Why is the Sky Blue Here, Not There?

It’s right there in my byline, GeekMoms!  Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk. I say that because sometimes my answers to weather questions might make your eyes roll. I probably look like Brainy Smurf, complete with my right forefinger up in the air, being a serious know-it-all…

Speaking of blue…this is how I imagine myself when folks ask me weather questions. Any second now, someone will proclaim, “Shut up Brainy Smurf!” Photo: Flickr user premier-photo.com via CC.

GeekMom Judy took the risk back in 2011, except she didn’t ask “Why is the sky blue?” She asked about why the sky isn’t as blue in New York as it seemed to be in Utah or Colorado. Being the awesome GeekMom she is, she even presented a very accurate hypothesis.

“Someone once told me that the humidity in the air determines how blue the sky is. I always thought that was an old wives’ tale. But the longer I live here, and the more I look at the pictures we took in Colorado recently (on our house hunting trip), the more I’m convinced that the states with low humidity have much bluer skies.

Is this true? Does humidity affect the depth of blue that the sky appears to be? Or am I imagining things and buying into the wives tale?” Continue reading Why is the Sky Blue Here, Not There?

Extract Fruit DNA at Home

When my daughter and I went to GeekGirlCon earlier this month, there was a science area. My daughter’s favorite experiment in the science area was extracting DNA from fruit. She enjoyed the experiment so much she decided to replicate the experiment for her homework.

If you would like to try the experiment at home, follow my daughter’s video above. What fruits will you try?

Water Bead Science

This is how the water beads looked after they had been in the freezer for a few days. One of our pink water beads accidentally also found its way in.
This is how the water beads looked after they had been in the freezer for a few days. One of our pink water beads accidentally also found its way in. Photos: Cathe Post

My daughter came home during her first week of school with a little cup of jiggly water beads. After she and her brother sat and poked at the beads for a solid half an hour, VIP (my daughter) decided she wanted to see what would happen if she put the water beads in the freezer.

Several days later she pulled them out of the freezer. She observed that they were hard and stuck together. While VIP was observing her water beads, she noticed more changes as they melted. The beads had turned into a gooey mess! They no longer resembled “beads” and more resembled a clear slushy.

Because the beads went through so many changes, VIP and her dad decided to do an experiment: What made the beads change? Was it the water, the freezer, or both?

What we needed:

  • A piece of paper
  • Pencil
  • Four water beads
  • Four cups
  • A freezer

After coming to her conclusion, we then explained how water expands when it is frozen.

Next up, what happens when you microwave water beads?

Summer Science Fun: Playing With Water Phases

Screen capture from google images

Phases of water are constantly changing in the summer: dew on grass in the morning that is gone by lunch, water droplets forming on the outside of a cup, “clouds” appearing in covered dishes left in the sun. We see these things all the time, and kids are always noticing as well. Here are some fun activities, and explanations, for your kids to learn the science behind what they are observing.

Water Evaporation and Condensation: Cloud in a Cup

Have your kids grab two clear plastic containers. Fill them about half way full, and mark the water level. Cover one container with a clear lid, or plastic wrap. Leave the other container open. Place both containers outside in a sunny spot. Leave for a few hours.

Go back and notice what is developing on the inside of the lid. Wait two days and look again. When you go back to observe the containers, the open container will have lost water. The water was heated by the sun, turned into water vapor and evaporated. The container with the lid will also have a lower water level, but there should also be visible water droplets on the lid, or plastic wrap. The air in the covered container can only hold so much water vapor, without a way for the vapor to escape, it condenses back to water and forms droplets. The droplets will fall off the lid and back into the container.

This is a great example of how water from the earth evaporates, cools, forms clouds, condenses, and falls back to earth as rain. Your kids can think of the open container as an ocean, river, or lake. Heat from the sun turns liquid water into its gas phase, water vapor. The water vapor then evaporates and is cools back into liquid water and eventually becomes part of a cloud. The plastic wrap of the covered cup acts like the atmosphere, and traps the water vapor. In a real cloud, the water vapor cools back into liquid water. In the covered cup, the air can only hold so much vapor, and the vapor condenses back to liquid water forming a “rain cloud” on the plastic wrap.

You can change this up by doing some variations. Put a set of covered and uncovered cups out in the sun, and another set in a shady spot. Also, put one set in the refrigerator. See the differences in evaporation, and condensation over time.


Change the Phase of Water With a Cold Drink

All kids have held cups of ice water in the summer and felt, or even played with, the condensation that develops on the outside of the cup. We all do this, but we may not always think of the science that is behind the condensation. Telling your kids that the cool cup is changing the phase of water in the air, making it go from a gas to a liquid will get them thinking about the fun science that is happening right in their hands.

Grab a cup of water, add some ice cubes, and go outside on a warm sunny day. Within a minute or so, there will be drops of liquid water on the outside of the glass or cup. The temperature of the ice water in the cup is cooler than the temperature of the air. The cup cools the surrounding air, and the temperature change causes the water vapor surrounding the cup to turn back into liquid water. Now, make another drink with ice and put it into the refrigerator. Did the same thing happen?

This is a fun experiment, because let’s face it, we all love drawing things in water condensation. Grab a bunch of cups, add water and ice and have fun creating art with the beauty of science!

Groovy Lab in a Box: Review, Interview, Coupon Code, and Giveaway!

Imagine getting one of these delivered to your door every month! Image: Patricia Vollmer.
Imagine getting one of these delivered to your door every month! Image: Patricia Vollmer.

I was thrilled to get a chance to review the Groovy Lab in a Box subscription box program. We here at GeekMom have had the privilege of reviewing many subscription box services that cover a very wide variety of topics, from kids’ crafts to adult crafts to healthy living.

This is a unique subscription box experience in that it’s providing some very specific STEM activities to older elementary school students, ages 8-12, or grades 3-5. I hadn’t seen or heard of anything like it.

In this post I will go over the Groovy Lab in a Box our family received for review, share my interview with co-founder Elaine Hansen, and conclude with a coupon code and a chance for you to win a three-month Groovy Lab in a Box subscription of your very own. Look for that giveaway and coupon on the bottom of the post!

I can't believe how much they're able to fit into a box! One of the philosophies of Einstein in a Box is that parents shouldn't have to run out for 1-2 popsicle sticks or a couple of straws if they aren't on hand. Safety equipment is also included, which is genius. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
I can’t believe how much they’re able to fit into a box! One of the philosophies of Groovy Lab in a Box is that parents shouldn’t have to run out for 1-2 popsicle sticks or a couple of straws if they aren’t on hand. Safety equipment is also included, which is genius. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Groovy Lab in a Box, February 2014: “Fly With Me!”

The theme for the box we received, titled “Fly With Me!,” was aeronautical engineering. The shoebox-sized box arrived at our door and was stuffed to the brim with just about all of the supplies needed to complete the 10 activities that introduce your “STEMist” to principles of aerodynamics and aeronautics. In addition to the materials for the experiments, there was a pair of safety glasses, a sticker (which you’ll see on my youngest son in a photo in this post), and a coupon to share with a friend.

Central to everything is the Lab Notebook. It provides the instructions for the activities, background information, discussion questions meant to take the activities to the next level, and space for drawings and brainstorms. Lots of space.

In addition to everything in the box, the “STEMists” will want access to the Beyond…in a Box website for additional resources. The kids will find music, informative videos, videos of other box subscribers sharing their creations, and supplemental information for those who want to learn more. A login and password is included in the Lab Notebook.

My oldest son viewing the Beyond...in a Box website while working on his parachute activity. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
My oldest son viewing the Beyond…in a Box website on our iPad while working on his parachute activity. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

The first activity recommended, and the first one my son accomplished, was the parachute. All of the materials to do this activity were included except for the scissors to cut the string. There’s even a ruler enclosed for measuring the string.

Assembling the simple parachute. Even though all of the materials are supplied in the box, the materials are easily obtainable should your STEMist want to recreate the experiments or share the ideas with friends. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
Assembling the simple parachute. Even though all of the materials are supplied in the box, the materials are easily obtainable should your STEMist want to recreate the experiments or share the ideas with friends. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
We chose to use an action figure as the first weight. The experiment will prompt your student to add additional weight and discuss the impacts. Image: Patricia Vollmer.
My son chose to use an action figure as the first weight. The experiment will prompt your student to add additional weight and discuss the impacts. That’s why there are large paper clips (included in the box) attached to his leg. Image: Patricia Vollmer.

In the Lab Notebook, your student will be guided through making the parachute and launching it with an object tied to it. Then the student will be challenged with additional questions. What if you add weight to the action figure? What if you remove weight from the action figure? What forces are acting on your parachute?

Launching the homemade parachute off the back deck. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Launching the homemade parachute off the back deck. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The final question, one that my sons, my husband, and I discussed, was “Draw how you would change the parachute so that it will work well on a planet where the atmosphere is thinner than it is on Earth.” My sons didn’t draw the answer, but it was a great dinner table discussion.

After some additional experiments demonstrating the principles of flight, STEMists are given several working airplane experiments to put the fundamentals into practice.

My sons explored the “Deux” Loop Glider and Catapult Airplane.

The “Deux” Loop Glider looks strange, but is stable and flies well. The drag and lift generated by the loops demonstrate the principles of flight very well. The Lab Notebook will challenge students to make adjustments to the glider and record the impacts. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The glider would fly all the way through our living room and dining room, approximately 25′. The key, we learned, is to make the loops as concentric as possible when you look down the straw. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Modeling his “Einstein in a Box” sticker, my youngest son shows off the homemade catapult airplane he made. He learned about how forces applied to his airplane could make it fly longer and faster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Modeling his “Groovy Lab in a Box” sticker, my youngest son shows off the homemade catapult airplane he made. He learned about how forces applied to his airplane could make it fly longer and faster. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

In summary, I am in love with the concept and potential of this program. I fully intend to continue a subscription for my sons. As you’ll read in the next section, some great topics are coming up for subscribers!

The company has a fantastic social media presence, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, and YouTube. The company maintains a blog on Tumblr. Check them out through these links to learn more.

The Groovy Lab in a Box subscription program is available through the company’s website. Prices range from $28.95 for a single box (plus shipping) down to $23.95 per box for a 12 month subscription, with >1 month subscriptions including free shipping. The longer a subscription you choose, the lower the price-per-box becomes. The target audience for the home subscription boxes are 3rd through 5th grade students, with programs for Kindergarten through 2nd grade students coming soon.

Interview with Co-Founder Elaine Hansen

I had the chance to talk to Academics in a Box co-founder Elaine Hansen last week. She and I could have talked for hours if she didn’t have a busy full-time schedule to maintain.

Ms. Hansen herself is a mother of an elementary-school aged son, and is a high school chemistry teacher. Over her years of teaching, Ms. Hansen realized that school curricula are becoming more constrained in some of the basics of the scientific process, such as giving time for students to brainstorm new ideas, asking follow-on questions, and being allowed to retry experiments with slight changes in variables. She feels that having the opportunity to do those tasks will truly embed scientific thought in students and motivate more students into STEM lifestyles. The Groovy Lab in a Box program provides relevant STEM education to elementary school students in a fun way that truly harnesses children’s intuitive curiosity.

The program works in concert with the Next Generation Science Standards that are making their way into state education programs. Click the above link to learn more about what those standards include and the status of their getting integrated in your own state. One of the NGSSs that is seen in each of the subscription boxes each month is the elevation of the engineering design process to the same level of importance as teaching scientific inquiry. In other words, there is a project goal with each month’s box that the student will design and execute using the concepts learned through the included experiments. In our “Fly With Me” box, this project was to build an airplane that could fly 15 feet. This is the future of teaching science in America!

Ms. Hansen and I also discussed the open-endedness of science, and hence the open-endedness of the subscription boxes. If you consider current modern science, researchers are allowed to make a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, and possibly fail at that hypothesis. It’s important for students to learn that failure is okay. Also, the subscription boxes give students the chance to ask follow on questions, which can then lead to further experiments and further discovery. This is how science works.

We discussed some of the unique features of Groovy Lab in a Box:

  • Include what you need in the box. Ensure an enthusiastic child doesn’t need to stop everything to wait for Mom to take him/her to the craft store for a couple sheets of card stock. Even though materials are included in the box, if one wants to recreate the experiment, the materials aren’t difficult to find.
  • Personal protective equipment. In the case of the box we received, there was a pair of science-lab-quality eye protection.
  • Eco-friendly materials. With very few exceptions (such as the ping pong balls and fishing line in the box my family received) the materials are recyclable. The straws were made of paper, in fact.
  • Retro-designs and colors. The visuals of the box, materials, and website all reflect fonts, artwork, and colors that harken back to the days of the Apollo project. Ms. Hansen wants to get users to reflect on the emphasis on scientific innovation, research, and investment in the 1960s.
  • Many of the materials are multitaskers. The ruler can double as a bookmark, and there was a keychain that looks like one of those grocery store discount cards that you put on a keyring. That keychain doubles as a hole punch: there are instructions in the Lab Notebook.

Some great initiatives are in the works for the company as well. They recently announced collaborations with Destination Imagination and camp STEM in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Groovy Lab in a Box is providing materials to these groups to help facilitate their missions. In addition, educator boxes are now available to teachers; these are lower-cost boxes that are sent out in bulk for the classrooms. There is also a STEM Team variation to these boxes; the Beyond…in the Box website gives details on how to divide tasks for team projects.

Finally, I had the chance to learn about some of the upcoming boxes. For the month of March, a “Swing into Spring” box is coming to subscribers, teaching the parts of a plant, the life cycle of a plant, and the water cycle. The engineering design challenge will be a greenhouse! Catapults, solar power,  and geology boxes are forthcoming as well.

Ms. Hansen’s enthusiasm and passion for her business are contagious. We lamented for the days when scientists were the pop-culture celebrities, rather than some of the role models our kids are being exposed to today. I immensely enjoyed talking to her about everything she and her partner Monica Canvan have done in the past year and it even made it wonder, “Am I doing enough?” when it comes to promoting STEM concepts with my sons.

Coupon for New Subscribers

The ladies at Groovy Lab in a Box have offered GeekMom readers a coupon for 50% off the first month’s box with the purchase of a subscription. Simply enter coupon code GEEKMOM50 at checkout!

A Giveaway!

Would you like to win your very own three-month gift subscription, starting with the “Swing into Spring” box? Simply enter our giveaway, following the instructions on our Rafflecopter widget.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Seed Science

Image By Rebecca Angel.

Science is about questions, getting dirty, observing, discovering, and having more questions. For many of us taught in traditional schools, science “lab” was about following directions and if you didn’t get the correct result, you were wrong. That is a great way to kill anyone’s curiosity or love of true science. Don’t let that happen with your kids!

Your child’s education may include a fantastic science program or not, but you can always do fun things as a family. It’s spring (it may not feel like it, depending on where you live, but technically…) and that means planning a garden. I’m no green thumb. That’s my husband, but the kids and I are involved throughout the growing season.

This year, my son (15) decided on a science project that involved growing seeds. He wondered about chamomile tea and if it was good for plants. Some websites said yes, but were really vague. He decided to do his own study.

We went to the garden store and spent a minimal amount of money on basil seeds (because they can be transplanted in our garden or grown inside in pots afterwards. And I like basil!), potting soil, and a few containers.

Next he planted the seeds in three groups:

1. Potting soil that will have plain water every day.

2. Potting soil that will have brewed (and cooled) chamomile tea every day.

3. Potting soil mixed with chamomile that will have plain water every day.

Originally, he only had groups 2 and 3, which led to a discussion on why you want a “control” in your study.

It’s been a couple of weeks and they are just starting to sprout. Guess what he’s found out so far? Light is far more important than anything else he’s doing. The seedlings closest to his light source are doing the best. Does that mean his experiment isn’t good? Not at all! He’s learning that there may be other factors that affect his outcome. This will lead to a better experiment next time. And that’s real science learning.

For your own experiment, let your child look through your spice or tea cabinet and choose something they think will help or hurt plants. Let them plant some seeds and take care of them. Will they spill dirt, take up space in your house, and need reminding about watering? Probably. But science isn’t neat and helping them succeed is worth the inconvenience.

Remember: Success is simply completing the experiment, regardless of the outcome. Look at the results together and chat about what worked in their design and what would make a clearer result next time. You don’t have to be a scientist yourself to have a conversation about it—just be curious and observant.

 Here is a lot of good information on what seeds need and how to plant them. And here’s a video on seed starting:

What are other easy seed experiments you have done (or want to do)?

STEM Science Stations Float Kids’ Boats

“Sink or Float” STEM Science Station. Image Courtesy © Lakeshore Learning

My preschooler is constantly begging to “do science,” and I am always happy to oblige. I was delighted to learn that Lakeshore Learning, a toy store specializing in educational toys, is offering new “STEM Science Stations” to encourage science exploration. As big of a fan as my four-year-old is of splashing in water, I knew we had to start with the “Sink or Float” kit to explore buoyancy.

The “Sink or Float” Science Station is packed with 8 activity cards and materials to complete each one. The card features one question to kick off the activity, and the little learner is tasked with experimenting with the floating and sinking items in the kit. On the back of each card, there are additional questions to help guide the activity, along with discussion questions to explore the buoyancy principles behind it.

While the cards provide fantastic guidance for the kids getting their hands wet, to my dismay I found that there are no facts or additional information to answer the inevitable follow-up questions. When pressed to explain the how and why behind the ability of some things to both sink AND float, I found myself unable to answer coherently. If I had prepared ahead of time — which I will for next time! — my daughter would have taken more away from our playtime.

The other STEM Station activity boxes offered by Lakeshore Learning cover magnets and motion. The kits are better suited to groups such as schools and homeschool groups to fully participate in the activity and discussion, but they can work well for a snowy afternoon at home with the kids.

Lakeshore Learning is offering a special discount for GeekMom readers! Use this coupon for 20% off one nonsale item online or in stores.

GeekMom received a promotional copy for review purposes.

Ants… in… Spaaace!

Image: Edmund Scientifics

Orbital Sciences delayed Wednesday’s planned launch of a re-supply mission to the International Space Station. But what are they shipping to the ISS?

Along with fresh food, water, and clothes, this mission will also have a supply of ants.

These ants aren’t uninvited hitch-hikers, they’re VIPs getting a ride into space courtesy of a NASA project to partner with K-12 educational programs. This particular research effort will look at the ants’ foraging patterns and how their search patterns while looking for food change depending on their perception of how dense their population is. Previous ant research on the Space Shuttle and Space Station has shown that ants can change their behavior quite a bit in a microgravity environment, such as their tunneling patterns.

In this case, common pavement ants on Earth tend to search for food differently if they know there are a lot of compatriots in the area vs. if they are spread thinly. They assess their density based on the frequency at which they bump into other ants as they’re searching. The question is if they use the same density determination and if they change their search patterns the same way in space as they do on a downtown sidewalk.

Good scientific research needs control groups to compare to the experimental subjects, and in this case the controls will be ant colonies in hundreds of K-12 classrooms around the world. According to CU-Boulder:

Teachers interested in participating in the ant experiments may contact [Education Program Director] Countryman at countrym@colorado.edu. More information on the project for teachers and students will be online beginning in mid-January at http://www.bioedonline.org.

This is just one small example of the kind of research that ISS is doing, combined with the mission to get kids more involved in space science.

Geeky Projects Make Learning a Joy

© Nomad Press

My eBay Collections were curated as part of my collaboration with eBay.

Here’s a recent conversation in my house with my eldest son about a school physics project:

Son: I have to drive over to my friend’s house to finish our catapult.

Me: Is is a catapult or a trebuchet?

Son: We didn’t have time to do anything complicated, so just a catapult.

What occurred to me later is that my son already knew the difference between the two types of long-range medieval weapons and he wasn’t surprised that I knew, either.

cover copyright PotterCraft
Cover copyright PotterCraft

My knowledge came from my research into ancient and medieval weapons for the fictional world in my Seneca alternate history series. His came from his friends, who are interested in all kinds of ancient weapons, starting with different kinds of swords. It’s definitely a fun way to learn science, though I would tend to recommend scale models rather a true-to-history replica. (Though if the zombie apocalypse happens, these might come in handy while battling hordes.)

Science and projects should be fun, and the best place to find fun science books is among geeks. And the holidays? A perfect time to get started, though the life-size models of medieval siege engines might need to wait until the snow thaws.

You can find trebuchets, catapults, and more peaceful medieval projects in Great Medieval Project You Can Build Yourself by GeekMom Kris Bordessa, part of the Books For Geeky Parents eBay collection. And, yes, some of the books are written by geeky people I know personally, such as the three GeekDad books by our own publisher, Ken Denmead, and our own Geek Mom: Projects, Tips, and Adventures for Moms and Their 21st Century Families.

What I want from geeky activity books are not just projects I can build or learn from, but projects that make me smile. I want Totally Irresponsible Science or 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) because the kinds of kids I want to raise are the ones who ask questions and push boundaries.

I think it’s pretty cool that my 18-year-old son knows what trebuchets are and can use them in his high school physics class, or that I can bake something in the kitchen and teach my younger son why heat applied to certain ingredients causes cakes to rise or, on the negative side, for blondies to turn out dry.

Parenting can have serious challenges, and as the parent of an autistic child, I know that as well as anyone. But learning shouldn’t be one of them.

It should be fun.

Easy, Fun, Science Experiments for Kids

Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano
Fun with density. Photo by Cristen Pantano

As we all know, kids are natural scientists. They are constantly observing and asking questions about the world around them. It truly is never too early to get kids exploring with hands-on science activities. Here are some fun, easy, and interesting experiments that I recently found online and tried out at home.

Water Splashes

Kids love throwing rocks in water, looking at the splash, listening to the plop as the rock hits, and staring at the ripples. This is a fun experiment that demonstrates that any object, regardless of the shape, will produce a circular pattern of ripples when thrown into water.

A good exercise to give gives a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano
A good exercise to give a mental image of what will happen when an object hits water. Photo by Cristen Pantano

The experiment calls for wooden objects of various shape, such as a circle, a square and a triangle. The premise is to throw the different shaped objects in the water, and observe that regardless of the object’s shape, a circular patter of water is displaced.  This happens because as the object hits the water, energy is released from the center of the object, equally in every direction. When a square block hits water, an infinite amount of straight lines of energy are released from the center. A circle is the only shape that has an equal distance from the center to any other place on the circle. This is why regardless of shape when a rock or block hits water, the water is displaced in a circular pattern.

To give the kids a visual of this before we went throwing and splashing, we traced blocks of various shapes, made a dot in the center and drew lines going out of the shape in every direction. If you do this step, make sure that the kids make lines bisecting all the angles. While doing this, a circular pattern of lines will appear.

When we tried observing splashes and ripples with our wooden blocks, they just were not heavy enough to produce a good splash. I opened the bathroom cabinet and we starting throwing random items in the tub. A rectangular bar of soap in its cardboard container made a large circular splash, as did a bottle of rubbing alcohol. The kids had the best time repeatedly throwing in a heavy ring box. This box provided a great circular splash and ripples despite it’s cubic shape.

You can ditch the tub and discuss this idea the next time your kids are throwing rocks in water. Simply collect a pile of different shaped rocks, talk about whether they think the splashes and ripples will be similar or different and let them have at it! It’s a great way to get the kids thinking about how the beautiful and amazing things that they observe on a daily basis can be explained by science.

Floating Egg

This is a really easy experiment with fantastic visuals. It will introduce kids to density and mixtures in a very fun way.

Simply fill two glasses with water, grab two eggs, and some salt. Make sure that both glasses have the same amount of water. Leave one glass of water alone and then make salt water in the second glass.  After the kids make the salt water mixture, have them carefully add a raw egg to the glass with just water. The egg will sink to the bottom. Then add the egg to the saltwater.  The salt water is more dense than the egg, so the egg will now float!

An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.
An egg added to salt water will float. Photo by Cristen Pantano.

The next day, we took the egg out of the glass with salt water and carefully added a few inches of tap water on top of the salt water. Do this step and then have the kids slowly add the egg back. Watch what happens now! (Hint, see top photo)

Kids are innately curious and will probably ask, “Why does the egg float?”  When salt is added to water, the salt dissolves and you now have a mixture. When salt is added to water, it dissolves and sodium and chloride bond with the water’s hydrogen and oxygen. There is now more matter in the same amount of volume, therefore the water is more dense.

With young kids, it’s more about getting them to have fun while making cool observations rather than nailing down the concepts. My kids are young, so I kept the explanation a bit simpler. I told them that once we added the salt to water, we made a mixture. The mixture has more molecules in the same amount of space, and is therefore more crowded, stronger, and dense than water.  Not exactly a perfect definition of density, but enough to get young kids understanding what they see.

If your kids want to play more with density, a great way to visualize density is to layer different liquids on top of each other. Take a glass and pour in the same volume of corn syrup, oil, and water. The heavier (more molecules per volume), more dense, liquids will sink to the bottom, and layers will form. If you have food coloring on hand, let the kids color the water first. It creates a fantastic visual.

Have fun! After all, that’s what learning about science should be about!

Water Fun: Experiments for Mini Scientists

Water Fun
GeekMom Helen has water fun with her own mini scientist.
Photograph © Helen Barker

On our last trip to our local library, my daughter chose a book from the non-fiction shelves which I hadn’t seen before. Called Mini Scientist Water Fun, it contained a number of simple experiments suitable for young children to carry out with a little adult help. As both a teacher and parent I am really keen to encourage my daughter to be curious about the world around her, so this sounded perfect. I also thought that this would be a good way to start to introduce some basic scientific principles, as well as keep her amused during half term to boot!

The book includes plenty of experiments to explore different aspects of water science. We liked looking at the surface tension of water using paper clips. It was interesting to ask my daughter what she thought would happen when I placed paper clips onto the surface of a glass of water, and then ask her to explain why they hadn’t sunk like she thought. At first she said that they were light and not heavy, and we spent lots of time talking about surface tension and watching videos of pond skaters and other insects which use the surface tension to move around. She also noticed that the paper clips looked different when viewed through the side of the glass than from the top, which I liked because this is the start of her developing her skills of observation.

We liked seeing paper clips demonstrating surface tension.
Photograph © Helen Barker

By far our favorite experiment was the chromatography. I bought a set of coffee filter papers and we spent ages looking at the different ink colors that the chromatography revealed. She was able to carry out the experiment completely single handedly, and even developed the experiment further by using two colors of ink at a time. This started lots of discussion about color theory and how you can mix colors together to produce new colors, such as the green pen which proved to be made of blue and yellow inks. The darker inks produced better results, and had the bonus of adding “cyan” to her vocabulary.

The results of our chromatography experiments were really colorful!
Photograph © Helen Barker

The Water Fun book certainly produced the required result, as my daughter shouted in glee, “Can we do more experiments now?” It really warmed this GeekMom’s heart to see her so enthused about science and learning.

There are three more books in this series from DK written by meteorologist Lisa Burke, including books with kitchen and garden/backyard experiments, and experiments about the human body. There are example pages and more details on the DK site. I’ll certainly be looking for more of these books next time we visit the library.

Elephant Toothpaste Fail

In my family we get science on everything. Most of the time that means we dive deep into what interests us, no matter how strange. My daughter recently transported an entire deer skeleton out of our woods, cleaned the bones, and reassembled it in the yard. This week one of my sons rebuilt a radio so old that it’s powered by vacuum tubes. Few of our science-y pursuits have to do with beakers and chemicals, but when one of my kids discovered a reaction called Elephant Toothpaste we had to try it.


elephant toothpaste, elephant toothpaste fail,
What’s supposed to happen! Screenshot: youtube.com

There are two ways to create this reaction. A home version can be done with low power ingredients. Naturally we went right for the lab version requiring 30 percent hydrogen peroxide (found at beauty supply stores) and potassium iodide (Kl) . The supplies aren’t easy to obtain and we ended up buying a liquid form of of Kl, which may have been our downfall.

We assembled our set-up in the front yard. A two liter soda bottle inside a tin container, safety precautions, and a lot of anticipation. One kid taped the soon-to-be spectacular event, another kid was ready with a large syringe of hydrogen peroxide, and a parent was cued to dump in the Kl.

Ready! Set!


The resulting froth was less than you’d get from pouring a glass of root beer. We did note some warmth felt through the plastic bottle, a minor exothermic reaction. A more significant reaction? Sarcastic comments.

Undaunted we speculated that there was too much soap, so we rinsed and tried again.


Then we went Mythbusters, adding way more of the ingredients (in proportion) for a bigger reaction.

Still nothing.

Elephants don’t brush their teeth anyway.

Anyone else try this and succeed?

Government Shutdown: Frozen Scientific Research

Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)
Near McMurdo Station Antarctica 2013 (Image: Brian McLaughlin)

We here at GeekMom pride ourselves in staying politically neutral, however we also pride ourselves in the quality scientific education that we provide to our readers.

The United States government is on day 16 of the federal shutdown. While this means that 800,000 government workers have been sent home without pay, it has meant significantly more to research scientists that receive government funding. Careers’ worth of science are on the brink of complete collapse, simply because the U.S. government has shut its doors. [Editor’s note: As of last report, it appears Congress is finally ready to make a deal that will re-open the government. Assuming the vote progresses as expected, the scientific fallout from the shutdown will become more clear in the next few days/weeks.]

You might be surprised to learn about some of the government funded research programs that are in peril.

Antarctic Scientific Research

Antarctica, one of the most remote locations on the planet, will also be one of the most thoroughly effected by the United States government shutdown. You might not know that there is no indigenous people that live anywhere on the continent of Antarctica. Instead, the massive continent is populated by only a couple thousand international scientists. Most are only in Antarctica during its summer field season, which only lasts from October to February.

The vast majority of Americans who are lucky enough to visit the bottom of the Earth have received research grants through the National Science Foundation. The National Science Foundation receives its funding from the federal government, and has announced that it has run out of money and cannot afford to open three of its Antarctic bases for the 2013-2014 summer field season. The NSF has already sent support staff home from the ice and turned scientists around that had been starring to arrive for the season. Some were turned around just as they reached the ice for the first time.

This government shutdown isn’t just a freeze on research; it could lead to a complete loss of many research programs. Field research in Antarctica usually entails some combination of harsh conditions, very short working time windows, the possibility of lost equipment due to weather, and inaccessibility for the majority of the year. Programs that placed equipment last year (or any previous year) cannot collect the past years data, cannot proceed with scheduled maintenance, and will possibly lose their equipment under extreme snowfall or icy conditions.

This week I interviewed Heather Buelow, a friend and antarctic field researcher. She explained what the shut down means to her and her doctorate dissertation, as well a the work of her collaborators.

I’m a second year doctoral student. I specifically applied to my advisor’s lab because studying microbial life in Antarctica was a dream of mine. Last year (2011-2012 field season) was my first season on the ice, and it was absolutely a dream come true.

While I was in Antarctica doing field work for my advisor’s projects, I would also spend time writing research proposals, seeking funding to begin my own research projects the following season. I was awarded a fellowship by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium (NASA EPSCoR) to begin a project that seeks to characterize Antarctic microbial activity, and also ties in with another love of mine: astrobiology. (Antarctic environments are often cited as excellent terrestrial analogues to other planets.) I hope that my research will contribute to both microbial ecology and astrobiology.

However, the shutdown has thrown a kink in the deployment schedule, and we won’t know how bad it is until the government reopens. Many people who maintain the research stations have already been sent home from the ice, and they would need to be brought back to accommodate scientific crews. I was supposed to deploy on October 21, but that seems impossible now. My lab group continues to hope that there will only be a delay of deployments, and not a complete field season cancellation.

This season, I was supposed to do field work for 4 projects: my own, my advisor’s, and 2 different collaborators’. All of these projects will factor into my doctoral dissertation, and each project allows me to gain experience with different sampling techniques in extreme environments.

If the field season is delayed, our research window will likely be cut short. (I’ve already had to start thinking about the minimum amount of field time I’ll need to accomplish different projects.) However, if the field season is too delayed—or worse, cancelled—it will change everything. My dissertation focus will change significantly if I’m unable to work on the projects I’ve already spent months preparing for. The fellowship I was awarded is good for one year, meaning I’m supposed to carry out my research within that time frame. A field season cancellation, or even too much of a delay, would make that impossible.

That being said, I know that NSF is eager to ramp up operations as soon as possible, and is fully aware of the ramifications that a cancellation would have on students and research in general. I believe they will try to restore our planned activities and schedule as much as possible.

NIH Clinical Research Studies

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are known for their breaking edge research on a myriad of healthcare topics. Since the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to send most of its workforce home to wait till there is funding to pay them. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with live animals or extremely ill patients, time isn’t on your side. NPR reported earlier this week that thousands of mice used in diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s research will likely have to be euthanized due to the government shutdown. Some of the mice will be killed simply due to overcrowding, but more heartbreaking are the mice that will be euthanized because it is impossible to maintain certain lines of genetically altered mice without constant monitoring by scientists. Also, most federal scientists have been banned from their own labs since October 1st—even the few that have attempted to return to their research have found their security key cards completely inactivated.

Every week, about 200 new patients—including sick children—begin NIH clinical trials. Due to the government shutdown, the NIH has been forced to stop accepting all new patients into its clinical research programs. For example, Michelle Langbehn was expecting to start an aggressive clinical trial as a last attempt to fight her battle with sarcoma as she had exhausted her body’s ability to withstand any additional chemotherapy. Instead of fighting for her life, Michelle has been spending her precious time left with her young daughter and advocating for the government to reopen so that all of the clinical trials can get back on track before time runs out. NIH has made exceptions to allow only 12 patients with immediately life-threatening illnesses, mostly cancer, into research studies since the beginning of the shutdown.

Smithsonian National Observatory

The massive radio telescope array, Smithsonian National Observatory, is used on a nearly constant basis to map stars within the Milky Way galaxy. Scientists like Mark Reid combine three or four seasons of data to triangulate stellar positions to an incredibly high accuracy. Even with a relatively short government shutdown (in comparison to stellar life cycles) every star that has been observed the last two or three seasons that were scheduled to be observed has to start fresh, and years of data are meaningless unless they are collected in ways that reduce as many variables as possible.

NASA Astronomy

Over 97% of the NASA workforce has remained furloughed without work or pay since the beginning of the shutdown.  While the Hubble Space Telescope has remained in in data collection mode thus far, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been forced to suspend all testing that was planned. This is particularly unfortunate since the main instrument module and three instruments had just started a thermal vacuum testing campaign which finished its initial month of chamber cooling down to 40K.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which is a 747 airplane with a huge infrared telescope onboard, has been grounded since October 1st. There are a number of programs that the grounding has affected, but none greater then the new research involving Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

If you are looking for educational information from the NASA website, you are redirected to the following notice, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.” Since there are so many NASA employees who have been furloughed, reliable information has been hard to come by since there are  no public relations officers working to confirm or deny rumors of ongoing changes in the current status of programs that were allowed to continue on a skeleton crew. Many non-PR employees who might have the latest information were asked specifically not to speak to the press in any official capacity while on furlough.

The programs that I have pointed out above are just a small number of affected scientific programs by the U.S. government shutdown. Without getting politics involved, I can only hope a resolution is found by Congress as soon as possible, so science research can be salvaged. If you are interested in doing something to help, call your local Congresspeople and let them know how important all science is to our nation. Science needs funding and our government needs to reopen.

Bubble Science: Making the Most of Your Suds

Photo: Evan Bordessa

There’s nothing like spending a summer afternoon blowing—and chasing—bubbles. But does your geekling know why those bubbles pop when she touches them? Steve Spangler says:

A bubble’s worst enemies are oil and dirt.

Years of playing with soap bubbles taught us that if our hands were wet, we could often catch a bubble without popping it, just as a bubble will often land on a wet surface without popping. This premise, of course, requires much experimentation and lots of bubble making. Happily, homemade bubble solution is cheap and super easy to make. Take advantage of the warm days and let your kiddos get wet and wild!

Bubble recipe: Gently stir about one cup of liquid dish soap and a quarter cup of corn syrup into a gallon of water. (See how easy that was?)

To get you started, here are five ways to explore with bubbles. Little yellow wand not required.

Photo: Evan Bordessa

Under the dome: Pour two cups of bubble solution onto a jelly roll pan. With one end of a drinking straw in the bubble mix, blow a giant tabletop bubble. Now for the trick: Dip a matchbox car or other small toy (and any part of your hand that will touch the bubble) into the bubble solution and gently push the car into the bubble.

A string thing: Thread two drinking straws onto a three-foot length of cotton string. Tie ends together in a knot. Holding onto the straws, dip the entire string (and your hands) into bubble solution and lift out, holding the string taut. Use big arm movements to make giant bubbles.

Photo: Evan Bordessa

Handsome bubbles: Dip both of your hands into bubble solution (yes, really!), and clasp hands. Lift hands from the solution and slowly unclasp them, maintaining contact between both thumbs and forefingers to form a diamond shape. Blow through the film of bubble solution.

A rope of soap: Push a plastic pot scrubber or recycled mesh onion bag halfway into a cardboard tube; tape into place. (Unless you’ve got dragon-size lungs, a short tube is better than a long one, here.) Dip the mesh into bubble solution and blow into the opposite end of the tube. You’ll make tiny bubbles, all connected in a long rope.

Big wand: Push a four-foot length of sixteen-gauge wire into a four-foot length of soft, braided rope. Shape the wired rope into a circle, leaving about one foot of rope at each end. Twist the ends together to form a handle. Soak the giant wand in bubble solution, then practice making super-sized bubbles.

Playing Games With My Name

name question

We learn early on that our names are serious business. One of the main questions we’re asked as toddlers when out in public is “What’s your name?” Growing up, our parents address us by our full names when we’re in trouble. (Otherwise they’re more likely to use nicknames or endearments.) Once we go to school we put our names on assignments and tests day after day. Sometimes our peers use our names to taunt us. Our names are right there for the world to see on diplomas and resumes and emails. The names we’re given can affect the way people perceive us and even our career success.  Sometimes I feel as if the potential our parents saw when they breathed our names aloud for the first time is diluted by sheer overuse.

So I play with my name. If I don’t absolutely have to give my real name I use any other name that occurs to me, entirely on an inspiration basis.

When leaving a name for reservations at a restaurant, I usually make one up. It adds a little levity to my life. It’s also a decent short term memory exercise. If I’ve given the name “Snape,” I have to remember they’re talking about us when they call, “Snape, party of six.” Not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time. My default name for restaurant reservations is Ferdinand, in honor of the classic children’s book about a peaceful bull. It’s a quiet homage to the book and, of course, a secret acknowledgment that the name I’ve given is technically bull.

I use alternate names for mail order items, too.  Sometimes I give myself a new first or last name, sometimes an item comes addressed to one of our farm animals or dogs, sometimes I use a name I’ve made up. I have a magazine subscription that comes addressed to Sarcasm Collective, Netflix envelopes arrive for Angelic Presence, and catalogs arrive under all sorts of monikers. It’s a remarkably effective way to track who is selling your information. For example, when ordering a piece of camping gear for one of my kids, I gave myself the first name “Spelunker” out of sheer silliness. The next few months I got camping gear advertisements addressed to that name, as expected, but also advertisements for motocross racing, yoga supplies, and silk underwear.

I bestow my love of alternative names on others too. My friends and family are accustomed to getting a card, package, or voice mail with something added to their names. At last month’s food co-op, the treasurer complained that her kitchen drawers seem to be taken over by twist ties.  When I sent in the check for my order, she got an envelope addressed to her in care of Institute For Twist Tie Preservation. Not the best example, but it is the most recent. I’ve sent packages to my son’s college mailbox with odd additions to his name as well, both on the return address and the way his name is written. (You may want to avoid this if your friends or family aren’t likely to appreciate it.)

I also find it provides a moment’s amusement to use nonsensical names, fictional names, or the names of long-dead luminaries when writing something non-essential. I’ve recently signed for packages as A. Earhart, Scout Finch,  and Hubert J. Farnsworth. I filled out a farmer’s market poll as Susan B. Anthony. I put my name down on a waiting list as Beverly Crusher. I added myself to a mailing list for local arts events as Virginia Woolf.

Maybe my name games are in reaction to the stress we all face in an uncertain world. Or maybe I simply find that a little silliness keeps me more gruntled than disgruntled. Just remember, if you’re meeting me for dinner I’ve probably given the name “Ferdinand.”

Chemistry and Cupcakes

Baking can teach you a lot of things. Following directions, measuring, fractions, and even chemistry. This is a simple experiment using a basic cake/cupcake recipe that I’ve cut in half for smaller batches. We’ll make eight batches total, and in seven of them we’ll take away an ingredient. You’ll learn how all the ingredients work together to make a delicious cupcake.

Sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla extract, all purpose or cake flour, baking powder, milk, cupcake liners, a small cupcake tin, a mixing bowl, an electric mixer, and a spoon.

You’ll also need a notebook and a pencil to record your results. Continue reading Chemistry and Cupcakes

Is a Robot Takeover Around the Corner?

robot takeover, robot overlords, robots versus zombies,
Dangerous darlings? (CC by 2.0 ricardodiaz11 Flickr photostream)

Zombie fears distract us from a much bigger threat. Robots.

These machines are plotting to become our global overlords, so of course they want us to stay busy preparing for an imaginary invasion by reanimated corpses.

Unconvinced? Consider this. People who most loudly fuel our so-called divides (between liberal and conservative, old and young, mommies who do things differently from other mommies) keep us from noticing the powers-that-be loudly slurping up ever more power. No wonder robots have marked humans as easy prey.

And robots use diabolically clever means to achieve their aims.

They don’t just prey on our zombie phobias. They lure us into adoring them using darling robot toys. They entertain us using lovable movie robots. They let us feel us comfortably superior to them with strangely humanoid robots like these.

And these.

They’re not as endearing once they are weaponized.

Back when robots existed mostly in our imaginations we believed Asimov’s Laws of Robotics would guide us. The first and most logical of these principles was, “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Oh such innocent times. Now we’re testing heavily armed autonomous drones.

Even developers seem nervous. Robotics expert Noel Sharkey said in an LA Times interview, “Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability. This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable.” Sir, your words sound just like clichéd lines uttered by scientists destined to be the earliest victims in every cheesy horror movie.

But we humans have the advantage because armed drones can’t think for themselves. Oh sorry, they can. Researchers hastening to end mankind’s dominance on this planet have created robots that can reason and make decisions on their own. Some of these machines are endearing little smart bots like the one named iCub, created by open source collaborators and designed to develop cognitive abilities as a human child does, learning through experience.  Could that include a terrible twos stage?  Better yet, researchers have also come up with robots skilled in deceiving both humans and other forms of artificial intelligence. Great idea, artificial intelligence capable of throwing tantrums and lying.

If you pay attention to scary movies, by now you recognize foreshadow. Haunting music is cuing up but no one is turning on the lights. Instead plans are being made to establish a network of perpetually active armed drones, able to grab power via laser from a variety of sources. These charmers are programmed to identify and kill using software calculations. Dum dum dum.

So let’s stop to assess. We have robots that can learn, make decisions on their own, lie, kill humans, and operate indefinitely using power pillaged by lasers. Once those skills are combined we’re in trouble.

But wait, there’s more. Why should a killing machine rely on traditional power sources when it can digest fleshNow there are robots powered by meat. These fiends-in-the-making are called “gastrobots.” Currently they only chomp sugar cubes or slugs, but once they merge with the autonomous drone army these bots may quickly recognize that cheeseburger-fattened humans provide far more energy.

Heck, let’s nudge them closer to overlord status. Robots don’t actually have to come up with meat-eating plots of their own. They’re being designed to do just that. The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) can forage for its own fuel, including organically-based energy sources like chicken fat. The company insists the EATR is vegetarian but hello, chickens are living creatures with eyes, hearts, and brains. Just like us. Designers boast that this war bot has “ubiquitous applications.” It can fuel itself on indefinite, autonomous missions while ”…integrating high-level cognitive reasoning with low level perception and feedback control.” Zombie fears seem downright calming by comparison.

If you’re still not worried, consider a Caltech report sponsored by the Department of the Navy Office of Naval Research. Its warnings include this gem:

Perhaps robot ethics has not received the attention it needs, at least in the US, given a common misconception that robots will do only what we have programmed them to do. Unfortunately, such a belief is a sorely outdated, harking back to a time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person. Now, programs with millions of lines of code are written by teams of programmers, none of whom knows the entire program; hence, no individual can predict the effect of a given command with absolute certainty, since portions of large programs may interact in unexpected, untested ways.

And some of their conclusions don’t downplay anyone’s fears.

As depicted in science-fiction novels and movies, some imagine the possibility that robots might break free from their human programming through methods as: their own learning, or creating other robots without such constraints (self-replicating and self-revising), or malfunction, or programming error, or even intentional hacking [e.g., Joy, 2000]. In
these scenarios, because robots are built to be durable and even with attack capabilities, they would be extremely difficult to defeat—which is the point of using robots as force multipliers. Some of these scenarios are more likely than others: we wouldn’t see the ability of robots to fully manufacture other robots or to radically evolve their intelligence and escape any programmed morality for quite some time. But other scenarios, such as hacking, seem to be near-term possibilities…

No less than Stephen Hawking warns that AI may be “our worst mistake in history.”

Maybe we are the zombies we fear, our brains slowly rotting thanks to reality television, never realizing our programmable vacuums have been reporting back to their leaders. Touché robots. It may be time to build an underground robot-resistant bunker where we (and our chickens) can hide.

Still not not frantic? Check out:


GeekMom and GeekDad Will Be at Maker Faire Bay Area 2013

Maker Faire Logo, image from makerfaire.com.
Maker Faire Logo, image from makerfaire.com.

Just when it feels like everyone knows about Maker Faire, I take a step back out of my geek circle and find that, to my surprise, very few of my non-geeks friends know about Maker Faire or even about the maker movement as a whole. Gasp! Impossible!

If you’re a GeekMom reader, I know I’m preaching to the choir when I remind you that Maker Faire Bay Area is this weekend, May 18th and 19th. Perhaps most importantly, I should remind you to talk about it with your friends. My goal isn’t to sell tickets for Maker Faire, but to spread the word about what a positive community a makerspace, hackerspace, or craft group can be. It’s not just for self-labeled geeks, it’s for anyone interested in finding an open source of knowledge and camaraderie with people who share a hobby or just a general interest in learning, creating, and innovating.

GeekMom/GeekDad will have a booth in the Expo Hall, so come say hi! I will be there as long as my tired pregnant body can cooperate, along with some of the GeekDad writers. GeekMom Ruth will have a booth with a Raspberry Pi musical project called Alcyone, and will also be giving a talk on The Pop Culture Guide to Open Source.

Fund This: STEAM Carnival Puts Robots and Science Under the Big Top

A peek at circus ball skee-ball, one of the high-tech games that will be at the STEAM Carnival. Image: CuriousJosh.
A peek at circus ball skee-ball, one of the high-tech games that will be at the STEAM Carnival. Image: CuriousJosh.

Welcome to Fund This, a new section of GeekMom that will focus on a few places to put some of your hard-earned cash. We’re planning to highlight interesting projects on crowdfunding websites, such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and much more. Read to make someone’s dream a reality?

This week, the section is kicking off with the STEAM Carnival. After all, who doesn’t love a carnival? It’s got fried dough, rides, and prizes. However, the STEAM Carnival is not your typical carnival. While I can’t exactly vouch for the types of fried goods that will be on display, know that this event will certainly be a thrill ride.

Continue reading Fund This: STEAM Carnival Puts Robots and Science Under the Big Top

Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism During Starving Time

Archaeological dig at Jamestown via Flickr user sarahstierch under CC:2.0
Archaeological dig at Jamestown via Flickr user sarahstierch under CC:2.0

In researching my book, Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself, I discovered some surprising facts. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, loved to take what he called “air baths.” That’s right, he sat around in the buff. A more gruesome bit of information related to the Jamestown settlers who suffered through the winter of 1609, also known as “the starving time.” Drought, hostile relations with the Native Americans, and a lost supply ship created a dire situation as the colonists were forced to feed upon their animals, vermin, shoe leather, and–word had it–each other.

In 2012, says Smithsonian.com, archaeologists at the Jamestown site uncovered the remains of an English girl, roughly 14 years in age, showing the first physical evidence of cannibalismContinue reading Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism During Starving Time

Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains The Origins Of Atomic Elements

Image: Wikipedia Commons.
Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In our favorite astrophysicist’s latest installment on AOL On’s “School of Thought” series, Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses a little-known-about paper written in the 1950s, titled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars” and published in several scholarly journals such as Reviews of Modern Physics. This paper first outlined the origins of the fundamental elements on earth, those that are taught to us in the periodic table of the elements.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains The Origins Of Atomic Elements In Our Bodies.

Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope Gets Go-Ahead

30-meter telescope planned atop Mauna Kea
Rendering of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists, astronomers, and amateur stargazers are all abuzz – or soon will be. On Friday, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources granted a permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project to be built atop Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii. The TMT promises to let us explore the galaxy’s origins, allow the analysis of black holes, and learn more about the formation of planets and stars. And according to the TMT website:

Observations with TMT will help answer questions about the early production and dispersal of the chemical elements, the distribution of baryons within dark matter halos and the processes of hierarchical merging of subgalactic fragments.

Continue reading Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope Gets Go-Ahead

Google Doodle Celebrates Leonhard Euler’s Birthday!

Google Doodle for Leonhard Euler
Google Doodle for Leonhard Euler

Today we, along with Google Doodle, celebrate the birthday of Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). Euler completed work in astronomy, physics, and mechanics, but he remains most famous for his work in mathematics. Continue reading Google Doodle Celebrates Leonhard Euler’s Birthday!

Join The International Space Apps Challenge Hackathon

International Space Apps Challenge Website
International Space Apps Challenge Website

If you ever wished you could be a part of space exploration, then you’ll want to free up your weekend on April 20th. The International Space Apps Challenge is an global 2-day hackathon where you can collaborate towards solving any of the 50 proposed challenges. Continue reading Join The International Space Apps Challenge Hackathon

Will Grounding DoD Demonstration Teams Impact STEM?

The USAF Thunderbirds flying over eastern Nebraska, August 2010. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The USAF Thunderbirds flying over eastern Nebraska, August 2010. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Yesterday the U.S. Navy announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2013 Blue Angels demonstration team air show season. The U.S. Air Force had similarly canceled their Thunderbirds demonstration team shows, making their announcement on March 1st. The U.S. Army has a parachute demonstration team, the Golden Knights, who are likewise not going to be performing, as announced on March 13th.

Nearly 100 performances between the three demonstration teams, all across the United States and even overseas, have been canceled. Many of their performances are the flagship acts at air shows in communities that otherwise don’t have a large military presence. The former NAS Brunswick in Maine had to cancel their September “Great State of Maine” airshow due to their having both the Blue Angels and Golden Knights as their headliner acts. Most other U.S. air shows are similarly issuing cancellation statements.

Many Americans will say “Well, that was just extraneous taxpayer funding that can be better spent.” But remember that an airshow will also pump money into a local economy. When there’s a community with very little military jet aircraft presence offering an airshow, expect visitors to travel from far and wide to experience it. The Oregon International Airshow is a great example; it’s the largest event of its kind on the west coast. Luckily for the Oregon Air Show, they have a replacement headliner, the Patriots Jet Team, comprised of former aerial demonstration team pilots. It appears their schedule is filling up fast, particularly on the west coast.

The impacts expand beyond just the financial. My heart is very heavy about this from a parenting perspective. We are denying our kids critical exposure to STEM skills.

I was brought to air shows every year as a kid. My Dad was in the Navy, and we had numerous choices every year when I grew up in southeastern Virginia: NAS Oceana, NAS Norfolk and Langley Air Force Base were all nearby. Each of those locations hosted an annual air show back in my day. Just yesterday the NAS Oceana Air Show announced its cancellation.

My sons were waiting to sit in the cockpit of an Air Force T-43 trainer, which is a modified Boeing 737 that's used for training navigators. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
My sons were waiting to sit in the cockpit of an Air Force T-43 trainer, which is a modified Boeing 737 that’s used for training navigators. These hands-on opportunities will be lost with the cancellation of air shows across the country this summer. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I enjoy air shows quite a bit. I learned much of what I know today about aviation through air shows. I’m sure it influenced my choice to join the Air Force. When my sons were old enough, my husband and I wasted no time taking them to air shows at Patrick AFB, Pope AFB, Seymour-Johnson AFB, and Offutt AFB.

At air shows, kids are learning about air power. Climbing into cockpits, talking to pilots and even seeing their grand size, the education is happening. Even if you might not be interested in your children joining the military, they are being exposed to physics. They will ask either you or the kind pilot standing next to his/her aircraft, “How does that big thing not fall out of the sky?”

Bigger air shows will work hard to have one example of every flying aircraft in the U.S. military inventory on display: rotary wing aircraft, unmanned aircraft, spy planes, stealth planes, bombers, airlifters, aerial refuelers, and fighter jets. The kids can be in touching distance of many of them, they can walk through airlifters, and they have a chance to talk to the pilots, navigators, loadmasters and even maintenance personnel. The military units will send their brightest and more personable members to represent their services at these shows, and the kids can ask anything (believe me, my oldest son has tested these guys profusely, asking questions like “What’s the longest you’ve even been awake while flying?”)

Many civilian companies will represent themselves at airshows also. Flying schools that recruit and train commercial airline pilots, companies that are involved in the aviation industry, and universities will set up tents to talk to visitors.

With the widespread cancelation of these air shows across the country, these opportunities for education and outreach are lost. The kids lose an opportunity for hands-on discussions with Americans who are living their dreams. These opportunities are incredibly important for inspiring our youth to pursue STEM careers such as engineering and science/technology research.

I think the 2013 air show season is doomed. The pilots and support crew will continue to train at their home bases at Nellis AFB, NAS Pensacola and Fort Bragg.

I’m not going to demand that they be reinstated this year, once a large air show decides to cancel, it’s very difficult to get the momentum going again. How do we fix this for future air show seasons? I don’t think it’s a funding or no funding question, it’s the matter of our federal government agreeing on a budget. If you are disappointed in not getting to attend an air show in your community this spring, summer or fall, contact your federal lawmakers  in the House of Representatives and Senate to make a case. The detriment to STEM skill development in young Americans, in my humble opinion, will be a valid argument for keeping our aerial demonstration teams alive.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy declared that we should be able to land on the moon in less than ten years. At every State of the Union address since 2006, our President has advocated development of more STEM career jobs, more STEM-related training and “more American innovation”. I think showcasing our capabilities through the Department of Defense’s demonstration teams is a small, but important, part of that.

Method For Reversing Dementia?


Alzheimer's prevention, SAIDO Learning method,
Holding on to hope. (Image: morguefile)

It’s not easy to keep up with new research. You can read a variety of online and print sources, going directly to a study when it can be accessed. Chances are you’ll develop some healthy skepticism. Even if studies are funded without ethical conflict, even if scrupulously designed and conducted, the way scientific findings play out in the media is often muddied.

So I wasn’t surprised to read the description of a documentary showing at the recent Cleveland International Film Festival. The film, titled Do You Know What My Name Is? is said to showcase a “learning therapy that can reverse symptoms of dementia.” The word “reverse” is pretty big when we’re talking about dementia.

We know Alzheimer’s disease robs us of our loved ones and deprives our culture of the elder wisdom we so desperately need. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Aside from the horrible human toll, Alzheimer’s is the most costly disease in the U.S. So if there’s a noninvasive, nonpharmaceutical intervention, it should be practiced everywhere possible. The documentary shows a technique called the SAIDO Learning method in use at the Eliza Jennings nursing facility in Cleveland. Developed by neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, this method has been available for over a decade in Japan. In the trailer we see seniors filling out worksheets and doing simple counting tasks with the assistance of support staff. A voiceover describes the program’s basics.


People with dementia are engaged in a treatment of reading, writing, and calculating for six months. The goal is to regain some of their independence and dignity, to return for a time, to themselves.



There is currently no trailer available without subtitles. And there’s very little online about the SAIDO Learning method. It’s pretty easy to find links to Kawashima’s research. He’s a busy guy. And he’s gotten a lot of press for developing a series of video games for Nintendo such as Brain Age: Concentration Training. He’s also an advisor for similar games including the Body and Brain Connection for Xbox. You can find his most recent in a series of Train Your Brain books on Amazon as well as what might be a handbook for his SAIDO Learning method, Learning Therapy, although it’s currently out of print.

You can also find little to support the overall benefit of such brain “exercises.” Those on the pro side were actually small studies,  limited to very specific improvements. There’s much more on the con side. A few years ago the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with BBC to launch a Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at the individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either. Another study is coming out that refutes the basic assumptions made by brain training programs.

So what are we to make of the SAIDO Learning method? There don’t seem to be any significant studies on it, studies where control groups experience the same level of concentrated attention and feedback from caregivers as given to the program participants.  The documentary trailer ends with the lines, “They can come back. They can get the light back into their eyes.” That’s exactly what any of us want for people suffering from dementia. If it takes filling out worksheets and answering questions with supportive caregivers, I’m all for it.

But I’m pretty annoyed by proprietary programs such as SAIDO Learning. The program isn’t available for use in the home. Only in long-term care facilities where potential clients are lured claims that the program can “reduce and even reverse symptoms of dementia” while warned that people who discontinue participation are likely to see dementia symptoms “return and increase.” If the program spreads, profits will too, especially when the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may triple by 2050.

I like inspiring documentaries as well as the next person. I know keeping the brain active with new challenges is important throughout life. I just don’t appreciate promises wrapped up in hype when we’re talking about something as cruel and unrelenting as Alzheimer’s disease.


Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Another Treasure From Mary Roach

Photo: W.W. Norton & Company
Photo: W.W. Norton & Company

I cannot express to you how excited I was to find out there was a new Mary Roach book on the bookstore shelves. I devoured her other books and couldn’t wait to dive into this one. Or maybe I should say I couldn’t wait to bite into this one. This entertaining science writer’s newest work is called Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Yes, it’s just what it sounds like, in 327 pages or less Ms. Roach walks us through the process that begins when we put food in our mouths and ends when it…umm…comes out the other end.

But don’t for a second think this is a medical text book. If you’ve ever read any of Mary Roach’s other books you’ll know that she can take the most delicate subjects and make them entertaining, interesting, and even fascinating. In Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she dared to answer the question we’d all been wondering – can a dead man get an erection?

In one of my personal favorites, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she shares fascinating stories of what happens after you’ve exhaled your last breath. And surprisingly it’s interesting, not scary or nightmare inducing. After finishing this book you’ll come to realize, “Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, puss and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” A quote by the amazing Mary Roach herself.

Photo: David Paul Morris
Photo: David Paul Morris

If you want to walk around quoting intriguing facts about the space program to friends and co-workers, immediately dive into Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

And if the idea of ghosts fascinates or confuses you, it’s time you crack open Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee this book won’t give you nightmares. But it will make you re-think that bump you keep hearing in the night (although if it’s a repetitive bump, on the other side of your apartment bedroom wall, you might go back and re-read “Bonk”…).

But back to Gulp. Like Mary Roach’s other books, don’t think you’ll be able to just read snippets of this book. Be ready to dive in. Take it on a long flight. Tuck it in your beach bag. Dig it out after the kids have finally fallen asleep (instead of turning on the boob tube) and get tucked into your favorite reading chair. I read my copy almost straight through, as we travelled the long highway through Kansas on spring break, using a bookmark only a few times when gas station stops were necessary. Stops that I understood so much better after reading the parts about the bottom end of the digestive process.

Mary Roach loves to explain to us how the world around us (and the biology inside of us) works. I dare you to not pay attention to the way you chew your food after learning what a complex process it takes to get food from your tongue to your stomach, just a dozen inches away. And here’s the secret spoiler: this book gives a pretty solid theory on the real reason Elvis Presley died. That’s all I’m going to tell you for now. Go get a copy and dive in.

Not only is Mary Roach a talented writer, she’s a fun person to interview. Read this post, from 2 years ago, when I asked Ms. Roach a few questions and was delighted with her replies. Don’t miss the part where she gives us a veiled teaser for Gulp, a book she was researching at the time.

Then watch this clip of an interview she did with Jon Stewart, just a few weeks ago. As always, she come across engaging, light hearted, and full of fun (gross) facts about our bodies and the world around us.

Geeky States of America: Ashfall Fossil Beds & Fossil Vacations, Royal, Nebraska

Inside the Hubbard Rhino Barn, where Nebraska state paleontologists and state university paleontology students are ever-so-slowly uncovering remains of animals who were doused with ash during a volcanic "storm" over 12 million years ago. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Inside the Hubbard Rhino Barn, where Nebraska state paleontologists and state university paleonteology students are ever-so-slowly uncovering remains of animals who were instantly suffocated by over 2 meters of ash during a volcanic “storm” over 12 million years ago. You can see what’s been already uncovered in the foreground. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I absolutely HAVE to share this awesome place with the world, not only because it was one of the most daring road trips I had ever taken with my sons, but because it opened my eyes to a slice of America that I didn’t know existed. I had a friend and her three sons with me also, and I don’t think I would have done this trip otherwise.

The Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park isn’t necessarily near anything. We endured a 360-mile round trip in one day — six hours worth of driving to and from our then-home in Bellevue, Nebraska — for about two hours of exploration in a very rural part of northeastern Nebraska.

We had learned about the Ashfall Fossil Beds from a trip to Morrill Hall, the Nebraska state natural history museum in Lincoln, which I wrote about late last year in my post about state museums.

Why is it called “Ashfall”?

Once upon a time, over 12 million years ago, a volcanic eruption at the Bruneau-Jarbridge Caldera near what is now Yellowstone National Park cast a massive cloud of ash eastward over a very large area that included land that now takes up the entire state of Nebraska. Up to 2 meters-deep worth of ash descended very quickly over the existing prairie suffocating all life in its path. You may have heard of other smaller ashfalls, such as Mount St. Helen’s in 1980.

Then, 2.4 million years ago, a glacier coming down from the northeast pushed much of the soft sediment westward as far as near the Ashfall area…before retreating. So what you end up with is a “pile” of fossils near Ashfall. This makes this a gold mine in the world of paleontology.

These graphics should help explain what I'm talking about in the below paragraph. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
These graphics should help explain what I’m talking about in the above paragraph. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park includes a visitor’s center with educational exhibits and hands-on activities perfect for kids.

Our kids were engrossed in the hands-on activities at the visitor's center. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Our kids were engrossed in the hands-on activities at the visitor’s center. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The replica fossil-dig area was delightful for kids. A chance to get messy!
The replica fossil-dig area was delightful for kids. A chance to get messy! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

After the visitor’s center, guests are encouraged to visit the Hubbard Rhino Barn. This was so incredibly cool. In 1971, a baby rhinoceros skull was found in a field on the property. Continued exploration revealed that there was a whole field of rhino skeletons nearby. Read more in the photo below.

The story of the initial discovery in 1971 of the field of rhinoceros on the property. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
The story of the initial discovery in 1971 of the field of rhinoceros on the property. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

The Hubbard Rhino Barn was completed in June 2009, and its intent was to enclose a large dig area so it could be explored year-round. We were told that work on the enclosed area would take over 30 years, so don’t worry, there will be plenty to see for years to come.

This is the Hubbard Rhino Barn. State paleontologists work daily to gently uncover evidence of the animal life destroyed by the volcanic eruption. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is the Hubbard Rhino Barn. State paleontologists work daily to gently uncover evidence of the animal life destroyed by the volcanic eruption. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is an example of what visitors can see in the barn. These are all rhinoceros skeletons. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is an example of what visitors can see in the barn. These are all rhinoceros skeletons. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is Greg Brown, chief preparator for the vertebrate paleontology department at the University of Nebraska State Museum, with a student. The student would take him questions from the guests. At the time he was working on a dense patch of sand with a hammer and chisel. One of our kids asked him how he knew that it was all ash and not bones and his answer was "Experience and luck". Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is Greg Brown, chief preparator for the vertebrate paleontology department at the University of Nebraska State Museum, with a student. The student would serve as a runner, taking him questions from the guests while he was working. At the time he was working on a dense patch of sand with a hammer and chisel. One of our kids asked him how he knew that it was all ash and not bones and his answer was “Experience and luck”. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Did the kids enjoy it? I think my sons and my friend’s youngest son weren’t as excited about the artifacts as my friend’s oldest two sons, who were around 11 and 16 years old at the time. The older two had many questions for the scientists and thoroughly explored the hands-on activities at the Visitor’s Center. I’d recommend this trip for ages 10 and up, although younger fossil fans could enjoy it too.

An observation I made: the parking lot was quite full, considering we were in a remote location. Upon chatting with other guests at the park, my friend and I learned that we were among several families who were on “fossil vacation”. One of the families had driven from southern California, in fact!

How fascinating! I learned there was a “Fossil Freeway” that runs north-south between Rapid City, South Dakota and Kimball, Nebraska, dotted with paleontology-related attractions. Mammoth Site at Hot Springs, South Dakota and Scottsbluff National Monument in Nebraska are two of the more popular attractions. The trip to Ashfall is a little bit out of the way on U.S. Highway 20, but I think it’s worth it!

Have you ever taken a fossil vacation? If so, where did you go? If no, do you think it’s something you’d like to do one day? 

Babies Learn Food Preferences Before Birth

Do unborn babies taste junkfood? (Image: morguefile)

The flavors of food a woman eats while pregnant are present in amniotic fluid and swallowed by the fetus. Later, if she breastfeeds, her baby will taste the foods she prefers via her milk. This may be how cultural food norms are passed along well before a child ever eats solid food.

This was demonstrated in research published in Pediatrics over a decade ago. Filmmakers working on the documentary Carb-Loaded ask, what about today’s diets? Are babies learning to prefer soda, fries, and burgers?

Can unborn babies taste junkfood? 

Help Send a Girl to STEM Summer Camp

Girlstart Summer Camp © Girlstart
2011 Girlstart Summer Camp Attendees © Girlstart

Girlstart is a non-profit organization in Austin, Texas that holds STEM-themed summer camps every year for girls in grades 4-8. According to the Girlstart web site, students are in camp for eight hours a day for “individualized experiences that develop a strong conceptual understanding of STEM subjects and increase participants’ interest in STEM activities and careers.”

Girlstart’s camps this summer last for one week and covers topics like marine biology, engineering, investigation, and more.

The non-profit organization is currently raising funds to help send girls in the Central Texas area to camp, so that they have the opportunity to learn more about science, technology, math, and engineering in a fun, supportive environment. Girlstart is asking for help to provide 100 scholarships to girls in need of financial assistance.

Consider supporting a girl’s scholarship for a weeklong STEM camp this summer! Girlstart’s fundraising drive ends May 31.