Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.

What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?

No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S. Continue reading Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

Keeping Teen Brains Safe

Image by Luke Maxwell

I have a disconcerting memory from when I was in my early twenties: I was reading an article in a magazine about how the adolescent brain is still changing and developing longer than most people realize. The article had an example which showed a photo of a woman. According to the article, adolescents saw anger while adults saw fear. I stared and stared at the photo but could not see fear instead of anger—even knowing what it was!

I was startled into realizing that no matter what stage of life I was in at the moment, my brain was not done yet. Was that a relief that any mistakes were the fault of not-full-adulthood? Or should I second guess all my decisions now? I decided not to worry about it, shrugged and put it out of my still-developing mind. Continue reading Keeping Teen Brains Safe

An Acrostic Poem In Honor of Ada Lovelace

I have to admit that when I first heard the name of Ada Lovelace, I had to look her up. When girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams, studied mathematics and became the world’s first computer programmer.

It’s awesome to see so many women who’ve made vast contributions to the world finally coming to light. And it’s even more awesome that my friend, Laurie Wallmark, got to tell her story in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

In honor of the book’s release, Laure composed an acrostic poem to Ada:

A proper Victorian gentlewoman,
Determined to become
A professional mathematician.

Lady Ada Lovelace,
Of noble birth, a
Excited by the marvels of the Industrial Age.
Lord Byron’s daughter,
Appreciator of technology, the world’s first
Computer programmer and an
Exceptional mathematician.

Of course I had to plague Laurie to pen an acrostic poem to describe her debut picture book.

Laurie  is one of my oldest friends in NJSCBWI (the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Our resident technical wizard, Laurie maintains the chapter website and builds the online forms that make registering for events and workshops so easy for our membership.

You can find out more about the book and Laurie at her website, or on Facebook and Twitter.

3 Picture Books Starring Girls Who Love Science

I’m always on the lookout for picture books with characters my daughter can really identify with. As she’s someone who has a big interest in science, I was on the hunt to find books featuring girls who also love science and experiments.

Here are three great picture book finds with science superstars who know how to have fun while learning about the scientific method and participating in the science fair. (Didn’t think that was possible, did you?) Continue reading 3 Picture Books Starring Girls Who Love Science

Change Movie Quotes With Science—The best tweets of #ScienceAMovieQuote

A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.
A little taste of #ScienceAMovieQuote. Screenshot by Ariane Coffin.

Sometimes the trending Twitter hashtags make lose my faith in humanity, and sometimes they make very happy. The latter happened last night when I found #ScienceAMovieQuote trending. That’s people turning famous movie quotes into geekier alternatives by replacing one word (or a few) with something more scientific.

Here’s my favorites thus far! (And yes, I included my own somewhere in there, because I’m cocky like that.)

Shopping for Cool Art

Image by Moss Fête

Not spending money at a Con is very hard to do—so many cool things! But I do take business cards and look through them at home to shop online later. Here are some talented artists I saw at ConnectiCon this year:

Image by Moss Fête

Moss Fête: This hat shop features exceptional felt creations. Just beautiful.


Image by Matt Becker

Matt Becker has a variety of art, but I was intrigued by The Disciplines. All are women of various body types, ethnicities, and ages depicting the sciences. Very cool. This is “Biology.”


Image by Skimlines

SkimLines: My son and I were very impressed with this young woman’s pottery. He loved her tea mugs, I loved her yarn bowls.


Image by Mink Works

Mink Works: My son loved her fox print, and I loved her soup print (adorable anthropomorphic food…if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am). But these martini-glass-monsters made me squeak with delight.

Next time you’re at a Con, be sure to check out these and other talented artists in our geeky world!

Fund ‘Science News’ for Schools

Image By Rebecca Angel

“…we will bridge the connection between everyday learning and the latest scientific discoveries, as reported in our award-winning Science News magazine, and inspire more young people to pursue careers in science.”

I am a huge proponent of science literacy, and a big fan of Science News magazine. As a family, we regularly discuss the amazing discoveries in each issue. As a teacher, I have used the magazine to foster students’ curiosity about their world. The Society for Science and the Public conducted a survey and found out that 95% of teachers polled wanted Science News in their classrooms. Of course they do!

A Kickstarter campaign has begun to bring the fantastic magazine and Teacher’s Guide to classrooms around the country. The Teacher’s Guide will help high school classrooms best utilize the information in the magazine. Jump in to promote science for all.

Summer Science Fun: Make Pink Tea!

Image by Rebecca Angel

Science experiments are fun when you can play with them, but they are more fun when you can eat them! Or, in this case, drink.

Litmus paper is used to show the pH scale in chemistry. Litmus is what chemists call an acid-base indicator. Although it’s great for science, do you have it handy in your home? Well, I don’t, and any extra step means I never get around to doing the science. For the busy (lazy) parents like me, we need a different acid-base indicator. And I love tea.

In a previous post, my daughter made me violet flower tea, which is blue but turned pink when lemon juice was added. She also gave a good explanation on how this happened. If you have some violets, it’s a simple recipe to try (and pretty! and tasty!).

How about regular tea? Tea (Camillia Sinensis) contains tannins, which can act as acid-base indicators with color: Acidic lemon juice and tea turn light yellow, alkaline baking soda and tea turn reddish-brown.

Kashimiri Tea, Pink Tea, or Noon Tea are all the same names for a distinct tea recipe from Kashmir, a region near the Himalayas in South Asia. (A quick geography lesson would be appropriate here too.) The tea turns pink! And you can drink it! Yummy science!

Pink Tea
5 cups water
1 tablespoon semi-fermented tea, such as oolong (some recipes use green tea, so use it if that’s what you have)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (traditional, but sugar can be substituted)
cream, half and half, or whole milk (Yak milk is often used, if you have it…)
cardamom seeds and star anise (optional)

1. In a sauce pan, combine a quart of water with the tea and baking soda. Let it come to a boil and then lower to medium heat for a half hour.
2. Turn off heat.
3. Add cold water.
4. Mix the tea by lifting a ladle filled with tea up about 8 inches and letting it pour back in the pan. A parent or older child should do this since it will splash. Repeat 10-20 times. This is the fun and messy part!
5. Add some cardamom and star anise.
6. Add salt (or sugar).
7. Let sit for a few minutes.
8. Strain the tea.
9. Pour in cream until the color is pink.
10. Drink up!

As you can see in my picture above, I didn’t get a super pink color, but since I really liked the flavor, I’ll be trying it again. Here is an explanation of tannins and color changes. Remember, if you have acidic water, it won’t work! What other acid-base indicators are in our kitchens? And did you like the tea?

Happy 25th Anniversary, Hubble!

Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA
Image Credit: Hubble25.org, NASA

Who remembers April 1990?

I was a junior in high school. “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor topped the Billboard 100, while the films Pretty Woman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were dominating the box office.

On April 24, 1990, the space shuttle Discovery lifted off carrying a remarkable piece of hardware: the Hubble Space Telescope, named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble. The day after liftoff, the telescope was placed into low earth orbit. By having this telescope outside of Earth’s atmosphere, brilliant images in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared spectra are possible.

Today we honor this invention’s 25th anniversary with commemorative events and celebrations of the amazing discoveries we’ve had based on the brilliant images it’s sent back to earth.

Image credit: NASA.gov
The Hubble Space Telescope is placed into low-earth orbit. Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about how there were problems with the first images. Within a few weeks the cause of the problem was identified: the blurriness was due to errors in mirror construction. What’s remarkable is that the error was on the order of just a few nanometers, yet it caused significant problems in the sharpness of the images.

It wasn’t until late 1993 that the first repair mission was launched, and a series of corrective components were installed during a record-breaking five-days worth of space walks.

The difference in image clarity was amazing!

Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov
Note the clarity in this image of Melnick-34 after the correction components were installed on the Hubble! Image credit: NASA.gov

I remember the news about the corrections: I was in college, having had made several friends in the Penn State Astronomy Club. My friends had access to the first of the images coming in. For those who are familiar with the Apollo 13 story, the spirit of innovation and critical thinking rose to the challenge in a similar manner. America as a whole was rooting for science!

Yesterday, in honor of the 25th anniversary, NASA and ESA released a gorgeous image of the Westerlund 2 star cluster. The image was deemed “celestial fireworks” in honor of the anniversary.

There are events scheduled throughout the year honor this great invention. To learn more, be sure to visit the telescope’s anniversary site, the official Hubble Space Telescope site, and the Hubble’s Flickr site to enjoy the best images.

Tea Science 101: Oxidation, Not Fermentation

Image By Lilianna Maxwell

While sitting inside the loveliest tea house I had ever been in, I read their tea guide which explained that the difference between green and black tea was fermentation.

“What? No!” I exclaimed loudly to my friends, who were trying to enjoy their beverages. “Regular black tea is oxidized, not fermented! How can a tea house get it wrong!” My friends shushed me and didn’t think it was a big deal. But I wrote a long explanation on a comment card when we left.

In another tea house bathroom, they had a wall display that also stated this fallacy. I took my pen and boldly crossed out “fermentation” and wrote “oxidation” in its place. There. At least the ladies would be informed of the truth in that establishment.

Green, black, white, oolong, and pu-ehr tea all come from the same plant: camellia sinesis. Yet the tastes are different depending on the growing location, harvesting techniques, and most importantly, how they are processed after picking.

Most teas are dried in different ways with different levels of oxidation happening. There are teas that undergo fermentation, like pu-erh. Who cares? I do. If a book, company, or shop is going to bother explaining the science behind their product, get it right!

So what is the difference between oxidation and fermentation? I’m going to step away from tea for a moment to explain, since the tea videos I found are boring and/or interchange “oxidation” and “fermentation” as if they were the same thing. If I leave my metal bike outside in the rain, it will rust. That’s oxidation.

If I coat my bike with sugar and let some wild bacteria start to grow…then I have a bad example. Nevermind. Back to drinks.

Fermentation involves bacteria or yeast that eat sugars to produce carbon dioxide, and in the case of yeast—alcohol. Beer is made with fermentation. If you let beer oxidize, sadness. The difference is important! Here’s a video about fermentation and an example of making soda.

They are two completely different chemical processes and anyone who is in the tea business should make it their business to get the science correct. Science literacy and delicious tea forever!

A Durable, Enjoyable, and (Gasp!) Affordable Microscope for Kids

SmartLab Toys Indoor-Outdoor Microscope. Photo: Kelly Knox
SmartLab Toys Indoor-Outdoor Microscope. Photo: Kelly Knox

My daughter has been fascinated by peering into microscopes since she was in preschool, but with most selling for $50+, we’ve never had the extra funds to invest in one to have at home. So when I heard about the $20 microscope from SmartLab Toys that’s built to survive wear and tear both indoors and outdoors, I had to give it a try.

While the microscope doesn’t seem much more powerful than a magnifying glass, it’s more than enough to get her excited about discovering a whole new world we can’t see until we look through the lens.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

The Indoor-Outdoor Microscope from SmartLab Toys magnifies at 40 times normal size. While it isn’t strong enough to see individual cells, it certainly is enough to astonish and delight little scientists seeing things like insect legs or a blade of grass up close for the first time. In fact, the microscope comes with four prepared slides, so the second you open the box, your kids can dive right in.

Blank slides and specimen containers are also included, so kids can run around the house or into the backyard to find anything their inquisitive hearts desire.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Setting up a blade of grass on a blank side. Photo: Kelly Knox

The microscope is made of plastic, which makes it more durable and easy to carry than a heavy glass and metal microscope—in fact, it’s so portable that we took the entire kit on vacation out of state. The microscope can be removed easily from the stand and used by itself to look at tree bark, the sidewalk, large rocks, and more.

The kit also comes with a colorful book, Up Close and Personal by Shar Levine, that includes suggestions for activities while inspiring genuine enthusiasm about science. My kindergartener was more than amused by looking at toilet paper up close, just one of many fun suggestions in the companion book.

Toilet paper up close. Photo: Kelly Knox
Toilet paper up close. Photo: Kelly Knox

Not only does my six-year-old enjoy finding new things to examine in the microscope, the fun is contagious; friends and grownups get into the hunt with just as much excitement. The recommended age is 8 and up, but all elementary-age kids can use the microscope with a grownup’s help.

The microscope comes with three LR-44 button cell batteries. When the time comes for you to switch them out, you can easily find affordable replacements on Amazon.com. It’s worth noting that the first microscope we received burnt out within minutes, presumably due to a faulty bulb as switching the batteries had no effect, but the replacement item has lasted for multiple uses.

SmartLab Toys is offering a special deal just for GeekMom readers. You can order the Indoor-Outdoor Microscope on the SmartLab Toys web site, and use the discount code SPRING15 for 25% off through 4/30/15! With such a fantastic deal on a STEM toy, it’s definitely worth giving it a try.

GeekMom received a promotional item for review purposes. 

Kids Talk Science

Image By Rebecca Angel

I am not a scientist, but I consider myself science literate. I understand how studies are conducted and I have a basic knowledge of statistics. But more importantly, I actively keep up with science articles in everyday magazines, compare them to each other, and ask questions of people I know in the science fields. Being science literate means I care about how science affects my life. I also thinks it’s pretty cool.

My children are surrounded by scientists in the family: Their father, aunt, and grandfather all have PhDs in molecular biology, and their great-aunt is currently working on her doctorate in nursing. Granted, the science topics veer towards biology more than astrophysics, but as scientists, they all enjoy talking about any new discoveries.

I started college as a psychology major, not because it was better than “undeclared” but because I thought it was interesting. I ended up in music, but I still enjoy hearing about new studies in that social science. All this means is that my children consider science a part of life, not just a subject in school.

I decided to take this science literacy skill into our homeschooling group. For six weeks, I led a class of kids from ages six to fourteen on a discovery of what science literacy means. Their homework was to find a science article from a lay-person’s source, and then try to find the original scientific article referenced. This was very tough because real science journals are often expensive for libraries to carry, are not easily accessed on the web unless you are part of a scientific community, and are generally not for sale in stores. Yet, many were at least able to find the original title and abstract for their chosen article. The most amusing part of class was when the children would read the lay person title like: Alzheimer’s Linked to Lack of Zzzz and then the scientific study title, Rapid appearance and local toxicity of amyloid-beta plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. They came to appreciate good science writing for non-scientists.

That first class, I told the kids to choose any topic, as long as it was a current scientific study. I’m running a science literacy class again this spring and decided to narrow down the topic to health and nutrition. This time around I’ve also allotted more time for discussion. I hadn’t counted on how intense the kids’ options would be on the various studies presented in the first class. I had to cut them off just to make sure everyone had a chance to present.

What about at your home? Don’t have a couple of PhDs to pass the potatoes and ask a question about the validity of the latest diet craze? Start reading good science articles. Science News is by far the most accessible, varied, and current science publication. Regardless of your educational background, you will be able to understand and get a quick look at the most recent and groundbreaking work in a variety of scientific fields. Read one of the shorter articles aloud at dinner and start a conversation about possible life on the moon of another planet, how robots are learning like babies, or if obesity is linked to too many hours playing video games.

Here’s a short checklist for evaluating science in the news:
-Who funded the study?
-How broad was the sample (people of different ages? genders?)
-How many people?
-Was it a blind study? Double blind?
-Did the reporter tell you about other similar studies to compare?
-Did other scientists review and comment on this study?

Science shapes our culture, politics, and personal health. Read about it, talk about it, become more science literate with your kids!

A New Season of ‘SciGirls’ Premieres in April

© PBS Kids
© PBS Kids

SciGirls is back this April with six brand-new episodes! As recent new fans of the PBS Kids show, which features real girls showing a real love of STEM, my kindergartener and I can’t wait to see what new science adventures are waiting for them in this third season.

The theme of the new season is “citizen science.” Here’s the latest info about what that means for the SciGirls:

Citizen science is the hottest new STEM frontier that engages the general public –and kids! – in real science. Scientists worldwide invite ordinary people—like the SciGirls—to observe and record data about everything from birds to beaches, monarch butterflies to maple trees. The data is then shared with scientists, who use it to generate new scientific knowledge.

New episodes premiere in April on your local PBS station, so check the listings to catch the girls in action.

SciGirls Season 3
© PBS Kids


The new season will also will also be available online nationwide starting April 15 on the official SciGirls web site.

Science Class Is in Session—On YouTube!

Crash Course Astronomy © PBS
© Crash Course Astronomy

Whether you’re looking for videos to catch your homeschooled teen’s interest, browsing for something to occupy yourself for a few minutes, or you’re a lifelong fan of learning, it’s always fun to tumble down the YouTube rabbit hole.

Thanks to some incredibly talented science communicators, you and your kids can dive into subjects like physics, astronomy, and more, and find experiments to take science off the screen and into their own hands. Here are four YouTube channels for those who wonder how the universe works—which is everyone!

Crash Course Astronomy

Crash Course Astronomy © PBS
© Crash Course Astronomy

Phil Plait, also known as the Bad Astronomer, is no stranger to the geek world. When he’s not busy with the Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, he’s often spotted at conventions like San Diego Comic-Con. Recently Plait teamed up with Crash Course and PBS Digital Studios for the new YouTube series Crash Course Astronomy.

Plait’s “f***ing majestic” voice (according to one impressed commenter) clearly and quickly leads you through topics like moon phases, eclipses, the basics of astronomy. Stylish graphics and high-res images make each video exciting and engaging for anyone who loves to gaze up at the stars.

Physics Girl

© Physics Girl
© Physics Girl

Dianna, an MIT physics grad, calls herself the Physics Girl. In her easy-to-follow videos, Dianna addresses everyday questions that you might otherwise not have spent much time thinking about, along with exploring the mysteries of the universe. Why is our image flipped in a mirror horizontally and not vertically? Why is the universe flat?

Physics Girl also shares her experiences with being a woman in physics, including her time at MIT, and chats with other interesting scientists in her field.


© SciShow
© SciShow

Cathé named SciShow as one of her secret YouTube affairs a couple of years ago, and it’s easy to see why. Hank Green and other knowledgeable hosts share the answers to some of life’s burning questions in quick chunks, like why does mint taste cool and why we have baby teeth.

SciShow also dives deeper into current science topics, such as the recent measles outbreak, and host Hank Green even sat down to chat with President Obama at the beginning of the year. It’s easy to spend hours browsing the fascinating content of SciShow.

Sick Science

© Sick Science
© Sick Science

If you’re more hands-on than just eyes-on, or you’re looking for experiments to do together as a family, Sick Science from Steve Spangler Science is what you’re looking for. There’s no talking in these videos—just quick how-to’s for putting together eye-catching science demonstrations that are sure hook anyone with an interest in science. You can also find other science demonstrations by Steve Spangler on the channel, which is always entertaining.

Gut-what? How to Tell Dew from Guttation

When I lived in Florida, I had a green lawn in the month of February.  In this case, upon closer look at my seemingly-dewy lawn, I noticed that it wasn’t dew, it was guttation! The droplets at the tips of the blades of grass are the giveaway. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Someone recently mentioned to me that I hadn’t written a good old-fashioned meteorology post in a while. So, here’s a fun topic for you, one that you can show off to your kids if you can catch it at the right time. I’m taking a bit of stretch here, since this topic overflows into biology, which was never my strong suit.

While many of you in the northern United States have been struggling with record snowfall and record cold temperatures this winter, along the Gulf Coast of Florida the precipitation will be in the form of rain. In fact, Nor’easter storms typically form just off the coast of Texas between about Brownsville and Houston, and in their infancy those systems will dump quite a bit of rain here.

When the excess rain saturates the ground, plant life will adapt accordingly. One of the ways some plants will adapt to the excess available moisture is through a process known as guttation. I know, a funny word, right?

Up close, recognizing guttation is easy on blades of grass. Look for the singular droplets at the very tip of the blade. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Guttation occurs when a plant has turned off its transpiration processes, usually at night, so excess moisture cannot evaporate from the surface of the leaf. Instead, root pressure will cause the moisture (along with other chemicals and sugars indigenous to the plant, known as xylem) to get pushed out through the leaf edges. Because of the tapering at the top of a blade of uncut grass, a larger droplet often forms at the very tip.

Guttation is not dew. Dew is atmospheric moisture condensing on colder surfaces, and is pure water. Guttation is moisture secreted from within the plant itself, and contains xylem sap.

Guttation allows for secretion through the edges of the plant. Look very closely (click through for the full sized picture if you like)…do you see the moisture along the edges of the blade of grass? Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I have seen guttation year-round—so long as the air temperature is above freezing—in every state I have lived in during my adult life*. It’s more likely to occur during a period of excess rains, such that soil is saturated. The large droplets on the tips of the blades occur most often on uncut grass, so your lawn’s first growth in the spring before the first mowing is a good time to look for it. If you’re near a wild field or meadow, that’s a good place also. It happens most often at night, so you’d need to catch it close to sunrise. The moisture will evaporate quickly once the sun hits the surface.

*If you’re wondering what states I have lived in since age 18, they would be Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Nebraska, Florida, and Colorado.

The next time you see moisture on your lawn, check to see if it’s guttation instead of dew. This can make for a great lesson for kids, too. Ask the kids to talk about, write about, or draw what they see. Other topics that can be further discussed with guttation include:

• Evapotranspiration: One of the processes in the water cycle.
• Krebs cycle: How a cell can release energy from organic compounds into energy necessary for sustainment.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD): Guttation might draw up water that contains neonicotinoid insecticides blamed for killing pollinators such as honeybees. Studies have shown that this contributes to sudden disappearances of honeybee populations in North America. Read more from Laura about other contributors to CCD.

The photos in this post were taken on February 8, 2013, in Navarre, Florida, about 20 miles east of Pensacola on the Gulf Coast. I had to lie in my front yard with my camera’s telephoto lens on manual focus. We had heavy rain the previous day. This was the same day the northeastern U.S. started to experience the “Blizzard of 2013” (February 8-9, 2013).

10 Signs You’re Raising a Science Nerd

A workbench in a chemistry laboratory. Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire (Nièvre, Burgundy region), France. CC BY-SA 2.0.
A workbench in a chemistry laboratory. Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire (Nièvre, Burgundy region), France. CC BY-SA 2.0.

You might be the parent of a science nerd if the following 10 things go on in your house:

1. You come home from shopping and the following conversation occurs:

Parent: Why is there dirt baking in the oven?
Child: I’m sterilizing dirt for science.

2. You tweet, “I wonder what construction is happening upstairs but I’m too afraid to ask.” Your child responds to the tweet with: “Oh, that’s just me shaving my magnesium block.” (You know, as you do.)

3. You walk into the bathroom to see the following:

bathroom science
Bathroom science. Image by Jules Sherred.

4. Your child never uses the generic names for household items. It’s always things like: NaCl, Na2CO3, 570–590 nm, etc.

5. You hear an, “Oh, crap!” Followed by running footsteps to the bathroom. Followed by somewhat calmer footsteps descending the stairs. Followed by, “I think I need to go to the emergency room.”

6. You tell your child, “Hey! You dropped some of your science on the floor. You need to clean it up.” Upon showing your child where, in a very dire tone they respond, “Oh. That’s not good!” Upon your child learning someone stepped on it, the following is said in a very serious tone, “You should probably go to the doctor for that.”

7. You ask your child what they are making, and they respond with some of the following in an “as you do” tone: Copper (II) Chloride, Copper (II) Acetate, Magnesium Chloride, Ethyl acetate, and Iron (III) Chloride

8. Your child has chemicals they purchased online held for weeks at Customs while they test it for drugs, anthrax, and other dangerous substances that come in a fine white powder.

9. You can’t find side burner, pots, and measuring cups because they are currently in use, because science.

10. The following happens on a regular basis at midnight on your porch:

If you are the parent of a science nerd, what are some other signs?

This post inspired by the actions of Kid1.

Get Ready for the Humble Brainiac Book Bundle!

Image: No Starch Press
Image: No Starch Press

Humble Bumble is a great site to get great deals and help a cause at the same time. This week they debuted the Humble Brainiac Book Bundle with over 10 titles for as little as $15 total.

Here’s how it works: Customers pay as much or as little as they want for the deal. Paying more than the average user will get you bonus titles. When you are ready to pay, you get to pick how much money from your purchase goes to the publisher and how much goes to the cause. After you complete your purchase, you are sent a link to download your titles to the computer. They are PDF copies and don’t need a special reader to work.

For this deal, Humble Bumble is supporting Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Freedom of the Press Foundation. What’s cool about this is that you can give all your money to the cause or if you don’t really care for the particular causes being supported, you could just give all your money to the publisher or Humble Bumble.

Image: No Starch Press
Image: No Starch Press

Customers can pay any amount of money and receive:

– Ruby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for Kids
– Lauren Ipsum: A Story About Computer Science and Other Improbable Things
The Manga Guide to Electricity
– Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids
– The LEGO Adventure Book, Volume 1: Cars, Castles, Dinosaurs & More!

Customers who pay more than the average user will also receive:

LEGO Space: Building the Future
The Manga Guide to Physics
– Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming
– Incredible LEGO Technic: Cars, Trucks, Robots & More!
– Build Your Own Website: A Comic Guide to HTML, CSS, and WordPress

And customers who pay $15 or more will receive all of the above, plus:

– Steampunk LEGO
– JavaScript for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming
– The LEGO Neighborhood Book: Build Your Own Town!

I’ve reviewed a couple of these titles and in the process of reviewing a few others and I couldn’t be happier with them. My son is nine years old and even though he’s not quite into electricity or physics yet, he enjoyed reading the story that taught the concepts. Even if your child is not old enough to enjoy some of these titles, it’s worth the money to pick them up to have for when they are older.

Living the Lefty Life in a Righty World

Lefty power! Image capture: Patricia Vollmer.

I’m a southpaw! I’ve always been proud to be in this elite 8-15 percent of the world population. Did you know that in 2008, you had no choice but to elect a left-handed president? Four of the last seven presidents are left-handed, and seven presidents total have been lefties (16 percent). Fascinating, don’t you think?

I polled the other GeekMoms and it turns out, I’m possibly the only one (out of those who responded) who is left-handed. I was particularly intrigued by this, since there are around 20 of us, and if I’m truly the only lefty that would make our group only 5 percent left-handed.

Left-handers also have an advantage in sports, particularly in baseball, since they can add an element that most players don’t train for.

I remember my parents making sure I had left-handed scissors for school each year. I also remember my mom struggling to teach me how to use chopsticks, knitting needles, and crochet hooks as a young girl. Luckily for me, I play sports (including fishing) and musical instruments right-handed. I also use firearms (for my Air Force work) right-handed.

In today’s world of spending most of my time at a computer, there’s very little that I need to do that really reminds me (and the world around me) of my sinistrality.

But every once in a while… I’m reminded. And sometimes it can be downright frustrating! Most often, I’m reminded in the kitchen. Today while making a fruit smoothie with my Ninja Blender, I was reminded once again.

The Ninja Blender is designed for right-handed use, evidenced by the handle on the right, spout on the left. The motor only fits on top of the pitcher in this direction—believe me, I tried it the other way! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Here are some other kitchen gadgets that favor right-handers:

What on earth is this? Holding it with my left hand, it’s hard to tell. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Oh! I see! It’s a can opener! I got it as a gift and don’t use it. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Pay no attention to the chip on my favorite geek coffee mug, covered in weather facts! I know, I can use it as a lefty just fine! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
But if I were right handed, I’d be greeted with this pretty cloud and sun art with every sip of my AM elixir. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Most can openers are designed for right-handed folks. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is a pie server. Actually, I’m not sure of the Emily Post-sanctioned name for this utensil, but that’s what I call it. Note the serrated edge that faces up when I’m holding the utensil in my left hand.  Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

So the next time you are shopping for your favorite sinistral southpaw, consider ambidextrous kitchen gadgets :-)

Should We “Dilute the Kool-Aid” When Answering Kids’ Science Questions?

Do you dilute Kool-Aid? Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Do you dilute Kool-Aid? Photo: Patricia Vollmer

In celebration of my 4th anniversary writing for GeekMom, I present to you my very first post, published January 22, 2011:

When I was little, I remember my mother making Kool-Aid. I have old pictures of me wearing my token Kool-Aid mustache. I even had a Kool-Aid t-shirt. I remember sometimes the Kool-Aid would seem, well, watery. Did my mom dilute it on purpose? Boy, I hope she didn’t. Sometimes, I wondered if she was sneakily reducing my sugar and artificial color. I remember telling myself that when I got older, I would never dilute the Kool-Aid!

But guess what? While I do my best to make the Kool-Aid at home to the recipe, I have to admit I water down the kids’ lemonade and fruit punch at the fast-food restaurant beverage machines. It’s just instinct, I WANT to dilute!

This diluting of the Kool-Aid is now a metaphor I’ve given to the crime of watering down — or dumbing down – answers to the questions kids ask. GeekMom Jenn posted about the incessant “Why? Why? Why?” questions she receives from her kids and in her line of work. My kids do the same thing, and sometimes it grates my nerves for sure! But embedded in all of the silly mindless “Why?”s is a jewel of a question that my sons are truly curious about. And when my just-as-geeky-as-me husband or I hear such a question we want to stop and give it our full attention!

And if it’s a science or math question? Stop EVERYTHING! Break out the props!

My husband and I had a great professor in college who has such a pet peeve about “bad meteorology”, he made up a website dedicated to debunking several of the most-basic of meteorology myths. A quote he said that has stuck with my husband Dave all these years was, “Be very careful what you put into kids’ heads because it’s very hard to get it out!”. We take this very seriously with our kids.

So when our sons asked “Why is the sky blue?”, our approaches to the answer might be a little different than non-geek parents. For a pair of meteorologists with offspring, we waited for that very question with bated breath, as if it were a milestone like learning to walk or ride a bike!

In our house, though, the question ended up not “Why is the sky blue?

It was “Why are sunsets red?

We got it when our oldest son was about 6 1/2 years old. Definitely a corollary to the dream question! So I’m now going to share with you how we geek parents approached this subject.

Sunset over Lee-on-the-Solent, Great Britain. © Copyright Rebecca Altman and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License. http://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/1963

We started with rainbows. Our son knew the colors of the rainbow by this point, so it was easy to explain to him how red is at one end of the rainbow, and violet is at the other.

Then we discussed the electromagnetic spectrum. Enter a basic diagram, with the shortwaves on the left, the longwaves on the right. Our son could name many of the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as X-rays and microwave radiation. We explained how red light has longer wavelengths than blue or violet light.

Our firstborn started getting a little glassy-eyed here…uh oh, it doesn’t get any simpler from here!

We attempted to quickly sum up how the low sun angle at sunset allows sunlight to travel through more of the atmosphere. The color red is able to “scatter” just as readily as the color blue “scatters” when the sun is higher in the sky. When the sun is higher, most of the atmosphere’s scatterers are receptive to the color blue. This is a phenomenon called Rayleigh Scattering. I fear we might have lost our boy by this point, but it was interesting seeing how much he did pick up from the conversation.

I remember that it generated more questions about the electromagnetic spectrum and I was so impressed with having a conversation with a 6-year-old about how many things in the world around us are traveling in “invisible” waves. The music on the radio. The remote control (or the 8-billion remote controls) in our house. The microwave oven. The wireless internet in our house. The satellite television.

Check out these links for other easy-to-understand explanations of sky color.



We, as parents, are challenged with teaching our kids the “right things”. Or at least, what we think are the “right things.” Sometimes those “right things” are contested topics such as evolution, global warming, or the causes of the Civil War. I hope to have an open enough relationship with my kids to discuss the varying viewpoints about those more controversial topics and give them the tools to form their own opinions, even if they might differ from mine.

But when it comes to math and science, I personally feel challenged to push the envelope to teach as much as I can when my kids express interest. I hope to never blow off one of their “Why?” questions, although I have to admit that can get tough at times!

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.

Happy Birthday, Stephen Hawking!

Image: Focus Features, used with permission
Image: Focus Features, used with permission

I just wanted to take a moment to wish Stephen Hawking, one of the people who inspired me to study physics and astronomy, a very happy birthday! A Brief History of Time was one of the books that “spoke” to me from when I first read it as a teen, um, several years ago, and it continues to do so today. I can’t wait until the time comes to share it with my son. My son and I have already shared the “George” series that Hawking co-authored with his daughter, Lucy.

Here is a video of one of my son’s inspirations, Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about oneof mine:



And if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to go out and watch the film documenting Dr. Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything!


Beautiful Dendrites: Snowflake Science

Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Photo: Patricia Vollmer

As I’m sitting hunkered down in my Colorado house while the temperatures are expected to remain below 0 degrees F for the next 48 hours, I try to remember that during weather like this, Mother Nature keeps some serious beauty up her sleeves in the form of gorgeous snowflakes. This is one of my favorite parts of meteorology—the fascinating things water can do!

About 20 years ago, in one of my undergraduate meteorology classes, I was taught the temperature ranges at which snowflakes will form their different potential shapes. I remember getting tested on the information, too.

“At what temperature ranges will capped columns form?”

Heck if I know now, but I can find out with the click of a button….this is from Wikipedia’s entry on snow:

The shape of the snowflake is determined broadly by the temperature and humidity at which it is formed. The most common snow particles are visibly irregular. Planar crystals (thin and flat) grow in air between 0 °C (32 °F) and −3 °C (27 °F). Between −3 °C (27 °F) and −8 °C (18 °F), the crystals will form needles or hollow columns or prisms (long thin pencil-like shapes). From −8 °C (18 °F) to −22 °C (−8 °F) the shape reverts back to plate-like, often with branched or dendritic features. At temperatures below −22 °C (−8 °F), the crystal development becomes column-like, although many more complex growth patterns also form such as side-planes, bullet-rosettes and also planar types depending on the conditions and ice nuclei. If a crystal has started forming in a column growth regime, at around −5 °C (23 °F), and then falls into the warmer plate-like regime, then plate or dendritic crystals sprout at the end of the column, producing so called “capped columns.”

I found the description of the specific kind of dendrite I photographed, thanks to Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht of CalTech; it’s called a fernlike stellar dendrite:

Sometimes the branches of stellar crystals have so many side branches they look a bit like ferns, so we call them fernlike stellar dendrites. These are the largest snow crystals, often falling to earth with diameters of 5 mm or more. In spite of their large size, these are single crystals of ice — the water molecules are lined up from one end to the other. Some snowfalls contain almost nothing but stellar dendrites and fernlike stellar dendrites. It can make quite a sight when they collect in vast numbers, covering everything in sight. The best powder snow, where you sink to your knees while skiing, is made of stellar dendrites. These crystals can be extremely thin and light, so they make a low density snowpack.

This morphology diagram seems to sum it up pretty well:

Photo Credit: Dr. Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech Department of Physics, used with permission.

Here are some fernlike stellar dendrite pictures I took in Bellevue, Nebraska in January 2010 when the temperature was around 0F, and they are the prettiest dendrites I’ve seen with my own eyes (rather than in a book). I used the digital macro setting on my camera, a Canon PowerShot SD1200IS (a camera I no longer have, but it’s one of the best point-and-shoots I’ve ever used). I wish I had the fortitude to take more pictures, but it was so incredibly cold, my hands couldn’t manipulate the camera for very long. Isn’t science beautiful?

Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Photo: Patricia Vollmer
IMG_8629 (1)
Photo: Patricia Vollmer


Geek-twisting Holiday Songs

Image By Rebecca Angel

Oh, who wants the same old boring lyrics to our holiday favorites?  Altering words to existing songs is a playful, challenging, and creative endeavor. It’s the fan-fiction of music. Winter and Christmas tunes are so well-known, it’s a great place to start. Here are some people who have already done so with a geeky twist:

The Twelve Days of Future Christmas created by Bridge 8, goes through a list of current science topics that are on the verge of becoming reality! “12 drones delivering…”

(TUNE: “Oh Christmas Tree”)
Oh, number Pi. Oh, number Pi. Your digits are nonending,
Oh, number Pi. Oh, number Pi. No pattern are you sending.
Want more math Christmas songs? Go here!

Hee-hee. This is some crazy editing. Star Trek TNG in “Make it So!”

You better watch out; you better not sneeze.
You better not cough, ’cause you’ll spread a disease….Viruses are comin’ to town.
“Catch” all the lyrics here.

This one doesn’t change the lyrics so much as it is performed in a geeky way. All electronic devices band in “Feliz Navidad.”

Pirate Christmas Carols! This is from me. I’ve written a lot of these. Here is one you can listen to with lyrics. No Ale!No Ale! No Ale! No Ale! Six months at sea with no dark, stout or pale.

So what’s does your family geek out about? Make it a family game to rewrite lyrics to a familiar holiday tune. You’ll be singing it every year afterwards!

Here’s one I wrote about my favorite Avenger…

Loki Was A Gentlemen
(To the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen)
Loki was a gentleman when he took all the power.
His smile was quite debonair as he told us to cower.
“Sweet lady, kneel before me now, no need to look so sour.
Many thanks, this encounter’s been a joy, been a joy.
Many thanks, this encounter’s been a joy.”

GeekMom Mel Chats With Kyle Hill, Science Editor of Nerdist

Kyle Headshot 10
Photo: Nerdist Industries

I don’t know about you, but there is nothing I love more than to read about science that’s presented in an entertaining and digestible way, especially when it pertains to topics I geek out about anyway, like comics and video games. When I got the opportunity to interview Kyle Hill, the science editor for Nerdist Industries and host of Because Science, I almost fan-girled. Kyle is kind of what I want to be when I grow up…some day. No, not a Chris Hardwick lackey—though that does seem like it would be awfully fun. I’d love to be able to spread my passion for science and how things work, explain the hidden stories behind the seemingly mundane, and make sense of things that seem so much bigger than us. But Kyle Hill does it in a much more engaging way than I ever could.

At least, I’ll concede that point for the purposes of this article.

GeekMom: What spawned your interest in science, and what made you want to teach others about it?

Kyle Hill: I’ve always liked science and the natural world. I’d be that kid playing with LEGOs or trying to catch bugs to stare at them. My parents were very supportive of that kind of outlook, taking me to museums and buying CD-ROMs (remember those?!) about dinosaurs. After high school I went right into an engineering program and starting blogging for myself. Sometime before I finished my degree I figured out that I liked talking about science and explaining it more than actually doing it. During my graduate program I started submitting articles to Scientific American, and things sort of spiraled upwards from there.

GM: Can you tell us a little about how Because Science got started?

KH: From a logistical standpoint, working with a brand like Nerdist means producing quality digital content, so a video series was probably an inevitability. But personally, I’ve always wanted to do something like Because Science. I find that actually talking out loud about what you are trying to explain helps you understand it even better yourself. And I do. A lot. So that combined with my over-caffeinated delivery was a good foundation for a show. And since I find myself saying “because science” to justify my nerdery a lot, the name was obvious.

GM: What would you say to someone who says they are interested in, say, space, or how things work, but they don’t feel they are “smart enough” to pursue any knowledge or research?

KH: Our educational system seems to have a hard time dispelling the “science is too hard” stereotype. I’d bet that if you talked to our best scientists, they’d say that this passion for a subject is the most important part; working out the homework comes later. Science at its core is a systematic exploration of how the natural world works, and we are all ingrained with the curiosity to ask the same questions that science does. Don’t let this “ivory tower” facade that science has scare you off. It’s fascinating first.

GM: What is your favorite topic? What really gets you geeked out beyond measure?

KH: I love physics, especially where it lets you talk about power and energy and explosions! Physics is one of those fields that most people have an intuitive understanding of—whether or not they know the math, we have a good idea how things are supposed to move and interact. So when I can say that a punch from a “Pacific Rim” Jaeger is like having a 747 hit your face, it’s immediately understandable, nerdy, and accurate!

GM: What do you think is the most important thing a parent or mentor could do to get kids excited about science?

KH: It’s hard to say what the most important thing would be, but I’d say listening to a child’s interest first has to be up there. Children are naturally curious, and you can build and foster that curiosity by introducing them to the science that explores what they love. A love of the night sky, of insects in the grass, of a computer whirring away, these can be bolstered by introducing them to the people, books, and videos that let them get deeper involved. Let children explore, and give them the tools to help them explore better.

GM: Have you ever had any science misadventures? Has science ever gotten you into trouble?

KH: Well, there are things I’m aware of—physics and chemistry-wise—that I know I shouldn’t try. I try to steer clear of possible explosions as a rule. But when I was a kid collecting insects, I unknowingly forced a pretty gruesome situation. One day, I collected three monarch caterpillars in the park near my house. I put them all in a carrier and waited for them to metamorphize into beautiful butterflies. But I didn’t give them anything to eat. After the first caterpillar attempted to change, the other two climbed up to where it was and ate it alive. It was pretty rough. I wasn’t trying to run a caterpillar fighting ring. Feed your pets.

GM: If a younger person (or heck, even an older one!) wanted to be Kyle Hill when s/he grew up, what advice would you give?

KH: As my friend and fellow video-maker Joe Hanson (of “It’s Okay to be Smart”) says: Stay curious! I’m not a scientist, and I’ve never taken formal writing classes. I have a background in science but I’m not an expert. Any success on my part is from trying to stay perpetually curious, and seeking out the information that will help me get my passion across while being accurate. That means taking free writing courses if you’re not a writer. It means staying up to date (I am on the Internet *constantly*) and taking science communication seriously. And don’t ever think that you are being too nerdy!

GM: What is your favorite source for science news?

KH: It has to be Twitter. I have a pretty hefty RSS feed, but I use Twitter to keep track of the writers, creators, and scientists that I like directly (not institutions or brands themselves). Social media is a great way to stay in touch with the people that inspire and inform you, and for the most part they are happy to engage with you! Start taking notice of who seems to be writing/filming/speaking about all the stuff you like or are interested in and check up on them. Chances are they are still producing great content.

GM: Anything exciting in the works that we can look forward to?

KH: The beauty of the digital age is that you never quite know what comes next. Currently I’m writing and making videos, but there is certainly room for more science-y goodness in the future. TV spots? Maybe a podcast? If it has to do with science and geeking out about this universe, I want to try it!

GM: Thanks so much for talking with us here at GeekMom, Kyle! And all of you, be sure to check out Kyle’s show, Because Science, over on Nerdist!

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator based in Los Angeles, California. He received his Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Marquette University, and his Master of Arts in communication from the same university in 2013. In 2013, he started writing for Scientific American, finding a niche in the intersection of science and pop culture. Since then, his nerdy work has been published in WIRED, Popular Science, Slate, and The Boston Globe. He has appeared as an expert on Fox News, Al Jazeera America, and Huffington Post Live. And he has held writing positions at Nature Education and Discover Magazine. Kyle has worked as a TV science correspondent for Al Jazeera America. In 2013, he was named one of the top 20 science communicators to follow by WIRED magazine and is currently the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries and host of Because Science. His goal as a science communicator is to use popular culture to teach science in a fun and digestible way.

Science Literacy: Statistics Shmatistics

Photo on 11-12-14 at 11.11 AM #2
Image By Rebecca Angel

“It’s science’s dirtiest secret: The ‘scientific method’ of testing hypotheses by statistical analysis stands on a flimsy foundation. Statistical tests are supposed to guide scientists in judging whether an experimental result reflects some real effect or is merely a random fluke, but the standard methods mix mutually inconsistent philosophies and offer no meaningful basis for making such decisions.”
Odds Are, It’s Wrong: Science fails to face the shortcomings of statistics

Read the whole article; it’s very good, and makes my head spin. If we can’t trust statistics in science, what is the basis for drugs being approved by the FDA, or the stated risks associated with everything my teenagers do, or how much pumpkin pie can I really eat before going over my daily limit of recommended fat?

That article was written in 2010, which you may think is old news, but How to Lie with Statistics has been around a very long time. That’s a book on how statistics can be used by companies, politicians, anyone with an agenda, to manipulate people with “hard facts”—a.k.a. math.

To be fair, Siegfried’s article is not about scientists purposefully fudging numbers, but how they generally don’t understand how to organize their data properly. They’re not bad guys (like certain advertisers), but still misleading the public because they don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe that’s worse.

So what can we do? How can you teach your children to understand the numbers thrown out in the media? Reading that the percentage of the U.S. population that will get the flu, on average, each year is between 5% and 20% on WebMD doesn’t mean much unless you understand how average is calculated (mean? median? mode?), what was the sample size, and maybe most importantly: who funded the research to get the data?

That last question may be a tough one to find. But understanding how statistics work, and how they can be manipulated, is doable and important. First, you might want to brush up on the knowledge. You could read Stephen King, but for something more encompassing, you need to stretch your brain. And no, I’m not talking re-reading the mind-numbing statistics textbook from college somehow still in your basement.

The free site Udacity has an  accessible and comprehensive statistics course (my sixteen year old is taking it right now). There’s also The Manga Guide to Statistics, reviewed here, and the popular series take on it: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Statistics. I like that one a lot.

The resources above are good for teens and adults. For the younger set, it isn’t hard to bring up how statistics work because they are everywhere, everyday. Next time a percentage of something is thrown out as evidence to do, or not do, (buy, or not buy), explain to your child what that number means, and how it could have been manipulated. Make them aware that just because math seems straightforward, using statistics may not be.

To make it fun, have them conduct a survey with their family and friends. It can be about anything (“what’s your favorite pie?” at Thanksgiving, for example.) Your job is to help them word the survey to get simple results. Then, help them make some fun graphs and play with their data. That hands-on manipulation is the best way to learn. I did it with my own kids. We asked people about tea! You can check out all our fun graphs here.

Hopefully, by the time they become scientists, their understanding of organizing data will be enough to trust their research! Especially if that research tells me I can eat all the pumpkin pie I want. Let’s all become more science literate by understanding how statistics works.

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?

Today’s Total Lunar Eclipse in Pictures

After reading GeekMom Melanie’s post about this morning’s lunar eclipse, I was motivated to get up early and rush out the door with my camera to take pictures. By the time I got to a local park near my house in Fuquay-Varina, NC, the eclipse had just started to cover the moon. I immediately set up my camera with tripod and started taking pictures while enjoying the show.  I hope you enjoy this series of pictures.

5:36 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

5:47 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

5:59 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

6:13 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

6:34 a.m.

Lunar eclipse. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Sequenced Caffeine Genome Reveals Evolutionary Advantages

Green coffee beans. (Photo CC-by-SA2.0, Mike Gifford)
Coffee beans on a coffee plant. (Photo CC-by-SA2.0, Mike Gifford)

Monday was National Coffee Day, but I clearly have been under-caffeinated, because I was late jumping into this 24-hour java immersion. Poking around to learn about Coffee Day, I found this great news: Researchers have sequenced the entire genome for the robusta coffee plant, answering some questions and raising others about our favorite buzz bringer.

One of the fascinating discoveries emphasizes the importance of caffeine throughout the plant kingdom. The fact that caffeine occurs in tea, cacao, and coffee suggests that it offers benefits across a wide spectrum of plant diversity. Now,  analysis of the robusta (Coffea canephora) genome revealed that it evolved via a different route than in tea or cacao. (These two plants may or may not have common evolutionary roots for their caffeine. ) This kind of parallel or duplicated evolutionary path to the same destination is called convergent evolution, and is commonly taken to mean that the convergent trait (caffeine!) is highly beneficial.

Another neat detail is that caffeine has been helping plants for a long time; longer than humans have been baristas. It appears that the leaf litter from caffeine-bearing plants discourages other plants from growing, giving the coffee/cacao/tea plants an advantage. Caffeine also protects the plants from some insects, which have evolved the ability to taste caffeine, a compound they cannot tolerate in high doses.

In another neat twist, the caffeine helps the plants because, in low doses, the caffeinated floral nectar offers pollinators a buzz. The insects are much more likely to remember the scent of the flower where they sipped caffeinated nectar and to return to it, making it more likely that  pollen will be dispersed from a caffeine-bearing plant. More coffee! (And tea.) (And chocolate!)

Co-author of this study Victor A. Albert, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo, describes their research in the video below.

Read more about the caffeine study at these publications:

— Science Magazine: The coffee genome provides insight into the convergent evolution of caffeine biosynthesis (the research report)

— Evolution News: Another Example of Convergent Biochemical Evolution: Caffeine

— Nature: Coffee got its buzz by a different route than tea

Mad Scientist Halloween Tablescape on a Budget

Mad Scientist Tablescape. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Mad Scientist Tablescape. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Looking for something eye catching and spooky for your Halloween decor this year? Maybe a Mad Scientist tablescape is just the right thing for you!

It all started when GeekMom Natalie sent me a link to a fantastic tablescape from Pottery Barn featuring a periodic table. The gears in my mind immediately started turning as I wondered how I could do something similar in my own home and on a budget. Recently, I started creating a new tablescape on my kitchen table each month, and I decided to concoct a chemistry-themed tablescape for October and Halloween.

Choosing the Glass

I knew I needed some spooky chemistry glass, and I thought my local thrift store would be a great place to start looking. Let’s face it, I’m a thrift-store-aholic with my favorite being the non-profit Guardian Angel in Fuquay-Varina, NC, which raises money to fund Alzheimer’s research. I wasn’t disappointed with what I found in their “Vases” section. I just about danced in the isle as I filled my cart with amazing glass finds!

Thrift Store Glass. Photo: Maryann Goldman

For $20, I walked away with the majority of glassware that I thought I would need to fill up my kitchen table. I would love to have used real chemistry Pyrex glass, but after pricing some beakers and flasks, they were way over my budget with each piece being $5 or more. I decided that vases with a flared outer rim at the top would work best. Luckily, they had quite a few of those. I felt the rim disguised the vases enough so that they didn’t look like they were for flowers. I also realized that coffee pots with the handles removed did a great job of simulating real flasks. Most of the clear glass was in the $1-$2 price range. Quite reasonable for my budget.

My Glass Selections. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Making the Labels

Next I did a lot of research on Halloween bottle labels and created a Potion Bottle Labels board on Pinterest. I was going to make my own bottle labels, but I ended up ordering some glow-in-the-dark labels from Amazon and Oriental Trading Company. I decided that I wanted the glow-in-the-dark look and the ease of application of the store bought labels. Maybe I’ll make my own next year!

Getting Just the Right Bottle Glow

I also needed to figure out what to fill my bottles with so that they would look great in daylight and also under a blacklight. I created a Halloween Chemistry board on Pinterest as I did my research. What I found out is that there are quite a few options for getting liquid to glow. To summarize, you can use glow sticks, highlighter pens, tonic water, and neon paint, to name a few techniques.

I decided to go with neon paint because I thought it would be the least expensive and least toxic. This is the same paint kids use in preschool to fingerpaint. Just make sure you get neon colors. To make a bottle glow with the paint, just squeeze in several tablespoons of paint, add tap water, and stir.

Washable Neon Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I tried this special blacklight paint for the purple and pink, but it was not as bright under the blacklight as the neon paints that I used. Next time I would just get neon pink and neon purple paint.

Blacklight Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Picking Some Other Elements

So what other items did I think would look good on the table and complement the glass? I pulled out my microscope which I thought would fit right in. I also found a ceramic piece shaped like a stack of books labeled “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” at Michaels that I figured would be a perfect addition to the table. I used a few candles and to fill one of the glass jars with cotton balls and plastic, glowing spiders. I picked up a sparkling, tiny owl to clip onto one of the glass jars too. I also included a small sprig of the yellow wildflower tickweed, currently growing near my home. I got the idea to put green food color tinted water into plastic medical gloves for a spooky hands effect. And, I created a creepy brain by filling one of my larger bowls with cooked spaghetti and green food tinted color water. I picked up some ping pong ball style eyeballs too. I didn’t want my table to be too gory, but I just couldn’t resist the eyeballs. Last but not least, I used some Water Beads. Have you ever used those in a vase? They are so much fun to look at and play with! My kids can’t get enough of them. Check out this post by GeekMom Cathé where her daughter does an interesting experiment with water beads. Just make sure to put your water beads in water 4+ hours before you’re ready to debut your table or take pictures of it. The beads need some time to absorb water and grow bigger.

Glass Beads. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I spent a long time hunting for just the right periodic table of elements poster.  I wanted the largest poster I could find for the cheapest price; I also needed it sooner rather than later.  I ended up buying one off eBay for $10, and I was pleased with it.

Laying Out the Table Foundation

Before you can start laying out your table, you need to decide if you want to use a tablecloth, and what placemats, napkins, plates, and even silverware you want to use. I ended up using a green and white checkered piece of fabric that I found in the attic for the tablecloth. I had two orange and black checkered tablecloths, but I decided against them because I felt they would be too dark when I had the blacklight on. I knew that I wanted purple placemats and couldn’t find any locally, so I used rectangles of purple felt. That left me looking for just the right napkins. Walmart has some pre-cut rectangular fabric pieces in their craft department, and I picked up a pack of various patterns all with a purple and green theme to tie the tablecloth and placemats together. The fabric is pretty easy to fold like a napkin.

Turn Fabric Into Dinner Napkins. Photo: Maryann Goldman

For daytime use, I decided to stick with my Country Cottage and Melissa (green and white checker) Corelle plates, but at night, I decided to go with clear plates that I could light up with necklace size glow sticks.

Melissa Corelle Plate. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Clear Plate With Necklace Glow Stick. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Assembling the Table

When I had gathered all the items I wanted to use, and on the day I was ready to assemble the table, I started out by filling one bottle at a time with the paint and water mixture and placing it on the table. I repurposed a few margarita glasses as risers so that the glass could be displayed at varying heights. I saved a few of the bottles for the water beads, and mixed them up, and placed them on the table too. And most importantly, I enlisted help from the kids who were very excited about the project.

Johnny Mixing Neon Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Johnny Preparing the Spaghetti Brain. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Once you have the bottles laid out in a way that makes you happy, you can add the other elements such as bottle labels, ribbons, flowers, etc. Just keep adding elements, adjusting the layout, and tweaking things until you are satisfied. There is no right or wrong with this.  Just have fun!

Johnny With a Water Filled Rubber Glove. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Checking the Blacklight

I was very pleased with how the table lit up the first time I put the blacklight on it, but there were a few items that didn’t light up. The owl and the “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece were just as dark as could be. I scratched my head for a minute and decided to try painting them with some glow-in-the-dark dimensional fabric paint that I had lying around. The paint is pretty transparent and easy to apply, so you don’t have to be an expert painter to make this work. Just get a small brush, and apply a thin layer of the paint to anything you’d like to have glow.

Dimensional Glow-in-the-Dark Fabric Paint. Photo: Maryann Goldman

In just a few minutes, my “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece went from being black and obscure to being one of the most eye catching items on my table!

Glowing “Spells,” “Potions,” and “Magic” books ceramic piece. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I just love how this turned out and couldn’t imagine my table without it! I almost wish I had more items that I could have painted with the glow-in-the-dark paint.

Getting the Most Out of Your Glow Sticks

Although I avoided using the chemicals inside glow sticks to make the majority of my bottles glow, I ended up with one glow stick that broke open accidentally while we were snapping it to make it glow. Instead of throwing it away, I wanted to put it to good use. I had some large and somewhat see-through Glitter Flakes that I poured into a teardrop-shaped bottle. Then I added all the liquid from inside the glow stick. I used an old, but sharp, steak knife to open the glow stick plastic enough to get all the chemicals out. Sometimes you can use scissors, but many of the plastic tubes are too thick to cut easily. Whatever you use, be careful not to cut yourself and to thoroughly wash your hands when you’re done. Otherwise you can have a lesson in how germs spread in your home by turning off your lights and seeing where all the little hands have touched with the glow chemicals. To finish, put the cap on the bottle, our hold your thumb over the opening, and shake up the glitter and liquid. You’ll be amazed at the results!

Glitter Flakes. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Remember those jars of fireflies you collected as a kid? Well, your glowing glitter bottle will look very similar! Bottles lit up this way are truly mesmerizing to view. Since glow sticks only glow for a limited amount of time, bottles prepared this way will only look this beautiful for one evening. However, if you want to light the bottle up again, say the next night, you can always just add the contents of one more glow stick and a bit more of the glitter flakes.

Magic Bottle with Glitter and Glow Stick Chemicals. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Explaining Fluorescent and Phosphorescent

All the kids I’ve ever spent time with are fascinated by things that glow in the dark after being charged under a light or by things that glow under a black light. When I turned on the black light over my table for the first time, my boys were amazed at how it lit up. I even got lucky, and the tablecloth glowed. Another way to include your kids in setting up this tablescape is to take a few minutes to talk about why things glow under various conditions. Take the time to explain the difference between items that are fluorescent versus phosphorescent.

Taking Your Pictures and Sharing Your Result

Make sure to take some pictures to save all your efforts for posterity.  I took many shots with the light on and using my flash.

Neon Concoctions. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Daylight Table Wide View. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Daylight Table Tight View. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Daylight Table Tight View #2. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I also took a bunch of pictures with the lights off and the blacklight on. I used a stick-style blacklight and my guy held it for me as I took the pictures, but you could also put a black light into your dining room table light fixture or a lamp (freestanding or tabletop). I used a tripod to keep my camera still, but you can keep your camera still by leaning on your kitchen counter or against a doorframe. The Auto setting on your camera will probably work just fine as long as the camera is still.

More Glowing Table Elements. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Glowing Table Tight View. Photo: Maryann Goldman


Mad Scientist Tablescape with Blacklight. Photo: Maryann Goldman
Glowing Table Wide View. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Feeling inspired to create your own chemistry-themed Halloween table? You can get some more ideas by checking out my Halloween Tablescape board on Pinterest. I’ve seen some tablescapes that make use of beautiful natural light and various types of foliage from your yard. There are others that gore up the items filling their bottles. You can use traditional Halloween black and orange colors if you like. Or maybe you’d like to have an old manual typewriter that the Mad Scientist can type up his research notes on. If the Mad Scientist gets hot in his lab, an old, black metal fan might be just the prop to add to your table. A black chalkboard could be just the thing for the Mad Scientist to write up his notes on. The Mad Scientist might even have some old tools and scissors for working on his experiments and patients.  How about the perfect old clock? Set your creativity free, and see what you can come up with!

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?