This season’s manifestation of the flu (H3N2) is currently burning it’s way though the Twin Cities, sending droves of tough Minnesotans coughing and shivering to their beds. Five people have already died from the flu, two of them teenagers. Stomach bugs, caused by other viruses, are making their rounds too, but when health care workers and scientists talk about flu, they’re talking about viral influenza.
How can a shot help prevent a horrible case of the flu and why do you need a new one every year? Can you avoid the flu by washing your hands?
It helps to understand a little bit about the influenza virus. Like I tell my nursing students: know your enemy and you’ll have a better chance of outsmarting it!
Viruses are tiny packages of genetic material (DNA or RNA) that can infect every type of life on Earth, from bacteria to humans. They’re not considered living, because they can’t make new copies of themselves outside their host organism. In fact, to replicate themselves, they have to hijack their host’s cellular machinery. Essentially, viruses are extremely tiny parasites, so small you can’t even see them under a microscope.
To cause an infection and make you sick, the influenza virus has to get into your cells, use your cells to make lots of new copies of itself, and then escape from those cells so the new viral particles can go out and infect other cells.
The influenza virus is made up of eight segments of RNA, surrounded by a protein coat and an envelope. Two types of protein “spikes” that jut out of the viral envelope are called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Hemagglutinin (H) helps the influenza virus attach to host cells, and neuraminidase (N) helps burst the host cell open so the new viral particles can escape. Flu strains are names for these proteins, which is why you see influenza called H1N1, and so on.
These H and N proteins undergo small changes all the time. Each year, health workers and scientists study flu strains around the world by looking at their H and N proteins, among other things. If one of the proteins has changed a little bit, they will give it a new strain name (like H3N2.) Pharmaceutical companies make new vaccines every year so that your body can recognize the new strains with the new H and N proteins to fight them off.
A flu shot primes your body’s immune system to fight the flu virus and get rid of it. How well the vaccine works each year depends on a number of thing, including how well scientists guessed about which strains would be circulating and whether those strains have undergone other changes. How well your vaccine protects you personally depends on variables including what flu strain you’re exposed to, your age, whether you have another viral or bacterial infection at the same time, and even how strongly your individual immune system reacts.
What can you do to minimize your risk of getting sick with the flu? Get your flu shot! Even if it doesn’t work perfectly, it will give your immune system a boost against the virus. The flu is spread by coughing and sneezing and on surfaces like doorknobs and other surfaces. Try to stay away from people who are coughing. Wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your eyes, mouth and nose, which are portals of entry for microbes. Eating right and getting enough sleep will bolster your immune system so that if you do get the flu, you may be able to fight it off faster and better.
Although you can’t grow viral cultures outside a lab, you can make homemade petri dishes to grow fungi and bacteria from your hands. Try a hand-washing experiment where you label four petri dishes #1-#4. Touch plate #1 with unwashed fingers, wash those fingers with water alone and touch plate #2, wash the same fingers with soap and water and touch plate #3, and finally wash one last time with hand sanitizer and touch plate #4. Let the cultures on the plates grow for several days and you’ll see for yourself why it’s so important to wash your hands.
When I tell my kids we’re going to the science museum, the first thing they do is race up to their rooms to look through their rock collections. Even my twelve year old is not immune to this behavior.
Since they were old enough to talk, the three of them have been bringing paper wasp nests, quartz crystals, empty Monarch chrysalises, fossils and other interesting finds to a hidden gem in the Science Museum of Minnesota: The Collector’s Corner. At this oasis of curiosities (tucked away in a corner of the Collections Gallery near the mummy,) kids can trade in their stuff for points, which allow them to “buy” other amazing items. The more science they know about the item they’re trading in, the more points they get. Luckily, they have a comfy couch for parents and grandparents to lounge on while they talk to the well-informed and friendly volunteers staffing the “Corner.”
The Science Museum of Minnesota is a great destination for those days when you don’t want to go outside, but you want to give your kids a chance to learn, explore and use their imaginations.
Every Tuesday, the Museum caters to the pre-K crowd with Preschool Playdates, where, if you purchase a regular price adult ticket, you receive a free child admission (ages 5 and under). Minnesota Children’s Museum members receive free Science Museum admission during Playdates.
These playdates include:
- Admission to the Science Museum’s exhibit galleries, packed with hands-on fun.
- Make & Take creations: Your child will use their imagination to engineer a project the museum developed especially for them!
- Special theater programs and demonstrations designed just for preschoolers.
- Parent’s guide to preschool activities and accommodations throughout the museum, including an introduction to the Collectors’ Corner trading post!
As you may know, I’m a huge NASA fan and am constantly amazed at the great educational opportunities they have available for everyone. Next week is Earth Science Week, and you can celebrate by hanging out with NASA scientists online. They’ll host a full slate of social media activities – Twitter Chats, Google Hangout, Reddit, blogs – where students and teachers can connect with some amazing folks. If you can’t participate in the live event, teachers and students can email questions in advance, and come back to the NASA Earth Science Week after the live event to see if their question made the live event. Details on each event (including how and where to email questions) is here: http://climate.nasa.gov/eswSite/eswEvents/
Below is the official announcement, if you’d like to read more, or share it with friends, teachers and homeschoolers:
Celebrate Earth Science Week: Connect with NASA Earth Explorers!
Event Dates: Oct. 14-20, 2012
Under the theme “Discovering Careers in the Earth Sciences,” this year’s Earth Science Week will focus on this very topic: the story of the Earth Explorers who contribute to our understanding of the planet. As a leader in Earth science research and applications, NASA plays a key role in this annual celebration. The American Geosciences Institute, or AGI, has organized this event since 1998.
During Oct. 14-20, 2012, students of all ages can connect to an incredible group of NASA Earth Explorers — from scientists and engineers, to multimedia producers, educators and writers. Find out about their careers, why and how they study the planet and what their typical day is like. Blog posts, Google+ Hangouts and Twitter chats, as well as a webinar and radio interview in Spanish, are just some of the media activities that will allow explorers to tell their stories. You can directly participate by asking questions during the live events or by sending in questions beforehand.
The current schedule of Earth Science Week events includes:
— Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1-2 p.m. EDT — Twitter Chat with polar scientist Thorsten Markus
— Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1-2 p.m. EDT — Univisión Radio interview with scientists Erika Podest and Miguel Román (in Spanish)
— Wednesday, Oct. 17, 1-2 p.m. EDT — Google+ Hangout with Operation IceBridge scientist Christy Hansen, on location near Antarctica
— Wednesday, Oct. 17, 4-5 p.m. EDT — Webinar with Aquarius engineers (in Spanish)
— Wednesday, Oct. 17, 6-7 p.m. EDT – Reddit interview with oceanographer Josh Willis
— Thursday, Oct. 18, noon-1 p.m. EDT — Twitter chat with atmospheric research scientist Erica Alston
In addition, on Oct. 18, the many contributions of women at NASA to Earth science will be highlighted as part of Female Geoscientist’s Day. Together with the NASA Earth Science Week website, the Women@NASA blog will feature three remarkable Earth Explorers.
Visit the 2012 NASA Earth Science Week website (http://climate.nasa.gov/esw2012) for a collection of articles, event information, blog posts, videos and other educational resources in English and Spanish.
Visit the Women@NASA Blog page: http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/newui/blog/viewpostlist.jsp?blogname=womenatnasa.
It’s overwhelming and disgusting to find a bug in your kid’s hair, but chances are pretty good that most parents will have this experience.(Some estimates say that 1-3% of grade schoolers are infested.)
It happened to me last year. I’d been expecting it, since we get a nurses note at least once a month that someone at school has lice. Since I hate the idea of putting pesticides on my kids’ heads, I decided to head over to the Minneosota Lice Lady to see what she could do. Thanks to her, the lice were removed, the rest of us were checked and declared lice-free, and I discovered that Gonner Asser is an expert on the tiny creatures. Since then, I’ve taken two microbiology classes of nursing students on field trips to visit her studio and learn about the tiny parasites.
We looked at nits (lice eggs) on hair (they look and feel like tiny brownish knots,) observed lice in all life stages under the cool microscope she has set up for kids and learned how to treat and avoid head lice. Here are my Cliff Notes, but she shared many other amazing facts and studies! Check out myths, facts and lice study references on her website.
1. Lice move from hair to hair, head to head and hygiene has little to do with it. In fact, they may like clean hair better! To avoid getting lice, long hair should be pulled back into braids or a bun so lice can’t use their claws to crawl from ponytail to ponytail while kids are head-to-head reading, talking or playing Temple Run.
2.Lice are a social disease. If your child has lice, chances are, they may have passed it to a friend, so don’t be shy about calling other parents and the school nurse. You’ll be doing everyone a favor. Likewise, if your kid’s friend has lice, check your own child carefully! They don’t always itch. A lice comb is the best way to check for the brownish nits and bugs, which can be seen by wiping the comb on a white paper towel.
3. Lice do not move from the environment to your head! If someone in your family has lice, you need to have that person treated and everyone else checked, but don’t bother bagging stuffed animals, pillows, etc. Lice cannot live away from the human head for long. They essentially dry up and die. Nits (lice eggs) have to be incubated 1/4 away from the scalp to hatch. Even a fever can kill them. Check out this study from a school where 450 students were infested and they didn’t find even one louse on classroom floors.
4.Pesticide head treatments often won’t kill lice. Many lice have developed resistance to these pesticides which often only kill 20-50% of lice and many of them contain chemicals which are considered hazardous. The best way to remove lice is with a lice comb and conditioner. Nits can take almost 3 weeks to hatch, so you have to keep combing and checking for a month to make sure all lice have been removed and no more are present to lay eggs. Or, go to a professional like the MN Lice Lady and make sure they’re willing to recheck and guarantee their treatment.
5. Finally, good news. Although they’re gross, lice don’t carry disease. Head lice only infest hair on the head, and they’re generally not even found on hair in hairbrushes. Kids tend to get them since they spend more time head-to-head, but braids and buns, and even sprays or shampoos with plant products (like tea-tree oil) can discourage them from climbing over.
Tomorrow, we’re heading out to see Tornado Alley at the Science Museum of Minnesota‘s omintheater. We’ll get to check out the TIV (Tornado Intercept Vehicle) and meet film maker and storm chaser Sean Casey while we’re there. You can meet him too from 12-2 on Sat. Sept.29 and Sun. Sept.30. I’m pretty sure we’ll be blown away.
My microbiology class just had a great field trip to the Minnesota Lice Lady. We looked at nits and lice through a microscope, learned about the parasite’s life cycle and heard that braids or a ponytail can keep your friends’ bugs from crawling over to your head. I’ll be posting soon about these little monsters!
Cricket magazine has been around for a long time, but I just discovered a kids’ science imprint called Muse magazine, for kids from 9-14, which I’ll be getting for every kid on my list this year! I have no affiliation with the magazine, but learned about it as the result of a science online meeting I’ll attend later this year. I’m co-moderating a session with Elizabeth Preston, who is the magazine’s editor and writes a great adult science blog called Inkfish.
I love that filmmaker Brad Canning thanks NASA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL,) Mars and “Our Curiosity.” It’s a great reminder that without the public funding of science, there would be no man on the moon, no International Space Station, and no video of this amazing feat. Our nation’s boldness to go where no one has gone before is one of the things that makes us great.
Carin Bonder recently wrote a great post for Scientific American’s PsiVid about an autistic boy named Jordan Hilkowitz who is storming YouTube with his fantastic science videos! Parents will enjoy Carin’s post, and kids will love his Doctor Mad Science videos!
If you’re on Twitter, we’ll be chatting about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) tonight at 8 Central under the hashtag #STEMchat. Click here for more information if you’re interested in joining us as we talk about kids science at home and in schools.
Our recent family vacation to South Dakota reminded us that you find science wherever you go…
A ten-hour drive to the Black Hill went by fairly quickly with a requisite break at the Corn Palace, followed by a few highway rest stops featuring “Beware of Snakes” signs. We listened to Johnny Cash as flat corn fields made way for streaks of gray in grassy hills, sawtooth badlands in the distance and eventually misty mountains, black with pines. Wild turkeys and deer greeted us on the outskirts of the Custer State Park as we made our way into the foothills.
At the Mammoth site in Hot Springs, a guide taught us about spearfish shale, sinkholes and erosion while we stared into red and yellow rock littered with the bones of mammoths, ancient camels and a rare short faced bear. It seems that the majority of the victims of the ancient sinkhole were teenage males mammoths. After the tour, the kids dug in a grid for replicas of bones, experiencing first hand how paleontologists extract ancient bones.
On a Buffalo Safari in Custer State Park, we got up close and personal (in the safety of a park jeep) with bison, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs. Our driver captivated us with stories of buffalo charges and we learned that researchers recently discovered that the dramatic drop in the park’s elk population is the result of the increased mountain lion (cougar) population and their taste for baby elk. I couldn’t resist asking about bubonic plague (carried by fleas and sometimes found in prairie dog colonies) and chronic wasting disease (prion disease) in the elk. Luckily, neither are a problem. The kids asked question after question about the animals in the park.
Quartz, granite and mica sparkled along the sides of the trails as we climbed over boulders and hiked around lakes.
We followed the gorgeous Needles Highway to the monumental faces of Mount Rushmore on a gusty, hazy day. The wind brought traces of smoke from a distant fire -and the science of combining winding roads with sensitive inner ears brought on a bout of motion sickness in the back seat.
On a horseback ride in Custer State Park, the beautiful scenery was marred only by dust kicked up from this summer’s drought and the occasional rusty corpses of trees killed by pine beetles. Heading home, we took a detour into the Badlands National Park and stood in front of a carved landscape standing testament to the power of water, wind and time.
What science did you find on your vacation?
Katniss Everdeen had a sleeping bag to keep her warm at night in “The Hunger Games,” but what if you found yourself in the wilderness without a sleeping bag, or even a tent?
The healthy human body maintains a constant temperature between 97.7 and 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit through a process called thermoregulation. To do this, our bodies constantly produce heat and then give it off. Heat can be lost through the processes of conduction (losing heat by contact with another object, like the cold ground,) convection (losing heat to air or water moving across your skin,) radiation (loss of heat through infrared rays), and evaporation (heat loss as water turns to gas, like when sweat evaporates.)
If your body temperature gets too low, you can suffer from a potentially deadly condition called hypothermia. (Hypo=under, thermia=heat) Or, if you get too hot, you can suffer from Hyperthermia, which can lead to heat stroke. (Hyper=over, thermia=heat)
A shelter can protect you from the sun, storms and the elements and help you keep your body temperature steady as you wait for help to arrive, and one of the best items to include in your survival kit is a black plastic “contractor” bag. These large bags can be used as rain gear to keep you dry (cut a hole in the top for your head) or to protect you from wet ground below in your shelter. You can even fill one with leaves to use as a makeshift blanket. A nylon cord, or rope should also be included in a survival kit and can be used for a number of things including building shelters.
There are lots of ways to build shelters, but grab an old tarp or some big plastic bags, some rope and head to a park, woods or a local nature center to build a shelter. You’ll learn a few things and it’s tons of fun!
You can make a “bent sapling shelter” by bending a small tree down and tying it to the base of a nearby tree. Then put your tarp or bag over the sapling. You could also tie your rope between two trees and hang the tarp over that.
Make an A-frame shelter by lashing two branches together and leaning a long branch between them.
Then, cover it with your plastic bag or tarp.
You can use small sticks as stakes!
Imagine that there’s a thunderstorm coming from the Northwest and build your shelter with that in mind. Look up! Are there dead branches or rocks that could fall on you? Use existing trees, downed branches and rocks to build your shelter. Can you anchor it with rocks, sticks and your rope? Remember, you want it large enough to lie down in, but small enough to conserve heat.
Make teams and have a contest to see who can build the best shelter!
Katniss would be proud!
I have to admit it. I’m ridiculously excited!
Our KidScience app is now available on the App Store, making it easy for kids of all ages to do science anywhere, any time, or to check out KidScience watch-and-do videos and learn a little science when they (or you) need a little portable screen time.
Let us know how you like it. It’s for you!
Here’s the scoop: If you’re ready to keep the kids busy this summer doing fun, educational projects without shopping trips and complicated directions, you’ll be as excited as we are that KidScience Premium, based on Kitchen Pantry Scientist science projects, has arrived.
Available for iphone, ipod touch and ipad, KidScience Premium brings entertainment and education to your fingertips with a continually updated list of experiments to choose from using things you already have on hand. It includes both photos and watch-and-do videos that make it easy for kids to do projects on their own or you can have fun doing projects together.
A free version of the KidScience app is on the way and will include all the same experiments and photos, but have limited free videos. I’ll let you know when it joins KidScience Premium on the App Store.
There are other kid science apps, but only one KidScience app! You’ll know us by our bright orange and blue logo.
Let’s do some science!