Bring Back Obsolete Words

influence word choice, bring back obsolete words,
No blood, just vocabulary. (CCO public domain wilhei)

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have given informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

My son worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort of person who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed on one habit: avid reading.

My son used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results were in. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.

Purpose.

You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary, while at the same time smiling on the inside.)

Hypothesis.

Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Basically, you get people to say funny words.

Materials.

1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, or friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,” and “tarnation.”)

Method.

This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly, but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you may choose to insist it is back in style. Or you may use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging the Human Experimentation of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance our world as we know it.

Observation.

See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.

Conclusion.

Have you gotten subjects to say funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind. BTW, my son’s co-workers were all using the word “dagnabbit” within the month. Oh yeah, humans are easy prey for experimentation. I’ve read enough dystopian novels to warn you: don’t take this knowledge too far…

Experiment With Fun With the Spangler Science Club

All Photos: Kelly Knox
All Photos: Kelly Knox

If there’s anyone who knows how to make science exciting, it’s Steve Spangler. Have you seen this guy launch hundreds of film canisters on Ellen? Steve brings that same enthusiasm and love of science to the new Spangler Science Club subscription kits, which deliver kid-friendly experiments to your doorstep every month. While the kits aren’t inexpensive, the high-quality tools, detailed instructions, and overall sense of science-y fun are well worth it if you’re looking to foster a love of science.

The monthly subscription kit is packed with just about everything kids in grades K-6 need to run a series of experiments. And I mean just about everything—we only had to supply the water for the experiments in the first kit. I was particularly impressed with the test tubes in the box, which aren’t your run-of-the-mill science equipment, but instead come from a surprising source. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say the tubes are sturdy and perfectly suited for kids’ hands.

Spangler Science Club
All Photos: Kelly Knox

The box includes two sets of instructions for running the experiments. One set, the “Top Secret” info for parents, includes the how and the why behind the science experiments. When we do experiments as a family, I always appreciate having info handy so I don’t have to go scrambling to Google to find the details behind what we’re observing. The text also puts the science in terms that kids (and grownups) can understand, so parents can explain concepts like osmosis and chemical reactions and sound like we actually know what we’re talking about.

The kids’ step-by-step walkthroughs not only include clear color photos and concise instructions, but also writing prompts to get kids thinking like scientists. Questions ask kids to predict what might happen and form their own hypothesis.

Spangler Science Club
All Photos: Kelly Knox

All instructions are laced with a sense of humor and enthusiasm, which shows kids that science isn’t all serious business—it’s actually fun to explore the world around us.

Experiments are designed to be done together with parents, along with some activities for the kids to spend some time on their own exploring the concepts. In the first kit, that meant my kindergartener had some hands-on time with color mixing by herself, taking the time to really make the experiment her own.

Spangler Science Club
All Photos: Kelly Knox

Every parent wants to share discoveries and encourage a love of science in their kids, but it requires a bit of an investment for a high-quality educational kit like the Spangler Science Club. Subscription costs range from $24.99-$29.99 a month, depending on the subscription plan. While you may balk at the price, it seems to be a fair cost for everything you receive each month, which includes the equipment, instructions, and shipping. There are also enough components in the box to run the experiments more than once or let siblings get in on the science action together.

If you have room in your budget and it’s important to you to encourage a love of science in your kids, Spangler Science Club is an incredible opportunity to turn science into fun family time every month.

GeekMom received a promotional kit for review purposes.

Summer Science Fun: Help the Bees!

Save_the_Bees_by_happychild
Image By kirstenbonafield.net

Any science experiment can be fun and educational, but what if you could also be participating in a real study to help our world? I believe science comes alive when you don’t know the outcome, when you are part of a community, and when your effort really makes a difference. For those who live in North America, your family can be part of the Bumble Bee Watch.

We need bees to pollinate our world, but their populations are in decline. At the moment, scientists don’t have enough data and need your help! All you need is a camera and the internet. From the Bumble Bee Watch website:

This citizen science project allows for individuals to:

  • Upload photos of bumble bees to start a virtual bumble bee collection;
  • Identify the bumble bees in your photos and have your identifications verified by experts;
  • Help researchers determine the status and conservation needs of bumble bees;
  • Help locate rare or endangered populations of bumble bees;
  • Learn about bumble bees, their ecology, and ongoing conservation efforts; and
  • Connect with other citizen scientists.

This is a great summer project the whole family can participate in, and is good for all ages. Sign up and make science come alive!

Summer Science Fun: Do Leaves Breathe?

All Photos: Kelly Knox
All Photos: Kelly Knox

Sunshine, water, and leaves are not only the perfect ingredients for a summer day, but also almost all you need to demonstrate simple plant biology basics. These experiments start with one little question to ask your preschooler or kindergartener: “Do you think plants breathe?”

Bubbly Leaves

Grab a glass jar with a lid from the kitchen, fill it with water, and head outside on a sunny day. After your child selects a large leaf from a plant or tree nearby (which by itself had my five-year-old occupied for a while), drop it into the jar and close it. Place the jar in a sunny spot. After an hour, ask your child to look in the jar and report what they see inside.

Bubbles!

As oxygen is released by the leaf in the sun, many tiny bubbles form to show photosynthesis in action. While your kids are likely a little too young to understand much about the process, you can explain that it’s how plants turn sunshine into food and release oxygen for us to breathe. For more help talking—or singing—about photosynthesis, just ask They Might Be Giants.

Older kids might enjoy learning more about the science behind the experiment, or trying variations. What if the jar is left in the shade? What if you use a brown leaf in the autumn?

Original experiment found in Earth Science Experiments by Louis V. Loeschnig.

Capturing Leaf “Breath”

Leaf Breath

Not only do plants produce oxygen, your child might be surprised to learn they release tiny drops of water as well. While you’re waiting to go back and check on the jar of water, get a plastic sandwich bag and a rubber band or tape. Send your little leaf scout back out to find a small branch or clump of leaves.

Gently place the bag over the leaves and seal it with the rubber band or tape. After a couple of hours, check on the bag and see what’s inside. Your child will discover droplets of water captured by the bag. Plant “breath” has water much like our breath fogs up a window or mirror.

Want more know-how on the process? Read up on transpiration and be prepared for your preschooler’s persistent questions.

Seed Science

IMG_4298
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)?

FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman Returns in New Book Series

© Candlewick Press

The long-running PBS Kids series FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman has been off the air for a few years now, much to the dismay of wannabe Fetchers everywhere. Geek kids found a lot to love in the one-of-a-kind show. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, Ruff Ruffman was the animated canine host of his own game show that was part cartoon and part reality. The real-life kid contestants, called Fetchers, participated in challenges that often involved scientific processes and creative problem solving.

My daughter is a fan of FETCH! thanks to the PBS Kids app and reruns on our local PBS channel, so she was ecstatic to hear that Ruff Ruffman would be making a return this year–in the pages of new books from Candlewick Press.

FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman: Doggie Duties and FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman: Show’s Over feature the show’s lovable characters Ruff, Blossom, and Chet in adventures that are simultaneously entertaining and educational. Both books are early reader chapter books aimed at kids age 6-9.

At the end of each book, kids will find science activities related to the story. Show’s Over features a study of buoyancy well-suited to my 4-year-old; she enjoyed crafting aluminum foil boats in different shapes to see what floats best. (Luckily, the book does provide some scientific explanation for what we were seeing in our experiment, unlike my  previous failure explaining buoyancy.) In Doggie Duties, kids and parents can create a detailed water filtration system out of many items found around the house.

fetch-experiment
Photo: Kelly Knox

As excited as we were to see Ruff Ruffman in action again, it was disappointing to discover that the books are re-tellings of existing FETCH! episodes (minus the contestant challenges). Hopefully if the series sees a revival in book form, original stories and experiments with my daughter’s favorite dog-and-game-show-host will one day follow.

Doggies Duties is available today in paperback and hardback; Show’s Over makes its debut in April.

GeekMom received promotional copies for review purposes.

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.

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.

waterfun_surfacetension
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.

waterfun_chromatography
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!

Fail.

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.

Nothing.

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?

Hands-Free Is Just As Bad! Distracted While Driving

AAAAAAH! Teenagers driving! Image by Rebecca Angel

“People often don’t readily accept science that angers or inconveniences them.”

That is a quote from sociologist Clifford Nass of Stanford University in the August 24th issue of Science News that featured a story on why science is constantly showing that talking on a phone (texting, holding, or hands-free) while driving is dangerous, and why the average person doesn’t want to hear it.  As a parent of a kid learning how to drive this is troubling to me.

According to the article, studies as early as 1997 have shown that we CAN’T multi-task, and this includes having a conversation with a disembodied voice, and paying attention to our own driving. The human brain toggles back and forth between things, and for some reason, having a phone conversation takes a lot of our brain’s attention, regardless if the phone is in your hand or not. Some researchers believe we make a mental picture of the person on the phone, constantly altering this picture as they talk, to recreate a real-life interaction. This takes away from our being fully present as a driver. Talking with someone in the car does not pose the same distraction.

The worst part is that people don’t notice how badly they are driving.

According to the data, people will do stupid things on the road while talking on the phone, but not even notice it. This is called “metacognitive awareness.” They get home and think they were driving just fine, so why change? The only wake-up call is when an accident happens and then it’s too late. Most driving trips are boring and uneventful so people fail to understand how they are upping their risk of hurting themselves and others while talking on the phone.

“Jeffrey Coben, an emergency room physician at West Virginia University in Morgantown, has seen the results of plenty of car accidents. He says injuries seldem occur because of chance events, such as equipment failure or lightning strikes. ‘Vehicle injuries are not accidents. They are predictable and preventable,’ he says. ‘Every crash is an interaction between an individual operation of the vehicle and the environment it’s in.’ The more distractions involved, he says, the greater the risk.”

The article is filled with interesting and eye-opening studies showing how poorly people are attentive while distracted by talking on the phone. My kid can’t even have the radio on while keeping track of everything she needs to on the road. Will she get more comfortable driving to start having more and more distractions in the car? Of course. But she better never talk on the phone. I made her read this article, and you should have your kids do the same. And you too!

Bubble Science: Making the Most of Your Suds

Bubbles
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.

Bubbles
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.

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.

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.

Materials:
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

Photography Snapshot: Light Bends and Focuses

From Hubblesite.org. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

In my previous Photography Snapshot, I discussed the importance of light and how it bounces to create images. We discovered that the most primitive form of photography was the camera obscura, which works by excluding all light rays that don’t create an image. While this method does create an image, that image is usually very dim because so few light rays create the image. In this Snapshot we will discuss the difference between reflection and refraction, how a lens focuses light and how a lens’ focal length will impact an image.

A pencil looks bent, because the light bouncing off the part in the water is moving slower than the part through the air.

Light is a form of energy, and while it can bounce and be conserved, it can also bend by being slowed down. I bet you are thinking to yourself, “But light travels at a constant speed!” Light only travels at a constant speed in the perfect vacuum of space where it doesn’t encounter any opposing forces. You can slow light down by having it pass through materials like air or water. According to Snell’s Law, the degree of refraction depends on the ratio of the two materials’ different refractive indices. Most materials have a refractive index greater than one, which means that as light enters the material from air, the angle of the ray in the material will be more nearly “normal” (perpendicular) to the surface than it was before it entered.

Give it a shot: shine a flashlight through a jar of water. Does the beam look straight? Put a pencil in a dish of water; it looks like it bends where the water and air meet.

Continue reading Photography Snapshot: Light Bends and Focuses

Review:The Geek Dad Book For Aspiring Mad Scientists by Ken Denmead

I don’t think there’s anyone out there that hasn’t imagined themselves a mad scientist at least once. For me, it was every time they made me wear those crazy goggles in science class while I waited for something to bubble over or change color or let out noxious fumes. I couldn’t help but hear an evil little laugh in my head. Muah ha ha ha! Okay, not everyone heard the laugh, but now everyone does have the chance to go all mad scientist and laugh out loud right along with their kids.

The latest in the Geek Dad books, The Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists: The Coolest Experiments and Projects for Science Fairs and Family Fun hits shelves on November 1st and is now available for pre-order. I was fortunate to receive an early copy to check out, and now I’ve got a very long list of experiments my kids have planned for every weekend through next year.

Much like the previous Geek Dad books by Ken Denmead, publisher of GeekDad.com and GeekMom.com, this one will inspire you and your kids to try new things as you explore and learn. And although it’s a GeekDad book, you’ll find plenty of projects based on ideas from our very own GeekMom editors Kathy Ceceri, Natania Barron and Jenny Williams, so don’t think it’s exclusively for the dads of the world. The projects are rated for cost, difficulty and duration so you know exactly what you’re in for before you start. It’s especially helpful to look at the duration, as although some of the projects can be completed in an hour, like Exploring Fluid Dynamics: The Magic of Mentos and Soda, others can take weeks like Growing Crystals For Power.

There is a range of difficulties covering primary school kids right on up through high school, which makes this ideal fodder for science fair projects. Although the ideas and the how-to are all laid out, the book never loses sight of the fact that science fair projects are supposed to leave kids guessing, at least a little, right until the end.  To help parents with this, there are even handy spoiler warnings where appropriate, pointing out key bits of information that you should hold back from your kids so they learn to discover the answers for themselves.

I think one of the things that I like best about the book is that it isn’t a dry instruction manual.  It’s not just, here’s a project, here’s how you do it, move along.  It actually reads more like a mad scientist’s handbook.  The very first project, Extracting Your Own DNA, is written with an eye toward creating loyal minions to help in your plans for world domination.  Really, who hasn’t wished they could do that, and what kid wouldn’t jump at the chance to see how it might be possible?

And perhaps my favorite section, which I intend to make my kids study, highlight, and study again, contains experiments under the heading Apocalypse Survival Science.  Once we’ve started messing with DNA and creating our own clones, you know the zombie outbreak is just around the corner, and this group of projects nicely addresses that problem.  You and your kids will learn how to save the world together!

Whether you’re looking to inspire a love of science in your young child, or to encourage an older child to hold on to their curiosity about how things work, this book is sure to give you ideas galore and hours of fun and educational entertainment. You can pre-order your copy now at Amazon, B&N, Indiebound, Powell’s, Books-a-Million or iTunes.

One Non-Techie’s Adventures in Digital Microscopy

istock Photo

One Christmas, in a moment of perfect parental insight, my mother got me a Madame Alexander doll, a copy of The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and a microscope. I know—it sounds like one of those standardized test questions: Which of these three is not the same—but there you go. It was a perfect Christmas. And while I ended up becoming both a mother and an avid reader (and writer!) I did not follow the trail of the microscope into the science field.

I blame it on the microscope itself, frankly. It was hard to use. Especially for seven year old hands. You had to get the light just right, and tilt the mirror at precisely the correct angle. Then there was the slide preparation! Holy cow! The super thin slide covers broke so easily. Okay, so part of it may have been my fault in that I’m not the most manually dexterous of people, but still…

So imagine my surprise—and delight—when passing my husband’s desk a few weeks ago and seeing a huge picture of some metal scoring on his computer screen—and it was moving! Lo and behold, he was looking at it through an instrument he held in his hand: a digital microscope. Dear Reader, I was hooked. And my husband, being the saint that he is, gave it over to me for the next few weeks.

The digital microscope he’d purchased was made by Celestron and he found it on Amazon for $60. As he said, “How could I NOT buy it?” [Note: Which explains an awful lot about our family budget, come to think of it.] The Celestron 44302 is a handheld digital microscope that comes with 10x, 40x, & 150x digital magnification power. It connects via USB 2.0 cable and comes equipped with an LED illuminator and digital camera for snapshots and video. It also claims to be compatible with both PCs and Macs.

When I had first seen it, it was plugged into my husband’s PC laptop and worked beautifully. The next trick was to get it to work on my iMac. And while it is true that the microscope is PC and Mac compatible, it does not come with software for Macs. Mac users are on their own with whatever video chat and/or imaging software they have on hand.For my first attempts, I used the video preview function on iChat and was not impressed. Here are three pictures I took and you can see the poor quality.

I was irked, but before giving up I read through the Amazon reviews and found this link to the highly satisfactory ImageJ software, public domain imaging software available from the NIH. Once I had that installed, I was ready to try again—this time with great success.

Now that I had the software figured out, I got to work. Luckily, while my kids are older now, we still have a number of scientific treasures around the house from when they were more active specimen collectors.

You’ll notice that a number of the things you can look at with a digital microscope wouldn’t work under the older microscopes. That’s because the specimen doesn’t have to be translucent. In fact, that is one of this digital microscope’s huge pros: it acts as more of a hyper-magnifier and can therefore be used on all sorts of things.

Which, sadly, brings me to one of its cons: I would have to say that this particular microscope did fairly poorly at its higher magnification power. After working with it for hours, these were the highest magnifications I could achieve, and those were highly awkward and wobbly. (Yes, that’s a technical term. ) You had to mush the specimen up close to the lens and wiggle it around, hoping some part of it would come into focus. But there is a plastic ring/protector thing around the lens so that many times you couldn’t get the specimen close enough to take advantage of the higher magnifications. Here are some side by side comparisons of the larger magnifications we tried to get.

I could never get a satisfactory close up of this rock. The microscope would focus (more or less) on one spot and magnify that, but not very satisfyingly.

This higher magnification on the whale bone was a little more acceptable, although you were still at the whims of what piece of the specimen fit inside the plastic guard ring.

Another drawback was that you weren’t able to know precisely which magnification level you were using. Here is a picture of the reptile jaw next to a ball point pen for comparison, and then at a higher magnification of where the teeth met the jaw.

The snakeskin was probably one the more satisfying close ups, but the magnification wasn’t THAT much better at the higher setting. And I’m not convinced ANY of them came close to the 150X magnification that was reported with the instrument.

The good news is, there are lots of other microscopes out there—most cost more—but that will have a more sophisticated ability to utilize these higher magnifications.  A couple of other GeekMoms have digital microscopes and have been very happy with them. Jenny Williams also has a Celestron but, the Deluxe LCD versionKathy Ceceri was written up by the NYT for her adventures with digital microscopes, You can read more about her thoughts on her Digital Blue QX5 Digital Microscope here.

In case you’re scratching your head, wondering what, exactly, you could do with such a techno-gadget, here are some ideas for things to look at with a digital microscope:

salt crystals, piece of ice
teeth: puppy, kitten, or human
cross section of celery stalk, also slices of apple, potato other foods with interesting textures
cross section of celery stalk that has soaked up some food color
cocoon, larvae, or pupa
tadpole
rocks: obsidian vs sandstone, quartz
variety of soil samples
electronic circuits, print cartridge head, old hard drive, something that has been inkjet printed
fungi: underside of mushrooms, mold on bread or cheese
rolly bug, moth eggs, section of cobweb
peeling skin or a scab
variety of seeds
the parts of a plant: stamen, pistol, pollen

And lest that not convince you, here are Six Practical Uses for a Digital Microscope

  1. Check to see if you have split ends.
  2. Check to see if that brown spot is a freckle, age spot, or possible carcinoma. (This generated two doctors visits in my household.)
  3. Find and remove a teeny tiny splinter.
  4. Check to see if that’s a piece of lint in your child’s hair or a nit.
  5. See how a cut is healing. (This is especially fun as you can take pictures so the child can see a comparative sequence.)
  6. Check if that is a piece of corn grit or moth larvae in the old box of corn meal in the pantry.

Overall, I’d highly recommend a digital microscope to any household, especially one with kids. I’m sure you (and they!) will dream up all sorts of adventures in microscopy!

Get Physics Now!

Web Superstar Professor Walter Lewin

I didn’t get physics in high school. All I remember was Mr. Cleaves rubbing a wand and the rude comments the demonstration sparked (no pun intended). But I loved calculus and photography. Now I know why. It ‘s always the teacher. Finally, I get physics and it’s all because of Walter Lewin, Professor of Physics, Emeritus at MIT.

It seems I’m not the only one. A note to Professor Lewin from a florist was reprinted in The New York Times:

“I walk with a new spring in my step and I look at life through physics-colored eyes,” wrote 62-year old Steve Boigon. “Thank you with all my heart.”

I’ve been watching Course 8.01 Physics I: Classical Mechanics. Lectures for wider audiences are also available. Check out the “Wonders of Electricity and Magnetism” Lewin gave at the MIT Museum for the Family Adventures in Science and Technology Program.

I promise, you will fall in love with Professor Lewin. If you don’t, you’re not a geek.

50 Ways To Express Your Geek Mom-ness

Wikimedia Commons image by Zygmunt Kubasiak
  1. Find obscure ways to curse without raising potty-mouthed kids.
  2. Indulge in interests not widely shared by the general population such as ukuleles, grammar, toilets, or hula hoops.
  3. Apply the Bechdel test to the movies your kids watch.
  4. Watch sex videos (of animal mating). Avoid the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude about teen sex. And make sex education an ongoing dialogue with your kids.
  5. Ensure the name you bestow on your new baby isn’t remotely popular or ever likely to be.
  6. Recognize that you’re a Renaissance soul.
  7. Muse about the way you reflect your identity through the screen names you choose, the glasses you wear, and the fashion trends you avoid.
  8. Geek out for guys like xkcd creator Randall Munroe and Lego sculptor Nathan Sawaya.
  9. Apply the scientific method at the grocery store.
  10. Recognize that female involvement boosts the collective IQ of a group.
  11. Determine your primate mothering style.
  12. Enthuse about your daughter’s geeklet cred. Embrace signs of your partner’s geek interests.
  13. Encourage your kids to take considered risks.
  14. Advance your kids’ scientific comprehension. Identify “alien” species in your neighborhood as well as learn about the science of Star Trek.
  15. Get your kids to predict the future.
  16. Make personalized baby blocks, plastic bag crafts, and unique cross stitch.
  17. Teach critical thinking over a holiday meal.
  18. Subversively advance geographical knowledge using a wall map.
  19. Write music from an alternative point-of-view.
  20. Assert your authority over technology with unplugged Fridays and In Real Life lessons. Or avoid broadcast TV entirely.
  21. Keep your kids apprised of online safety.
  22. Experiment with pennies, leaves, and candy.
  23. Hack some standard recipes. Make beet dip, okra chips, cranberry orange mustard, apple pizza, pesto deviled eggs, or chard popsicles.
  24. Encourage your child’s natural storytelling abilities.
  25. Identify your favorite DC heroines as well as media-inspired girl-power characters.
  26. Update the old “it’ll ruin your eyesight” excuse to get your kids outside.
  27. Know stinkbugs in order to fight stinkbugs and know bedbugs in order to fight bedbugs.
  28. Encourage your offspring to enjoy the pleasures of science-y teamwork with First Lego League, Odyssey of the Mind, and Destination Imagination.
  29. Teach kids knitting and clapping games to advance brainpower.
  30. Get comfortable with who you are and speak up to let others know it gets better.
  31. Find music videos re-mixed for fresh history and science lessons. Or just enjoy what you’ll learn by scrolling through YouTube with your kids.
  32. Make smart vacation plans and get smarter while you’re there.
  33. Play games like Warhammer Fantasy.
  34. Enjoy music, whether comedic or space-inspired.
  35. Improve education at home and school.
  36. Make critical distinctions about copyright usage.
  37. Embrace such strange foods that your kids are inspired to cook just so they can eat “normal” meals.
  38. Make informed choices about cloth diapers, baby sign language, organic produce, and junk food.
  39. Give your opinion about why Bella is a poor role model for girls and still encourage your daughter to enjoy Twilight for her own reasons.
  40. Be savvy about definitions of intelligence.
  41. Promote your kids’ reading skills using picture books and sci fi.
  42. Give geek romance advice.
  43. Explain topology by braiding challah, explore geometry using paper plates, and make bagel cutting into a math challenge.
  44. Read banned books.
  45. Make cake more fascinating. Try Magrathea cake, Keroppi cupcakes, Lego cake, and cake in a mug.
  46. Tour a brain.
  47. Recognize generational differences such as phone use, travel concerns, and even crafting.
  48. Give out-of-the-ordinary presents such as experience, local donations, buy-one-give-one gifts, and non-profit gifts.
  49. Accept Lego bricks as household necessities.
  50. Realize there’s no limiting the many ways you express your Geek Mom-ness.

Transform Your Mind Through New Eyes

Photo by Alexandra Siy

Looking for something larger than life that will thrill the entire family this holiday? A tool that is a gateway for magnifying thought, an inspirational device used by poet laureates and Ivy League professors, preschoolers and Ph.D.s, not to mention geek Grinches and Whos?

It fits in the palm of your hand, but has infinite power in its ability to engage. (And it doesn’t have an on-off switch.) It’s a loupe, pronounced LOOP, and it will never cease to amaze you as long as you’re willing to look.

A 5X magnifying loupe and a series of simple questions are at the heart of the The Private Eye Project–a hands-on program that helps develop the essential habits of mind used by successful scientists, writers, artists, inventors, and mathematicians.

Children's drawings of fingerprints made into fine art.

I discovered The Private Eye several years ago when I was researching and writing my first books illustrated with electron micrographs. It was thrilling to discover hidden worlds literally at my fingertips (check out the FingerPrint Galleries) without an expensive or complicated microscope. Now, when I visit schools and libraries to introduce the microscopic world through my books, I often hand each kid a loupe. My classroom set has travelled all over the country, and countless kids have begged to keep a loupe for their very own. So, rather than give mine away, I say get one (or two—they’re stackable) of your own.

The World-in-a-Bag is a fabulous gift for all ages. It contains two loupes, seven specimens (natural, such as a starfish leg and a sea urchin, as well as synthetic samples such as orange mesh), and a colorful 14-page spiral bound booklet that outlines the five steps of “looking and thinking by analogy.”

Once you (or your little geek) start looking you won’t be able to stop. That’s when the Collect-it-Yourself Museum comes in handy. This very cool kit contains six large magnifier boxes that can hold all kinds of specimens and treasures (think bugs, crystals, seeds, and Legos), along with a loupe-on-a-lanyard, and a microfiber loupe cleaning cloth.

If you really want to inspire your child, treat yourself, or impress your boss, give the Mini World-in-a-Box. This is a lovely collection of specimens that will please your eyes and excite your mind, especially during the dark days of winter when much of the natural world is asleep under a blanket of snow. I know I will be studying the treacherous slides on the steep sides of ash-gray volcanic mountains (a.k.a. barnacles) the next time writer’s block sets in.

Besides offering loupes and specimens, The Private Eye Project publishes a 200+ page guide by Kerry Ruef, creator and founder of the project, which is filled with activities that cover everything from science, to writing, to math, to multicultural studies. Colorful activity sheets designed for every grade level are great for homeschoolers and teachers who are looking to inject creativity into their lessons.

According to David Melody, Associate Director of the Private Eye Project, teachers and parents consistently report that their children develop creative and critical thinking skills and produce exceptional work while engaged in the Private Eye process. I’m not surprised—through personal experience I have found that the loupe has the power to break cliché thinking and transform my writing. What more could anyone want?

GeekMom Editor Talks Ticks and Triops with The Times

Kathy New York Times article
GeekMom editor Kathy Ceceri and sons talking tech in the New York Times

GeekMom Editor Kathy Ceceri recently shared some of her “home laboratory” adventures with a visiting reporter from the New York Times. The article, Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science, goes on to discuss USB microscopes, DNA extraction kits and infrared thermometers in greater detail, saying that they are just some of the gadgets families are using and owning as home laboratories become affordable.

How about you: Do you have a lab in your home? How simple or elaborate is your family’s set-up? What pieces of equipment do you use? Do you have a favorite activity or experiment that you’d like to share?

Science Fun With Thanksgiving Leftovers: Rubber Bones!

Photo by Flickr user Lydiat

What you’ll need

  • Bones–drumsticks and wishbones are perfect
  • A bowl or jar that has a lid and is large enough to hold the bones
  • Enough vinegar to cover the bones

What to do

  1. Make sure the bones are clean. No meat. Leave them out for a day or so to dry out.
  2. Put the bones in the bowl or jar and cover them with vinegar. Put the lid on.
  3. Wait three days. Eat some leftover turkey. Bake some gingerbread cookies in the shape of your favorite starships. For an extra challenge, make them to scale, crossing series and using Jeff Russell’s starship dimensions for reference. (Then send me pictures!)
  4. Take the bones out and rinse them off.

Presto–Rubber bones! You can even tie them in knots and leave them out to dry that way. If they’re not flexible enough yet, put them back in the vinegar for a few more days. Thick bones will take longer than thin ones. My daughter’s teacher tells me she’s even repeated the process, using the same bones many times with her classes.

What happened?

Bones are hard because of calcium. As a lot of us now-moms learned in the 80s, that’s why they tell us to drink milk. (It does a body good.) Vinegar is acidic. It dissolves the calcium and phosphorus in the bone, making it flexible enough to bend.

Static Season Has Returned

We’ve all done it. We’ve all earned the scathing look and the whine of discomfort because we just accidentally static shocked our child. You always feel just a little bad, unless of course you did it on purpose, in which case you are trying very hard not to smile. But in all things there is a teaching moment and shocking the hooey out of your child is no exception. It’s a great time to talk about static electricity. What is it, what causes it, and how you can prevent it? Most GeekMoms will likely already have Googled it after about the thousandth time they shocked themselves getting out of the car, but just as a very basic review, here goes.*

A student plays with Science Museum Oklahoma's Van De Graaf Generator at a local baseball game.

Static electricity is generated when surfaces are rubbed together transferring electrons from one surface to the other. As excess electrons build up an electric charge is created. Since electricity is always seeking to be grounded the first opportunity it gets to head to terra firma, it will take. Unfortunately for us, humans are terrific conductors of electricity and, thanks to gravity, are very often grounded. This means when you touch a surface that is teeming with too many electrons these charged molecules travel through your body to the ground. SNAP! You get a shock!

Static electricity is painful and annoying but not harmful in any real way. It makes your hair do dumb things on dry mornings and your laundry a sticky crackly pile of fabric if you forget the dryer sheet, but it can’t do any real damage. Static electricity is measured in voltage. Roughly defined this is how many of those rogue electrons move from Point A (charged surface) to Point B (you). Current, measured in amperage, is what is deadly. Think of it like a river. You can swim in the Mississippi River if you wanted to. (Especially if studying communicable diseases) The water, in theory, won’t hurt you. It’s just water. Now if you were to take all the water in the Mississippi River and force it through a garden hose, then the water would hurt you. A lot. The water itself is still water but now it is traveling at a much higher speed. The speed of the water is now dangerous, not the amount of water or even the water itself. Voltage measures the amount of electricity. Amperage measures the current or speed the electricity is traveling. When you get a static shock the electrons are lazily hopping from surface to you. Now if you were to stick a fork in an electrical outlet, those electrons are being violently and rapidly forced to that point. They would then be violently and rapidly forced through you. That would be bad.

The Tesla Coil at Science Museum Oklahoma generates over 20,000 volts of electricity.

Ever wonder why static seems to be a bigger problem during the winter? Its because the winter, for the most part, is less humid. Humidity, or high levels of water molecules in the air, diffuses the electrons much better. It also acts as a barrier between those surfaces rubbing together and less electrons are allowed to build up. But in the dry winter months, electrons get too friendly from time to time and you get a nice surprise.

The best way to avoid static electricity is to pick up your feet when walking but even this isn’t fool proof. Unless you are okay with walking around like a robot, even the friction from your clothing is capable of generating static electricity. The best way to avoid the melodramatic yelps of pain from your children is to remember to discharge yourself before picking up Junior. Yes, its painful but aren’t your kiddos worth it?

*Remember this explanation is broken down into the basics. There is more to static, electricity, voltage and amperage, but for the purposes of chatting with the kids this is simplified but accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Put Your Candy Leftovers to Good Use with Candy Experiments

A snapshot of the brilliant science experiments by Loralee Leavitt at CandyExperiments.com

If you’ve already followed Jennifer’s advice about dealing with your Halloween haul and you still have candy leftover, perhaps it’s time to donate that candy to science. Candy Experiments is a fabulous website full of fun, easy science experiments you can do with all sorts of leftover Halloween candy.

Did you know that you can detect the acidity of a candy by dissolving it in water and then adding baking soda? Watch what happens:

I’m eager to try these experiments, but there’s only one hurdle. As my science-loving 5-year-old put it, “I’m way more interested in eating my candy than I am in science.” Sigh.

(Found via Teach Mama, who actually got her kids to try it.)

Kari Byron, Mythbuster Mom: How Do You Get Kids Interested in Science?

KariCloseUp-e1308329695929GeekMom is thrilled to bring our readers another column by Kari Byron, the female face on the hit Discovery Channel show MythBusters and host of the Science Channel’s new Head Rush. Kari sends us regular updates on life as a MythBuster Mom.

Science is hot right now. Everywhere I travel parents are in a panic to get their kids interested in science. I guess one day, America woke up and realized our pipeline of home-grown engineers, scientists, and inventors was drying up.

Let’s face it: subjects like science and math have an unfortunate reputation for being boring and dry and, dare I say, even “nerdy.” Honestly, that is how I felt when I was 12. Science was so often taught as a list of facts to memorize: “List the components of a cell,” “What does H2O stand for?” “Who is the father of the theory of relativity?” Snore. I didn’t understand why science couldn’t be more like art class. So I can understand where kids are coming from today.

Another huge roadblock for students is the lack of role models in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (what the President calls the STEM initiative) in our media-driven world of glamour, fame, and money. Close your eyes and picture a scientist. Do you see an awkward nerdy man with bad posture, glasses and a lab coat? Who wants to be him when you are inundated with exciting visions of gorgeous movie stars and rich athletes?

Solutions aren’t easy. Parents ask me, “How do I get my kid into science?”

The good news is that if you are asking that question it probably means you are half way there. Being involved is an amazing start. A parent is the most important role model, regardless of what your eye-rolling tween says.

I like to teach science to kids like I teach art. Get their hands dirty. Engage their natural curiosity. Drop Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke and let it explode all over the backyard. Snap! That’s chemistry. Show them science isn’t just answers on an exam, but the world all around you. Take a nature walk with a camera. Bring home pictures of animals and find out what they eat, when they sleep. Snap! That’s biology. I also like to call it hiding the broccoli in the cheese sauce. Making science more hands-on creates a base of scientific literacy as well as quality time bonding. Your kids will be learning in spite of themselves. That look of wonder and discovery you see in their faces will become addictive -– for both of you.

That’s how MythBusters became a juggernaut of science engagement for kids. We weren’t trying to teach science, we were just having fun while using science as a tool. They see us having fun and join us on the journey.

There you have it, sage advice from a totally unqualified former art major who now loves science and uses it every day.