Saturday April 22nd is Earth Day, so get outside and show our home planet some love! Whether you’re picking up trash or visiting a park, it’s always fun to throw some science into the mix.
Here are some of our favorite environmental science experiments. Just click on the experiment names for directions and photos. You can find more fun outdoor experiments in my books “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids” and “Outdoor Science Lab for Kids“ (Quarry Books.)
Homemade Sweep Nets: Make a sweep net from a pillowcase and a hanger to see what arthropods are hanging out in your favorite outdoor spaces.
Window Sprouts: Plant a bean in a plastic baggie with a damp paper towel to see how plants need only water and air to sprout roots and leaves. Here’s a short video demonstrating how to make a window garden.
Homemade Solar Oven: Using a pizza box, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and newspaper, you can harness the sun’s energy to cook your own S’mores!
Nature Walk Bracelets: Wrap some duct tape around your wrist (inside out) and take a walk, sticking interesting natural objects like leaves and flowers to your bracelet. It’s a great way to get outdoors and engage with nature!
Carbon Dioxide and Ocean Acidity: See for yourself how the carbon dioxide in your own breath can make a water-based solution more acidic. It’s the same reason too much carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere can be bad for our oceans.
Plant Transpiration: See how trees “sweat” in this survival science experiment.
Earthworm Experiment: Do you know what kind of earthworms are living in your back yard?
Composting: Be a composting detective. Bury some things in your back yard (away from power cables) and dig them up in a few months to see how they look. Composting reduces methane gas emissions (a greenhouse gas) from dumps.
Diffusion and Osmosis: See for yourself how the chemicals we add to water, put on our streets to melt ice, and spray on our lawns and crops can move into our soil, ground water, rivers, lakes and oceans.
Solar Water Purification: This project illustrates the greenhouse effect and is a fun “survival science” experiment. Requires hot sun and some patience!
Citizen Science: Don’t forget about all the real environmental research projects you can participate in through Citizen Science programs all around the world!
For mores activities and games, check out NASA’s Climate Kids website, to see a kid-friendly diagram of the water cycle, click here, or just get outside and enjoy the beautiful planet that sustains and nurtures us.
Our eight Monarch caterpillars were in chrysalises when we returned from our vacation, and yesterday the first of them emerged! We were lucky enough to catch it on our iPhone time-lapse, which makes everything look faster than it actually happens. You’ll be amazed at how the butterfly pumps fluid from its body to expand its beautiful orange and black wings.
It’s almost summer! Whether you’re heading to the back yard, a park or a nature center, here are a few of our favorite free apps to enhance your next outdoor adventure…
Merlin Bird ID (free) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes it easy to identify that mystery bird in your back yard. http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/
Leaf Snap: (free) Take a photo, identify a plant.http://leafsnap.com/
Bee Friendly: (free) Be a citizen scientist with this cool app that lets you identify and tracking pollinators like bees in your area. http://earthwatch.org/scientific-research/special-initiatives/bee-friend-your-garden
Starmap: iOS (Starmap Lite is free.) Use this app to easily find and identify constellations in the night sky. http://www.star-map.fr/
ISS Spotter: (free) It’s cool to watch the International Space Station fly across the horizon at night. This app will help you spot it, and even has an alarm so you don’t miss it. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/iss-spotter/id523486350?mt=8
Magnificent : (free version) Magnify leaves, bugs and anything else you want to take a closer look at. http://habitualdigitalsoftware.com/
A few weeks ago, the kids and I were lucky enough to hear the Cousteau family speak at Beth El Synagogue as part of their Inspiring Minds Series. World-famous ocean researcher, conservationist and visionary Jacques Cousteau died in 1997, but his son Jean-Michel and his grandchildren are carrying on his legacy.
Jean-Michele was delightful, joking with his grown kids onstage even as he reminded us that there is only one water system on Earth and that we need to protect it. He worried out loud about what the future holds for our children, and told the story of walking down a beach to see a little boy return a piece of litter to an embarrassed adult with the words, “Excuse me sir, you dropped this!” His stories from the front lines of our struggling seas and polluted beaches reminded the audience that teaching conservation is most often a matter of “reaching the heart.” His PBS website “Ocean Adventures” is filled with fantastic videos and activities for kids.
Celine Cousteau, who has a background in psychology, talked about living her life at split level, with “one eye above the water, but always happy to be pulled back to the ocean.” After first visiting the Brazilian Amazon when she was nine, she has returned every year and is currently working on a project called “Tribes on the Edge,” to educate public on the struggles of the indigenous people there.
She says in one blog post, “Telling the stories of the indigenous people of the Vale do Javari is nothing short of complex- from the logistics and production, to the tribal politics, to the content. I could not have chosen a more challenging subject and location…but really, it chose me. They need to be heard and I can help make that happen. They want the world to know they exist and they matter. They don’t want to die from hepatitis, malaria, tuberculosis, or be contaminated by the invasion of oil companies or illegal activities. They want to choose their fate. Wouldn’t you?”
Fabien Cousteau talked about Mission 31, which documented Fabien and his team’s 31 day research stint in Aquarius, the world’s only underwater marine laboratory, located nine miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, and 63 feet beneath the sea. The researchers lived and worked underwater, and when they weren’t diving, they lived and worked in a space about the size of a school bus!
It was wonderful to hear stories from this adventuring family on a mission to remind us of our responsibilities as stewards of this planet (and of each other.) As a sometimes overprotective parent, it was also great to hear Celine, a mom herself, remind us to let our kids explore and go on some adventures of their own. After all, some day they’ll be the ones out saving the world.
Click here for an experiment you can do with kids to learn more about ocean acidification!
I can’t get over how young my kids look in this post, which I first published a few years ago. This is a great science/art crossover project and one of these bracelets would make a fantastic Mother’s Day gift! Just bring an extra bag along and pick up some extra flowers, petals, leaves and seeds for mom’s bracelet. You can assemble it when you get home. Just leave one edge leaf-free so you can put it on her wrist!
Spring has finally arrived, and a fantastic way to enjoy it is to take a nature walk. While you walk, watch for signs of spring and assemble your discoveries on your wrist with a nature walk bracelet. It’s always a good idea to bring a few bags along too- one for larger treasures (like pine cones) and one for trash. You can study nature and clean up the environment at the same time!
All you need is duct tape. Cut the tape so it fits comfortably around your wrist and tape it around like a bracelet, sticky side out. Take a walk in a park or down your own street and look for small leaves, acorns, flowers and other natural artifacts to adorn your wristlets. Be sure to watch for birds while you walk! There are a number of great apps you can use to identify what species of plants you find, including Leafsnap!
We wore our bracelets all afternoon and several people mistook them for real jewelry. My oldest daughter thought they looked even prettier as the leaves and flowers wilted and flattened out on the tape.
Every fossil has a story to tell.
Whether it’s the spectacular specimen of a dinosaur curled up on it’s eggs or a tiny Crinoid ring, mineralized remains offer us a snapshot of the past, telling us not only what creatures lived where, but about how they lived and the world they inhabited.
Growing up surrounded by the flat-topped, windswept Flint Hills of Kansas, it was hard to imagine that I was living in the bottom of an ancient seabed, but there was evidence of the Permian period all around.
Now, when my kids and I return to my hometown, a fossil-hunting trip is always part of our routine, and we hunt for shells and coral where roads cut through crumbling limestone and and chert (flint.) Looking up at layer after layer of rock and shells, I can almost feel the weight of the water that once covered the land.
An episode of RadioLab we heard on the drive North from Kansas to Minnesota explained that coral keeps time and that by comparing modern coral to ancient coral fossils, scientists discovered that millions of years ago, years were about 40 days shorter than they are now. Can you guess why? Give the podcast a listen here. My mind was blown!
A visit to the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS gave us more insight into the amazing geology, ecology and anthropology of the Flint Hills and the Konza Prairie that blankets them. Most people don’t know that the great tallgrass prairies of the United States wouldn’t exist if not for humans, who have been burning them for thousands of years.
What do you know about where you live? What’s it like now? What do you think it was like long, long ago? Are there fossils nearby?
Here are some fossil-hunting resources I found online, in case you want to go exploring:
I was thrilled to see the words “In Praise of Failure” emblazoned across the New York Times Magazine innovation issue Sunday morning and to read stories that illustrate that there is no substitute for trial, error and risk-taking in the process of invention. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a fantastic kids’ science competition (Young Scientist Challenge) and an online kids’ show (Annedroids) that both embrace the idea that you have to make mistakes to create something great.
Each year, 3M teams up with Discovery Education to host an innovation competition called the Young Scientist Challenge. At the finals this year in St. Paul, ten smart, articulate kids presented original inventions they’d been working on all summer with 3M mentors. (Check out their videos on the website to see the amazing things they’ve invented!) The competition encourages kids to create innovations that address problems they see in the world around them, test their ideas using math and science, and present their projects, along with obstacles they faced along the way.
As one fun part of the competition, I got to watch the finalists frantically finish up Rube Goldberg machines they’d assembled from Legos, marbles, baking soda, vinegar, Mousetrap, and various other materials as teams. As judges looked on, some machines worked, and some marbles never made it into the mousetrap, but it was clear that process trumped perfection as the kids explained their ideas, the science behind them, and how they’d worked together to create their machines.
My kids are already looking forward to entering next year’s competition!
Kids get inspired in all kinds of ways, so I was thrilled when my 8YO switched things up from pink ponies to Amazon’s invention series Annedroids. I’m sure that she loves that the main inventor is a girl, and as a science educator, the first episode had me at “we didn’t fail, we just discovered another way of doing it wrong.” The entire series is free if you have Amazon Prime, but the first episode is available at no cost everyone.
As for me, I’ll be setting up a family holiday Rube Goldberg competition (and not just for the kids!) We have Legos, baking soda, vinegar, and plenty of old toys in the basement, so I just need to pick up a Mousetrap game or two!
*Innovation Story: When 3M hired a young, banjo-playing engineering student named Richard Drew in 1920, they had no idea that he would revolutionize the entire company. At the time, 3M’s wildly popular new invention (and sole product) was abrasive particles stuck to paper with adhesive (sandpaper) and Drew’s job was to take samples to auto shops, where they could try it out on cars they were prepping to paint. Hanging around and observing the process of sanding and painting, Drew discovered that the tape they were using to do two-tone paint jobs was pulling fresh paint off the cars and decided to try to make a better tape. 3M gave him a lab and some materials, and he got to work experimenting, eventually introducing the world’s first roll of masking tape in 1925. As the company grew, innovation continued to be an integral part of the culture, with every employee encouraged to spend 15% of their time working on their own projects. Now they make everything from the reflective material on street signs to multi-layer optical films and paper-thin microbial growth surfaces.
There’s going to be a solar eclipse this afternoon, so I’m re-posting directions on how to make some simple solar viewers!
NEVER look directly at the sun, since you can permanently damage your retinas (the light sensors on the back of your eyeballs.)
You can safety view the sun (and therefore a solar eclipse) using a shoe box by standing with the sun BEHIND you. All you need is a shoe box without a lid, a piece of white paper, aluminum foil, a pin and tape. It’s perfect for viewing a solar eclipse, like the one coming up this afternoon. It will be visible from around 4:30 CST until 6:00 PM CST here in Minnesota!
A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, blocking the sun from view.Go to this eclipse calculator to see when and where you can best view the eclipse with your viewer! Here in Minnesota, we’ll see a partial eclipse.
First, tape white paper over one end of the shoe box (on the inside.) This is your viewing screen.
Then, cut a big notch out of the other end of the shoe box and tape aluminum foil over it.
Use a pin to poke a hole in the center of the foil. If you mess up, you can always put new foil on and try again. The smaller the hole, the better the focus, but we made ours a little bigger than the actual size of the pin.
Now, stand with the sun BEHIND you. (See photo at top of post. The sun is behind her, high in the sky.) NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH THE PINHOLE ITSELF.
Hold the box upside down so the pinhole is pointed at the sun behind you. The foil should be behind your line of sight so it’s not reflecting the sun in your eyes. Light rays from the sun will shine through the pinhole and project an (upside down) image on the white paper.
Practice on a sunny day (or when the sun peeks out between the clouds) so that you know what to do when it’s time for the eclipse. Small children should be supervised so they don’t try to look directly at the sun.
You can do the same thing using two white index card, poking a hole in one you hold nearest to you and projecting the image on the one you hold away from you (with the sun behind you.)
Enjoy! Watching an eclipse in the 70s after my dad came to school and helped us all make these boxes is one of my earliest “science” memories!
Last week, the kids and I saw a bright red bird with a blue head. Baffled, I pulled out my favorite bird identification app: Merlin Bird ID, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The app is free, available on the App Store and Google play, and much of the data in the app has been collected by citizen scientists, like you and me!
To use the app, you simply answer 5 simple questions about the bird you see and the app draws on a wealth of data to help you identify the bird. It comes up with a list of likely matches, and you choose the bird you’re looking at to learn more about it, and even listen to a recording of its song.
Normally, we can quickly identify the bird we’re stalking using the app, but the blue-headed red bird was tricky, so we went online to do more research. Merlin Bird ID suggested that it might be a cardinal, so we did a search for blue headed cardinals and discovered that we’d seen a bald-headed cardinal. It seems that some cardinals and blue jays molt all their head feathers at once, leaving their bluish skin exposed.
Why talk about science to non-scientists? Why not just let scientists stay cloistered in their labs with other scientists, looking through microscopes and talking about scientific stuff? They don’t need any help from non-scientists. Or do they?
At Science Online 2013, I was fortunate to kick February off with an amazing group of individuals who will happily give you a million reasons that we should all be talking about science. This group of students, researchers, writers, artists, librarians and communicators are collectively working to discover better ways to engage the public in the wonder of science without simply lecturing us. They want to excite and challenge us, without overestimating our knowledge or underestimating our intelligence.
After all, a little knowledge about science can go a long way in helping us make well-informed decisions about everything from personal health to the environment. And we all need to dream of stars.
One group of scientists in particular caught my attention, and they were looking for help with real research projects that may someday be published in scientific journals and make a difference in the world.
This type of research is known as Citizen Science, and to be involved, you don’t need a degree or any scientific background at all. It’s not expensive. You might just need a plastic bag or a pair of binoculars. Depending on your interest, you can do anything from taking a video of someone playing with your dog, collecting ants, recording severe weather in your own back yard, to swabbing for microbes in your home, school or sports stadium. You can even keep track of when your neighborhood outdoor hockey rink freezes and thaws or look for Camel Crickets in your basement.
Scistarter.com is a great starting point to help you find a project that fits your interests.
Who knows? You might discover a new ant species, learn something new, or even participate in a study that helps make the world a better place.