 45th parallel, now’s the time to start paying attention to Monarch butterflies. Scientists are interested in them and you can help by gluing tags on Monarchs you catch in your neighborhood. It’s a great way to spend sunny autumn days with your children and helps scientists learn more about these butterflies. You can learn more at Monarch Watch.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Decoding Firefly Flash Codes

If you missed the meteor showers due to rain or moonlight, don’t despair – you can catch the nightly firefly shows. Fireflies fill the dark spaces between the stars with their blinking lights. Watch them long enough and you begin to see that there are different flash patterns. Some fireflies blink many times in quick succession, dit-dit-ditting a zigzag through the dark. Others flash a couple of long, slow blinks and pause, as though waiting for a response. Perhaps they are; within seconds flash-code messages are returned from the tall grass.

With as many as 20 to 30 species in our region, all sharing the same habitat, the nighttime airwaves can get crowded with messages. To reduce confusion, each species has developed its own unique flash code. One species might signal with a long flash followed by two short flashes, while another uses three flashes in a row.

Just as important as what fireflies say is how they say it. Some species hover in place as they flash; others write their love messages in glowing curves as they fly. While some fireflies flash their love messages early in the evening, others don’t even file their flight plans until the night’s half over.

Fireflies divide the night sky spatially as well. Some species fly low, right over the grasses, to flash their messages. Others fly at shrub-height, and even others fly among the treetops. Then there’s color – some fireflies flash greenish-yellow while others produce an orange glow.

To find out more about the fireflies in your back yard all you need is a notebook and pencil, a flashlight covered with blue cellophane (fireflies don’t see blue) and a warm night for watching. Spend a few minutes watching the lights, then jot some notes down. If you can distinguish individual fireflies you might be able to decode their flash patterns. Some of the things you’ll want to keep track of are the colors of the flashes, the pattern (length of flashes), how many flashes are in a series and the interval of time between flashes. If you don’t have a stopwatch you can count seconds by saying “one fire fly, two fire fly…”

You will also want to note such things as time of night you see that particular pattern, how high the male flies and what his flight pattern is, where you saw the responding female, and the temperature.
For more on fireflies, check out Firefly Facts