Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Happy Holidays from Mama Joules!

Mama Joules is going on holiday for the next two weeks.

Have a wonderful holiday season! However you choose to celebrate, remember to keep your eyes open for new ways to enjoy science. :)

See you in 2008!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Packing peanuts can be fun (really!)

If you’re like me, packing peanuts are not normally fun. Long after the contents of your package are forgotten, you can still find these little white “peanuts” hiding all over the house. Once, I tried to remove the leftover packing peanuts by vacuuming. I soon discovered that they easily clog the hose of even the most powerful vacuum cleaner!

I’ve since learned that I should take my leftover packing peanuts to the Plastic Loose Fill Council, which operates over 1,500 collection centers in the United States. This organization reports that over 30% of all polystyrene packing peanuts are reused.

So … what’s fun about packing peanuts? When you open your next package, check to see if you have different kinds. Take one of each type of packing peanut and put the pieces in separate glasses of water. After about 15 minutes, look at the packing peanuts. Are any of them dissolving?

Traditional packing peanuts are made of expanded polystyrene, material that is not biodegradable (meaning this material won’t decompose or break down easily in the environment). Some newer packing supplies, like biodegradable cornstarch packing peanuts, are made of environmentally friendly materials. Cornstarch peanuts will dissolve in water; polystyrene peanuts won’t.

Some people use cornstarch peanuts as art supplies. If you dip one end of a cornstarch peanut in water, you can stick it to another peanut. Add a few more and you have a sculpture! This is a wonderful way to recycle your packing peanuts (and it is certainly better than jamming them up your vacuum).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Website of the Week: BAM!

This week’s Website of the Week is BAM!, the Body and Mind pages created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

The mission of BAM! is to provide kids with the information they need to make healthy lifestyle choices. BAM! is divided into six categories, including Diseases, Food & Nutrition, and Your Body. See the Immune Platoon fight "The Flu Krew", discover what may be Lurking in the Locker Room, and find out what type of gear you need to safely take up a new sport. And be sure to check out the healthy recipes in Cool Treats!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Fun at the dentist

Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that every child visit the dentist by the age of one to establish a “dental home”? I didn’t either, until I talked to my friends at Dr. Bob Testen’s dental practice.

Prepare for your next check-up by reading the interactive story, Visit the Dentist with Marty. And be sure to visit MouthPower, where you can play games and learn about dentistry and your teeth from Mouthie, the dancing, singing mouth!

Monday, December 10, 2007

The science behind gingerbread houses

Are you planning to make a gingerbread house this holiday season? Before you mix up that first batch of dough, think about the wonderful ways that building a house can teach science.

Whether you make your dough from scratch or make your gingerbread using a boxed mix, you measure out your ingredients and mix them together prior to baking. Following a recipe is similar to how a scientist follows steps when conducting an experiment. Failure to follow the steps correctly can lead to a failed experiment or, in this case, poor building material!

Before you make your house, you must plan your design carefully. A friend of mine used to map her designs out on graph paper to ensure that they were built to scale. Make sure that all of your walls will be the same height. Good planning and measuring of your design is critical to gingerbread house success. You don’t want your house to lean to one side.

Next, you must execute your plan by cutting out the pieces of gingerbread and carefully constructing the house. Are your walls load-bearing? Will they support the roof? One year, I built a lovely gingerbread house and then tried to attach a roof that was heavily coated in gumdrops. The walls of my house buckled under the weight. I had to admit, gumdrop shingles proved to be a poor design choice. I should have gone with a lighter candy.

Finally, you need to recover from any setbacks and keep going when things go wrong. This lesson in tenacity is always helpful for scientific study (when things often go awry). The year that my roof caved in, I decided that my house had an open-air design and really didn’t need a roof anyway!

Check out these great tips on Building a Gingerbread House from veteran home-builder Bob Vila’s crew.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Website of the Week: Infrared Zoo

See animals in a whole new light at this week’s website, Infrared Zoo.

Humans only see a small portion of the light spectrum. What we see is known as visible light. Infrared is the portion of the light spectrum that includes heat emissions. Normally, we can’t tell whether most things are hot or cold just by looking at them, but these photos were taken with a special camera.

Some animals, like pit viper rattlesnakes, perceive infrared light. This ability is thought to help them detect and catch prey. Be sure to visit the Warm and Cold-Blooded page for an eye-catching comparison of what it means to be a warm or cold-blooded animal. My favorite pictures are the ones of the warm-blooded humans holding the cold-blooded animals (a scorpion and a gecko). You can tell that the humans are regulating their body temperatures because “colder” colors are visible along the outside edges of the body with “warmer” colors near the center of the body or body part. The scorpion and gecko’s body temperatures match their surroundings so they are nearly all one color – a cold one. Check out the scorpion’s tail – it is actually warmer where the person is holding it.

[Follow-up: NASA also has a great page explaining infrared light called The Electromagnetic Spectrum: Infrared Waves.]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Is your school green?

Do you or your kids go to a “green” school? These days, the phrase “green school” can refer to all sorts of environmentally friendly activities or items used at school. Maybe your school was built with solar panels and low-flush toilets or the custodian uses environmentally safe cleaning supplies. You and your classmates might recycle paper and printer ink cartridges or grow food for the cafeteria in your school’s garden. Maybe you conduct energy audits to see which appliances are hogging all of the electricity and where cold air is leaking into your school building.

No matter how you and your school choose to go green, be proud. You are helping to save the planet’s resources!

Monday, December 3, 2007

How about a side order of bugs?

What do Japan, West Africa and the Indonesian island of Bali have in common? They are all parts of the world where people eat bugs! According to a source at the University of Florida, there are about 2,000 edible insect species around the world. Some scientists think that we should encourage people to eat bugs because they are a common and readily available food supply.

Check out these recipes for Edible Insects from teen Aletheia Price or learn more about Insect Snacks from Around the World from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology.

Have you ever eaten a bug? The closest I’ve ever come is eating a steamed snail. I didn’t think it tasted very good, even dipped in melted butter. Maybe an insect would taste better.

Is this the future of dinner?
Photo credit: Nat Edwards

Friday, November 30, 2007

Website of the Week: NIEHS Kids Page of Optical Illusions

This week, we explore the mysterious and fascinating world of optical illusions. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has put together a great page of images to delight and confound. Check out the NIEHS Kids Page of Optical Illusions and see for yourself. The Man in the Coffee Beans was my favorite because I literally jumped out of my chair when I found him!

Optical illusions fool us for different reasons. Some rely more upon perception than optics. For example, take the one where you are asked what color you see when the word “blue” is colored green. Our brain perceives one thing (as we read the word “blue”) while our eyes see something else (the color green). Other optical illusions, like those involving after-images, take advantage of how the eyes function.

Some optical illusions, like 3-D puzzles, rely upon how your eyes work together. If you are blind in one eye, like me, you won’t be able to see these kinds of optical illusions. (When I was younger, I had a book of illusions that suggested pointing both index fingers at each other over the bridge of your nose. Supposedly, if you pulled your fingers apart very slowly and stared straight ahead, you would soon see a small “hot dog” type image floating over your nose. Try as I might, I could never make this illusion work because it relies upon the viewer having three-dimensional vision).

If you like visual puzzles, check out the work of artists who specialize in creating optical illusions, like the late M. C. Escher.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Weird animal names

Did you ever wish you could change your name? Well, just imagine if you were one of these animals:

The Stinkpot turtle lives up to its name by giving off an unpleasant smell when threatened or scared.

The Southern hairy-nosed wombat is native to Australia.

Townsend's big-eared bat also goes by the name "lump-nosed bat." You can check out some video of Townsend's big-eared bat in action at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's BatCam.

Dung beetles actually eat the poop of other animals!

The scientific name of the Eastern spotted skunk is Spilogale putorius. The word “putorius” comes from the same Latin root as the word “putrid.” In other words, this skunk’s last name is stinky.

The Least weasel is the smallest meat-eating mammal in the world.

Least Weasel
Photo credit: Chris Russoniello, National Park Service

Check out a guide to mammals at your local library and see if you can find some even stranger names. I’d love to hear them!

[If you like this post, check out More weird animal names!]

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fun with mirrors

When I was younger, one of my favorite books consisted of pages of designs that came with a small, flat mirror. You would line up the mirror at a certain point on the page and see how the mirror affected the design.

You can try this for yourself. Make a vertical line down the center of a piece of paper and draw something on just one side. Maybe you could make half of a face (one eye, half a nose, and part of a mouth) or part of a snake or just a wild pattern. Then place the flat edge of the mirror exactly on the line. What do you notice? Is your face now whole? How does your snake look? Is your pattern the same or different?

Mylar reflective sheets make great flexible mirrors. You can find this material at specialty garden stores. Check out the cover of The Magic Mirror to see what you can do with it!

Pick up a shiny new metal spoon and look at yourself as if it were a mirror. If you are looking on the concave side of the spoon (the side you eat from), your image will be upside down. If you are looking at the convex side, your image will be right side up. You can learn about the differences between convex and concave mirrors at The Science of Light.

Visit Exploratorium to learn about making a cylindrical mirror or setting up two mirrors that seem to reflect forever.

You can also take a picture of your reflection and send it to The Mirror Project.

What’s your favorite mirror activity?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Website of the Week: Snow Crystals

In my part of the world, the weather is finally starting to look like winter. My boys and I have been anxiously watching The Weather Channel, hoping for a snowy forecast.

So, this week’s tip of the hat goes to Snow Crystals, a website devoted to the beauty and science of snowflakes. Learn the physics behind snowflake formation, see how to preserve a snowflake, and check out the beautiful pictures in the photo gallery.

A nod also goes to the American Library Association, for pointing me to this great website through their aptly named listing of Great Websites for Kids.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Life in a pine cone

The next time you go for a walk, see if you can find a pine cone. When you pick it up, marvel at this: you may be looking at someone’s home. Some animal species – like spiders, mites, and ants – can live, eat and sleep in this microhabitat. I learned this the hard way a year ago. I was working on a craft project involving pine cones and decided to saw one in half. Soon after I began cutting, small insects started fleeing the pine cone in earnest. A good rule of thumb for crafters is to bake a pine cone in a 200 degree F oven for about 20 minutes before using it for crafts. From an ecologist’s perspective, however, I must remind you that in doing so, you might be destroying someone’s home. You may wish to study the microfauna (little bitty animals) in your pine cone instead. Check out Life in a Pine Cone if you want to examine a pine cone like a scientist. I think this would make an interesting topic for a science fair project. What do you think?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bash the Trash

The intersection of science and the arts is a fascinating place. Over the week-end, my oldest son and I went to a performance by Bash the Trash, a group out of New York that plays instruments made out of reused materials. They teach their young audiences the three R's (reduce, reuse, recycle) while showing off their handiwork: musical instruments like a straw kazoo, a plastic bottle pan pipe, or a gong made from an old refrigerator crisper drawer. They were quick to point out that you should always have an adult inspect and clean found trash before using it. Some items, like rusty pipes or former bottles of cleaning supplies, should never be used to make musical instruments. Check out their instructions for how to turn your household trash into musical treasure!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Website of the Week: Steven R. Kutcher's Bug Art

You've got to see Steven R. Kutcher's Bug Art!
Kutcher is an entomologist (a scientist who studies bugs) and has worked as a bug wrangler in over 70 movies, including Jurassic Park and two of the Spiderman movies. He likes to paint with live insects, and he is very careful to take good care of his little artists. First, he dips them in non-toxic paint and then he lets them walk across the canvas. Check out his on-line art gallery which showcases his work with flies, bees, cockroaches, butterflies, beetles, and more!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scats and Tracks

If you live in the US, or you are planning a trip here, be sure to pick up a Scats and Tracks guide (published by Falcon Guide) for your region of the country before going on your next hike. If you are like me, you never see any actual wildlife during your foray into the natural world. Scats and Tracks solves this problem. Now you can look for animal "footprints" and poop instead! These little books, covering 70 species apiece, fit easily inside a backpack. My only complaint is that I would prefer to have color photographs of the animals, rather than black and white line drawings, on the off-chance that I actually spot some real live wildlife!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Make an Audio Map

One of the most important things a scientist needs is improved powers of observation. What does this mean? You need to learn to be in the present moment, to see things a little differently, to think "outside the box." How do you achieve this? One way is to focus on each of the five senses. Today, let's explore hearing.

For the littlest scientists, take them outside and go for a walk. Stop every so often during your walk and ask, "What do you hear?" When your child answers, "A car," you can answer, "I hear the leaves moving in the wind. What else do you hear?" As your walk progresses, you can repeat these questions. A good book to follow up with is Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Eric Carle.

For the older child (and everybody else!), I recommend this activity (based on an assignment I had in my college days, I'd give credit if I remembered the teacher!). Go outside with a sheet of paper and a pen. Make a mark in the middle of the page to show where you are. Close your eyes for a few minutes and just listen. What do you hear? When you open your eyes, mark these sounds on your paper, in the same direction that you heard them. You might have a "d" to the left of center for the barking dog to the left of you, a "c" in the upper right-hand corner of the page for the car alarm blaring up the street, and an "a" near you for the airplane flying overhead.

Wait a minute or two, then repeat the process. This time, you might have another "d" in the same place, the "a" will have moved further away, and with any luck, you won't have another "c." Keep repeating these steps until you have an "audio map" of your experience.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Website of the Week: Jean Beasley and her Sea Turtle Hospital

This week's tip of the hat goes to Jean Beasley for her work as founder and director of The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jean earlier this year when I went on a tour of her facility on Topsail Island, North Carolina. To hear her tell it, she never intended to be a champion of the sea turtles. But in 1996, when the first injured sea turtle found her, no one else was available to care for their needs. Jean stepped up with her can-do attitude and soon her facility was overflowing with patients. When possible, Jean and her staff rehabilitate the turtles and release them back into the wild. You can see one of her patients right now on the Turtle Cam.

Jean was recently honored as Animal Planet's Hero of the Year for 2007! Go, Jean!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Is it time for a water audit?

How much water does your family use in a month? If your family is anything like ours, the answer is too much. We routinely take long showers, rewash laundry left forgotten in the washer, and leave the tap running when we brush our teeth.

So ... maybe it's time for a water audit. Find your latest water bill and sit the family down for a meeting. Brainstorm ways to reduce your water consumption. Don't forget to add any silly and outrageous ideas. If your son wants to stop taking baths, add that to the list. If your mom wants to eat out every night so she doesn't have to wash the dishes, write that down too.

When you have compiled a long list of possible choices, discuss your options. Which ones are workable? Which ones are likely to have the greatest impact? Take a family vote and pick your favorite. Try one water-saving idea for the next month. When your next water bill arrives, sit the family down again and see if it made a difference.

If so, keep doing that idea and add a new one. If your first idea didn't make much difference, don't get discouraged. Try another one. Check back monthly and see how much water -- and money -- you are saving.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Who ate my pumpkin?

This morning, I found the smallest of our three pumpkins in the middle of the lawn. How did it get there?

My first thought was that someone had accidentally kicked it, or not so accidentally used it for batting practice. But when I picked up the pumpkin, it was missing a piece near the stem. How odd. Did our dog chew on it? But no, she would have eaten the whole thing!

I looked at missing portion of the tiny, ornamental pumpkin. The hole seemed like it had been made by something using small paws or very little teeth. Something had eaten my pumpkin!

We live in a suburban area, which leaves me with two likely culprits: the gray squirrel that lives in our tree and the eastern chipmunk that lives under our front step. I did a little research and found out that both animals like to eat fruit (who knew?). And pumpkins, I learned, are actually fruits, not vegetables. So far, so good.

So ... which animal ate my pumpkin? Based on the markings, I'm leaning toward the squirrel. The marks on the pumpkin look an awful lot like the ones I found on the bird feeder last year when the squirrel knocked it down. Besides, I've never known the chipmunk to steal any food from us. In addition, the chipmunk is a lot smaller and would have had a hard time knocking the pumpkin down from the porch.

For now, I've put the damaged pumpkin back in place on the front step. But I'm tempted to buy a bunch of ornamental pumpkins to see if any more of them go missing. I'd love to catch the culprit in action!

Gray Squirrel
Photo credit: Joe Kosack, PGC Photo

Friday, November 2, 2007

Website of the Week: Ology

Check out the American Museum of Natural History's Ology website!

The suffix "ology" means "the study of." And you can study lots of cool science topics on this website, including ornithology (the study of birds) and ichthyology (the study of fish). Meet a volcanologist (a scientist who studies volcanoes), design a model coral reef, or cook your very own set of "cosmic cookies."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Start a leaf collection

Fall is the perfect time to start a leaf collection. Take your child for a walk around the block and admire the leaves that you see. Notice how many leaves are on the ground versus how many are still on the trees. What does that say about the time of the year? Is winter here yet?

How many colors of leaves can you count? Pick up a leaf and notice what makes it unique. Leaves are identified in part by their shapes (like round, oval, triangular) and their edges (spiky, wavy, jagged).

If you live someplace where the seasons barely change and colored leaves are rare, have your child write to a friend or relative and ask that person to send some fall leaves your way. Your child will be thrilled. One of my favorite childhood memories is of my father bringing me home colored leaves from a business trip to Boston. (Thanks, Dad!)

To dry your leaves, place a paper towel on the counter. Arrange your leaves on the paper towel so that none of them are touching. Place another paper towel over the leaves and a heavy book over that. The book will flatten the leaves and the paper towels will absorb any moisture. After a day or two, your leaves will be dry.

To make a leaf rubbing, lay a sheet of paper over your leaf. Take the side of a crayon and rub gently over the paper. A leaf shape should soon appear.

You can also take a piece of contact paper, lay the leaves on it, and lay another sheet of contact paper over them to make a placemat for the table. If you don't want a placemat, cut out the contact paper-wrapped leaves and punch a hole at the top. Let your child hang the preserved leaves around the house.