Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How to Choose a Field Guide for a Young Child

A couple of days ago, I went to a nature store to purchase a field guide for my youngest, who is fascinated by butterflies. The store had a terrific selection, so I asked the clerk where I could find field guides for little kids.

"How old is the child?"


"Oh, we don't carry field guides for children that young."

I thought this was a bizarre response. At its most basic level, a field guide is a collection of pictures or drawings of a given set of plants, animals, or other natural features (rocks and clouds are among my favorites). Sure, you can buy guides with lots of text and exposition about various features, but you don't have to.

Here are some basic guidelines for buying a field guide for the very young child:

  • Choose a guide that is small enough for little hands to hold. Make sure the book isn't too heavy or too thick. I like Stokes Beginner's Guides
  •  Pick a guide where the specimens are arranged by color. This type of grouping is easy to explain and understand. Pictures will capture the attention of a little one better than drawings. My daughter, for example, loves the section of her new guide devoted to swallowtails. "We've seen that one, and that one, and that one!" she said.
  • Choose a book with common specimens over rare ones. Let's face it - little kids are noisy and boisterous and will scare away much of the wildlife you are trying to study. Pick a field guide that is heavy on natural things that are common for your area since you are far more likely to see them.
  • Less is more. Pick a guide with just a few features on a page. A large picture of the specimen coupled with a map showing its range is ideal. Symbols for common features are better than words. For example, it's better to show one star out of five to indicate a rare species than the word "rare."

Regardless of which guide you choose, make sure to have your child take ownership of the new book. Write his or her name on the cover - or let your child do it - and find a special place for it on the bookshelf. When you go outside for a nature walk, take your comprehensive guide along with your child's smaller one, and you can have fun discovering nature together.

Princess likes her new field guide.

Friday, October 18, 2013

#Ripplesofdoubt & #Ripplesofhope

Right now, there's a fascinating discussion on Twitter about the experiences of women in scientific disciplines. Search the hashtag #ripplesofdoubt and you'll read story after story of women who were harassed or devalued in their chosen careers due to their gender. Fortunately, #ripplesofhope is being used to discuss ways to improve the STEM fields for women - and to share stories of how things are improving.

I wrote about my experiences as a state environmental site assessor during the 1990's. As part of my job when I went to the field, I had to wear a hard hat (infrequently) and steel-toed boots (always). Well, guess what? The stores in my area didn't offer regular steel-toed boots in my size (remember, this was before ordering on the Internet). I had to buy blue boots with a tiny red and pink rose bud on each heel. It was so embarrassing. The stupid boots weren't even waterproof and every time they got wet, they stained my toes blue.

I felt the difference keenly because I already felt inadequate in the field.. I was in my early 20s, straight out of college, and frankly, I was a girly girl. The lab guys I worked with regularly were around my age and we got along well. But the representatives of the companies that I had to meet - companies that were liable for the cost of remediating whatever contamination we were sampling -  were another story. I always felt like these guys were trying to throw me off of my game. Over time, I learned to dress down in the field - no make-up, no jewelry, my hair in a ponytail - because it gained me credibility with the men I had to meet. (Also, because wearing jewelry on a potentially hazardous waste site is a really stupid idea because if it gets contaminated, you have to leave it there, but I digress.) Interestingly enough, by the time I left my job in 1999, roughly half of the new hires with jobs similar to mine were women. But when I started, the skew was largely toward men. By the time I left, I felt confident of myself in the field.

There was still gender bias in the office, though, and I never felt it more deeply than the time I overheard two of my older male co-workers insinuating that I was having a sexual encounter with a young male co-worker, simply because we were going out to lunch together. I was appalled on so many levels. How do you forgive a comment like that? My mouth dropped open and they caught me looking at them. And they laughed. They laughed, so I did too. But I never forgot. And I never forgave.

The man making the comments was a creepy, touchy-feely sort of guy. The girls on my floor used to joke about how he always leered at the new girls in their skirts and we couldn't wait until a new girl was hired so that he would stop looking at us. But no one ever thought to report him. It was sexual harassment, but it wasn't like it was rape or assault. Where do you draw the line? When do you report the behavior? I wonder now, since I didn't report it, was I complicit with the result? I'd like to think that today, I'd be able to stand up to such sexual bullying. But I wouldn't be a target now. I'm older, married with children, and simply not on anyone's radar. It's more important for me to look out for and protect younger women, especially those who might be as insecure as I was.

Reading #ripplesofdoubt was eye-opening for me because I never realized how many other women had experienced these same things. When we share our experiences, it can be very powerful. And when we turn our newfound knowledge toward action, we can create #ripplesofhope.

[Author's note:Twitter is a dynamic, ever changing online conversation, so I can't guarantee that these hashtags will still convey the same message if you search them now on Twitter.]

Sunday, October 13, 2013


[Update 10/14/13: Scientific American has finally reinstated Dr. Lee's original blog post on this topic, Biology-Online issued her an apology in which they claim to have fired the offensive editor, and Dr. Lee's story has hit national news. Behold the power of the pen! Or, as in this case, many collective virtual pens. Congrats, Dr. Lee! I hope this starts a dialogue on racism and sexism in the sciences, as well as discussion about payment for writers. - Mama Joules]

Yesterday, I jumped on Twitter to find an online acquaintance of mine, DNLee, at the center of a firestorm. Dr. Danielle N. Lee writes a blog called The Urban Scientist, a friendly, accessible voice from a minority woman in a global scientific community that is still largely dominated by white men. Dr. Lee was recently approached, via email, by an online publication to write for them for free. When she politely declined, they hit back with "Are you an urban scientist or an urban $&#%^?"

Now, I don't know about you, but when someone calls me a $&#%^, my blood starts boiling. My friend was no different, and she fired back on her blog with an appropriately measured response. However, her post was pulled by the host of her blog, Scientific American. Many have called this decision into question, particularly since it appears that this rude online publication has a financial relationship with Scientific American.

Sexism and racism - and I believe both were in play here - have no place in science or anywhere else. Deleting evidence of such transgressions doesn't erase the issue. Sweeping this ridiculous and insulting behavior under the rug only ensures that it will continue.

So, I am adding my voice to the growing online community of science blogging support for Dr. Lee. No one deserves to be cyber-bullied and then silenced and shamed as if they were at fault. 

You can read more about this issue, including a complete reprint of Dr. Lee's deleted rebuttal, from other similarly outraged bloggers: Sean Carroll, Dr. Isis, David Wescott, Dana Hunter and many, many others.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee
"A hip hop maven [who] blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Consult Insects Before You Garden

I'm taking Master Naturalist training, and last week, one of the topics was botany. Let me just say that what I've learned about botany is that there's an awful lot I don't know about botany. But during the class, talk turned to native plants, which is a topic I've thought a lot about. In my very teeny tiny front yard, I've been trying to add native plants to the mix. This hasn't been easy, because where I live, native plants generally aren't found at the big box gardening stores - you have to go searching for them. And when you find them, they are quite pricey. However, native plants have their own merits, the most delightful one being that insects love them. Once you have native plants in your yard, you'll start to notice that fewer insects visit those exotic, colorful annuals. Insects have an entirely different way of seeing flowers, which includes detecting ultraviolet designs on the blooms. These UV markings act as a landing strip of sorts, helping pollinators find their way.

What I hadn't realized is that if you want to help the pollinators, you should consult them before purchasing your next plant. This was the advice given during my training, so I went to Home Depot for mulch this weekend and decided to test the theory. There were numerous plants offered for sale in the outdoor "fall color" section. Many were quite colorful, but I didn't see any that were attracting any insects. I started to wonder if the store somehow discourages insects from congregating in the plants when I spotted Joe Pye Weed.

Joe Pye Weed is native where I live and the name stuck in my head after that botany lesson. And I found the insects! All of the bees and flies and other unidentified flying critters that were ignoring the petunias and mums were partying in the flats of Joe Pye Weed. Each plant was literally crawling and buzzing with activity. So I brought a pot of Joe home and planted one in my yard. Hopefully, it will take off, the way the purple coneflowers did. Planting for pollinators may not lead to quite as exotic varieties of plants as you are used to, or give you exactly the color palette you were aiming for. But it is nice to know that you are making the insects happy, one bug at a time.

  Joe Pye Weed

Friday, October 4, 2013

Listen to the Landfill Harmonic

There's a video circulating on Facebook about the Landfill Harmonic, a tale about a group of kids from Paraguay who play instruments that have been refurbished using materials from the landfill their town is built upon. I am awed by the ingenuity of the people who have recreated these instruments, amazed that they sound so good, and touched by the talented young people who play them. This film about The Recycled Orchestra is in the works, having successfully been funded earlier this year on Kickstarter. Take a look for yourself. It truly goes to show that one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Academic Earth presents: How to Take a Punch

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Jack Collins, a writer with Academic Earth, asking me to check out a video entitled “Practical Math: How to Take a Punch,” which he described as "an unorthodox approach to explaining the physics of momentum."

I was intrigued. To be honest, physics is one of my least favorite subjects and I tend to think of it as boring. This is quite unfortunate because I know it isn't true - I am fascinated by many aspects of physics, particularly those surrounding wormholes and the concept of time travel. But, when I was in school, physics was seldom taught in a way that grabbed my attention. Apart from the rare moments of watching pendulums swing (which, let's face it, isn't that exciting), I copied abstract equations from the board and frantically attempted to memorize them.

The following video is not boring. In fact, I had to laugh a bit (and cringe - hey, there's a guy getting punched here!) while I watched it. See what you think!

Created by

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Death of a Pet

My son's hamster died today. Or, more accurately, I signed the paperwork to allow our vet to euthanize him. It is 2:11 in the morning and I am still too upset to go to bed, too upset to put a formal end to the day. I cleaned out Snowy's cage for the last time tonight. Little Brother was quite regular about cleaning out his pet's cage, but he wasn't up for it just yet. So, I wiped down the little yellow food bowl, the funky looking neon purple plastic sleeping hut, the green wheel that spun regularly in my basement. And I cried.

How do you explain death to a child? When our vet wanted to discuss options for our hamster - there weren't really any, but he wanted to make it look like there were, in case I wanted to spare my son the stark reality - I told the vet that my eight-year-old would take the news better than I would. I was right.

Little Brother calmly digested the fact that his hamster had an inoperable tumor. That the gigantic bald patch on his pet's hind end wasn't the result of anxious biting - it was a monster tumor, an aggressive tumor, a cancerous tumor. And he said to me, in such a very grown-up voice, that if his hamster was going to die, he didn't want him to die in pain.

We agreed that a lethal injection was the most humane thing to do, even though I am still up twelve hours later because I can't bear to think that I signed away the life of a living thing. In my 40+ years of life, I've never had to do that before. When I lost my first baby to miscarriage, it was one of the most horrible experiences of my life. But I didn't have to make a choice about it - it just happened. And when my sweet dachshund suffered a fatal seizure, I actually refused to put her down. I took her home, wrapped in a blanket, so she could die in my arms feeling safe and loved. She always hated the vet.

But this time, I had to sign a paper saying that it was okay to kill our pet. And even though I believe it was the right thing to do, it still hurts.

Snowy fought with the vet tech during the injection and actually managed to bite a finger. Immediately after, I snatched him up and held him on my chest and stroked him. A white dwarf hamster, he was so small that I could only use two fingers to stroke his back. He didn't try to bite me; he just settled into my touch. I knew he trusted me to do what was right by him. I sincerely hope that I did.

After the hamster died, the vet showed me the tumor's massive infrastructure. I actually found it somewhat comforting to look at Snowy's death from a clinical perspective. There was no doubt that our pet was terminal. An aggressive cancer, the tumor had large blood vessels feeding it. It was nearly one-quarter of the hamster's size and had already started to displace his bodily organs. Strange how he looked so fine from the top; if you didn't flip him over, you might not have realized - as we didn't - that he was sick. But he had chewed fur from one paw, so there were clear signs of distress.

Throughout the process, I tried to involve my son. I made sure that he spoke with the vet, but once I realized the severity of his pet's condition, I broke the news to him privately. I let him see me cry.  I asked him if he wanted to be there when Snowy died and he said no. I told him that was fine, but that it was important to me that I hold Snowy when it happened. Then I hugged my son and kissed the top of his head and told him how very sorry I was. We agreed to have the vet cremate the body. Neither of us wanted to carry a dead hamster home to bury. 

After we left the vet clinic, my son and I went for a long walk. I asked if he minded if we threw out the new portable pet carrier that we had just purchased for this trip. He said no, it just made him sad to look at it. I threw out the metal box with vehemence and felt vindicated when it made a resounding clank in the trash can. We talked about death and the unanswerable question of why pets and people have to die. We didn't come to any definite conclusions.

I don't have any answers to share or advice to give on how to teach children about death. Grief is a vulnerable, powerful, and intimately personal experience. For me, I touched back on old losses, as well as one I expect to experience soon. I'm not sure exactly how my son felt, but I knew that I was doing something important by walking alongside him, openly and honestly, and sharing the experience.