Bringing Science to Life through Real World Stories

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ever wanted to find a list of topics covered in the show Good Eats?

Good Eats Fan Page

This lists both scientific and nonscientific themes covered in the episodes. Handy if you want to find an episode that covers a topic you'd like to use to enhance your classroom lesson.

Editor's Note: The link to this site may change. If the link is dead, please report it to me, and I'll try to fix it.

Note 2: Still not getting paid by anyone for mentioning the site. :)

Celebrating 15 Years with the 15 Classroom Activities Greatest Hits from the Journal of Chemical Education

Free activities! These are written so you can use them in the classroom as soon as you've gathered the materials for the experiments. Many of them are quite clever in their use of materials to demonstrate a chemical property. 

Celebrating 15 Years with the 15 Greatest Hits, 1997-2012
September 2012 marks fifteen years since the first classroom activity, "A Refrigerator Magnet Analog of Scanning-Probe Microscopy" was published in the Journal of Chemical Education.
112 Activities later - readers are still finding these activities attractive and useful; with their use of materials available from local grocery and hardware stores, wide range of chemical concepts covered, a ready-to-photocopy-and-use format, and the knowledge that each one had been tested by fellow teachers. Many of the activities require a subscription to JCE, but others do not. Here's a link to more information about the 15 greatest hits.

Medicine safety: Are these caplets the same or different?

Not the best photo, but do you think that these caplets are the same or are there differences? What observations could you make to determine if they are the same or different? The answer will be revealed soon.

This was a little thought experiment I came up with while I was at the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers Conference.   :)

Sent from my Windows Phone

How to turn a room into a camera....don't you want to try it?

Turn a room into a camera: Cool optics experiment idea

This could be such a cool optics experiment in a classroom. I could imagine getting a few large boxes (refrigerator size or bigger), taping them together, then creating the set up as described. You could try different lenses to see how that changes the image as well as their suggestion to change the aperture, or the amount of light, that goes through the lens. it would be neat to set it up so the lens could pick up the movements in the school, like in a cafeteria, so you could have a video camera set up to capture the images over time, then do a time elapse of the video to speed up the motion vs. time.

Editor's note: When I get excited about an idea, I tend to write really long run-on sentences. Sorry.
Note 2: I haven't been paid by anyone to share this idea or websites associated with it.
Note 3: I think I may have to build one myself. This could become a very cool traveling experiment for family science nights. The key will be to 1) get extraneous light blocked out, and 2) make it durable, and 3) make it easy to assemble and disassemble.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Science at Home: How to Ripen Fruit Quickly

Banana, Pear, and Golden Delicious Apple  ready to eat

Science at Home.
Photo from my own kitchen. 

Have some pears or apples that aren't quite ripe enough to eat? If you have a banana handy, use this simple trick to speed up the ripening process of the  fruit so you can enjoy it sooner.


Put a banana and your other fruit in a plastic bag (not completely sealed) or a brown paper bag. Wait. How long it takes for the fruit to ripen will depend on how hard it was to start with. 

You can also use a ripe apple to ripen other fruits using the same process. This works well with peaches, plums, and other stone fruits when placed in a paper bag. 

How does it work? 

Even though the fruit has been picked, the cells within it are still alive! Starch in the fruit gradually converts to glucose , a sugar, when certain enzymes are present. If you've ever tried to eat a pear before it was ripe, you probably noticed that not only was it very hard but it also wasn't sweet. That's because the starch hadn't yet converted to sugar, which is part of what makes fruit taste so yummy. 

Ethylene is a gas that is made by some fruits, and it triggers the ripening process. Ethylene acts like an enzyme by speeding up the conversion of starch to sugar. Bananas make lots of ethylene as they ripen. The ethylene gas that comes out of the banana is trapped in the bag, exposing the other fruits to extra ethylene. The extra ethylene then triggers the ripening process for the pear and the apple. Apples also produce a lot of etylene, and that's why they can also be used to ripen other fruits.

This doesn't work for all fruits. Some fruits ripen by other processes, like grapes and cherries. 

What happens if fruit is exposed to too much ethylene?

Fruits that make ethylene  to trigger ripening do not stop making ethylene once the fruit is ripe. They will continue to make ethylene, and the fruit will continue to get softer and softer, with more and more sugar, and will eventually be rotten.

How do you like your banana?

Bananas have many levels of ripeness and people often disagree about which one tastes best. Some people like them slightly green, when they have a bit of sweetness but are still quite starchy. At the other extreme are people who love bananas with lots of dark brown spots. These bananas are much softer and very sweet. They may have bruises caused by the fruit getting injured, which causes the ripening process to be accelerated at those spots.  

Did you know?

Bananas are picked very green and shipped in containers pumped with ethylene gas. Supposedly some grocery stores also have chambers to ripen fruit with ethylene before putting it in the produce area for sale. The ripening process can be stopped during shipping by stopping the addition of ethylene to the shipping containers.

Other Resources:

This website has a nice diagram showing the chemicals that are involved as fruit turns from  being unripe to ripe.

A more detailed explanation of how ethylene contributes to the fruit ripening process.

Nice resource about the ripening process for many fruits from a company that makes machines that produce ethylene safely for container ripening. The banana section has a chart showing bananas at several stages of ripening.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How Sally Ride Changed My Life

I am a child of the 80s. In January 1980, I was finishing up one of my favorite grades in all of my years in school-2nd grade. I graduated from high school in May 1990 and started college later that year. I am a member of generation X, the often maligned generation. Reagan and Bush were presidents for most of my childhood, especially the parts I remember. We were the first generation to own personal computers en masse. We played with other toys that used basic electronics. We lived through the oil boom of the early 80s and the bust in the later 80s. We learned about AIDS in school, and lost one of own, Ryan White, to the disease in 1990. Just like other generations, we lived through our share of crises. The day Reagan was shot was sort of like our generation's Kennedy assassignation. And there was a lot of corruption and greed, which lead to the 1987 Black Monday bust in the stock market.

What is rarely mentioned is that we were the first generation to see the changes in our culture that started back in the 60s. Desegregation of schools was largely finished. More girls played at least one sport, partially a result of Title IX and the recognition that it was just as safe for girls to play sports as boys and the girls wouldn't be any less "ladylike" if they played. Girls still had Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch Kids, but we also had our small collection of Star Wars figurines and Matchbox cars. In my class, we still had some "homemaker" moms, but most of our moms worked when we were at school, and a few of my classmates were "latch key kids", those that were unlucky enough to go home after school to an empty house. But our mothers were raised to believe they could become teachers, nurses, or secretaries, and while many had rebelled, many women were still in careers that were considered "traditional" for women. 

For many girls, it was television opened our eyes and widened our world to all of the other possible careers we could have when we grew up. On television dramas, women would often be powerful (yet ruthless) business owners. Think Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins) in Dynasty- women could make it to the top of the business word but they had to be b**ches to do it. Or gorgeous. You could be a detective, but you had to look like Heather Locklear or Farah Fawcett.

But women in the news were different. Slowly women were beginning to be leaders in business and government.  Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the U.K., and we saw her in meetings head-to-head with the leaders of other nations. Sandra Day O'Connor sat proudly with her peer Supreme Court judges, all old white men. 

And then there was Sally Ride. The space shuttle program was still relatively new, the shiny white gliders with black undersides reminded me of a great whale. Every space shuttle launch was covered on television, and the astronauts were proudly paraded around to talk about the importance of the space shuttle. My generation was too young to remember any of the moon launches, so our knowledge about space exploration was limited to encyclopedias (the hardbound kind that I swear weighed more than me!) and stories from our family about watching the first moon landing on television. In the first few launches of the space shuttle, the astronauts and command center for the shuttle looked like a picture out of NASA's moon program days: a command center full of white men helping the white male astronauts during the shuttle's flight. Until Sally Ride. 

A young, attractive woman with dark brown hair, but not so pretty that you might think she got the job because of her looks. She looked like someone who could be the mother of one of my friends. (In fact, she was born the same year as my parents.) Sally Ride was going to space on a space shuttle mission! She may not have been the first woman in space, but she was the first woman from the United States to go and that was all that mattered during the Cold War. In interviews before her first shuttle launch, I remember her being quite shy, almost embarrassed by all of the attention she was getting. But in 1983, when she walked tall and proudly on the bridge to board the Space Shuttle, girls like me all across America realized they too could become astronauts or at least be a scientist because Sally was going to space! After returning from her first mission, the words "Sally Ride" quickly became synonymous with "women in science". She was one of the most visible female science since Marie Curie. Whenever a story or book was written about scientists, Sally Ride's picture always appeared. She was featured in many of those thin biography children's books written about famous people. Certainly women before her had made important contributions in science, but their stories were usually told as a footnote to the work of a male scientist--basically describing the woman as a helper or lab assistant to the brilliant male scientist. But Sally wasn't a lab assistant. She was a physicist and an astronaut!

I entered my first science fair project one year after Sally's first space shuttle mission. Never once while I was working on the project or being questioned by the male judges. (I didn't have any female judges the first year.) did I ever feel like I didn't belong because I was a girl. And when I won a second place ribbon for my project, I knew there would always be a place for me. In science. As a female.

I continued to follow Sally Ride's career after her work with NASA. The Sally Ride Science program and its resources to encourage girls to pursue science careers will be her legacy to young women and the work I hope she was most proud of.

Today, after learning of her death, I wondered how many other women were impacted by her like me. In college, about half of my classmates in my science classes were females. I can't help but think that Sally Ride played a part in getting many girls to pursue scientific careers. She will forever be known as a woman in science who broke the glass ceiling for future generations of female scientists. Thank you, Sally, for helping me realize that I too could one day be a scientist. 

NSTA :: News Story

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Who knew? Use of Microscopes to diagnose problems in NASCAR

Fascinating article about using science technology to solve a problem that a NASCAR team was having with their motors failing during races.

Search Your Engines: NASCAR Engineers Zoom In on Motor Problems with Powerful Microscope [Slide Show]: Scientific American

With NASCAR coming to Indy in a couple of weeks...

The NASCAR Brickyard 400 is coming to town at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  There's something about the psychology of people that's unique after they've attended any of the race events. They go much faster on the interstate roads than normal. Is it because they want to see how fast their car goes, or is it just a mind game where going really fast seems normal after watching cars going really fast.

Some questions for your students:
The track is 2.5 miles long (1 lap=2.5 miles), and the cars go 400 laps.
1) How many miles do the cars travel during the race?
2) Each turn is angled at 9 degrees, 12 minutes.  Can you make a model that shows how much of a bank that is? What does the unit minutes mean in terms of an angle measurement?
3) Non-profits are "hired" to clean the track and bleachers after the race. How much garbage do you think they pick up after the race?
4) The fastest NASCAR time on the IMS track was over 186 miles per hour. If the driver had sustained that speed during the race, how long would it take for him/her to complete the race.

The answer to question 3 is 400 tons.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My comments about "Imagine the Future of School Science Fairs" |

What will future science fairs look like, assuming they exist at all? If inquiry-based science instruction becomes the norm in the day-to-day science classroom, then I think the nature and quality of projects will change--particularly for middle school students. Instead of the annual dread of working on a required project with little foundation in asking research-able questions and designing experiments, students would have exposure to the design of science experiments to gain understanding about a variety of topics. When I attended the National Science Research Center (NSRC)-a major player in recommending inquiry science education, one of the middle school teachers mentioned to me that she doesn't have to work at all to help the students come up with possible topics for experiments. Whenever they do an experiment in class, if the students don't have time to do further investigation that they are interested in, they write down those ideas in their science notebooks. Some kids will even go home and try out their ideas, even though it's not a homework assignment. They just want to learn more! By science fair time, the students usually have a list of ideas that they could use for a science fair project and are excited to test their questions for further investigation.

As a former science fair participant (International Science and Engineering Fair in 1988 and 1990) and Westinghouse Science Talent Search semifinalist, you would think I would always be a proponent for science fair projects as a way of teaching students about the scientific research process (note I didn't say "scientific method", which is mostly used in the education field but not in "real science" labs). However, textbook-based science curricula do not prepare students to think scientifically. To then throw them in to a required science project is unfair to the students. It's obvious that the students aren't ready for the assignment based upon the amount of help they need from teachers, their parents, and even their neighbors. I created a list of all of the skills I developed while doing science projects, and I'll try to post it here sometime. No other assignment in school, even in high school, requires as much organization, thinking scientifically, writing and presenting well, collect data and use the right mathematical tools to compare the data, than a science fair project does.

I like that is challenging its readers to think outside the current model of science fairs in schools and imagine a better process for the future. I'm torn about the desire for collaborative projects. In any group project (even at the university level), there's always going to be one or two students who do all of the work and at least one who doesn't have a clue but still gets credit because of the work of their partners. Yes, in real science, work is done in a more collaborative fashion, but not in the way educators imagine. You might have a team that's working on the same big problem, but each individual has a piece of the problem to work on. Then the group meets regularly to discuss the pieces of the research to determine how to proceed next. (Forgive me for the oversimplification.) Most of the hands-on work in many of the scientific fields is still done individually. For example, if a computer code needs to be written, one person will do most of the work, and will seek out advice from peers and mentors as needed. But, science groups don't have one person who records the experimental work, one person who gets the supplies, and two people who manipulate the supplies to execute the experiment. There's nothing wrong with that model in the classroom, but it isn't "how real scientists do science". The collaborative nature of science is usually much more subtle. In many areas of research, there are only a few people in the world working on a given problem. On the one hand, you would like to "talk shop" with those other people to see if you can help each other with your experiments. On the other hand, you're competing with those same people for grants, intellectual property rights, and first to publish. So, you can't share too much with other scientists because it may impact your own group's ability to continue their research. This is especially true in the corporate world, where first to patent and first to manufacture a product can make the difference between making a profit from the work or not even releasing the product if you have no competitive advantage.

'via Blog this'

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Following the corpse at the Missouri Botanical Garden

The 'Corpse' flower....about to bloom at the Missouri Botanical Garden

(6) Wall Photos
This is such an unusual plant. It only blooms once every few years...and only one giant flower. When the flower opens, it emits a terrible smell. Thus the common name of corpse flower.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A fun one to share with students...if you dare!

BBC Nature - Dinosaur gases 'warmed the Earth':

I would have loved to have been in the room when the researchers came up with the idea of calculating how much gas a dinosaur would produce in a given day. Gas produced by the body isn't exactly something we humans like to think about, let alone talk about or study. When the first research was presented about how much methane was being produced by cows all over the world, it was the subject of many jokes. This study leads to a curious hypothesis that a known warming period in climatology history may have been due to dinosaur gas production. I can imagine a joke coming from this research too...maybe something like "how many Ford trucks does it take to produce as much gas as one dinosaur?"

This is a great example of really thinking outside the box in science.

'via Blog this'

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day: Fun resource about plants updated monthly

Carol of May Dream Gardens blog hosts a monthly feature for other garden bloggers to post what's blooming in their gardens. On the 15th of each month (even the cold winter months), bloggers from around the world post links to their blogs on the May Dream Gardens website. The Garden Bloggers Bloom Day has attracted an international following, so there's always something in bloom no matter the time of year. The last two months have been particularly interesting for some of the U.S. bloggers because plants are blooming much sooner than normal. Carol and many of the other gardeners keep meticulous notes each year about many aspects of their garden: what they've planted (Latin names, not the common names), how well the plants are doing, what fertilizers they use, weather conditions, etc. So, it's very easy for them to compare their results in the garden across multiple years. Blogging gardeners are a great example of amateur scientists who use the tools of science  in their hobby.

I highly recommend that you check out Carol's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day as well as the rest of her website. She is quite humorous and has created garden characters to share some of the goings-on in her garden that might appeal to children.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Blue jean chemistry becoming Green chemistry

Imagine thinking that you think you can find a way to improve a a chemical reaction that's been used for over 100 years and completely changed the accessibility of colorful clothing to the masses. Before a method was created to synthesize dyes, only the wealthy could afford things made from dyes, particularly blue and purple. It had to be extracted

Related websites:
Wiki about indigo dye; includes structure of indigo
Improving a 100 year old chemical process

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A perfect comic to accompany yesterday's Easter egg post

FoxTrot by Bill Amend Foxtrot is a great comic for lovers of science.  I miss when it was a daily strip. :( The link leads you to the main FoxTrot site. You'll have to look for April 8, 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Easter activity that you could connect with pH and indicators

Dyeing Easter Eggs the Natural Way | Food & Think

Food dyes can be used to explore the effect of pH on the color of the dyes. Because most food dyes can also behave as indicators, it would be easy to set up an experiment to determine why egg dyeing instructions always recommend that you add vinegar to the water. You could make the egg dye at three different pHs. 1. Water plus vinegar  2.  just water  3.  water with something basic that can be easily handled, such as sodium bicarbonate 

Questions to ask:
Are the dyes different depending on the pH?
Are some food dyes more sensitive to pH?
Which dyes have the most intense color?
Could the vinegar serve more than one purpose when dyeing eggs? Hint: Egg shells are made of calcium carbonate. How does an acid react with calcium carbonate?

The best chat I have seen that shows the colors of foods at different pHs (thereby, acting as indicators) is Chemical Demonstrations, vol. 3 (the green one) by Shakhishiri. It's a great volume but a bit pricy for most teachers.

Web resources
Here's a free website that has descriptions of some of the food indicators.

Video clip that shows food indicators in use

Shakhishiri's website of chemistry resources

Friday, April 6, 2012

Geek, Nerd, or Dork?

Have you ever had a debate with your friends over which is better: a geek or a nerd? Well, I have, and usually we all agree that a geek is someone who is passionate about one or more subjects, usually science, engineering, math, computers, and all of the things that stereotypically go with those, like comic books, games, reading (especially sci fi), etc. Geek friends often fit in well at Gen Con, or they at least know people who would blend in with the Gen Con crowd. I think that nerds can be geeks with the added social ineptness. Nerds would be extremely awkward in a crowd or a party. So, I've never been offended by being grouped with other geeks, but I've never been called a nerd, and I think that's a good thing! About a year ago there was a test floating around on Facebook to determine your level of geekiness, and I only scored a 4 out of 10! I was surprised and a bit bummed. My score was really hurt by me not liking board & role playing games or reading sci fi. But I'm totally a science geek, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that. :P

So, I thought it was funny to find this Venn diagram of difference between nerd, dork, and geek, courtesy of Great White Snark. I've never put "dork" even remotely in the same category as nerd and geek, but the diagram shows what I've always articulated but never thought to put in pictures. (I imagine pictures in my head a lot for data relationships, but I'm lousy about putting those images to paper. It's something I'm working on. See Dan Roam's site for an interesting study of using simple pictures (yes, even stick people!) to illustrate challenging topics Calling all visual thinkers: The Napkin Academy is here!.

Since Geek Chic seems to be popular right now (Thank you, Big Bang Theory.), I can finally wear all of my dorky science shirts out in public and not get looked at like a total nut. I've even gotten compliments on a few of them. Weird, right?

So, what do you think? Is there a difference between a nerd and a geek? Which would you rather be? Do you have a story to share about a particularly geeky moment in your life?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Have you heard all of the buzz about Rare-Earth Elements?

Chemical & Engineering News Digital Edition - April 2, 2012
C&E News had a nice story describing the economic battle between China and the rest of the world, especially the US, over the cost and availability of the "rare-earth" elements. In the past, the US mined these elements here, but China strategically decided to find ways to mine these elements at such a low cost that other countries could not compete. It's becoming a major policy issue between the US and China. NPR also did a story recently about how we got into this crisis and why these elements are so important to modern manufacturing. 

Click here to go to the issue.

If you cannot click on the links, paste this link into a browser:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Using video games to teach science concepts

Melanie Stegman was another speaker at tonight's Science Rocks! event at the National Science Teachers Conference in Indianapolis. Melanie uses computers to help educate people about molecular science, especially the immune system. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, biochemistry, and microbiology.

She is evaluating Immune Attack, a video game where the player navigates a nanobot through blood vessels and connective tissue to help a ill patient with a non-functional immune system. The game is designed to help teach people about the immune system in a fun, interactive format.

You can try out Immune Attack yourself at

Grand Hank does science his way

Grand Hank was a performer at the Science Rocks! event. I had never heard of him before, so I didn't know what to expect. He's quite an impressive science entertainer. The children in the audience loved him! He also has a great story about overcoming challenges to pursue higher education. And he does science raps! Really well! A lot of educators try to incorporate rap into lessons, but he was incredibly effective and engaging. Check out his website to learn more.

NSTA mtg: Day 1 Science Rocks!

Got to participate in breaking the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest group of people doing a science experiment at the same time. Over 700 people learned about polymers while experimenting with instant snow. Even though I've played with instant snow before, I learned something new about it today...when you add water to it, the polymer releases heat....this is probably best described as the heat of hydration. It's not a true textbook chemical reaction because the water is just trapped in the polymer structure. If you let the instant snow sit out for a while, the water will slowly evaporate. The evaporation causes the instant snow to become cool. If you let it sit out long enough, the instant snow will dry out and become a fine powder like it was before you added the water. So, the hydration process is reversible.

The message for the night was Science Rocks!, but I think the true message was "Anyone can be a scientist!" (the anthem that we sang at the end). They had an excellent panel of speakers, although it might have been better to have them as a separate event. I would have loved to learn more about the accomplished panel. After all, it's not every day that you have two astronauts, a mathematician, a race car driver, and a biochemist on the same stage, along with an excellent science entertainer and a highly regarded science journalist. Here's a link to a list of the speakers.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Check out my list of interesting science news stories and websites

I can't believe I forgot to post this information to my blog. Since December, I've been working on consolidating all of my science and science education website links onto an account on Delicious. I've also been posting current stories in science that I think might be particularly interesting to science teachers. When I have a chance, I include some comments about what drew me to the stories. I have over 1000 websites and current event stories posted. You can view my list, search for specific topics by the tags I've assigned, and even subscribe to receive an email whenever I add new content.

Here's the link to my Delicious page.

Sometimes my commentary for a story could really be its own blog post, but I forget to post it here. So, check out my Delicious page!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Coke and Mentos (playlist)

This is a link to my unedited Code and Mentos experiments that I tried out at home. I need to write down all of the experiments I did. I wanted to illustrate how a scientist goes about the process of investigation and modifications while experimenting, so I hope I accomplished that.

Sorry about my poor voice and camera work. This was one of my first attempts to use my video camera. I really need a tripod.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Videos in Science: Current Research in Chemistry

I thought these might be useful for science teachers. Your students might like learning about how active scientists are using science research to investigate real-world issues. Thanks to Bill Bayley for forwarding it to me!

Videos provided by Purdue University Chemistry Department

Fighting Drug-resistant Malaria
Professor Christine Hrycyna and Chmielewski Research Group graduate student Hilda Namanja were featured in a WLFI-TV report on Gates Foundation malaria research. Link to video

Detecting Chemicals on Produce 
Cooks Research Group graduate student Santosh Soparawalla and postdoctoral researcher Fatkhulla Tadjimukhamedov recently took an innovative miniature mass spectrometer to the grocery store to detect chemicals on produce. Link to video

Building Molecules for Medicine
As a part of being awarded the IUPAC-Richter Prize, Professor Arun Ghosh talks to high school chemistry students about his research in designing enzyme inhibitors for treatment of Alzheimer's Disease and AIDS. Link to video

STEM Innovations for Blind Students 
Purdue Chemistry alumnus Cary Supalo and his Purdue Research Park company Independence Science develop technologies to increase hands-on experiences for blind and low vision students. He worked with Purdue Chemistry to produce several videos demonstrating safe methods to collect real-time data. Link to video

Monthly Lab Safety Message 
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has produced an important video on laboratory safety called "Experimenting with Danger." Link to video 

For questions or more information about the videos, please contact Purdue University.
Steve Scherer 
Chemistry Communications 

Christmas coal in your science stocking

Here's a fun idea to use with your Earth Science or chemistry classes at Christmas time:

I have 3 stockings hanging, with the question--Which type of Carbon do you want in your stocking?  I have a pencil in one; coal in the next; and a HUGE diamond-ring ornament I found at Pier One Import store.

I give the kids pencils and a coupon for a homework pass as a gift.  I tell them that they've been so good they don't get coal...and I'm not rich enough to give them I'm giving them graphite!  They are appreciative.  I used to give out pencils with snowflakes on them (crystalline solids)...but a few years back, they requested the "yellow" ones, because the "fun" ones don't sharpen well!!  :)

Idea by Karen Delgado. Used with permission. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Way cool science illustrations, videos, and photographs

Science magazine's winners for visual excellence show that art and science can complement each other well. Some of the winners are truly stunning while still illustrating interesting science. Click on the link to see what I'm talking about.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lady Gaga and chemistry?

Lady Gaga and chemistry are certainly words that you don't often hear in the same sentence. Yet, chemistry is being used to preserve her infamous meat costume from the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards:  Lady Gaga Meat Dress Designer Tells How To Re-Create His VMA Look.  In an interview on the Graham Norton show, Lady Gaga mentioned that she has a warehouse where all of her costumes are being preserved because she'd like to someday have a museum dedicated to displaying them.  The meat dress obviously poses some interesting challenges. I guess it could have been turned into beef jerky :) but she wants the full effect of the dress to be preserved. That's where chemistry comes in to help. Here's a link to a description of what could be done to save the dress for future display....if anyone really wants to see it after it's been preserved and sitting in a warehouse for years!

Chemical & Engineering News Digital Edition - August 29, 2011
Click here to go to the issue.If you cannot click on the links, paste this link into a browser:

How the metric system is creeping into our lives: Part 1

You often hear about "the global economy" but another thing that's becoming global is "culture". With modern communications, people all over the world can be exposed to ideas and items from other parts of the world. I started noticing about 6 months ago that I'm reading a lot of things on the internet that were created outside the U.S. Since the U.S. is one of only 3 countries that doesn't use the metric system (Crazy!), units on websites are often in metric.  More about how I think the internet is going to influence the use/understanding of the metric system in the United States coming later so stay tuned!

I came across this collection idea while looking at craft sites on the web. Issue 1 of Less Than 100g - Bottle cap collection: Create a collection of things that each weigh less than 100 g.

  • What would you collect? 
  • What weighs less than 100 g that you could include?

I'm going to post examples of collections of science-related goodies that I have that meet the less than 100 g limit. I checked them all with a kitchen scale that I keep at home.

First off, my wind-up toy collection:

science toys,100g,Everyday Science Fun,NASA,Toys in Space

I love these little toys. Each winds up and does something different. I'll try to put together a video to show them off. You might be wondering what this has to do with science. Well, a number of years ago, NASA had a program running on the space shuttles called Science of Toys where astronauts would test the behavior of  toys like these on the shuttle and compare that to what we see on Earth.  Check out these NASA websites for more information about the really neat Science of Toys program.
Toys in Space Investigation

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A free resource for keeping up with current events in science

I subscribed to a couple of the Scientific American email digests earlier this summer, and I've enjoyed many of the stories that they have sent. For example, my favorite stories from today's email included: 

A Brief History of the Toilet (Forget about skyscrapers, protected harbors or capital markets. The lowly toilet is key to what makes modern cities possible.) (Note: Some of these images might not be appropriate for students.)

and Check How Intense the East Coast Earthquake Was in Your Zip Code

They have published many stories that would be great for students. Here's a link to the newsletter signup page in case you're interested. The best part is that it's FREE!

Make your own field bag for carrying your supplies

Sometimes you may want to make observations for science outside. It can be a pain for both the teacher and students to keep track of their pencils, magnifying lenses, rulers, and other supplies while studying outdoors.
I picked up this cool way for storing your field supplies while attending the Decatur Township training for the Indiana Science Initiative program last month. I don't know who the teacher was that came up with this idea, but the 5th grade teachers made these to use during their outdoor science studies. They are so simple to make! And cheap too! I'll post some pictures later to show what the bags look like when they're finished.

You'll need for each student:
1 one-gallon ziploc bag
a piece of yarn that is long enough to form a loop that can be pulled over your head

You'll also need a hole punch.

Punch one hole in each of the corners of the bag where the zip seal begins and ends. 
String yarn through one of the holes and secure it to the bag with a knot.
Repeat with the other hole. 

Put the field bag on over your head and you're ready to go!

Want something more permanent? Here's a great way to use old clothes to make a nifty bag with pockets!
Make a field bag from recycled clothes

Wow! Just Wow! Joy Hakim's Books in the Story of Science Series

I just picked up her first book in the series through a lucky purchase at Half-Price Books. (I LOVE that store!) The book The Story of Science. Newton at the Center was published several years ago, but this was my first chance to take a look at the book in person. The way she tells stories about science is so unique in scientific writing that's it's almost shocking to read at first. Even science books written for young children are largely fact based, but Joy uses storytelling to introduce the "characters"-real scientists-who made important discoveries in science interjected with a lot of humor. For example, on the first page of the introduction (p. ix), she writes, "Francis Bacon died as the result of a scientific experiment (or so the story goes). He was stuffing a duck with snow--to see if cold is a preservative. He caught a chill, and that was that." Right away you know that this is not your ordinary science book.

Each section is relatively short but is packed with interesting stories. I also love the variety of illustrations throughout the book. I've become accustomed to the formal language used in most science communications, and The Story of Science proves that you can still describe important ideas in science without using the stagnant writing style that we scientists are used to reading and, sadly, writing as well. This is definitely not your ordinary science book, and if you love science books as much as I do, it's certainly worth checking out.

Here's an article about the book series with a couple of video links about using narrative storytelling to present scientific information. She currently has 3 books in the series.

Using Narrative Storytelling to Engage Readers about Science

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Difference of similar magnitude earthquakes in CA vs Midwest

In light of today's earthquake in Virginia, I thought it would be interesting to share this illustration that shows the difference of area that a 6.8 magnitude earthquake impacts in California vs. the New Madrid fault in SE Missouri/West Tennessee. Today's earthquake was reportedly felt as far away as Cincinnati, OH. The wiki link below gives some technical explanations why earthquake waves can travel so much farther in the eastern part of the U.S. compared to the west coast. Basically, it's all about the type of foundation: the soil, the bedrock, and the depth below ground of the initial shock.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The mystery of the misbehaving rocks, or how to identify an unknown rock using science

I have a video that I still need to edit that will explain this set of experiments a lot better, but I wanted to get this posted sooner to help some teachers who made the initial observations that led me to want to do some more testing.

Scenario: You are given two rocks. Rock A is labeled Sandstone. Rock B is labeled Limestone. According to the information you are given, sandstone will not make bubbles when put in a vial filled with vinegar. Limestone will make bubbles when in a vial filled with vinegar.
                                        Vinegar-expected results          Vinegar-actual observations
Rock A=Sandstone           Does not bubble                          Bubbled vigorously
Rock B=Limestone           Bubbles                                       No bubbles seen

(The bubbles are carbon dioxide. They form when carbonates/calcites are exposed to acids. Vinegar is a weak acid.  Note: Chemists would call limestone a carbonate, but geologists call it a calcite.)

Sandstone is a grainy rock composed of sand grains fused together. Other minerals are usually present between the sand grains. You can easily tell with even a simple magnifying lens (3-5 times magnification) that the rock is made up of small grains, and  you can also feel the bumpiness of the grains with your fingers.

Limestone is a harder rock. In Indiana, it is usually light gray in color, but I've also seen darker gray samples with almost rust colored lines. The surface feels powdery and is dull (not shiny). Limestone is made of calcium carbonate, which is also what Tums is made of. Some forms of chalk are also made with limestone.

Both limestone and sandstone are used to cover the outside of buildings. Indiana limestone is sometimes used to make monuments because the color is consistent and it can be cut into large pieces.

The teachers at a workshop I attended thought that perhaps the samples of limestone and sandstone were mislabeled because both behaved the opposite of what they expected. I borrowed their samples to do some more testing. I was hoping to determine if the rocks had been mislabeled.

A bit about my own previous experiences with sandstone and limestone: The house that I grew up in was built on land that had a large sheet of sandstone just a foot or so below the surface. There were lots of places where you could see exposed sandstone, especially along the side of roads where hills were blasted through to make a flatter road. My dad worked for a quarry where they mined and crushed limestone for building roads, so I've seen a limestone quarry and limestone in lots of different sizes. Our house's driveway was covered with limestone. Large pieces of limestone were used for covering homes and businesses. We even had it on the bottom third of my house. So, I know a bit more about both rocks from my own observations growing up. (This is a good example of how each of us brings their own experiences in when doing science. Had I not known as much about sandstone and limestone, I might have approached these experiments differently.)

I'm not a geologist, but I did take a geology class in college. I really enjoyed rock and mineral identification. My chemistry background came in handy when I had to learn about the different tests that are used to identify rocks and minerals, especially the chemical test of dropping small amounts of acid on a sample to see if bubbles are formed.

Before starting my experiments, I wanted to get some photos of what both samples look like close up.

Here is what the sandstone sample looks like. Notice how grainy it looks even in the photo. Can you see that there seems to be a lot of white between the grains? I wonder what that might be...hmmm.
Sandstone: Before testing

This is what the limestone sample looks like. Notice the lines in the rock on the upper right hand corner of this photo. That is an interesting set of lines in the rock. They look like they might be tiny cracks. 

Limestone: Before testing  (Well, not quite. Notice the bottom center of the rock. That's where I did the streak test.)

So, without even doing any testing, I was able to make several observations about the rocks. I'm going to add these observations from my table above, but I'm going to change how my table is formatted so I can fit the other experiment data on the table more easily.

                                          Rock A=Sandstone?                Rock B=Limestone?
Vinegar-Expected Results           No bubbles                                  Bubbles
Vinegar-Actual observations     Bubbbles                                      No bubbles
Color                                              Gray with white streaks              Dark brown. A few cracks present.
Looks like a crystal                              No                                                No
Surface                                          Grainy                                            Smooth
Luster (shine)                                dull                                                dull

I decided to do the tests that would cause the least damage to the rocks first. The last experiment was going to use a hammer, and I didn't know what the rocks would look like after that!

A hardness test is a great way to start identifying a rock after you've described the color(s) in the rock, the luster of the surface (Is it shiny or dull?), and identified any special fractures or layers in the rock. To test hardness, you "scratch" or rub the rock against something with a known hardness. Geologists use a scale called a Mohs scale that lists materials and their hardness on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being a diamond and 1 being talc. Here's a link to a step-by-step guide for testing hardness from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

I first tried to scratch the rocks with my thumbnail. My nail was worn down by the rocks, so the rocks are both harder than my fingernail. Nails have a hardness of 2.5, so I knew that the rocks were harder than 2.5. I then tried to scratch the rocks with a paperclip, which I read had a hardness of 3.5. In both cases, the paperclip scratched the surface of the rocks. I forgot to take photos of the rocks after they had been scratched by the paperclip, but it'll be on the video.

From the two hardness tests, I determined that the rock was harder than 2.5 but less than 3.5. That eliminates a lot of possibilities of what the rocks were, but it's not enough to identify them.

Link to mineral hardness of many common minerals:

In a streak test, you rub the rock against a rough surface. The surface must be harder than the rock. Otherwise, the rock will get scratched by the surface. I had a unglazed tile left over from some Christmas craft projects last year, so I rubbed the rocks against the tile. This is what rubbed off the rocks onto the tile.

Streak test (limestone on left; sandstone on right)

This was really interesting to me. The limestone sample left a white powder on the tile, but the sandstone left a dark gray mark on the tile. When I rubbed the limestone powder between my fingers, it felt chalky. The sandstone didn't feel chalky but it wasn't really grainy either. I wasn't expecting either rock to feel chalky, so that was an interesting observation.  (If you look at the bottom of the post, you'll see my notes that I took during my experiments...but you may want to wait if you don't want to know what I discovered just yet!)

                                          Rock A=Sandstone?                Rock B=Limestone?
Vinegar-Expected Results           No bubbles                                  Bubbles
Vinegar-Actual observations     Bubbbles                                      No bubbles
Color                                              Gray with white streaks              Dark brown. A few cracks present.
Looks like a crystal                              No                                                No
Surface                                          Grainy                                            Smooth
Luster (shine)                                dull                                                dull
Hardness test                              >2.5 but <3.5                                  >2.5 but <3.5
Streak test                                    Gray                                              White. Powder feels like chalk.

Next I wanted to try a variation on the vinegar test that the teachers did. Normally the bubble test is done with dilute hydrochloric acid, but since this experiment is for 3rd graders vinegar is used because it's safer. I wanted to put just a few drops of dilute hydrochloric acid (0.5M for any chemistry geeks out there) onto each rock and see what happens. Based upon what the teachers saw, I expected the limestone sample to not bubble and the sandstone sample to bubble. Here are the photos of what I saw.
 Hydrochloric acid on Sandstone-You can see tiny bubbles at the top and bottom edges where the rock is touching the liquid. I also noticed what appeared to be powder (white?) forming on the surface of the rock.

I then immersed the bottom of the Sandstone in a small puddle of hydrochloric acid, since that was similar to the immersion test the teachers did.

Sandstone surface immersed
in a small puddle of hydrochloric acid. 
You can see bubbles where the liquid and the rock are touching.

Large carbon dioxide bubble forms on sandstone after several minutes. Can you see the big bubble?

I did the same experiments with the Limestone. I first put a few drops of Hydrochloric acid on the surface.
Hydrochloric acid on Limestone
If you look closely, you can see bubbles forming.

Several minutes later--
One surface touching a puddle of Hydrochloric acid on Limestone
Lots and lots of bubbles!

Limestone: Large bubbles forming in hydrochloric acid several minutes after starting the immersion test.

                                          Rock A=Sandstone?                Rock B=Limestone?
Vinegar-Expected Results           No bubbles                                  Bubbles
Vinegar-Actual observations     Bubbbles                                      No bubbles
Color                                              Gray with white streaks              Dark brown. A few cracks present.
Looks like a crystal                              No                                                No
Surface                                          Grainy                                            Smooth
Luster (shine)                                dull                                                dull
Hardness test                              >2.5 but <3.5                                  >2.5 but <3.5
Streak test                                    Gray                                              White. Powder feels like chalk.
Hydrochloric acid                      Small bubbles                               Many large bubbles, lots of bubbling

More experiments to be posted soon.....

Monday, May 16, 2011

Another hint: What am I?

This is a relative of the first What Am I? post. Can you guess what it is now?

Sent from my Windows Phone

And then there was pollen!

If you've ever had your car covered with yellow pollen, this is an example of one of the culprit trees. It's a pine tree, not sure what species. 

I noticed this morning that all of the branches seemed to be tipped in yellow. All of the yellow color on the branches is pine pollen. I'm curious about how long it will take before the tree turns back to its normal color! The good thing for allergy sufferers is that pine pollen has such a large particle size that it doesn't usually cause allergic reactions. Pine trees do get a lot of blame for allergies in the spring even though it's not deserved. Lots of other "late spring pollinators" happen to pollinate at the same time as pine. Maple, oak, and ash are just a few examples, but you won't see the pollen from these trees. They have a much smaller particle size. In other words, it's the pollen that you can't see that causes allergies, not the ones that you can see!

Closer view of the tree:

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What am I?--The answer FINALLY!

I thought it would be fun to occasionally post a picture for you to guess what it is. This is a plant in my yard. Do you know what it is? Stay tuned for the answer!

Sent from my Windows Phone

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quick News Bit: Conserving Gasoline by Changing Traffic Light Patterns

My local Fox 59 news station just aired a story about how Indianapolis is changing the patterns on the city traffic lights so people don't have to stop as often. The lights are normally timed to increase the number of stops you have to make, the theory being that you'll drive closer to the speed limit if you're constantly doing the stop and go. But the process of getting a car from a stop to moving takes more energy than going continuously at a set speed. So if you stop less, you'll save gas. And with our gas prices up to about $4.25 per gallon, anything the city can do to help us save gasoline will be much appreciated!

I'll share some problems you could do with students about this idea in a future post. I worked in a national petroleum lab for two summers so I have some interesting petroleum science I could share. Gasoline is a great example of lots of scientific principles in action that we take for granted as long as we remember to fill the tank!

The Human Brain is so COOL! Part 1: Sense of Smell

Have you ever smelled something, and suddenly you remembered something from a long time ago that you had completely forgotten about. The smell itself triggered that memory in your brain to resurface. The memories can be very old, and they can be very, very powerful.

Last night, the t.v. show Modern Family  was all about the extended family celebrating Mother's Day. Jay, the patriarch of the family, decided to make a special recipe that he loved that his mom had made for him as a kid. At the end of the episode, he took a big wiff of the delicious dinner, and it made him cry. The smell of the dinner triggered powerful memories of his mom and  and the happy times he had with her.

Your sense of smell can be a very powerful trigger of memories. But how? And why? After all, the part of your brain that detects smells is very close to your nose but not close to the places where memories are stored.

The sense of smell is one of the most basic processes in the human body as well as other animals, yet our understanding of how your brain captures molecules and translates that into something that your brain recognizes as a smell is cutting edge science. In 2004, Richard Axel and  Linda Buck won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking work in how the sense of smell works. That just goes to show that there are plenty of basic things about science that we still don't understand very well, even things that are so basic to the human experience.

Here's a link to Richard Axel's Nobel Prize lecture.
And here's one for Linda Buck's Nobel Prize lecture.

There's a lot going on in the small space that a human nose takes up I like using Google Chrome's interactive   You can adjust what you see, adding and removing the cardiovascular and nervous system, as well as human organs. You can even fade any of the three so the system is visible but not so much that it blocks your view of other features. You have to download Google Chrome to use this tool.

Once Chrome is installed, you can click here to access Google Body.

In my next post, I hope to talk a bit more about how the brain stores memories, then I'll tackle how scents trigger those memories.

Other resources for images of the nasal system:
A very detailed set of slides showing the anatomy of a nose can be found at this site by Kansas State University.

If you'd like to see some images that are more appropriate for younger children, The Children's Hospital Boston has some good images that separate the sinuses from the rest of the nasal system (olfactory).