Monday, December 23, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Shape of a Tree

When the last leaf has blown away and the trees are left bare - that's when you can see the true shape of a tree. Each kind of tree has its own shape and pattern of branching. Some have branches that alternate up the trunk, like oaks. Others have branches that come off the trunk in pairs - "opposite" branches. That's what maples do. Some trees have weepy droopy branches, like the willows. And others, like Staghorn sumac, are tipped with fruit clusters that the birds love to eat in the winter.

The shape of the tree is its "skeleton", with the trunk and branches making up its bones. Some of those bones are white, some are dark. Some are smooth, some rough.

Grab your sketchbook or journal and go on a tree skeleton hike. Draw the structures of your neighborhood trees - and maybe do a rubbing of the bark. It's a good way to get to know the trees without their leaves on.

Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are talking about in science, technology, engineering and math.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Some Things Float ~ Some Things Don't

Things That Float and Things That Don't
by David Adler; illus. by Anna Raff
32 pages; ages 5 - 9
Holiday House, 2013

Last week we were testing how well glitter fell through water, and it got me thinking about all the "bathtub science" my kids used to do. You know: toss an apple into a bathtub full of water and it bobs on the surface. But toss in a quarter and it sinks - which makes anyone sitting in the bathtub wonder: how can a huge ship float if it's made of metal?

It's not just the material of an object - or its size - that determines "floatability". Shape has something to do with it as well, and Adler shows how.

Take a piece of aluminum foil. If you put it on top of water, it will float. It will float even if you crumple it a bit into a loose ball. But if you smoosh it into a tight ball it sinks. So it's not weight that matters - because it's the same amount of foil. It's how much space it takes up - its density. Adler explains density, and demonstrates why even "heavy" clay boats can float. He shows what displacement is all about and offers lots of opportunities for kids - and parents - to ask questions and test household objects. All you need is a bathtub. Or a dish pan or a wading pool or a large mixing bowl...

Today's review is part of the STEM Friday blog. Check out the other science books and resources reviewed this week. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Anyone can Learn some Computer Code...

This week - December 9 through 13 - is Computer Science Education Week. It's also a great week to celebrate Grace Hopper, an American pioneer in computer science.

What better way to celebrate than to learn how to write computer code? If you've never written any code before, don't worry. The folks at the Hour of Code site have some videos and puzzles to get you started. All you've got to do is click on the GO button in the "write your first computer program" button.

And it's FUN! There are puzzles with angry birds and zombies ...and lots of opportunities to run into walls or flesh-eating plants. These are great puzzles to get your brain thinking about logic (if ___, then ___) and spatial orientation (how many spaces/ turn right or left?)

Go. Have fun. Play with computer code for an hour... even if you think you'll never use it again.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Snow Globe Science

photo by Sophia at Mamasaymamaso
I've got a snow globe that I love - and a magic wand full of glitter and tiny stars and moons. And one of the questions that I've been mulling over is: how do they get that glittery stuff to float so gently (instead of fall down fast)?

So I thought it might be fun to explore how things fall in liquid by experimenting with glitter globes - simple globes you can make at your dining room table.

What you need:
  • a small glass jar with a tight lid (large baby food jar works well)
  • 1 or more skinny jars for liquid testing (like spice jars)
  • water
  • mineral oil
  • glycerin
  • glitter (different kinds if you can find them)
  • small plastic figures (old holiday ornaments work well)
  • hot glue gun
  • toothpick & dish soap
  • pipe thread tape (to help seal jar lid if it leaks)
  • measuring spoons
  • optional: stopwatch for timing how fast glitter falls

How fast does glitter fall through different liquids?  
Fill your liquid-testing jar with water fill a  1/2 teaspoon with glitter. Before you add glitter to the water, dip a toothpick into some dish soap and touch it to the surface of the water. This will break the surface tension so the glitter won't glom all together on top. Then add the glitter and start timing.
Do the same thing with a testing jar filled with mineral oil.
Then try different mixes of water and mineral oil.
Try adding small amounts of glycerin (1/4 teaspoon at a time) to see whether that changes how fast your glitter falls.

Do some kinds of glitter fall faster than others?
Test different kinds of glitter with water to see how fast they fall. Use the same amount (1/2 teaspoon) for each type of glitter. Remember to use a toothpick dipped in dish soap to break the surface tension before you add the glitter.

Make a snow globe!
Glue a figure onto the lid of your baby food jar. When it's dry, add the liquid mix you like best, then add your glitter (remember the toothpick/dish soap trick). Put some pipe thread tape around the inside of the jar lid and screw it on. Now shake and enjoy.

 Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are talking about in science.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Feathery Finery

photo provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Sometimes the clothes we choose to wear can let people know how we feel. If we want to catch someone's eye, we can put on a jaunty hat or dress up our duds by adding a bright scarf (or tie). Or we can go for the late-November "I just want to be cozy" layered look.

Birds do the same thing, but with their feathers. They can ruffle their feathers, preen their feathers, shake and rattle their feathers. They can raise their feathery crests or fluff up their feathers to look large and imposing.

Now is an excellent time to get outside and watch some feathery friends... and to encourage you, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Celebrate Urban Birds project is running a  Fascinating Feathers contest. This is an opportunity for you to send in your photos, artwork, poems, stories, videos and audio recordings of birds.... birds that seem irritated, out of sorts, all spruced up, or just pretty. Categories for photos (and artwork) include: best dressed, most bizarre, most functional, and most camouflaged. Check out the rules at Celebrate Urban Birds - and then grab your camera or your sketchbook and head outside to capture some images of some birds around your neighborhood. The contest ends on January 15, but you can keep snapping pictures of birds, drawing bird portraits, writing bird poetry, and learning their secret songs all winter long.

Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are talking about in science.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cranberries ... the Other Ink

Ages ago, before computers and gel pens and bottled inks, people made dyes and inks from plant pigments. The thinking probably went something like this: if it stains my fingers I can probably use it to draw, paint, write or dye something.

Cranberries, like blueberries, cherries and other fruits, produce finger-staining juice that works well for making ink. But you might have noticed that they're not as soft as other berries. Drop a strawberry on the floor and it bruises. Drop a cranberry and it bounces.

What you need:
cranberries - a cup will do
strainer and wooden spoon
salt and vinegar - about 1/2 teaspoon each

What to do:
1. Before you make cranberry sauce, put a cup of the cranberries into the freezer. This will help them release their juice.
2. When you remember them, take the cranberries out of the freezer. Let them thaw in a strainer placed over a bowl.
3. Use a wooden spoon to squash the cranberries against the strainer, forcing the juice out.
4. Add a pinch of salt and a bit of vinegar to help keep your ink (or dye) from fading.
Now use your ink to write a letter or make potato prints or paint a card.

You can use other berries, too. Staghorn sumac berries grace the tips of branches of the trees lining my road. They're a nice red color. I wonder if I can make ink out of them...

Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are talking about in science.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Postcards from Space? That's Impossible.... Or is it?

Postcards from Space: the Chris Hadfield Story
by Heather Down
32 pages; ages 4 - 8
Wintertickle Press, 2013

"Some people say Col. Chris Hadfield is the coolest astronaut ever," writes Heather Down. He's walked in space. He commanded the International Space Station. He made tons of videos and even wrote postcard from space.

OK. Maybe not postcards. I mean, there's no post office in space. But he has sent hundreds of photos of the earth as seen from the Space Station... and those are almost as good as postcards.

This slim paperback combines some of Hadfield's awesome photos with snippets of his life in a short biography of a modern day spaceman. Hadfield knew from a young age that he wanted to be an astronaut, so he worked hard to make his dream happened. He played with math and science, learned to fly planes and eventually became a test pilot. He also played guitar and skied. In 2012 he went on his third mission into space. He had lots of work to do: experiments to conduct; repairs and maintenance on the space station; and keeping up with physical training - because muscles and bones can become weak in zero gravity.

One thing Hadfield did was to take photos and share them with people on earth. (The book has lots of those photos, but unfortunately they don't have captions.) He also made plenty of videos about science things in space, such as whether tears fall and what happens when you try to wring out a washcloth. He even made a video about brushing teeth in space. The best thing he did, though, was help us see how cool space is - and how much there still is to learn about this final frontier.

Here's how to make a peanut butter and honey sandwich (and lots more videos).

And check this site to see some of his best "postcards" (because we know there really isn't a post office aboard the space station - not even one on a satellite).
 And if you're really interested in learning more about Hadfield and the things he learned while training as an astronaut and living in space, check out his hot-off-the-press autobiography, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. It's a bit thicker - almost 300 pages - and a whole lot heavier, but that's gravity for you.

Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are talking about in science, technology, engineering and math. And if you're looking for more space stories, head over to Sally's Bookshelf to read about an earlier space hero, John Glenn. Review copy of Postcards From Space provided by publisher.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Recycle Your Pumpkin into a Bird Feeder

photo by Amy; used with permission ( Home Happy Home)

You know those pumpkins that have been sitting on the porch for the past week? Now that the trickers are gone and the treat basket's empty, it's time to recycle the jack-o-lantern. Here's one idea: make a Bird Feeder. All you need are:
  • a hollowed out pumpkin cut in half (or the bottom part of a jack-o-lantern)
  • some twine
  • tacks or staples
  • birdseed

Here's what you do:
  • Cut your jack-o-lantern in half (or cut and clean an uncarved pumpkin). Clean out soot and wax with a damp cloth and let dry.
  • Use your knife to thin the edge of the shell so birds can get a good grip.
  • Take two long pieces of twine or fat ribbons or rope or strips of recycled blue jeans and tack them to the bottom of the shell. Then bring them up four sides and tie at the top so the shell sits in the strings like a hanging planter. 
  • Hang the pumpkin feeder and fill it up with bird seeds, peanuts, those pumpkin seeds you saved and never roasted...
... and don't be surprised if your birds - or maybe the neighborhood squirrels - take a nibble or two out of the pumpkin.

Check out more resources, book reviews and sciency things-to-do at STEM Friday.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Celebrating Skeletons on Day of the Dead

Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons
by Sara Levine; illus. by TS Spookytooth
32 pages; ages 5 - 10
Lerner Publishing, 2013

"Have you ever wondered what we would look like if we didn't have any bones? It wouldn't be pretty," begins Sara Levine. Bones are important, she says. They hold us up. They store fat and minerals. They (with help from our muscles) allow us to run and jump and climb trees.

Coupled with Spookytooth's clever illustrations, Levine shows what you might look like if your tail bones kept going, or your neck bones (think: giraffe). She shows what your skeleton would look like if you had Very Long Fingers, or no leg bones at all. And she even shows what you might look like with no bones at all... an Invertebrate!

What I like about this book: the X-ray view of animals with their bones all shown. I also like the beginning where Levine compares two vertebrate skeletons and labels major bones. I love the imaginative way she introduces her ideas: "what kind of animal would you be if we took away your leg bones but kept your arm bones?" On the following page there's an illustration, complete with the bones we know and every so often an * with some additional animals that would fit into that category.

I also like the back pages where Levine tells more about bones and vertebrates. She gives great hints for how to determine what class an animal belongs to, whether it's a bird or a fish or a mammal... And she includes a glossary and resources for curious naturalists who want to learn more.

Beyond the book: There are lots of sciency things one can do, like labeling bones on a skeleton or playing a matching game - and Lerner provides those free resources for the book at their website. But since today is the Day of the Dead, there are lots of other things one might want to do while learning about bones and skeletons.
Art: create a skeleton out of Q-tips or glue different kinds of Pasta to a black sheet of construction paper.
Food: mix up some sugar candy mix and make candy skulls for Day of the Dead. Or bake some gingerbread men cookies and decorate like skeletons.
Games: use a small (clean) bone - something from a chicken or a small vertebra from another animal and play a game of "bone, bone, who's got the bone" (using rules of "who's got the button). OR have someone leave the room and hide a bone. When "it" returns, use clapping to indicate when he is close to the bone.

Today's review is part of the STEM Friday round-up. Check out the other science books and resources reviewed this week.
Today's review is part of PPBF (perfect picture book Friday), an event in which bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's site. She keeps an ever-growing list of Perfect Picture Books. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Just in Time for Halloween: Vampire Moths!

Butterflies have scratchy feet, but they don't bite. At least that's what my lepidopterist friend tells kids before she puts a monarch butterfly on their hand. Except... it turns out that there is a moth that bites. The (scary music) Vampire Moth!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bedtime Math - what an excuse to stay up late!

Bedtime Math: A Fun Excuse to Stay Up Late
by Laura Overdeck; illustrated by Jim Paillot
ages 3-8; 96 pages
Feiwel & Friends, 2013

Laura Overdeck loves numbers. Granted, she's got a degree in astrophysics, so she gets an automatic pass into the math world.... but numbers shouldn't be scary, she thinks. To anyone, whether they're a teacher or a parent or a kid. So when her first child was two years old, Laura and her husband started counting out stuffed animals and creating bedtime riddles. It was when their third child demanded math problems that they realized they were on to something: a flashcard-free home where math had become a favorite bedtime activity, much like reading a story is.

Now Laura's pulled some of her favorite problems into a book, Bedtime Math. I posted a review of the book over at STEM Friday, but here's a sample of one of her problems - a seasonal one at that:
 If you have giant pumpkins that weigh 1,000 pounds each, and your car weighs 4,500 pounds, how many whole pumpkins do you need to outweigh your car? For big kids she asks: what weighs more, 4 of the 900-pound pumpkins or 5 of the 700-pound zucchinis?

A few weeks ago Laura graciously answered a few questions about why Bedtime Math is so important. It started back in college when she was figuring out such things as how much the universe weighs and whether the universe is growing or collapsing. Astrophysics, says Laura, is a lot of math!

Laura: I took a teacher prep class, and that got me thinking how math and science are taught - and how we make this stuff approachable. Years later, as a mom, I see how math anxiety pervades our society. There are elementary teachers who are afraid of math, and parents. We need to break this cycle. (check out Laura's TED talk below)

Archimedes: In your book you mention that math literacy is every bit as important as language and reading.

Laura: Yes! Parents read to kids all the time, and children have a positive view of reading. So why not math? Even if parents don't love math, they can weave it into daily life in a way that makes math fun. That way children can see that math is fun before they set foot into their first classroom. The thing is, we use math every day, and it shouldn't be relegated to the "homework" category. We can play with math while in the car, or before breakfast or any time that is not school - and that way the message becomes "math is not homework; it's part of everyday life."

Archimedes: Aside from never saying "Oh, I never did well in math...", how can math-phobic parents help their kids fall in love with math?

Laura: There are so many simple things. When playing with toy trucks you can ask: if the truck drives 2 feet this way and then 3 feet that way, how many feet does it drive? There are so many ways to draw children into mathematical thinking, and the more you explore, the more likely a child can find a math area where he or she has strength. Children have different math intelligences- some have an easier time with geometry and spatial orientation, while another might be more inclined towards engineering and another more in tune with the language of algebra.
Head over to Laura's website,Bedtime Math - and sign up to get a nightly problem. Today's review is part of the STEM Friday round-up. Check out the other science books and resources reviewed this week. Then on Monday, we're joining Abby the Librarian for Nonfiction Monday.
 Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Wacky New Animals

Wild Discoveries:
Wacky New Animals
by Heather Montgomery
64 pages; ages 7 - 10
Scholastic, 2013

I can't pass up a book with a frog on its cover - especially one this unusual. It's a Condor Glassfrog from a forest high on an Ecuadorian mountainside. And it's a new species - at least "new to us". Because, while it's been around for years decades centuries, scientists only "discovered" it within the last half-dozen years.

Heather Montgomery gives us a round-the-world tour of new animals (and a couple non animal species) discovered between 2007 and 2012.  For each, she includes its scientific name (genus and species) - the Latin label that allows it to be identified by scientists no matter what language they speak when they order take-out. She also lets us know its role in nature (carnivore, decomposer) where it was found, how big it is, and a little about its life or behavior.

There's a brilliant pink Dragon millipede, a cat-sized Titi monkey, a 7-inch long crayfish with hairy antennae, and a Pygmy seahorse that measures a half inch. Scientists have bestowed some of their new discoveries with humorous names: "Tarzan chameleon" for a chameleon that climbs trees; "pancake batfish" for a fish as flat as a pancake; and Spongiforma squarepantsii for a brand new fungus that resembles... a sponge. Every now and then Montgomery tosses in a magnifying glass icon with an "unsolved mystery" question.

Heather was kind enough to answer three questions about her new book.

Archimedes: What drove you to write this book?

Heather:  While researching other projects I had been corresponding with several scientists who had discovered new species of insects. I became fascinated with the process of discovery and wanted to write a book that followed an entomologist and his team through the process. When an editor at Scholastic asked me for a proposal I realized that a long narrative was not the right approach for that kind of book. I began digging, and digging and discovered a vast number of organisms being discovered (even on a daily basis!) and decided to approach the topic by using an abundance of examples. When I found things like a hot-pink millipede and slime-spewing worms which had never been known to science, I knew this would be "wacky" examples to illustrate the diversity of life.

Archimedes: Can you describe how long it took & the kinds of  research you did?

Heather: I LOVE research! For this book I read extensively - many, many news releases and scientific papers. I interviewed many scientists, by phone or email - they were exceptionally helpful! Unfortunately time and resources prevented me from visiting the amazing places on the planet where these animals were found (miles deep in the ocean, high in the cloud forests of South America,...) -- except for one peaceful creek where a bottlebrush crayfish was recently discovered. That creek happens to be about an hour away from my home. In my many paddling trips via canoe or kayak, how did I manage to miss discovering that 11-inch, blue-blooded beauty?

Archimedes: What new animal discovery surprised you the most?

Heather: That's kind of like asking a parent which is their favorite kid.  A see-through frog, the longest insect in the world, a worm that eats whale bones, and a 2-foot monkey that no one knew about?!?! But, if I had to pick, it wouldn't be a particular animal - but instead, the fact that animals that live basically in my back yard have never been described by scientists. That blows my mind!  It makes me want to get outside and see what I can find!

OK eco-explorers...  let's head outside and see what new animals - and plants - we can discover. Even if they are just "new to us".
Check out other cool science posts and STEM resources over at STEM Friday. Review copy provided by the author.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Fungus Among Us

The other day I was walking about the lawn looking for a mushroom. It had rained a lot, so I figured that mushrooms should be sprouting all about. I nearly stepped on these little guys ... no larger than acorn caps.

Turns out, fungi come in all sizes and shapes, from what we think of as a "normal" mushroom - with stalk and cap - to things that look more like corals.

I could probably put this "coral fungi" in my small plastic aquarium and glue hang some paper fish from the top and fool my friends.

Fungi are not plants. In fact, they have their own kingdom. And one of the biggest questions is: how do I pronounce "fungi"?

Some folks (mostly those across the pond) say "fun-gee".  Most folks I know say "fun-guy" - as in: why would you invite a mushroom to your party? Because he's a fun guy! Others say "fun-ji".

Like icebergs, there's more to fungi than what you see. But I'll let the "naked scientist" explain, with her awesome sketchbook. Then, why not grab your own sketchbook and head out to see what fungi are lurking in your lawn?

This is part of STEM Friday. Check out the STEM Friday blog for book reviews and resources.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Goldenrod Gang

 As fall begins, a whole lot of things seem to happen at once:
monarch butterflies migrate south;
apples ripen and fall to the ground;
leave turn glorious shades of russet and red and rose.

 Leaves aren't the only thing changing color. Perhaps you've noticed that the roadsides and fields are changing hue as well. As summer colors fade, roadsides and fields burst with the brilliant yellows of goldenrod.

There are more than a hundred kinds of goldenrod in the US alone. If you take a close look at their flowers, you'll see that they are relatives of the sunflower family. Spend time with goldenrod and you'll find that they support an interesting community of insects: the "Goldenrod Gang".

One of the beetles that visits goldenrod is the "locust borer" - a bright yellow-and-black longhorn beetle. It's a native beetle that gets its name from its habit of boring into black locust (you can learn more about it here). 

Another beetle I find on the flowers is the ladybird beetle, aka "ladybug". There are many kinds of ladybugs, but we seem to have more of the non-native multi-dotted Asian Lady Beetles around our house.

Look down on the stem, and you might find some grasshoppers hiding under the leaves. And then - back on the flowers - there are some wasps: dainty black wasps barely larger than an ant, and larger paper wasps sipping nectar and collecting pollen. And of course, bees: honey bees, bumblebees, and bees I don't even know the names of.

Grab your nature journal and head out to a goldenrod patch
What do you see?
What sorts of beetles are hanging out on your goldenrod flowers?
How long do they stay there - and what are they doing?
What kinds of wasps and bees visit your plants?
Is there a difference between what insects visit in the morning and which visit in the afternoon?
What happens when one insect meets another? Do they ignore each other?

Check out other cool science posts and STEM resources over at STEM Friday.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Get the Scoop on Animal Poop!

Get the Scoop on Animal Poop!

From Lions to Tapeworms, 251 cool facts about scat, frass, dung, and more!
By Dawn Cusick
80 pages, ages 8-12
Imagine (Charlesbridge imprint), 2012

At the very beginning of this book, author Dawn Cusick warns her young readers that they have a very important decision to make:
"How will you deal with the adults in your life when they see this book?"

It's a fair question, because some adults get disgusted by the cool-yet-gross things that interest kids. Poop being one of those things. Fortunately, Cusick is one who doesn't get disgusted by such things and dives right into the topic head first. Metaphorically.

The subtitle of this book says it all: 251 cool facts about scat, frass, dung.... and more! The first chapter is appropriately titled "Watch your language" - because there are precise and scientific words used to describe the body waste of animals, and there are silly words and other words that will get your mouth washed out with soap. My favorite word from Cusick's list is "Coporology".

Though it sounds gross to us, some animals eat poop. They roll in it. They use it to mark their nests and protect their families. Turns out that poop is an integral part of the food chain and can be its own little ecosystem.

Animals aren't the only ones to use poo.  People use dung to heat their homes, cook dinner, and even make jewelry!

Cusick's also included a detective's guide to poop - to help budding naturalists determine who's "gone" there. Altogether a fun book. You can read a previous interview with Dawn Cusick here.
Review copy provided by publisher.

Check out other science resources at STEM Friday.

And on Monday, join Archimedes and other blogs for the Nonfiction Monday round-up, hosted this week by Sally's Bookshelf.