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April 2009 Archives


With news of H1N1 flu, more commonly known as "swine flu," spreading like wild fire through the fibers of every communication and networking stream we use day to day, levels of fear and panic about this strain of influenza are on the increase, arguably with good reason. On Thursday, April 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the swine flu to level 5 on the pandemic alert scale. In response to this assertion that a pandemic outbreak is "imminent," school systems and school communities are passing along warnings to families and teachers, face masks are hot commodities, and the general sense of anxiety over each and every sniffle and sneeze is on the rise.

Taking precautions outlined by the Centers for Disease Control is smart. In addition to following standard practices for the prevention of spreading germs -- frequent hand washing, for example -- you need to be aware of the symptoms of swine flu, which unfortunately are similar to most typical strains of influenza.

Arming yourself with reliable information and knowing the facts is important. One of the key misconceptions of swine flu is the fear that you can "catch it" from eating pork or pork products. The Wall Street Journal reported that the price of "cash hogs" has fallen dramatically with swine flu in the news. The fear, based on the name, is that eating pork increases your risk. The Centers for Disease Control, however, confirms that swine flu is not transmitted through food. Snopes, a familiar source for differentiating fact from fiction in stories that circulate on the web and via email, also has a list of answers to twenty top questions about swine flu.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hosted a webcast today, April 30, to answer questions and provide more information about swine flu.

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Renewable Energy


PG&E recently asked the state of California to approve plans to turn to space-based solar systems as a source of clean energy. With plans for the satellite which would relay the solar energy to be designed and completed by Solaren Corp by 2016, it sounds far off, but, as reported by Scientific American, the promises of such a near-constant source of renewable energy are abundant.

Analysis of renewable energy sources takes center-stage in the Science Buddies science fair project idea: Free Lunch? Can Solar Energy Systems Pay for Themselves with Utility Bill Savings?. Additional Science Buddies information on renewable energy can be found in this abbreviated project idea: Renewable Energy Sources.


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Swine Flu: BLASTing viruses

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No matter what you open, turn on, or tune into, chances are you'll catch a headline about swine flu. The outbreak can be tracked at HealthMap or with their newly launched Twitter stream, which, according to Discovery News, was created in response to swine flu to enable more frequent updates than the hourly ones on the official HealthMap website.

A respiratory illness once limited to pigs, with occasional transmission to humans, the strain of swine flu that has appeared today and in cases throughout Mexico and the United States is unusual because it is capable of being spread from human to human. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this current swine flu has been sequenced and identified as part of the H1N1 family of influenza viruses. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the pandemic alert level for swine flu at phase 4, which indicates "sustained human-to-human transmission." Stages 5 and 6 represent pandemic levels of widespread transmission.

Scientists are currently hard at work to develop a vaccine, and the WHO has sequenced the flue strain. However, as reported by Scientific American, the process of developing a vaccine could take months

Understanding what goes into isolating, identifying, and developing treatments for a virus, involves understanding the genetics of different virus strains. The Science Buddies BLASTing Flu viruses is an advanced computer-based science fair project idea that looks at the composition of viral strains and uses the Influenza Sequence Database and Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST), a powerful Web-based tool for sequence alignment.

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DNA Day!


In celebration of the completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003, today is National DNA Day. The following Science Buddies project ideas offer an excellent point of entry for DNA discussions and an introduction of relevant concepts.

  • Do-It-Yourself DNA
    Design a DNA Extraction Kit and use it to purify DNA from strawberries
  • Extracting Onion DNA
    Extract DNA from onion in sufficient quantity to be seen and spooled.
  • A Magnetic Primer Designer
    Test how matches and mismatches affect the ability of primers to stick to the DNA that is copied during Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) .

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Appliances may be the largest objects in a house and the most visible signs of electricity consumption, but today's typical household uses a constant flow of electricity to power all the gadgets and conveniences that have become, for many of us, a way of life. There has been growing awareness and discussion of the continuous drain on electricity that happens even when you think you've turned a system "off." Many standard items go into a low-power or standby mode when you click "off" - which means they continue to use power. In March, when people around the world joined together to power down for a single hour (Earth Hour), warnings went out that plugs needed to be pulled and electrical strips shut off. Because our systems keep time, follow our recording interests, hook into local networks for updates, and so on, it takes more than just pressing the "power" button. There is a reality to an "always-on" society. The Chicago Tribune recently ran an article entitled "Putting a plug on the drain gang: The electricityslurpers in your techno home," which offers eye-opening statistics on what is often termed vampire power. The problem is also referred to as phantom power or leaking electricity.

This Science Buddies science fair project idea moves beyond the discussion and gives student a blueprint for recording and measuring the impact of phantom power.

Science Buddies Project Idea
    Spare a Watt, Save a Lot

    How much energy do you save by turning off your computer? Or unplugging your toaster at night? This project will help you find out!

    Science Buddies difficulty level: 4-5

    Duration: a couple of weeks


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How much paper do you throw out each week? Are you good about using both sides? Is your recycling bin overflowing? Despite the ways in which technology has changed traditional paperflow, paper is ubiquitous. We use paper day in and day out. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest categories of solid waste in the U.S. is paper, and statistics regarding the percentage of landfill taken up by paper, paper products, and packaging materials are eye-opening. Testing alternative methods and approaches to paper production that put various recycled materials to use is something students can do - and can have fun doing. But which materials make the best or strongest paper? This Science Buddies science fair project idea gives students the chance to make their own paper and run their own tests on properties.

Science Buddies Project Idea
    Alternative Sources for Paper Fiber

    The goal of this project is to make your own paper, test it, and rate its quality, using either recycled paper or plant fibers as the source material.

    Science Buddies' difficulty level: 5-8

    Duration: several weeks



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There's a very cool slideshow on the Discovery Channel site in recognition of Earth Day 2009. The collection of photos that make up the "On Earth Day, a Bird's-Eye View" slideshow are beautifully done and are accompanied by explanatory text that highlight the impact of climate change -- from dust storms to floods to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. The imagery is amazing - and certainly good for classroom sharing.

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Happy Earth Day! I was surprised this morning to log into my iGoogle page and see that of the science sites I'm following, "Earth Day" wasn't in the headlines. At Twitter, I saw much more hubbub about Earth Day, in a wide range of categories. Today is the third in our series of Science Buddies science fair project ideas hand-picked to help you celebrate Earth Day week with your students and in your classrooms.

Science Buddies Project Idea
    From Trash to Gas: Biomass Energy

    Using biomass for energy isn't a new idea, but it's certainly one worth talking about. As you consider the benefits of renewable energy -- or as you take in the smells on a drive out in the country -- the applications of biomass are worth a deeper look.

    In this science fair project idea, empty soda bottles, balloons, and different types of biomass give you the tools you need to measure the amounts of biogas created by varying types of biomass. Things could get smelly, but the results will be right easy to observe -- a perfect starting point for understanding important energy concepts.

    Science Buddies difficulty level: 4-6

    Duration: a couple of weeks


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Earth Day Week Project Idea #2


The California Academy of Science's Living Roof is home to 1.7 million native plants specially chosen to flourish in Golden Gate Park's climate. The phrase "Going Green" takes on new relevance when you consider roofs that are also green gardens. This Science Buddies science fair project idea takes a look at the benefits and advantages rooftop gardens offer.

Science Buddies Project Idea
    Rooftop Gardens: Are They a Cool Idea? In this science fair project you will determine whether or not a rooftop garden can help keep a building cool. (Science Buddies difficulty rating: 4 / duration: several days)

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Earth Day is this Week!


April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Earth Day offers a perfect opportunity to talk with students and young scientists about environmental, ecological, and energy issues, conservation efforts, and what it means to think "green."

The Science Buddies library of science fair project ideas contains a number of projects that offer a launching point for relevant conversations with students of all ages. These projects bring the issues into focus, making them down-to-Earth and "real" as students get hands-on with Earth Day.

We'll be posting projects throughout the week in celebration of Earth Day. First up, grab a bucket, collect some frogs, and evaluate what's really going on beneath the surface of a local pond with this Science Buddies science fair project idea:

Science Buddies Project Idea


To find out more about Earth Day 2010, visit the Earth Day Network

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It's not too late to enter the 2nd LEGO Builders of Tomorrow contest, sponsored by GeekDad. The deadline for submitting a photo of your family working together to build something from LEGO is April 30. The winning family will be featured on the box of the 2010 LEGO Builders of Tomorrow set.

The contest honors the timeless tradition of LEGO construction and the ways in which families come together to put principles of design, engineering, robotics, and physics to use with bricks of all sizes.

The ubiquitous nature of LEGO makes them perfect tools for introducing and demonstrating principles of science. Turn some downtime at home into an opportunity for scientific exploration with one of these Science Buddies science fair project ideas:

Let us know what you build, what questions come up, and how it goes. Your young builder could, indeed, be the builder or scientist of tomorrow!

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