Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Recycled Art

I love winter holidays - there's candles and greenery and presents. But what do you do with all the ribbons and wrappings?

A few years ago I started collecting bits of tissue paper and gift wrap too small to re-use. They make great paper for collage art. All you need is glue (half water/ half white glue), a paint brush, and something to glue everything onto - a cereal box will do.

So this season let the environment around you inspire some recycled art. It doesn't matter whether it's the trees outside your window, the lost ladybug wandering around the kitchen counter, or the perfect snowflake stuck to the screen.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cool Robots

Cool Robots (series)
by Kathryn Clay, Erika L. Shores
24 pages; ages 4-7
Capstone, 2015

Got a robot-crazy kid? Then this just might be the perfect collection of books for her (or him). The Cool Robot series looks at robots used on earth, in space, and underwater.

 Animal Robots
Some engineers get their robot-inspiration from animals. For example, fins and fish tails might be the perfect thing to help steer an underwater robot. Some animal-robots are toys, while others are working bots, like a robotic fish that searches for pollution in the ocean.

Robots in Space
You already know one robot that works in space: the Mars rover "Curiosity". But did you know that astronauts use robotic gloves to help them grip tools better? And all those unmanned probes flying though space to Mercury, Pluto, and beyond – they are robots, too. Soon there might even be a robotic astronaut.

Robots on the Job
If you’ve watched car ads, you’ve seen factory robots. There are even restaurant robots that make sushi. But did you know there are robots that work in hospitals?

Tiny Robots
Remember that science fiction book where people are shrunk and sent inside the human body in a tiny submarine? We’re not there yet, but scientists are working on a pill-sized robot that can be swallowed and will take pictures inside the human body. They’re also working on nanobots – robots too tiny to see. Someday nanobots might be used to fight disease.

Today is STEM Friday. Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. Review copies provided by publisher.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature
By Sarah C. Campbell; photos by Sarah and Richard Campbell
32 pages; ages 7 - 10
Boyds Mills Press, 2014

themes: math, nature
If you’ve never heard of a fractal, then this is the book for you. Sarah Campbell begins by looking at simple shapes around us:  cones, cylinders, spheres, rectangles. Then she moves on to things in nature that don’t have perfect shapes.

“Instead of being straight, smooth, and flat, many natural shapes are rough, bristly, and bumpy,” she writes. True enough when you’re looking at a head of broccoli, a fern, or even a tree.

Before 1975 no one really had a name for these shapes. Then, a mathematician named Mandelbrot noticed something interesting: these shapes had repeating patterns. For example,. A tree starts with a stem that divides into branches, which each divide into branches, until the very last and smallest split into twigs. He called these patterns “fractals”.

In her book, Campbell provides photos of different kinds of fractals. Then she provides a DYI “make your own fractal” activity and ends with a biographical sketch of Mandelbrot.

What I Like: The explanations are straight-forward and the photos really help illustrate her points.

Beyond the book: Are snowflakes fractals? After the Nor’easter this week, I’ve got snowflakes on my mind. And on my boots and the porch and the roof of the garage. But, although they have patterns, the snowflakes falling out of the sky aren't necessarily fractals.

Make your own snowflakes - all you need is paper and scissors. And these hints.

Go on a Fractal Hike. If you're wondering what sort of fractals you might find in nature, check out this video. Remember to take your sketchbook and some pencils so you can draw any fractals you dome across.

Make a Koch Snowflake Fractal - start with an equilateral triangle. Then add equilateral triangles on the sides - and keep adding more. Like this.

  Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Eyes Wide Open~ Going Behind the Environmental Headlines

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines
by Paul Fleischman
208 pages; ages 14 +
Candlewick, 2014

Growing up with the first Earth Day, the birth of the EPA, and an emerging corps of environmental journalists it was no surprise that I ended up writing about science and environmental issues.

But now, concurrent with a growing awareness of climate change and increased protests against drilling, there's an ever-decreasing number of environmental journalists on staff at news organizations - even as Congress whacks away at EPA (telling the agency it can't use scientific data to base its findings on!)

This book could not come at a more critical time!And Fleischman does a great job of wrangling a huge amount of information into six readable chapters (plus scads of material at the back). Science is only part of the environmental story, he warns us. Turns out money is just as important. Where science tells us what nature is doing, money explains what people are doing. And "power and politics are bound up with money".

Fleischman discusses Vested Interests, power, and politics.He talks about complexity and uncertainty, and how lobbyists can use those to sow doubt and prod people into denial about environmental problems. He shows how groups pouring money into pro-polluting campaigns can hide their identity and how language is used to instill fear. Take, for example, the labeling of protestors as "eco-terrorists". With the use of one word, people peacefully protesting pollution are suddenly stripped of their rights to protest and treated as criminals.

One issue Fleischman raises is conflict caused by environmental stress. Climate change can bring too much rain and flooding to one place, too little rain to another. Drought-induced food shortages can create political conflicts as people leave their farms and try to move elsewhere. As arctic ice melts, the Arctic Sea could become a battleground between nations vying for oil and gas or other minerals now accessible.

Understanding the problems is important - but learning how to judge the media and weigh the information you uncover is vital. Fleischman includes a great guide on how to judge websites, print media, books - and even the journalists publishing the news. He gives readers the same tips editors give their cub reporters: Follow the money; beware of "mental" vested interests; and check for fallacies. The camera can lie, he says.

Back matter includes source notes, bibliography, resources, glossary, and a handy index.

 As a press-card-carrying environmental journalist, I give this book my MUST READ recommendation. Today is STEM Friday - head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other bloggers are reviewing. Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Boy and a Jaguar

A Boy and a Jaguar
By Alan Rabinowitz; illus. by Catia Chien
32 pages; ages 4-8
HMH Books for young readers, 2014

This is a true story about a boy, his connection to animals, and how he became the "Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation".

themes: nonfiction, autobiography, animals

"I'm standing in the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo. Why is this jaguar kept in a bare room? I wonder. I lean toward my favorite animal and whisper to her."

Alan Rabinowitz loves the jaguar. He can talk to her. He also loves his chameleon, gerbil, and snake. He can talk to them, too. The only animals he can't talk to are human. Alan stutters, and no one - not his dad or his teachers - can understand him. So when he talks to his animals, Alan promises that if he can ever find his voice, he will be their voice and keep them from harm.

When he grows up, Alan studies jaguars. But they are being hunted nearly to extinction. Alan knows he has to protect them - and that means talking to government officials.

What I like about this book: It is full of hope - for children and for animals. And I like that Alan tells his own story, and that he still talks to jaguars (and other cats). In an interview on NPR Alan says that all children go through periods in their live where they feel misunderstood or shut off from the human world - whether they have a disability or just something inside them that makes them different from everyone else. "I wanted this book to speak to all of those children because I don't think adults realize, unless you've gone through it as a child, what a lasting mark such pain leaves on a young person."

Beyond the book: Have you ever talked to an animal? Cats make wonderful listeners. So do toads (they don't hop away as quickly as frogs). If you do end up talking to an animal, what sort of things might you discuss?

Visit jaguars and other wild cats at a zoo.

Alan Rabinowitz is president and CEO of Panthera, a wildlife organization dedicated to protecting the world's wild cat species. You can learn a lot about jaguars and other wild cats at Panthera.

Watch In Search of the Jaguar (free feature-length documentary)

See out what other bloggers are reviewing over at the STEM Friday blog. Today's review is also 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, November 21, 2014

Who's Sleeping in my Hickory Leaves?

Earlier this fall I discovered something sleeping in my hickory leaves. The underside of the leaves were covered with tiny fuzzy bumps - galls. Some insect, possibly an aphid, had laid eggs on the leaf and the irritation induced the leaf tissue to grow around it.

There are all kinds of galls: marble-sized knobs on the stems of goldenrod, fuzzy galls on the underside of a leaf, smooth round leaf galls, knot galls, galls that look like a bundle of needles or thin leaves... and the come in all colors: brown, red, gold, green.

The best time to collect galls is in the fall - you can find them on leaves and stems. If you want to see what comes out of the galls, collect the leaves or stem pieces and put them in jars with net over the top. Keep them in a cool area and take a look every day to see if anything has changed.

Check out some cool galls here and read about goldenrod galls here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Animals, Animals, Animals

Today I'm reviewing a trio of books that fit together and provide a mix of fiction and fact. Our theme: animals

 Animals Work
by Ted Lewin
24 pages; ages 4-8
Holiday House, 2014

This easy-reader makes good on the title's promise. Each page features an animal at work. The text is simple subject/verb construction: "A dog herds. A horse carries." The illustrations show an animal doing its work, from herding sheep (dog) and lifting tree trunks (elephant) to mowing the lawn (sheep) and protecting the herd (llamas). Lewin includes the important work of a companion animal, too. At the back is a map showing where the featured animals live.

The World's Best Noses, Ears, and Eyes
by Helen Rundgren; illus. by Ingela P. Arrhenius
32 pages; ages 6-10
Holiday House, 2014

"Ears are for hearing, eyes are for seeing, and noses collect smells." But what are we trying to see? Or hear? And what is that stinky smell?

This book offers a fun look at the diversity of noses: long noses, short noses, funny looking noses. There are hedgehog noses and moth noses, elephant noses and shark noses and the very dazzling nose of the star-nosed mole. There are lizard ears and bunny ears, cricket ears and funny ears. We look at the biggest eyes and eyes on stalks, eyes that see at night and eyes that see hundreds of images at once. And then there's us. Humans. We're pretty average when it comes to eyes and noses and ears. Is there anything we do better than other animals?

A Night at the Zoo
by Kathy Caple
24 pages; ages 4-8
Holiday House, 2014

This is another easy-reader, with simple text and bold illustrations. "Sam and Pop are at the zoo,"  it begins. Pop takes photos with his cell phone and, when Sam gets hungry they get some popcorn and sit on a bench to rest. They fall asleep, and the zoo closes. Weird things happen once the people are gone... an ostrich snatches Pop's phone and somehow it ends up in monkey's hands. Eventually, Pop and Sam get the phone back and head home on the late bus. But wait! What are those photos?

Beyond the books: Are there any working animals in your neighborhood? The burros on my neighbor's farm protect her fallow deer from coyotes and other predators. A few miles away, a woman trains dogs to be reading partners for children in school and at the local libraries. And many people have cats to keep the mouse population down in the house and barn.

Visit a zoo with your sketchbook or camera. Take a close look at animal noses and ears and eyes - and draw some from different animals. What do you notice? You don't have to go to a zoo - you could observe mammals and birds and reptiles and amphibians that you see in your neighborhood. Even in cities you might find some interesting animals. In addition to cats, dogs, and birds some people report seeing deer, bears, possums and raccoons crossing city streets.

 You can see out what other bloggers are reviewing over at the STEM Friday blog. Today's review is also 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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Birds On the Wing and On my Lawn

from wikipedia
The other morning I was awakened by turkeys chuckling beneath my window. They'd congregated on the side yard near the tall grass, and were making their way towards the hickory tree. This has been a good year for turkey - food has been falling out of the sky for weeks and we can't walk anywhere without smashing acorns beneath our heels.

Besides chuckling, turkeys purr, cluck and gobble. They even hiss, though I haven't heard that. You can hear turkey calls over at Cornell Lab of Ornithology's turkey page.

Not all birds hang out on my lawn; there are a number that flit, flap, and soar overhead. I've often wondered what it would be like to take to the sky. Now I don't need wings; I can open David Elliott's newest book, On the Wing
illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
32 pages; ages 3-7
Candlewick, 2014

theme: animals, nature

From hummingbirds to eagles, this book waxes poetic about birds from all over in all kinds of weather. There are Japanese cranes dancing in the snow, flamingos, bowerbirds, condors and puffins. Elliott includes a few backyard feeder-friends we might already know: woodpecker, blue jay, cardinal, crow.

The illustrations are luscious, with details of feathers and beaks right on down to the toes. Here's one of the spreads, featuring my favorite late-winter visitor.

 Beyond the book: Fill up a bird feeder and watch who comes to visit. Or visit an aviary. Take a close look at the birds you see: what do their beaks look like? Do they have feather crests? Are they brightly-colored or more earth-toned? What do their calls sound like? How do they act around other birds or around people?

Now try your hand at writing poetry "on the wing". Remember, poems don't have to rhyme, and they can be as short as a puffin's beak or as long as a peacock's tail.

You can see out what other bloggers are reviewing over at the STEM Friday blog. Today's review is also 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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Case of the Vanishing Bats

The Case of the Vanishing Brown Bats
By Sandra Markle
48 pages; ages 9-12
Millbrook Press, 2014

If you're looking for a perfect Halloween mystery, this book's for you. You see, little brown bats were once among the most common kinds of bats in North America. But by 2013, their population had dropped so low that scientists wondered whether they should be listed as endangered species. 

[perfect spot for spooky musical interlude]

This story begins in 2007, when a team of scientists from the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation goes to a cave near Albany. Their job: to count hibernating bats. What they found were lots of dead bats, some with fuzzy white noses. The following year they found even more dead bats.

What was killing the bats? Was it climate change? Pesticides? A virus?

In her book, Sandra Markle follows a team of scientists working on the bat-killer mystery. She follows them into caves and into their labs. The scientists determine that the killer is a fungus – but they still have more questions: what will happen to the populations of other animals that depend on the bats? Some animals rely on bats for their suppers, and farmers rely in bats to control crop-munching insects in the ecosystem.

Markle provides amazing bat facts and lists ways people can help their local bats. She’s also got a long list of books and other resources for folks who want to explore bats more deeply.

Today is Halloween. It's also STEM Friday! Head over to the STEM Friday blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher

Friday, October 24, 2014

Beetle Busters & author interview

Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People who Track It (Scientists in the Field)
by Loree Griffin Burns; photos by Ellen Harasimonwicz
64 pages; ages 10 - 14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

This is a book about one gorgeous beetle (look at the beautiful antennae), the damage it does to forests, and the scientists and citizens who are trying to save their trees. The Asian Longhorn Beetle, also known as the ALB, came from China tucked into wood used to ship products to the US. Now it's infesting trees from Massachusetts to New York and into Canada, and foresters are in a race to control its spread. But is cutting thousands of trees the answer?

In this book Loree Burns takes a close look at the beetle - its life cycle inside and outside the trees - and the scientists tracking the insect. She talks trees: bark, tree rings, leaves and buds. She takes us into the woods with the beetle busting team for some surveying and a bit of tree climbing (don't worry; we're roped in), then into the lab. Beetle busting is hard work, and the scientists need help. That means we - yes, just ordinary citizens - need to help track and report beetle break-outs. Even if it means losing a tree we love.

Burns includes diagrams, sidebars, author's notes and resources for curious beetle naturalists. Ellen  Harasimonwicz's photographs are integral to this book. She traipsed from field to lab and her photos of beetles, trees, and scientists in action help us understand the complexity of the problem.

Loree has been traveling this fall, but she took a few minutes to answer some questions about her new book. You can find out more at her website.

Archimedes: Did this book evolve from an experience with a tree?

Loree: It began with several trees, actually. At the time, my family and I lived on a single acre and were the proud stewards of many trees, including several mature shagbark hickories that I particularly loved. And we were surrounded on two sides by 20 acres of forested conservation land. When I first began to read and hear about an invasive beetle and a program to eradicate it that involved cutting trees, I became very, very defensive. My first instinct was “No! Not our trees!”

So I went to an information session that was being held at the town library. The meeting was run by Clint McFarland, who was directing the eradication program in Worcester, and I learned a lot about the beetle, its strange life cycle, the damage it causes trees, the process involved in eradicating it, and the breadth of what was at stake. I could see the dilemma: cutting trees here NOW would save trees in lots of other places later, but cutting trees here NOW might also mean losing most of the trees that surrounded us.

I attended several more community meetings and, eventually, approached Clint with some tough questions. His patient and honest answers—he understood my stance but was firm in his own—convinced me that this complicated issue was worth exploring more deeply. And the beetle provided an incredible story in which to explore it. It finally occurred to me that this could be an interesting book.

Archimedes: Tell me about your research process for this book.

Loree: I had to do a lot of background reading to learn about beetles in general and ALB in particular, the history of ALB in North America, the history of ALB in its native home, and so on.

I also had to go out into the field and see how Clint, Mike Bohne, Kevin Dodds, and their colleagues work. This story was unusual because there are so very many different players: tree surveyors who work on the ground, tree surveyors who work in the canopy, foresters who study beetles in the wild and scientists who raise and study them in the lab, and so on. Over the course of two years, I conducted more than thirty-five individual interviews, many of them in the field. It was thrilling.

Archimedes: Did you ever go along on an ALB survey?
(photo by E. Harasimonwicz)
Loree:  Yes, I went on several (see photo). A few were with Clint’s team, and in those cases I carried a notebook and a camera (and in some cases Ellen was there with her camera) and recorded everything I saw.  A few others, though, were with local land trust organizations that were working to educate the public about the beetle and get them involved in finding them. In these cases I brought binoculars and was taught how to identify the twelve species of trees that the beetle prefers and how to scan those trees, methodically, for signs of ALB. 

The first thing I can tell you is that identifying trees to species can be difficult. The trees have unique shapes and bark patterns and leaf/needle shape, and these are super-helpful identification clues. But these characteristics are different on a sapling than on a teenaged tree than on the mature, adult tree. It’s a tricky thing. I actually spent months practicing to ID trees (with help from an ALB project member, Amy Stauffer) and I’m still not super good at it. 

The next thing that stood out was how hard it is to spend hours looking up. Within the first hour of my first field survey, my neck was aching. Really aching. You have to build up a stamina for this work.

Once you’ve learned trees and built up the stamina to study them closely through binoculars—on top of all that—its VERY hard to notice dime-sized holes in tree canopy. Especially at certain times of day. What I learned, beyond the technical procedures of surveying, was how very hard this work is. The people who do it are incredibly talented and dedicated.

Archimedes: It sounds like kids can get involved in participating in ALB surveys. But what else can kids do to help save the trees in their neck of the woods?

Loree: I think the best thing they can do is pay attention to them. Notice the way they naturally change over the course of a year, and take note when something unusual happens. Study the critters that live in and around your trees and, again, pay attention to anything unusual.

I think it’s important for kids to realize, too, that there are many other invasive beetles to be on the lookout for. Here’s a list fromthe US Forest Service; you can click on the beetle’s name to see its photo and learn more about where it is from and where it has invaded.

If you see any of these insects, or think you do, take photographs. Make notes. Contact someone through the website above, or at a local nature organization, to let them know what you’ve found.

And if you happen to live somewhere that an eradication program is underway, a great way to help is to care for replanted trees. Where I live, tens of thousands of trees have been cut, and thousands have been replanted. These newly planted trees need people to monitor water, prune, and protect them as they become established in their new location.

Archimedes: These beetles spend so much time inside the trees - are there any natural enemies?

Loree: There are in Asia, where ALB is native, but we don’t know much yet about what its natural enemies might be here. Surely there are parasitic wasps that will, eventually, take advantage of this new host species. And surely there are birds and other animals that will eat the beetle. It is just going to take some time for equilibrium to establish and for these enemies to keep the population in check.

Archimedes: Is there anything you’d like to add?

 Loree: I’d just like to mention that photographer Ellen Harasimowicz was a crucial part of telling this story. She attended many of the field events and caught a lot of the crucial details on film.  This makes the storytelling easier for me, and makes reading Beetle Busters a visual delight.

Thank you, Loree. Today we're joining STEM Friday - head over to that blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher