Thursday, September 18, 2014

Worthwhile diversions

Last Sunday, I went for a walk around the lake with my oldest child. Lake is a generous term for the neighborhood retention pond, but it's been in place for over 30 years and local wildlife have taken to it. 

During our walk, we crossed a bridge over a meandering stream. My son hopped down to the creek bed and began exploring. 

My first thought was that we didn't have time for this - I needed to get home to make dinner. My second thought was that we probably weren't supposed to be off the beaten path. But my third thought was hey, I wonder what's down there?

So, we went creeking. Without a dip net, it was hard to discover what lurked beneath the rocks and muck. But we still managed to find water striders, several schools of minnows, and three crayfish.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile diversion. And a nice way to bond in nature with my teen-aged son.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Website of the Week: NASA's S'COOL

If you are over the age of 5 and you like clouds, NASA's S'COOL website is the place for you. This citizen science project is designed to let student observers report cloud conditions and compare their findings with CERES satellite data (a fact sheet about CERES can be found here). Although this project is primarily designed for school classes, individuals can report their findings too. To date, over eighty countries have participated in this project!

There are some neat information sheets tucked into this website, including a cloud chart, tips for observing clouds, and more tips for observing clouds. Enjoy!  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ten Tips to Inspire Environmentalists

Climate change is profoundly and noticeably impacting the environment where I live. For the past few years, I've observed increasingly intense summer thunderstorms and accelerating tree death from a variety of causes. Despite an abundance of dragonflies this year (yay!), I've seen fewer butterflies, moths, and bees this summer. This loss has affected me deeply and left me feeling out of sorts. Discouraged about the general state of the planet's health and concerned for my eco-community specifically, I turned to a listserv of Maryland Master Naturalists for advice. Why keep plugging away at saving the environment, I asked, when things look so bleak? How do I keep my spirits up when I find myself discouraged?

Here are the ten best tips that I received for coping with environmental degradation and dealing with the feelings of loss and helplessness that can arise:

1. Remember that the Earth is resilient and will be here long after we are gone.

2. Recognize that it may take a number of adverse ecological changes before real, meaningful climate change legislation is enacted.

3. Get involved. Plant trees, keep bees, study native plants, aid pollinators. Every little bit helps.

4. Rejoice over small eco-victories.

5. Focus on what you can do for the planet and set a good example for others.

6. Speak out about climate change. Let your voice be heard and educate others.

7. Teach children to be environmental stewards.

8. Accept that some environmental change is inevitable. New, more adaptable species will arise to succession. This is part of life.

9. Know that you are part of a larger community of environmental stewards who are working to make a difference.

10. Events that we interpret as undesirable (such as tree death) have important environmental benefits too (bird habitat).

My thanks to the kind and generous Maryland Master Naturalists who responded to cheer me up. Keep fighting the good fight!

Image credit: tongdang, on

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mackerel Sky

I love clouds. There's something alluring about their ephemeral beauty. Each morning, I look to the sky to see what surprises Mother Nature has in store for me.

Today, I found a mackerel sky. This is a cloudscape that looks like rows of fish scales, or, as I like to think of it, a popcorn sky.


Technically, these rows of small puffy clouds are altocumulus, mid-level cumulus that form in the lower middle portion of the sky. These clouds are sometimes confused with cirrocumulus, although the two form in very different vertical layers. If you look through the bumpy rows of clouds and the sun looks fuzzy, you've spotted the rarer and higher lying cirrocumulus.


Over on NASA's S'COOL website (Students' Cloud Observations On-line), Lin Chambers suggests holding your hand up at arm's length when trying to differentiate between these two cloud types. If the individual clouds are the size of your thumbnail, you have altocumulus; if they are the size of your pinky fingernail, you have cirrocumulus.

Note: Since I posted this, I've learned that the term mackerel sky can be used to describe either cirrocumulus or altocumulus or both! 

[Edited 9/14/14]

Friday, April 4, 2014

Website of the Week: The Brothers Brick

Are you an AFOL who has been living in the Dark Ages? 
(Translated: Are you an adult fan of LEGO who has been busy with real life for far too long?)  

Looking for some LEGO inspiration? Check out The Brothers Brick, a blog dedicated to these addictive and ubiquitous, brightly-colored building blocks. There's even a glossary to help translate some of the most commonly used lingo. You can suggest your own creations - include a photo and building instructions - for consideration as blog posts. Follow the instructions for submitting your awesomeness here.

Although this is primarily a blog for adults - and some content may not be wholly appropriate for all ages - kids can find inspiration here too. There are YouTube links to get you started with your builds and extensive links to Flickr photos of amazing LEGO creations. (Personally, I wandered off into Andrew Somers' amazing Flickr photo set of Year End Reviews - news events of the year captured in LEGO format.)

Enjoy and happy building!

Photo credit: C. Slack, via Flickr

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Adopt-a-Physicist: Spring 2014

I just received the following information from Kendra Redmond of the Education Division of the American Institute of Physics. I like to forward these invitations because I know how valuable these sorts of connections can be. Many years ago, I participated as a volunteer scientist in an adopt-a-scientist program called Science-by-Mail.

Register now for the spring session of Adopt-a-Physicist!

If your students ever ask...
  • What do physicists do?
  • What does this have to do with the "real world"?
  • Has anything new been discovered in physics since Einstein?
Then consider participating in Adopt-a-Physicist, a free program for high school physics classes, hosted by the physics honor society Sigma Pi Sigma.

Adopt-a-Physicist connects high school physics students to real physics graduates who are eager to share their stories. Working in areas ranging from particle physics research to freelance writing, the participating physicists embody a huge range of careers, backgrounds, interests, and educational levels. Adopt-a-Physicist connects classes with the physicists of their choice through online discussion forums that are active for a set three-week period. Each physicist can only be "adopted" by up to three classes, making lively, in-depth discussions possible. Click here to learn more. For more details on the program and ideas for incorporating it into your physics class, browse the resources for teachers.

Spring 2014 Schedule
  • Teacher Registration: Now - April 3 (or until full)
  • Teachers adopt physicists: April 15 - April 18
  • Discussion forums open: April 22 - May 9
Visit Adopt-a-Physicist for more information, or send us an email at

Photo credit: Daniel X. O'Neil, via Flickr.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The States of Matter

My son recently came home with a corrected test which covered three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas. His frustration with the test was evident, as you can see in this photo.

The essay portion of the test asked, "Describe how you use the three states of matter in your life every day." He re-wrote the question so that it read, "Describe how you use three of the states of matter in your life every day." To his teacher's credit, she gave him full points for his answer.

It baffles me that we still teach that there are only three states of matter, when clearly there are more. However, this is not a new problem. Years ago, my husband got into trouble with his high school chemistry teacher for arguing (correctly) that plasma - much of the sun is in this state - is a fourth state of matter. Bose-Einstein condensate, a fifth state of matter, was first created in 1995, and a sixth, fermionic condensates, was produced for the first time in 2003.

Less than a month after this test was returned, a possible new state of matter was described in chicken eyes: disordered hyperuniformity. I thought back to my son's answer(s) for question 2 on his recent test: How many forms of matter exist on Earth? He circled three, the expected answer, but then added his own response: "no one knows."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Craters of the Moon

My daughter came home from preschool with this art project. To make the moon, the kids used paper towels cut into circles and hand-painted them gray.

Macaroni pieces were placed underneath the paper towels to create craters and give the moon a rough textured surface. How clever!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Patterns Everywhere!

My daughter is in preschool now and her class is studying patterns. Her homework this week is to draw an A-B-A-B pattern. As I helped her out of the bath, I thought of a fun way to teach it to her.

(She wasn't as impressed as I was!)

Do you have a creative way to teach kids about patterns? Share it in the comments!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

At Twilight

even in this light
the grove of barren oaks
retains some magic

[Full disclosure: Are those oaks in my photo? I have not keyed them out yet, so I'm not sure. I wrote this poem a while back - and when I took this picture the other night, it was the first description to pop into my head.]