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Talking Pi and Pie for Pi Day

Pi Day is a great excuse to make some math- and food-related Pi puns and bake up a tasty dessert. We suggest you throw a bit of science into the mix as well!

Pi Day photo / DennisWilkinson
Photo: Dennis Wilkinson, Flickr.

Tomorrow, March 14, 2014 is Pi Day, and we hate to let a Pi Day go by without an extra nod of the head to Pi, in all its varieties. Whether you celebrate Pi Day with a brief recitation of the digits of Pi you know, with a homemade or store-bought pie you can eat, or with pizza, we encourage you to add a bit of Pi science to your weekend.

See our Serving up Some Pi Pie for Pi Day post for great Pi-inspired ideas related to increasing your memorization skills. Or, check these posts for some yummy pie-making science project and family activity ideas:

Other Pi Day articles:

Pi of the Raspberry Variety

For the code-oriented Pi enthusiast, we leave you with a brief teaser: a Science Buddies Raspberry Pi Projects Kit is coming soon! Stay tuned for this exciting hands-on introduction to Raspberry Pi!



An orange scrub brush gives a family science activity a boost of jack-o-lantern-inspired fun and leads to a great robotics exploration.

Brushbot hands-on Halloween robotics science activity

Ever since the new Brushbot family science activity launched at Science Buddies, with electronics components conveniently bundled in a multi-project kit from the Science Buddies Store, I have had it on my "must make" list for my kids.

Thinking it would be cool to couple trick-or-treat month and the robotics project, I decided we would make a Halloween-themed Brushbot. Intent on tying our bot into October's mix of pumpkins, ghosts, and ghouls, I dug around online until I (finally) turned up a small scrub brush that seemed just right in terms of color. (It is harder than you might expect to find an orange scrub brush! Plus, for this project, you need a scrub brush without a handle.)

A Simple but Successful Build

On a roadmap of robotics projects, the Brushbot is a stepping stone early in the path, right there with the friendly toothbrush head Bristlebots. Despite the googly eye charm of the sample shown in the Science Buddies activity, with its simple circuit and limited number of parts, I worried that it might be a bit too easy of a build (compared to working with a breadboard) to capture my student's interest.

I was wrong!

A Blueprint for Success

The steps of the Brushbot activity are very simple to follow. There are a limited number of pieces involved in hooking things together, and the activity does an excellent job of providing easy-to-follow directions (with photos).

In minutes, my son had the circuit complete and was wriggling the cork onto the motor. A few minutes after that, he was able to flip the brushbot on and see it go.

Unfortunately, after a few seconds of scuttling to one side, the brushbot fell over. He set it upright and let it loose again. It fell over. Time after time, the brushbot fell over almost immediately.

Rather than being a stumbling block or a "fail" in terms of the science activity, his brushbot's initial lack of stability was actually a wonderful fulcrum for exploration. He had positioned his cork the way the directions instruct, but he was seeing unexpected behavior from his brushbot.

He hypothesized why he thought it was falling over—and he started testing to see if he could improve and stabilize the movement of the bot.

A Robot in Hand

Contrary to the basic bristlebot and the light-tracking bristlebot, both of which we made last year, the brushbot is chunky. It is hand-sized. Its few and large parts are also easy to tinker with. The positioning and placement of the cork on the motor, for example, offers ample room for experimentation and testing that offers immediate, clear, and visible results for a young robotics engineer. How fast does it move? Does it move in one direction only? Does it stay upright? Does it move in a circle or in a line?

My student tried a number of positions for the cork, noting how the bot's movement changed each time. He also experimented with adding a good bit of extra electrical tape to secure the motor more firmly to the brush. (This did improve the balance and movement of his brushbot.)

Even after the initial "project" was over, throughout the day, he picked the brushbot up again several times, watched it scuttle around on the floor, and tinkered a bit more. He tried more than one cork (they vary in size and thickness), too, to see what difference those variables might make.

Great Introductory Robotics

Because the circuitry is less complicated than other bots we have built, there was less need to worry about the intricacies of the electronics components and the circuit. Instead of making the project too easy, this seems to have invited my student to spend more time tinkering with the brushbot and putting the engineering design process in action.

We didn't have googly eyes on hand. But we improvised some pumpkin-shaped eyes and mouth on pieces of duct tape that we attached to the front. (Admittedly, this was more important to me than to him. Your success with decorating your bot will vary based on your student!)

No matter how you decorate it or what color brush you use, the brushbot has potential to have a lot of personality and individual pizzazz, but it also offers a lot of hands on engineering satisfaction for students--and fast gratification.

There is not much that can "go wrong" with a robotics project like this one, which makes it a great entry point project for families and kids just beginning to experiment with robotics and electronics.

Extend the Fun

If your students enjoy making the Brushbot, be sure and check these other posts and projects:

Support for resources and Project Ideas in robotics is provided by Northrop Grumman, Symantec Corporation, and the Best Buy Foundation.



Family Egg Science

Egg science comes over-easy this time of year. Whether you are boiling eggs, dyeing eggs, or both, there are easy questions you can ask with your kids to turn the activity into a hands-on science experiment that everyone will enjoy.

Egg Science / natural dyes
Egg Science / hard boiledEgg Science / soft-boiling eggsEgg Science / Strength of an Egg
Egg Science / natural dyesEgg Science / tie dye eggsEgg Science / family project

In the past few years, the process of preparing colorful, hard-boiled eggs has taken on new and very scientific significance for me as a parent. In turning the seemingly simple act of egg dyeing into a hands-on science endeavor with my kids, we have asked a variety of science questions (one at a time) and experimented with various steps in the process of boiling and dyeing.

If you will be boiling, dyeing, cracking, or hiding eggs this week with your kids at home or students at school, I hope you find science-minded inspiration and support for at-home science in the following family science posts from Easters past:

This year, I am not planning to run kid experiments with dyeing or boiling. Instead, we got hands-on, ahead of time, with a bag of plastic eggs and the ping pong catapult. Stay tuned for a photo recap of some serious egghead-launching fun! [Update! See how our plastic eggs experiment with the Ping Pong Catapult went. Super fun!]

Don't Miss This Egg Success Story

This story of a fourth grader's science project and his experience using silk ties to dye eggs is a great science project success story to share with your students. You can talk with them about pH and even try tie dyeing eggs as a group or home science activity!



Science Buddies has great ideas to keep your students engaged during spring break with cool science experiments they can do at home. Tweak our full science fair Project Ideas to challenge your kids to scientific spring break fun!

Ready or not... Spring Break is here again! Whether you are able to take time to be hands-on with your kids during the days off of school or need ideas for keeping them busy and engaged, Science Buddies has great science kits and fun project ideas and science activities that can help.

Each year, we single out a few new (or favorite) science projects and activities that make super family science or solo student experiments. This year, these new projects in the Science Buddies library stand out as great choices for spring break:

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Theremin music project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Baseball swing with catapult project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- centripetal force with marbles project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Make your own marshmallows project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LED wearable e-textiles electronics project

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- Build a simple motor Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- carnival games physics science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- candy waterfall physics

Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- make and test a homemade respirometer science project Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- hovercraft Spring break science / hands-on projects guide for families -- LEGO tumbler physics project

More Great Science Activities

In addition to the ideas above, these posts on the Science Buddies Blog contain a wealth of great suggestions that can help parents plan Spring Break (or any other break) science activities and experiences for kids of all ages:



Serving up Some Pi Pie for Pi Day

March 14 is Pi Day, so grab a slice, and your best memorization skills. How much Pi can you remember—which is not quite the same as how much pie can you eat!

Pi Pie by Kat M - great tribute to Pi day with number-topped pie

Celebrating Pi Day with Pie

A Google search or a Pi-focused look at Pinterest turns up all kinds of great Pi pie. The pie above, with the opening numbers of Pi cookie-cut and used as the top crust is a wonderful tribute to Pi! Image: Kat M.

Pi. Pie. When it comes to students of a certain age, there is often a very fine line between the two, and celebrating Pi Day often involves real pie as both a treat and a demonstration. Pi. And pie. There are a bazillion digits (and counting) in one and eight conservative or four generous slices in the other, but there is clear overlap beyond the fact that they both use a "p" and an "i" and are, grammatically speaking, homophones. They sound the same, but they also share an affinity for circles. Pi (π) represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, and pie, typically, is presented in the form of a circle.

No matter how you slice it, you can use pie to observe Pi in action, which makes things handy when it comes to dishing up some tasty math. Speaking of pie, if you know the formula for finding the area of a circle, then you will understand this math joke "Pies are not square, they are round." (Confused? The formula for determining the area of a circle is A = πr2. Read it out loud to "hear" how it sounds. Then entertain your kids in class, in the car, or at dinner with your pithy math humor.)

Celebrating Pi

Today is Pi Day, and when I went looking to see what I said last year about Pi Day and the interminable decimal places of venerable Pi, the sequence that both enthralls and haunts many mathematicians, I discovered that no blog post exists at Science Buddies on Pi. 3.14159 what?

How can this be? I know the Golden Ratio has come up. I know Fibonacci has made an appearance. I know I've regaled the virtues of histograms and data collection and even the sorting and counting of M&Ms—for fun or for an exploration of survival and camouflage. I've shared a tale of a few hundred straws, hexagons, and a geodesic dome that almost didn't fit through the door. But no coverage of Pi Day?

It is completely irrational.

As is Pi!

For mathematicians, Pi Day is a day to pay homage to a serious number, a number that isn't really all that big when you think about the fact that 3 is smaller than 4. But Pi is a number that stands the test of time and a number that mathematicians have spent countless hours studying, memorizing, computing, and exploring. Like the Golden Ratio, Pi is an irrational number, a number that cannot be expressed as a simple fraction, a numbers whose decimal place digits continue endlessly without repeating. (According to the Mathisfun website, "People have calculated Pi to over a quadrillion decimal places and still there is no pattern.") Want to take a look at the first million digits? You can see them on the Pi Day site.

So how many digits of Pi do you know? We shorten Pi, all the time, to 3.14. When we multiply something by Pi (like r2 when solving for the area of a circle), we multiply by 3.14. But, really, with more than a quadrillion decimal places known, there is a whole lot more to Pi than just 3.14! There are competitions even to see how many digits of Pi people can recite. The Guinness World Records holder set the current record in 2005 by reciting 67,890 digits of Pi, a verbal feat that took more than 24 hours.

Making Connections

What's the longest number you know? A 9-digital identification number? A 10-digit phone number? A 16-digit credit card number? What's the max number of digits you can commit to memory and why?

Memorizing Pi to thousands of places doesn't necessarily have a purpose, but it is an interesting test of memorization technique and skill. Students can explore variables that may influence numeric recall in the How Many Numbers Can You Remember? project. This project can be great for an independent student project, fun as a class activity, or just good for family dinner conversation. You can use any numbers in the project, including randomly generated number strings, but this is a great experiment to do with the digits of Pi—even while eating pie on Pi Day!

If memorizing more than a few digits of Pi seems complicated to you, what happens if you explore the use of mnemonic devices? We often think of mnemonic devices as a way to help remember items in a sequence (like the planets) or a list of things, but people do come up with mnemonic devices to help with the recall of number strings, too.

To find out more about mnemonic devices and to put a few to the test, see the full Memory Mnemonics science project or check out our family-friendly activity version, part of Scientific American's Bring Science Home.

Have a great Pi Day 2014, and if there is pie, let it be circular and sweet.

Pi Day Pi Pie Screenshot from Google search
In looking at material for this blog post, a simple search of "Pi Pie" at Google let to an amazing array of Pi pie. The screenshot captures a few of the images that came up from all over the Internet. Clearly, there are lots of people inspired by Pi and happy to celebrate anything that involves pie!

More Family and Classroom Math

For suggestions on ways to integrate math into your everyday classroom or family activities, see Making Room for Math.



Baking Up a Science Project

A batch of homemade muffins can easily turn into a great hands-on student science project. Grab some bowls and choose your variable!

By Kim Mullin

Student doing kitchen science experiment with muffins
Image: My son headed to the kitchen for a recent science project and found that using the scientific method, making muffins can yield tasty science.

Pumpkin muffins are a mainstay of our family's snack repertoire. I love that they are full of vitamin A, and the kids love that they have chocolate chips in them. My 12-year-old started making them by himself this year, and he's a very practical person, so it didn't surprise me when he decided to make muffins for his science experiment. "Mom, I can do my homework and make a snack at the same time."

Finding the Science in the Everyday

So how can making muffins be a science experiment? All you have to do to turn the process into hands-on science is try controlled variations (changing only one variable at a time) on the recipe or directions. For example, what happens if you bake batches at different temperatures? What happens if you change, substitute, omit, or add ingredients? My son chose to bake batches using different amounts of baking powder to see how the change in quantity would affect the height of the resulting muffins.

The Scientific Method in Action

For his school science assignment, he needed a control group and three different test groups. Rather than bake four whole batches, which would have given us 96 muffins, he chose to make four half batches. Happily, the recipe was easy to divide in two.

After gathering all of his ingredients together, he pulled four bowls out of the cupboard and labeled each one with the amount of baking powder it should contain. His control batch contained the regular amount of baking powder called for by his recipe, and the test batches contained 1) no baking powder, 2) half the normal amount of baking powder, and 3) double the normal amount of baking powder.

Throughout his experiment, he was careful to keep all other variables the same. Because he couldn't bake 48 muffins all at once, he chose to measure only the dry ingredients into each of the four bowls. He added the egg, vanilla, and other "wet" ingredients only when he was ready to put a batch in the oven. Of course, the oven was set to the same temperature for each batch, and he used a timer to make sure they all spent the same amount of time in the oven.

The Proof is in the Muffin

Once the batches were cooked and cooled, it was time to test his hypothesis about how changing the amount of baking powder in a recipe would affect muffin height. He cut each muffin at its highest point, measured it, and entered the data into a spreadsheet. Before taking the average height of each batch, he opted to throw out the shortest and tallest muffin in each batch—the outliers. What do you think his results were? I'm not letting on, except to say that they were awfully tasty!

Science Doesn't Have to Involve Lab Coats

Was this experiment "hard"? No. But it was a straightforward way to solidify the concepts of hypothesis, variable, control, data analysis, and conclusion in his mind. And, because his dad is a statistics geek, they were able to have interesting conversations about mean, median, range, and statistical significance—while enjoying a muffin and a glass of milk!

So many of the things we do everyday involve scientific principles. Help your kids make the connection!

Your Own Kitchen Science
If you and your kids are inspired to do a muffin-making (or cookie-baking) project similar to the one my son did, the Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? food science project contains a full procedure to get you started. For additional ways to "mix up" the experiment, be sure to check the Make it Your Own tab. If you are looking for a simplified version of this experiment, perfect for family together-time, see our family-friendly adapation for Scientific America's Bring Science Home.

For other food science experiments and family science activities for the kitchen, you might try one of the following:



Science fair projects let students learn, use, and demonstrate important science and reasoning steps, and the benefits of hands-on and active exploration compared to more passive modes of learning or rote memorization are well-documented. So why do so many parents scowl at the science fair project assignment? What makes the science project a stressor for many families rather than an anticipated and positive learning experience? Is it simply a matter of perspective or an incomplete understanding of what a science fair project is and should be? There are many steps teachers can take to help transform the science fair project experience, but what does it take, at home, to transform the science project assignment from something parents dread into something parents celebrate as a critical and invaluable step in their student's learning?

Turning Turmoil into Terrific / Science Fair Project Display Board for parents

Better Understanding the Science Fair Project: Helpful Resources for Parents

The following resources and articles may help parents reconceptualize the importance, value, and process of a student's science fair project assignment:

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Social Media Lashes Out at the "Science Fair Project"

Have you seen it? The GoldieBlox Super Bowl ad, yes. The LEGO® Movie, yes. The tongue-in-cheek project display board bemoaning the science fair project process and citing a more than 75% dissatisfaction rate among students and parents, as measured by the number of students who cry and the number of parents who yell during the process? Probably.

You may have seen the project display board crop up on your favorite social media site. You may have been surprised to see it pop into your stream from distant corners of the country or globe, from parents and grandparents alike. You may have been surprised to see it crop up in the stream of a parent or friend who you know has a very engineering- or science- or technology- or math-oriented kid, a parent you know spends countless hours encouraging, lauding, and supporting her student's hands-on science and engineering projects—and proudly sharing those same projects with her friends and followers.

It happened to me. I first saw the "science project turmoil" project display board shared by the parent I would least expect to spare it a second glance, much less share it. The next morning, I saw the photo shared by someone else in a completely different part of the country, someone who doesn't even have school-age children. As friends of those friends weighed in with a comment or a thumbs-up on the post, notifications kept popping up (accompanied by a 'beep' on my system) letting me know how much "support" the photo was getting from other people who saw the photo and agreed enough to click 'Like,' or leave a comment, or share the photo on their own stream. I didn't see anyone rebutting the image or standing up on behalf of the virtues and values of hands-on science education—at least not in those two shares of the photo. Even from teachers, I saw "likes."

Puzzled by the near-instant wave of people latching onto the image and issue, I went to the source—the original photo posted in March 2011.

It is both fascinating and frightening to read through the comments on the original photo. There are, thankfully, some people who weighed in noting the positive nature of hands-on or active science education. There is, in fact, a comment by the board creator where it seems that, in part, her complaint is really aimed at the way science fair is presented in elementary school—at the fact that the "competition" aspect of science fair may overshadow the point of hands-on science and turn the science fair into something else, something that invites and encourages far too much parent involvement. Her comment (#48) is there, but as the turmoil board picked up steam anew last week, it appears that by and large, people saw the "turmoil board" and were compelled to join the wave of "why do a science project" comments, a tidal wave of anti-science education sentiment that took on new life with each new like.

Why Do a Science Project?

What gave the "turmoil board" steam when it resurfaced? What prompted people from all corners to share, reshare, like, and comment? If many of those people are people who actually support, encourage, and even enjoy hands-on science and engineering activities with their kids, you have to dig deeper to see what's really at issue here.

Take the science (or engineering) out of it, and the "project" stands alone, with the assumed "assigned" or "fair" being the silent partner in crime, the elephant in the room. The board creator even suggests that without a competitive fair, science projects could be approached differently for elementary school children, done more as family projects and explorations. In other words, it is specifically the school science fair project that is being projected as the cause of family turmoil.

The board, with its googly eyes overlooking the hand-drawn results diagram, goes on to explain why.

The photo got under my skin, maybe because it was shared (and liked) by people that I didn't expect to share (and like) it. It was shared and liked by people who I know value science education, people who I know are proactive and publicly involved in the education systems in their areas.

So why the widespread jump on the anti-science fair project bandwagon? What buttons did the "turmoil board" press?

Kids Doing Science

At Science Buddies, I am one of the non-scientists. I am exactly the kind of parent that might seem to fall into the "science projects cause family turmoil" camp simply because "science fair" isn't my forte—science fair puts me well out of my comfort zone.

Before Science Buddies, maybe I would have been drinking the science-causes-turmoil Kool-Aid. It is hard to know how I might have approached a science fair assignment before Science Buddies. I can't go backwards and manipulate the variables or set up a control to see how my family would have weathered science fair season without the benefit of knowing about the project ideas and resources available at Science Buddies.

Thankfully, there is Science Buddies.

As a parent of elementary and middle school children, I have, over the last few years, done and witnessed a wide range of science and engineering projects with my kids, ones that have been completed for science fairs and ones that we have done together as family activities.

My lack of engineering and electronics experience didn't stop us from tackling toothbrush robots, light-following Bristlebots, a crystal radio, pencil dimmer switches, play dough electronics, and more. That doesn't mean I didn't wonder with each project if I knew enough to guide the activity or help troubleshoot problems that might come up with the independent (science fair) projects. But, all in all, science fair projects in my house have gone smoothly and been positive experiences all around.

So, where was the turmoil?

There was much more angst with the "build a mission" project, a California History assignment in the 4th grade and a clay roof that took hours with a hair dryer to try and harden. There was plenty of angst any time an assignment to "dress up as your historical subject" came home. (We didn't happen to have Ben Franklin-suitable attire on hand.) Making a half dozen artifacts to go along with a history research project certainly took as much time as the science fair project. Indeed, there have been flurries and scurries with a wide range of creative and "craft"-oriented exercises and assignments.

So what's the problem with the science fair? And, more importantly, what does it take to turn a standard science fair assignment into a positive, successful learning experience for students and a positive parenting experience for the grown-ups?

Helping Students (and Parents) Enjoy the Science Fair Project

As I watched the fervor over science fair mount, triggered by a marker-drawn project display board, I wanted to pass out Science Buddies stickers to every person who clicked "like" or "share" or wrote a comment commiserating with the horrors of science fair.

I wanted to grab some markers and make my own Project Display Board of all the things I know that Science Buddies offers that can help remedy the problem, all the tools and guidance that can transform the science project into something students and parents look forward to as a fun way to get really hands-on with a cool science question.

If only all of those parents knew about Science Buddies, I kept thinking. Of course, I work for Science Buddies. So I have an inside view. I know that more than fifteen million other people, including students, teachers, and parents also know about Science Buddies and count the non-profit and its free, online resources as a trusted source. I know they visit the site each year when science fair rolls around.

I can only assume that the "turmoil board" creator may not know about Science Buddies and may not know about the Topic Selection Wizard.

We need Science Buddies stickers. We need a badge kids can sew on to a troop uniform. We need to go viral in the same way that the "turmoil board" went viral.

Science Buddies and the Student Science Fair Project

Science Buddies has a whole set of keys that can help transform the science fair "turmoil" into a successful experience for students and parents. In part, parents have to get beyond their own fear of science and their own assumptions about science fair. You don't have to be a science expert to help an elementary student do a school science project. But you do have to have the right idea about what a science project is, what it can be, and how to approach it to maximize the learning experience—and enjoyment—for your student. You also have the right to expect that a science fair project isn't simply a homework assignment, something sent home with a due date several weeks in the future and not integrated at all in the day-to-day classroom.

For science fair projects to be successful, teachers have to ensure that projects are integrated into the classroom learning and monitored with clear schedules and check-ins that help students stay on track and also teach students how to break a big project down into doable parts. Science fair projects should not be done the night before they are due. Ever.

There are a number of ways in which teachers can (and should) help smooth the science fair project experience. But in responding to the "turmoil board," the following reminders for parents and students can make a big difference in how the process goes at home:

  1. Plan ahead. This is a big stumbling block for many students and parents. Waiting until two days before the project is due to select a project or buy supplies is a guaranteed recipe for disaster (and family stress). Plus, waiting too late in the process limits what kind of project your student can do. The project your student might be most excited by might take weeks to complete. That doesn't necessarily mean it is a more difficult project, but projects in certain areas of science may take more time—plant biology projects, for example, or setting up and testing a microbial fuel cell for an environmental science project.
    Note: proper scheduling of the project and assessing a student's progress throughout the project window is a teacher's responsibility and can really help alleviate science project stress, procrastination, and confusion. When properly scheduled and managed with in-class due dates and timelines, parents should not suddenly learn from a panicked student that the science fair project is "due tomorrow" and has not been started. (See the Science Fair Scheduler Worksheet in the Teacher Resources area.) Parents can help students set up calendars and put time to work on various parts of the project on a schedule to help reinforce the time management and planning skills students are learning and using.
  2. Pick a great project idea. A half-baked project idea should not be the cause of science fair angst. At Science Buddies, there are more than 1,200 scientist-authored project ideas in more than 30 areas of science. Most of these project ideas offer background information to help kickstart a student's research and a full experimental procedure that has been tested and reviewed by a team of scientists.
  3. Hook into student interests. A student who does a project that fits in with an existing area of interest is far more likely to enjoy the science project process than a student who picks a project because it fits a parent's area of expertise or somehow fits what a parent thinks a science project "should be." This doesn't mean that your student needs to know if she is interested in biotechnology or aerodynamics. If she knows that, great. But if she doesn't, what are her hobbies? What does she like to do in her spare time? Are there issues she cares about?

    Finding a science project related to an interest may immediately set the stage for a more exciting and engaging science fair project. Not sure where to look? The Topic Selection Wizard at Science Buddies helps match students to projects they may really enjoy—even in areas of science they might not have initially considered. Respond to a few simple statements that help the Wizard better understand your interests, and the Wizard will show you a set of projects that you might like. From video gaming to sports to robotics and zoology, there are great student projects in every area of science.

  4. Think beyond the box about what qualifies as a science fair project. Your student is not limited to doing the same project everyone else does, the same project an afterschool program demonstrated, or the same project you remember from your own science class. There are an infinite number of possible questions your student might ask and around which a science project may be built. Students are not limited to exploding volcanoes or seeing whether plants grow better with this liquid or that one. Here are a few examples of great science projects that might not sound like what you expect:

    Those are just a few of the many, many projects that students might choose, projects that sound like a whole lot of fun!

  5. Pick a project that fits with the student's grade level/experience. Not every science fair project will results in a Nobel Prize-worthy conclusion or data set. School science projects are not supposed to be equivalent to what adult scientists are doing in the field or in research labs. Instead, a student's science project gives the student the chance to enact the scientific or engineering method and answer a science question. What is learned or observed by the student may be something small, but the student will have learned by doing, by putting the question to the test and gathering and analyzing data. Picking a project that is too hard is certain to cause problems, and choosing a project that is too simplistic for your student will not challenge her to really dig in and get involved in the process and project.
  6. Understand the role of the parent and the role of the student in the science project process. Your student's science project should not be your own project. Depending on your student's grade and age, you may need to be more or less involved in helping your student facilitate the experiment. But if an appropriate project is selected, your student should be able to work through the steps on her own. Your student needs to come up with the hypothesis (her words, not yours). Your student needs to decide what the project display board looks like and how the information gets presented. Your role may be that of driver (to the library) or buyer (materials, glue, and a project display board). Or maybe your role is to help your student talk out loud about what is happening in the project so that she is better able to understand and articulate what she observes, what problems she encounters, what questions she has, how her variables are related, or what else she may need to do in developing her procedure or analyzing her data. (For more information, see How to Help Your Science Student.)
  7. Review the basic steps of the scientific method or engineering design process yourself. Your student should be learning and reviewing these steps in class, but refreshing your memory about what is involved will help you feel more confident about the step-wise approach that most projects follow. Bookmark the Science Buddies Project Guide. It is your friend.
  8. Remember that being "right" is not the goal. A science project may not turn out the way your student expects. A hypothesis may not turn out to be supported by the experiment. It may seem like exactly the opposite of what your student thought was going to happen happened. This doesn't mean the project failed. If your student worked through the appropriate steps and learned something by doing the experiment, then the project may, in fact, have been a success. Teachers look to see that students have used and understood the scientific steps, understand what they were testing and why, and understand what the data showed—even if it is different than what the hypothesis predicted. Do not think your student has failed if the project takes an unexpected turn!
  9. Go to the science fair. Make an effort to go to the science fair to see your student's project on display, one project display board among all the others, and to celebrate the hard work and learning that went on as part of the project. Everyone who completes a science fair project deserves recognition for participation!

Here's to Science Fair Project Success in Your House!

Share Science Buddies with your student's parents, with your friends, colleagues, and family. Science Buddies can make a difference in how students and families perceive the science fair project.

While your students finish preparing their science fair projects for this year, I may work on a few project display boards of my own. As the "turmoil board" shows, you can certainly make a statement and communicate information about a project or a process using a project display board! That students learn to share their project results in this way is a great exercise at the end of the science project process!



LEGO Movie Makes Engineering Awesome

The LEGO® Movie puts engineering on the big screen in the hands of an assortment of plastic master builders and superheroes from various time periods and realms who come together to challenge Lord Business and the superior threat of Kragle. What they engineer in their quest to stop the Kragle will inspire students, teachers, and parents. If you aren't singing the awesome virtues of engineering yet, you should be!

LEGO Movie downloadable social media cover from official site
Note: You can find out more about the movie and watch video trailers on the official LEGO Movie site or on the LEGO site.

If you've seen the LEGO® Movie, then you know, "Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team." And, maybe... everything is awesome when you trust yourself, build what you want, imagine what isn't already written in a manual, and see yourself as special.

With Engineers Week this week, the timing for the smash LEGO Movie feels pretty, well, awesome. The importance of strengthening and encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education for K-12 students is an important topic of discussion, and on the heels of the great GoldieBlox ad during last month's Super Bowl game, a movie devoted to highlighting what is possible when you celebrate and combine ingenuity, innovation, and the spirit of engineering has all the makings of a blockbuster.

No matter what angle you approach it from, there is something to like in the LEGO Movie, even if a toddler seated behind you stands up the entire movie with his face wedged on the back edge of your seat and babbles throughout. There is something to like even if you think you have a toe a bit too far into teenhood to still play with LEGO. This is a feel-good movie that budding engineers, creative types, parents, kids, vehicle enthusiasts, and all fans of pink unicorn kitties are sure to enjoy.

Maybe you really love the fact that the first master builder who whirls into quick-as-a-flash building view is Wyldstyle, aka Lucy, a perfect big screen moment for inspiring and applauding girls interested in STEM. Maybe you love Batman's wry persona and his comment about building only in black, and sometimes a very, very dark grey. Maybe you like Emmet's morning routines, all by the instruction manual, including some pretty fierce jumping jacks. Maybe you really liked the appearance of a floating, dangling, glowing-eyed, Ghost Vitruvious. Maybe you really liked Benny the astronaut who can snap together a space ship out of whatever parts are on hand. Depending on where you live (or in which realm), maybe you chuckled over the overpriced coffee.

Or maybe you liked the aha moment when you finally realized what the "piece of resistance" really is in the context of the story.

The movie is full of great moments that may strike a chord with viewers of all ages in ways both obvious and subtle. As a parent, I liked the movie on many levels. We have zillions of bricks in the house from years gone by, and I fondly remember our days of "instruction manual" building as well as our days of free-form building. I loved the way master builders in the movie looked around at piles of bricks and pieces and saw, instantly, the different kinds of elements they needed, complete with the LEGO part ID numbers.

Watching the master builders in the movie quickly assess the problem, the moment, the dire necessity, and whip up something amazing from salvaged and reclaimed bricks was very cool. But Emmet's solution for the broken wheel axle during an early wagon escape scene was also right on track for the way engineers think on their feet (or with their heads) as they create and innovate needed solutions. His double-decker couch may have inspired some laughter, but in the end, it helped Emmet and a core group of characters escape, its real functionality emerging as an accidental discovery—something that happens in science and engineering all the time!

Ultimately, throughout the movie, viewers see the engineering design process in action. Things are built and rebuilt over and over and over again—with or without a manual. Engineering is fun and awesome.

Making Connections

If the movie inspired you and your kids and made you think about the buckets, bins, and baskets of LEGO bricks that have wound their way into the basement or storage or a closet, pull them out again and see what happens when you encourage your kids to take a fresh look and think and build beyond the instruction booklet.

The following science project ideas can be turned on their heads to give students new building experiences and challenges:

  • Building the Tallest Tower: this one is a vertical exploration, but what happens if you change the orientation? Or, by all means, build up! What do you need to do to keep climbing higher?
  • Mixing Mystery: Why Does Tumbling Sometimes Separate Mixtures?: use LEGO to build a science tool that can help sort out a mixture. If you love the kinds of ideas you find in a Lego Crazy Action Contraptions-style book, this one might be right up your alley!
  • Gears-Go-Round!: working with gears and understanding the relationship between the number of teeth and a gear's functionality will help students refine their building skills and strengthen their "how will this connect with that" know-how. What are all the ways you can reuse the collection of gears you have?

If your older kids are using LEGO Mindstorms, don't miss the great array of Mindstorms projects in the robotics area at Science Buddies.

Follow these, as written, or use the ideas as starting points for launching your own building projects and engineering or robotics investigations:

(These projects work with older Mindstorms kits or the new EV3 model.)

What you build will be awesome—because you build it!

Science on the Dark Side

Did the Kragle in the movie make your brain buzz? Did you spot the scene at the end where the humans are un-gluing structures that had been super-glued in perfect place? Did you cringe at the sad moment when Good Cop, Bad Cop's good face was wiped clean?

These moments invite all kinds of science questions about glues, adhesives, and solvents. Get started!

LEGO Movie - What will you create, build, engineer, innovate? Get started with Science Buddies



As you prepare for winter break and lots of indoor time with your kids, consider scheduling some time for family science. We have suggestions for fun hands-on science and engineering activities you can do with your kids that might feel a lot like playing or crafting even though there is plenty of science at hand!

By this point in the year, you have hopefully nailed down any upcoming gift-giving moments and are ready to kick back with your kids, friends, and family and enjoy the final days of the calendar year. There are those who procrastinate, of course, and there are those who are still looking because they strive to find the most different, most educational, or most unexpected gift. To help those last-minute and discerning gift-givers, our staff has made lists in year's past of gifts they would like to receive from the Science Buddies Store and great "to do" gift ideas that are fun as a hands-on activity and as a science project. From tie-dye to a little light-sensitive grasshopper robot, there are all kinds of great science project materials and kits that you can feel good about giving.

Many of the kits in the Science Buddies Store would make an awesome gift for a young scientist or engineer!

Planning "To Do" Time

Last-minute gift buying and wrapping aside, many families are done with the flurry of holiday preparations and are looking ahead at the pending school break. There are a number of days to fill, and in many areas, cold weather may force everyone indoors for large chunks of time. What can you do to stave off kid cabin fever, keep everyone entertained, and have fun exploring something hands-on with your kids?

Winter break is a great time for family science and engineering. With the right projects and activities, you and your family can have a great time building, experimenting, and testing science questions together!

Consider these science- and engineering-based suggestions:

Passing Family Time with Simple Experiments that Use Everyday Materials

For easy-to-prepare and family-ready science experiments you can do with items around the house, consider these fun and creative options from our weekly family science activity spotlight:

We hope you have a great winter break with your kids—and plenty of time to explore something new together, to tinker, to play, to make, and to ask questions and seek answers through hands-on science!

Buying for a Specialist?

One of our staff scientists compiled a list of gift suggestions for biology enthusiasts. Check out her bio-inspired gift ideas in her "What to Buy the Burgeoning Biologist?" post on the Biology Bytes website.



Building light-tracking robots as a family activity lets you and your kids take next steps in electronics and circuitry!

Family Light-tracking robotics engineering project with toothbrush robots

My kids and I had a great time over the summer whetting our teeth on basic robotics and electronics by transforming toothbrushes into cute little Bristlebot robots that look and work very much like commercially-available nano or hex bugs. The basic Bristlebots robotics engineering project is a fun hands-on activity and one that works for a wide range of ages. You can read up on our experience and our nitty-gritty tips and insights after doing this family science activity (like using garden shears to snap of toothbrush heads) in the "Building Bristlebots: Basic Toothbrush Robotics" post.

For us, the basic Bristlebots were just a toe in the water. My plan, all along, was to build the much more sophisticated light-tracking bots with my kids, but I liked the fact that we could do the projects in sequence, thus building our skills and understanding of the principles involved. More sophisticated, of course, often translates to more complicated, and, indeed, the light-tracking bots project was a more challenging project. But, without a doubt it was also a more satisfying family project. We like a challenge!

Breadboard diagram for electronics engineering project

Meet Your Bread Board

The project at Science Buddies uses very clear and helpful diagrams like the one shown above to help guide students in placing their parts correctly.

Our red, green, and blue mini bread boards were super cute and cheerful, but only two of them had any numbers and letters printed on them, and one of them had the numbers and letters completely reversed from the diagrams in the project. The procedure at Science Buddies has since been updated to mention that breadboard layouts and on-board descriptors may vary, but it gave us something to talk about as we read through the directions and got ready to follow the steps of the procedure. Did it matter? Did we need to reverse the circuit diagrams on the one board? Tip: If your breadboard doesn't have the same (or any) numbers or letters, just follow the diagrams at Science Buddies so that your circuit visually matches the one shown in terms of placement for each element.

The basic Bristlebots are super cute, super easy, and fun to make, but with slightly older kids in the family science setting, the light-tracking bots proved an excellent choice for us. They take longer to build. They involve a circuit beyond just a battery and a motor. They have cool functionality that lets kids put their own or a parent's phone flashlight app to use. They can be used as the foundation for extending the project and learning opportunity by challenging kids to alter (or reverse) the functionality. And, maybe best of all, they sport a very handy on-off switch! Plus, they are very cute and have a lot of personality even in their barebones wires and parts. (Revving up the design once you get the bots working is not required but can add to the creative fun for kids who want to customize and personalize their bots.)

Cool Parts

I had never used a bread board when I ordered all my supplies for this project and then gathered the kids around the table a few days after we made our original Bristlebots. Doling out the required materials for three kids to work on building these little robots was exciting. There were lots and lots of resistors, three awesome kits of colorful jumper wires, photoresistors, MOSFETs, battery packs, switches, pancake batteries, and more. There was a lot going on, and we were excited to get started.

While I recommend doing this build start to finish, family science sometimes follows the stop-and-go patterns of daily life. We split our build into two sessions, working around an important game of laser tag. Before we got started, everyone read the full procedure, and then we were ready to get hands-on. We knew we were not going to finish in one sitting, but the kids worked through the first several steps of the procedure, enough to give me a sense of how well the kids were going to do with following the diagrams and pushing the small pieces into place. Tip: If you have to start, stop, and come back to finish, be sure you stop with everyone having completed the same step!

When we came back later, we picked back up where we left off.

Excellent Diagram-led Build

The procedure at Science Buddies for this project is excellent. The team did a great job guiding students through the steps and providing helpful diagrams and photos to show the circuit as it develops on the bread board. (See the sample bread board diagram in the sidebar at the right.) Going into the build, I didn't have any prior knowledge of drains and gains, and my own understanding of how the rows and columns of the breadboard were related to the drain and gain didn't form immediately. Even so, if you follow the steps, putting the elements in place on the circuit step-by-step, as directed, you can do (or lead) this robotics project! (Note: Students who are working on the project as an independent project for the science fair or for a school project will want to really dig into the meaty information in the introduction, but families and science moms can approach these bots just as a fun hands-on building activity. You and your kids will be learning along the way, but don't worry up front about whether or not the circuit diagrams make sense to you!)

Follow the Directions

While doing this project, your kids will need good fine-motor skills and close attention to detail to make sure they get things inserted in the proper slots and inserted firmly. Be prepared to help with some tiny parts and to help check and double-check that pieces are in the right spots. If, like us, you are not soldering but relying on twisting battery wires to jumper cables, be prepared for a process that may feel like micro surgery with the very tiny battery wires. (Note: An adult will probably need to do this, but twisting does work.) If everyone follows the diagrams closely, building these bots can feel a lot like building a LEGO® project!

Even when you are careful, however, things sometimes go wrong. It's good to keep that in mind going into any family science activity. Things happen! Learning to deal with problems that arise in a science or engineering project is part of the process, and when something goes wrong in an electronics project, there is ample room for tinkering and emphasizing troubleshooting and testing steps.

A Bit of Resistance

Resistors can look alike / be careful to choose the correct value!

Look Closely

We initially selected the wrong resistors from the multipack, and it took us a while to realize our mistake. Be sure to look carefully to make sure you get the right value resistor!

We ran into a few trouble spots in the process of building our bots, one of which almost completely derailed us. As a result, we got a lot of practice troubleshooting, and we learned a great deal from the mistakes we made. The "help" information in the project was a great source of assistance when things didn't work out with our bots. When one of our bots got super hot (even though it wasn't moving), for example, we got a crash course in the importance of ensuring none of the bare wires are accidentally touching. And when none of our bots "worked" after we finished our circuits, we spent a lot of time backtracking through the diagrams and double-checking to ensure we had every single thing exactly as shown in the circuit.

There was some frustration, mine included, when we could not pinpoint what was wrong. Our circuits looked fine, but we had three cute little bots and bedecked circuit boards that didn't work. Finally, we discovered our error. It was a simple error, but it was a critical error.

The kids were ready to give up and move on, their excitement a bit burnished, when we discovered the problem.

Because we were making several bots, I ordered the large multipack of resistors listed as an option in the project's list of materials. The pack of 500 includes resistors in varying values. Unfortunately, even though we thought we had carefully matched up and interpreted the band-coding used to identify the values and to pull out the one we needed, our inexperience with resistors threw us a wrench. It took us a very long time to determine that we had accidentally selected 47 kΩ resistors instead of the required 4.7 kΩ ones.

As you can imagine, with the wrong resistors, there was far too much resistance, and nothing was making it through the circuit. For a seasoned electronics project parent, it sounds like a silly error. But in the moment, and with no experience with resistors other than when a science kit (like the Crystal Radio Kit) comes with only and exactly the one you need, I had no idea I had misinterpreted the packaging of the resistors and values. (I had not even noticed that there was another very similar-looking value in the set.)

Once we swapped out the too-strong resistors for the right ones, we were in light-tracking toothbrush bot business.

Light-tracking Success!

Once we had everything on track, the light-following bots worked great and were super fun to lead around with cell phone flash lights or other lights. The kids were very excited to see the bots come to live once we swapped out the resistors, and they immediately grabbed a cardboard box lid, turned out all the lights, and started guiding the bots around with cell phone lights. There were some races and then some impromptu videos made of the robots they had made, bots that, really, look pretty impressive when finished and definitely warranted being shown off to friends and family.

This is a project I highly recommend you consider with your kids over the long winter break or for weekend fun. Don't be afraid of the "advanced" rating on the project in terms of difficulty. If your goal is simply to build the bots and not take a crash course in understanding circuit diagrams, you can do and succeed with this robotics project with your kids—without any prior electronics or robotics experience. You know your kids best, but I was successful doing this project with kids in the range of 8-13 years.

If you have a family tradition of giving things "to do" during the holidays or for other celebrations, consider boxing up the supplies for the "Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter" project for a special kid who likes to tinker!

Make Family Time Robotics Time

If you are interested in trying a robotics project with your kids, here are a trio of robotics engineering projects, from beginner to advanced, to consider:

The following blog posts and resources may also be helpful and inspiring for families interested in exploring robotics:

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Tastebuds Human Health Science Project / Weekly Family Science Project Highlight

In this week's spotlight: a human biology and health science project and family activity that encourages you and your family to investigate the science of taste! Do your taste buds differ from those of your friends, siblings, or other family members? Probably! In this project, you conduct a scientific experiment to explore your taste threshold for things that are salty, sweet, or sour. Once you've analyzed your own taste buds, see how other family members and friends compare!

[Image: Wikipedia]



During the holiday season, pies are front-and-center on the dessert menu. Become the pie-baking champion in your family with this tasty experiment.


Turning Family Baking into Family Science

In the "Perfecting Pastries" kitchen science project, students explore the role of fats in piecrust making. Different fats (and fats at different temperatures) can make a big difference in the texture of the crust. But what about gluten? If your family festivities involve gluten-free cooking, thinking about concepts in the "Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most?" science project can be a great addition to your piecrust testing. If you keep the fats the same and vary your flours to make a gluten-free version, what kinds of differences will you see in your crusts?

Pumpkin, strawberry, or all-American apple—do you have a favorite kind of pie? While pie consumers tend to think about the delicious variety of fillings there are to eat, many pie bakers spend a lot of time perfecting their crusts. Some people are so intimidated by the idea of making a tasty crust from scratch that they prefer to buy them, but with a bit of hands-on experimentation in the kitchen, you may find your own perfect technique for great homemade crust.

Getting to Golden Perfection

The ideal piecrust is light and flaky, rather than tough and chewy. But what is the best way to create a perfectly light and flaky crust? Usually, piecrusts are made with just flour, fat, salt, and a little bit of water. You mix the fat into the flour first, which coats the flour particles. Then, when you add the water, the resulting dough is slightly crumbly, rather than stretchy like pizza dough.

With so few ingredients, how can piecrusts vary in texture? For starters, you can use different types of fat—butter, vegetable shortening, or even lard. Different fats yield different results. Another variable is the temperature of the ingredients. Should the fat be room temperature when you mix it in, or should it be ice-cold? Chances are, the pie baker in your family has an opinion!

Grab Your Chef Hat and Lab Coat

In the "Perfecting Pastries: The Role of Fats in Making a Delicious Pastry" Project Idea, you take the lead in your own piecrust test kitchen! In this project, you will experiment with the type and temperature of the fats used in your piecrust recipe. Following the experimental procedure in the project, you you will make four different crusts, being careful to keep your bake time and oven temperature constant for all of the crusts so that you can really see the difference the variables you are testing make in how the crusts come out.

When your crusts are ready, gather friends and family to see how the crust crumbles! Which recipe creates a crust with the best texture and flavor? Everyone will have the chance to see and taste your crusts and voice their opinions.

Put Your Results to Good Use!

Once you have your winning recipe, you can prepare one last piecrust and fill it with something delicious! Success has never been sweeter!



With its broad spectrum of free scientist-authored projects for K-12 students, Science Buddies wants ALL students to have a great science project experience—girls and boys. For teachers and parents looking for ways to engage girls in science, Science Buddies has plenty of suggestions. Finding a great project that taps an area of interest is one of the most important things to keep in mind when helping students select projects.

Girls and STEM: Better Understanding the 'Leaky Pipeline'

With support from Motorola Solutions Foundation, TrueChild is digging into issues related to STEM, gender, race, and ethnicity. See their STEM white paper report "Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls' STEM Attitudes & Participation?" for a summary of what's at stake, what's happening, and what TrueChild is learning from focus group studies they are conducting. According to TrueChild's research, girls may feel they have to choose between "femininity and STEM." See TrueChild's "Femininity & Science, Technology, Engineering, Math" section for links to other relevant studies and reports.

How to engage, excite, and retain girls' interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is an ongoing challenge and area of concern for educators and parents. Plenty of studies demonstrate that while many girls show enthusiasm for STEM subjects, and may voice STEM-related career goals, during early elementary years, there is a marked drop-off in interest in STEM that begins as early as grade 4 or 5 and continues to taper off through middle and high school. (Similar decline in interest in STEM subjects can also be seen in students in other demographics.)

Understanding "why" girls lose interest in areas of science and changing the dynamic has become a top priority for many who are involved in science education and, ultimately, ensuring a healthy pipeline between formative school years and the emerging job force.

Why Not Science?

The problem of "girls bailing on science" is not one with immediate and concrete answers as the convergence of a number of factors has likely contributed to what has become a broad-spectrum problem. There are no easy answers, but there are myriad steps that may help encourage and recoup female student interest. Increasing the visibility of female role models in science and in fields like robotics, engineering, and computer science, fields often associated with males, is certainly important. Girls looking to those fields need to find plenty of examples of female scientists to help them better envision both the field and their own potential place in such a field of work and study. Ensuring girls have access to (and encouragement for) a wide range of science-related opportunities both in school and through extracurricular and after-school activities is also important. Making clear to all students, through presentation, through teaching, through example, and through at-home discussion, that there are no "boy" and "girl" fields of science is a must. The stereotypes that surround certain fields of science, and the ways in which developing students respond to those stereotypes, may have much to do with the kinds of projects girls choose for their science class and science fair assignments.

These are all important steps, but they are only individual strands that feed into a complicated and multi-headed problem. No single approach can realign girls' perception of science, and change won't happen overnight. Rebalancing STEM so that girls see these fields as interesting, exciting, and viable, as relevant and possible for them, may take the proverbial village, but it also is going to take a lot of diligent and hard work on the part of teachers, parents, community members, and volunteers who are all committed to getting girls excited about science and to helping girls see that they, too, can be scientists and that there are many, many different areas of science to explore.

Finding a Science Project

So how do you get a girl student engaged in a hands-on science assignment, project, or activity? What project should you encourage? What project should she pick? The answer may be more simple than you think. She should pick a project that interests her or that taps into an area of interest.

At Science Buddies, we believe that all students, male or female, can perform any of the Project Ideas in our library of more than 1,200 free science projects when the project is appropriate for the student in terms of difficulty and available time. This is especially true if the project is one in which a student is interested.

A Project She will Love

This focus on the importance of student interest is the foundation on which Science Buddies' Topic Selection Wizard operates. After a student responds to statements about his or her interests in the Wizard's survey, projects that best fit the student's existing interests rise to the top as recommendations for projects the student may most enjoy. This does not mean there are not other projects that the student might find satisfying, challenging, and exciting. But students who use the Topic Selection Wizard are more likely to uncover and discover projects that really mesh with their interests—even in areas of science they may not have considered but that fit in, nicely, with an interest or hobby. We always encourage students to try the Topic Selection Wizard as a first step in locating a science project.

Some girls, of course, will gravitate to Project Ideas that center around subjects and topics that may typically be associated with girls. That's fine! Science Buddies offers a broad range of projects and experiments that meet that need. But many female students, based on their individual areas of interest, will find exciting and challenging projects that may capitalize upon their interests and skills and may open up areas of science, technology, engineering, or math that are unexpected or new to them but that they will really enjoy.

A Handy List of Girl-friendly Science Projects

We could post a list of projects that we know from experience are especially easy for girls to see and choose, but we feel strongly that in order to help change the dynamic, we want, always, to support the fact that the awesome new projects we are developing at Science Buddies are put together by our team of scientists to encourage an amazing science experience for a student—regardless of whether the student is male or female. Here are a few of our recently released Project Ideas that we think are super fun, exciting, creative, and have the potential to empower both girls and boys to further explore science and engineering.

Girls STEM explore blood clotting Girls STEM art bot robotics Girls STEM separating mixtures

Girls STEM candy chromatography Girls STEM grape soda dye Girls STEM electric play-dough

Girls STEM candy waterfall flow Girls STEM snow globe centrifuge Girls STEM milk plastic polymers

Girls STEM butterfly flight Girls STEM dance glove Girls STEM hula hoop physics

The Project Ideas shown above are just a tiny sampling of the wide range of projects students will find at Science Buddies (more than 1,200 projects in more than 30 areas of science). We encourage teachers and parents to have students first try the Topic Selection Wizard. (Sit with your student and look through the results together!) If a student is still uncertain about which project to choose, spend time looking though the library of Project Ideas, starting first with an area of science in which the student seems interested.

Supporting the Process

Parents and teachers play a critical role in how girls perceive and respond to science. Making science a part of the daily car ride or family dinner is an easy but important way to show girls that science matters and is relevant to them. We suggest parents and educators review the following resources, success stories, science history notes, and book reviews for additional encouragement and support in helping engage girls of all ages in science:

Keep in mind, too, that how parents talk about and respond to issues of science, technology, engineering, and math has an impact on students. There are many, many ways you can do hands-on science with your kids at home, after school, or on the weekends even if you are not a scientist. Family science should be fun! We highlight a family-friendly science activity every Thursday on the Science Buddies Blog. But we also frequently post stories of families who have tackled various kinds of science projects, including math, electronics, and robotics—with no prior experience!

Motorola Solutions Foundation is a supporting sponsor of Science Buddies.

Motorola Solutions Foundation



This Experiment is Totally Sweet

November is a great time to experiment with a kitchen science project. A cheesecake smackdown explores how subtle variations in cooking methods can create very different results!

By Kim Mullin

Cheesecake food science project

Make Cheesecake a Scienctific Part of Your Next Family Gathering!

Volunteer to make dessert for your next family event, and you can combine making a tasty contribution for after dinner with a kitchen science exploration! (Image: Wikipedia)

When is a cake not a cake? When it is a cheesecake! Creamy, sweet, and delicious, cheesecake is definitely a dessert, but it is a rich and dense custard instead of a spongy and light birthday-style cake. Mmm...cheeeeeesecaaaake....

Variations on the Cheesecake Theme

Traditional cheesecake recipes only call for eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a milk product such as sour cream, heavy cream, or cream cheese. This kind of basic recipe lends itself to creativity, so nowadays, you can find cheesecakes in all sorts of mouth-watering flavors: chocolate chip cookie dough, pumpkin pecan, and lemon raspberry, to name just a few. Yum! Search for cheesecake recipes online, and you'll find that anything goes.

When you head to the kitchen to make your own cheesecake for a family gathering or a weekend treat, all you need to do is mix up all of this sweet and creamy deliciousness and throw it in the oven for an hour, right? Not so fast!

Recipe Variations Equal Varied Results

When it comes to baking, there is a science to getting the results that you want. Professional bakers pay careful attention to measuring ingredients, controlling temperatures, and mixing at the right speeds. They know that the wrong variations can mean the difference between a baked good that's perfectly light and delicious, and one that's overly tough and chewy.

Cheesecake bakers want a nicely risen filling and a smooth, crack-free top, but there are three different recommended baking methods. Which one is best? The way to find out is to put it to the test!

The "Choice Cheesecakes: Which Baking Method is Best?" food science Project Idea lets you be the head chef in a delicious experiment! Always using the same cheesecake recipe of ingredients, you'll test all three of the recommended baking methods and then count cracks and measure the rise to see which approach gives you the best results. When looking at your data, think about why the different baking methods change the outcomes. Which method would you recommend?

Sweet Success

This is one science experiment that you are definitely allowed to eat, so when all of the baking is done, it's time to dig in! You'll end up with lots of cheesecake, so invite friends and family to enjoy the results of your cheesecake smackdown. You might even take an un-scientific poll to see which method makes the best-tasting cheesecake. You'll have everyone saying that science is sweet!



Slime, Catapults, and Halloween Science

Inspire hands-on learning by getting creative. You can easily turn chemistry and physics science experiments into Halloween-inspired activities that your students will enjoy!

Ping pong balls for  Halloween catapult science fun

Setting Siege for Halloween Fun

A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can transform ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween fun. A dozen eyeballs anyone? Get creative! Mummies, ghosts, Frankenstein, pumpkins, bats, witches... decorate a set of ping pong balls with your kids and then have fun launching them into the trick-or-treat candy basket with the Ping Pong Catapult. Your kids will have fun experimenting with science and the physics behind successfully getting the balls to the target! [Image: Booturtle]

Halloween is tomorrow. Hopefully you've found, stitched, glued, or otherwise assembled all necessary gear for the big night of knocking door to door for fun treats. To keep you in the mood, we've got two more hands-on science suggestions, both of which are fun ways to tie science into the festivities, even after the fact!


To hook some kids, it's that simple. You need slime. For the rest of us, despite the gross factor, the science of slime, when you get right down to it as it oozes through your fingers, is chock full of squishy but fascinating chemistry! Mixing up a stretchy putty or experimenting with Oobleck, Ooze, or some other non-Newtonian fluid is classic, hands-on, tactile fare for the younger set. They love to get really hands on with their chemistry, because it feels good, or cold, or slippery, or bouncy, or some other wonderful adjective that a toddler or early elementary student might toss out to describe how a new mixture feels. But these substances offer excellent hands-on learning moments for older students, too!

Colloids and Polymers, Anyone?

Slime, especially glowing, green, the color-of-some-unearthly-snot slime, fits right in with the fun but eerie side of Halloween. So why not make your own, but turn the "making" into a fun science activity—one with a clear take-away, slime you can dig your hands into or bounce around.

In order to keep things shrouded in mystery, we don't want to tell you exactly which formula to use or how to modify one recipe or the other to achieve the best and slimiest consistency. Instead, we want you to experiment!

These two Project Ideas have the goods you need to know, including background information that will let you and your kids talk about polymers and colloids and better understand the properties of each mixture you try.

  • Bouncy Polymer Chemistry: use Elmer's school glue and Borax to mix up something like the classic Silly Putty. By experimenting with the ratio of your ingredients, can you make this slime-like? Or does it only want to be a rubbery, bouncy, putty? To make your polymer exploration extra spooky, use a colored Elmer's glue or try Elmer's School Glue Gel. (It's blue!)
  • Making Mixtures: How Do Colloids Size Up?: experiment with corn starch and water to mix up some Oobleck or Ooze. Colloids have interesting properties because sometimes they seem like a liquid and sometimes they seem like a solid. What kind of slime factor can you concoct?

You could mix up a batch of both mixtures, a putty and a colloid. Or, pick one or the other. Both are fun to make with kids. If you have some glow-worthy paint you can mix into the batch (try a small quantity), you might be able to turn a bit of family or after-school science into an awesome trick or treat moment!


Catapults have a long history of launching things, including fiery things, into enemy territory. Brought into the realm of hands-on science, a catapult is a super way to experiment with physics principles and the math that goes along with correctly launching something so that it goes where you want it to go.

Science Buddies has a suite of Project Ideas that use the Ping Pong Catapult kit, available in the Science Buddies Store: Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult, Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls, Bet You Can't Hit Me! The Science of Catapult Statistics, and Launch Time: The Physics of Catapult Projectile Motion.

These projects are all great explorations individually, but the suite allows students to use a single kit and experiment with multiple angles (literally!) related to similar physics-based scenarios and questions. How can you tie the catapult in with Halloween science?

No, not launching pumpkins! But what else might you try? How many individually wrapped small candy bars will come home Halloween night? Is there a game you and your students might make up to launch candies into a Halloween bucket, box, or bag? What might you explore about the difference in flight pattern and trajectory of different candies based on variables like size or shape?

Or, if you want to stick with ping pong balls because they are light, will only fly a certain distance, and won't be a concern if they wind up lost under the couch, grab a permanent marker and turn them into jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween creatures for added catapult fun—without the mess of pumpkin guts! (A quick Internet search on "Halloween ping pong balls" turns up all kinds of great visual examples of how you can uplevel ordinary ping pong balls for Halloween. A dozen eyeballs anyone?)

Warning: when using the ping pong catapult, especially if you are launching objects other than ping pong balls, be sure you have plenty of space and don't launch towards windows, screens, or other breakable things. This may be a science activity to take outside the weekend after Halloween and have some candy-launching fun at a local park!

Elmer's Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor of Science Buddies. For a full range of display boards and adhesives that can help as students get ready to showcase their science projects, visit Elmer's!



Time for Spooky Halloween Science

As trick-or-treat night approaches, we have plenty of suggestions for hands-on science you can fit in with Halloween festivities and discussions!

Halloween hands-on science

Meet your kids where they are—in the Halloween mindset! Science Buddies has great ideas for giving Halloween a boost of hands-on science.

Every year we highlight projects at Science Buddies that, when carved or backlit this way or that, can easily be adapted for Halloween and trick-or-treat fun with students in the classroom or at home. If you are looking for activities you can do with your students, for science-minded conversation starters for the car ride home, or for homeroom discussions before and after Halloween, consider the science activities and science connections highlighted in these posts on the Science Buddies Blog:

A Ghoulish Tradition on the Blog

This year, we've added a few new Halloween-inspired posts to our collection to highlight new hands-on science projects from our library of Project Ideas. If you missed these posts in recent weeks, be sure and add them to your reading list for great Halloween-infused science suggestions:

Have a great Halloween week!



With a new group of electronics Project Ideas and a cool kit from the Science Buddies Store, you can turn ordinary play dough modeling into a great hands-on electronics activity with your kids.

Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Since the trio of "electric play dough" projects launched at Science Buddies, I have wanted to give these hands-on science projects a try as a weekend science activity with my kids. The idea of rigging up an electronics-friendly batch of dough to some LEDs has undeniable allure. It just sounds cool, and the sample photos in the projects are very compelling.

Whether you love the tactile angle of working with a squishy dough, just like when the kids were little, or like the idea of an easy light-up electronics project, the "squishy circuits" approach invites users of all ages and backgrounds. The premise is simple—by making and using conductive and insulating dough, you can create your own light-up 2D and 3D sculptures. To get there, you follow the step-by-step, progressive, directions, and make some simple dough samples that will help you learn about open and closed circuits, series and parallel circuits, and short circuits.

Halloween Circuits

All of the samples for this project seem to be green, but with Halloween coming, we thought we would experiment with some ghost- and pumpkin-themed squishy circuitry. Our orange conductive dough came out nice. Basic color mixing theory with our red and yellow food dye worked as expected. My kids wanted to make our insulating dough black. I did caution that with the food coloring we had on hand, we might get brown, but even I didn't quite expect what we got. As you can see from the photos, our insulating dough came out a really gnarly, nasty, icky brown. Yuck! (Tip: the directions do not talk about adding coloring to the insulating dough. We decided this may be because the insulating dough is much drier in the bowl since you add the distilled water last. The coloring worked and did mix in, but you may find it best to add it after you've added most of the water needed to reach the desired consistency.)

We were not thrilled with our brown dough, but that's what we had, brown and orange. So, with ghosts, goblins, and jack-o'-lanterns in mind, we got started.

Squishy circuits electric dough family science

Read the Procedure

Especially because we were doing this as an informal activity, I knew the kids would not be following the experimental procedures verbatim. We didn't need to record data. We didn't need to turn anything in. We simply wanted to play around with the dough and LEDs. Before I let them loose with the dough, though, we pulled up the directions and each read through the background information for Electric Play Dough 1 and Electric Play Dough 2.

And then they were off!

They worked through the examples first and had great luck with series and parallel circuits. Then they started making their own sculptures. Both did more elaborate parallel circuit examples and then attempted 3D models.

Not everything worked. We had some misfires, some miswires, and even some dough structures that looked like they should work and never did. But we had a great time, and there was lots of hands-on learning going on—and lots of troubleshooting. Watching them process how to step back (or backtrack) and test at each stage of a circuit to find out where the trouble began when a more complicated design was not conducting electricity the way they expected was wonderful—and important.

It was a hot day, and our dough seemed to get a bit weepy in the warmth, starting to feel (and look) tacky and damp as we continued debugging our final projects. The two kinds of dough also tend to want to stick together, which led to some interesting discussions about what happens if, in fact, you mix them. Having done the "Sliding Light: How to Make a Dimmer Switch" project in the past, one of my kids immediately had a theory about how a mixed dough might perform. (It's an idea to put to the test sometime, especially with some of your used dough!)


I have no doubt that the kids now understand the concept of series and parallel circuits in a way that they didn't before starting. Me, too! I wish we had ended up with a great pumpkin to share, but when you do projects as a family, things often take an unexpected path. That's okay!

When a 3D project went awry, one of my kids decided to go for a play dough burger instead. It is 3D, though arguably it's really just a larger example of a parallel circuit. (I think it looks like a space thing.) With the disco burger in the works on one side of the table, my other son co-opted most of the remaining dough for his own pumpkin-eque project. While they worked, I played around with some of the scrap dough that was left. (There wasn't much!)

My 3D pumpkin proved to be a great electronics puzzle and gave me lots of time to experiment through trial and error as I tried to combine what we'd been doing into one conceptual example. In the warmth, and with the small amount of dough I had, my pumpkin kept collapsing. The more times I stuck the probes in it trying to troubleshoot and test the circuit, the more it collapsed. Finally, I left it flat. In the end, it's a pretty scary looking something. (The photo of it here shows it after I'd removed a number of LEDs during my testing.) Admittedly, I was the last one sitting at the table—and the one left to clean up.

Squishy circuits electric play dough pumpkin family science

We plan to experiment with the squishy dough again in the future, working through some of the challenges we ran into and conquering some of the design issues we had—and emerging victorious with something 3D. Maybe this time we'll aim for a slightly less tacky dough, too. I think drier dough would have helped us a lot.

This is definitely an electronics and engineering experiment worth repeating. Once you have a squishy circuits kit (available from the Science Buddies Store), you can reuse the components over and over with new batches of dough.

What will you create?

You and Your Kids Can Do Electronics!

Afraid to tackle an electronics project with your kids? Don't be!

The first two electric play dough projects are written as introductory electronics projects, projects suitable for even the youngest of elementary students. This makes them great for independent science projects, but it also makes them excellent for family science or even classroom science. No matter what your expertise, familiarity, or comfort level with electronics, chances are good that you can read through the background information for each project and come away with a solid understanding of the core concepts.

After that, you and your kids can start experimenting. What should you make? We recommend working through the first examples (e.g., lighting up a single light bulb), so that you see how the circuits work. As you continue to experiment and add more bulbs, you will build upon your knowledge of circuits and see the information about series and parallel circuits play out in the dough in front of you.

To get started, you really just need to be able to roll up three wads of dough—two conductive and one insulating. If you keep the two conductive ones separate, you don't even need the insulating dough to start, just stick the legs of an LED in the two balls and hook up the battery pack. The LED should light up. If it doesn't, check to make sure your long LED leg is on the same side as the red wire and try again. (You will have learned something important by doing that!) Once you've successfully lit up a single LED, try the same process with a couple of LEDs and watch the brightness of the LEDs start to fade in a series. Then roll out two dough snakes and experiment with parallel circuits. You will be learning more and more about circuits with each sample you make!

What next? Your imagination is the limit to what you can do with dough, but you will need to apply what you learned about circuits to make sure your LEDs light up. It can be a trial and error process, but it is lots of fun!

Where to Go

The projects:

The kit:

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Electricity & Electronics are sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation.



If you are still thinking about what to wear this Halloween, you might find you can combine a science project and your costume needs to good, possibly ghoulish, effect!

My favorite Halloween idea this year is low-tech. I saw a "stick man" figure homemade costume, and I can't get it out of my head for its sheer simplicity—black electrical tape on a white shirt and pants. It is an unusual and fun twist on the classic DIY white tape skeleton costume and perfect for someone who loves to draw.

There are always a few kids at Halloween who explode out of the box with unexpected, cool, and definitely not-off-the-shelf, costumes. These are the ones I remember each year after the school costume parade. My favorite may be the girl who came as a salt shaker. I think another year she was a #2 pencil. In reality, though, these kinds of creative bursts are seemingly few and far between at Halloween, overshadowed by scads and scores of black capes, scream faces, blood-spurting masks, princess dresses, and character costumes from TV and the movies. (How many Harry Potter or Dorothy trick or treaters have you seen?)

If a roll of electrical tape falls in my lap, I may end up with a stick-figure shirt this year. But for you and your students, I want to suggest something much cooler... a science-project turned costume.

Combine your science know-how and your creativity to create an exciting costume this Halloween! The science involved in this LED glove can be applied to other parts of a costume. What will you make and wear?

A Science Project/Halloween Costume Combo

Really, when you think about it, this idea can be chalked up as a two-for-one special. The supplies you buy for the science project will also be used for the Halloween costume. It's a win-win. When you factor in the hands-on science learning that your student (or family) will gain from the science experiment, it's a win-win with interest!

Here are two suggestions for science projects from the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas that can be easily turned into a fun at-home activity that then becomes part of a cool and creative trick-or-treat costume.

  • LED Dance Glove: This brand new project at Science Buddies is an awesome way for kids to explore a cool new breed of electronics—wearable ones, also called electronic textiles or e-textiles. In the project, students learn how to use conductive thread and insulating fabric paint to turn a set of small LEDs into an awesome light-up glove. An LED glove is perfect for a party, true. But imagine using this idea as part of a costume! You could do gloves, or you could use the technology and wearable circuitry-knowhow to sew up some other light-up costume idea that is completely your own. Think about the possibilities! Forget carrying a regular glow-stick that will fade in a few hours. This Halloween you can make and wear your own glow!

  • How to Make the Boldest, Brightest Tie-Dye!: Tie-dye may be a classic summer camp or weekend family project, but the process of dyeing different kinds of fibers and exploring how fibers react to dye is a great science activity—one with wearable results. This science experiment can be perfect for a DIY Halloween costume! Whether you are making a groovy costume with 60s flair, prepping your own zombie or mummy rags, or making a groovy fan shirt for a favorite sports team, you can put your science tie-dye tests to use. Make part of the costume from one fiber (like muslin), and part from another (like a polyester-cotton blend), and have fun with the dyeing!

How Creepy is Too Creepy?

Whatever costume you pull together, you probably want to stay out of the "uncanny valley"—or maybe that is exactly where you want to be! Learn more about the uncanny valley and how it plays into how we respond to the characters we see in movies, or maybe the ones we run into on Halloween night, in the "That's Creepy! Exploring the Uncanny Valley" science Project Idea.



A Trick of the Eye for Halloween

Exhaust your eye cones in just the right way, and you can enjoy the spookiness of seeing something that isn't really there!

Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program
Afterimages screenshot Scratch program

The screenshots above are from a project a student created using Scratch to demonstrate afterimages.

Seeing something that isn't there can be spooky, right? That's what I thought one morning this month when I got out of the car after dropping my kids at school and saw a giant "phantom" in the basement window of the house next store to mine. After doing a momentary double-take, I realized that the creepy robed reaper wearing a face reminiscent of Edvard Munch's "Scream" had appeared overnight as part of my neighbors' Halloween decorations.


But I wasn't imagining it.

It was there, looking through the window at me and at several oversized pumpkins that must weigh a hundred or so pounds each.

Something you don't expect to see and suddenly do can be eerie. But when it comes to how your eyes work (and how your eyes and brain work together), what you see, at times, might actually be a neurological response—and not really there.

The science of visual perception can be fascinating, and you can have a lot of fun with your kids, students, and friends by exploring (or creating) visual illusions. (How many faces do you see in the tree? That's one that has been going around these days.) But an easy way to learn more about how the eyes work, and how "fatigued" different cones in the eyes may become when staring at something, is to set up a really simple test where you stare at a certain image for a period of time (like 30 seconds) and then glance over at a blank piece of paper. If you really focused your eyes on the initial image for the whole thirty seconds, you should see a version of the image reflected on the blank page—an image that isn't really there. Your eyes seem to be still seeing what they were initially looking at, just in a different color.

Maybe you have tried this with a giant colored circle—or even a small one?

Simple Science at Home

With Halloween coming, I made a mental note to corral the kids into helping with a ghostly version of the "Are Your Eyes Playing Tricks on You? Discover the Science Behind Afterimages!" project so that I could share a Halloween-infused version of the visual perception activity here on the Science Buddies blog. With younger kids, having them draw (or cut out) a large ghost or pumpkin and experiment with afterimages makes sense. My kids are a bit older, and as I thought about testing this with them for the blog, I realized that the directions for the activity (and the sample circle you stare at) at Science Buddies are online... this visual test works both with a digital images or with a sheet of paper in front of you. Given that, I started thinking that maybe I didn't need to force my middle schooler to draw a ghost.

I quickly spiraled down a path of having my student instead set up a digital simulation using Scratch as a way to show how afterimages work and as a way to encourage a bit of Scratch manipulation. Challenged to set up a simple program to demonstrate after-effects using a ghost image and a bit of computer logic to facilitate timing and the automatic changing of screens and display of information to the user, my student created a Scratch program and then took it a step farther, adding in the option for the user to choose an initial background color. This is a cool enhancement and lets you compare what colors you see as an afterimage depending on what colors are in the initial image. Note: in our Scratch version, you are staring at a white ghost, so you don't see a complementary color when you flip to a blank screen. So what do you see? And why? Questions for you to explore!

You and your students can certainly take the Scratch idea even further. You might have the user change the color of the ghost instead of the background. Or, you might add in different levels of color selection to really explore the complementary aspect of afterimages. Or, you could add a storytelling angle to the project: put a backdrop in place on the screen that appears after the user stares at an image, and you will create an interesting animation of sorts—one that partly isn't really there!

We had fun talking about afterimages, putting together the simple Scratch program, and testing it out. I hope you and your students are inspired to give afterimages a try and either experiment with your own Scratch program or make some construction paper ghosts, pumpkins, or bats.

For more information about visual perception, see:

For more information about using Scratch and encouraging kids to explore computer logic with a tool like Scratch, see:



As this mom discovered, with a bag of toothbrushes and some basic electronics supplies, you can give a group of kids a fun introductory robotics experience—no prior robotics expertise necessary!

BristleBot family robotics / multiple images

Since the BristleBots robotics project first appeared at Science Buddies, I have wanted to try these little toothbrush-head bots with my kids. The light-tracking robot project appeared shortly after the more ubiquitous brush bot. The light-tracking bot is more complicated, but I marked it, pinned it, and put it on my to-do list of hands-on science projects for my kids.

The regular BristleBots were first up.

Hacking for Parts

Initially, I thought I might be able to scrounge up motors from old phones for the BristleBots, giving our robotics exploration a healthy dose of recycling, upcycling, and reuse mentality. I was especially keen to do that when I realized the required motor wasn't readily available. (Note: Science Buddies is working to put in place a reliable source for these motors to make acquiring the parts easier.)

With the best of green intentions, I fished an old phone from the kitchen junk drawer to see if I could salvage a motor. Getting my old clamshell apart was far more complicated than I expected. As I started dismantling, I quickly realized I don't have the all-important Torx (star) tool! Given that, my methods were substantially more crude, but layer by layer, I got the phone apart. I finally unearthed the vibrating motor only to discover it had no wires. I needed wires, and I don't have a soldering iron (and wasn't planning to use one for the project with the kids).

After a surprising amount of brute force to break my old phone, I was back to square one with the motors and glad I had tackled the phone well in advance as I sorted out what I needed to order for our summer science.

I compiled a list of parts needed for the two robotics projects, ordered what I could, and stopped in at a local Radio Shack to pick up one final electronics piece (x3).

Shopping for Tootbrushes

Finding the toothbrushes ended up being almost as complicated as gathering the electronics supplies. I spent a lot of time scouring online sites and comments on blog posts to try and figure out what kind of angled brush heads were commonly used. For a full independent student science project, a student might explore the effectiveness of different types of heads and bristles. But as a parent coordinating two separate toothbrush-dependent, hands-on robotics activities for three kids, I needed nine toothbrushes. I was on a budget, and I wanted to try and get toothbrushes that would "work" so that the focus of our activity was on the electronics and basic wiring rather than on evaluating brush heads. I didn't want the type of brush to be an experimental variable. I went with slanted bristles.

If you plan to make toothbrush bots with a bunch of kids, make sure you note ahead of time that angled brush heads are not the cheap ones! Angled brushes may run, on average, several dollars a piece, so while BristleBots can be fun for a sleepover or a birthday party, you may need to buy in bulk, or else experiment with other brush heads before you buy for a crowd. Will a straight head work well or well enough for your purpose? (If you look carefully at the photos above, you will see the slanted bristles and the row of rubber tips on the outer edge of our bots—pretty common BristleBot fare!)

Home Robotics 101

Parts in hand, we settled in to make BristleBots. Having read the Project Idea several times, written about it several times, and watched the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories video, I fully expected this to be a project the kids would whiz through in about five minutes. Part of me was worried that it might be anticlimactic precisely because of the low-level of difficulty, but I wanted to do these BristleBot explorations back to back, the easiest one as a stepping stone into the more sophisticated light-tracking one.

I am not sure now what happened when I was ordering... but as we sat down to make the BristleBots, and I sorted out the supplies, I realized we had a pack of pancake motors but none of the oblong ones that the procedure specifies. This was definitely a parental "oops" moment on the supplies front, but working on a project like this with kids requires flexibility.

We plowed ahead.

Less than an hour later, we had three BristleBots that worked, on and off. We had to continually fidget with them to get them to stay on or come on. I was doing more of the tweaking than they were, but it gave us a chance to talk about what the problem was (not enough constant pressure on the battery with the wire on each side) and brainstorm ways to address it. We tried tape. We tried more tape. We tried pressing harder. We found that sometimes very light pressure worked best. These bots were a bit finicky. There was a lot of trial an error. We would get one working, let it loose on the table, and the next one would stop!

We finally tried something that worked wonders—a twist tie from a plastic bag. This helped us maintain consistent pressure on the contacts. Other solutions could also work, and finding your own is part of the challenge and the fun of a robotics or engineering project!

About the time we got our twisty ties solution in place, the first battery died. And then the second. Two brand new batteries died in under a half hour. Chalk that up as one less than happy parent with a bulk battery purchase!

But, the bots worked. The kids had fun. And, in the end, I was far more appreciative of the off-the-shelf bugs these bots simulate. I always thought they were overpriced, but there is a reality to the fact that when flipped on, they run!

Even so, making our own BristleBots was an awesome first-time, non-kit robotics experience with kids of differing ages and with varying levels of hands-on tinkering and electronics experience.

Tips for Your Own Robotics Activity

Here are a few pointers gleaned from our BristleBot building:

  • Big scissors. Snipping off toothbrush heads isn't easy! We ended up using some rather giant hedge shears. Plan ahead. Be fearless.
  • Trim with care. Be careful trimming your bristles. (Say this over and over to your young engineers, especially eager ones.) While some trimming can change the way your bot moves, you can trim too much and cause your bot to not be able to stand up.
  • Get hands on. Experiment before taping anything in place to see how the vibrating motor works. This is the basic electronics lesson of your activity! Put one wire on each side and press. It should vibrate. Don't worry, it won't hurt or shock you! Feeling how the wires get pressed to the battery to make the motor work will help your students better understand what to tinker with to make the right "contact" when the battery is on the bot.
  • Tinker. Test. Tinker again. If you are having trouble getting the motor to work on the bot, experiment with the placement of the wires on each side of the battery. You can tape and re-tape them as many times as you need to. You might also try securing them differently or more tightly. Just remember, to turn the bot "off," you will need to be able to "undo" the connection easily.
  • Keep the conversation going. Talk about what the bot does as it moves around and why. This is a pretty low-key and not overly-smart bot. But when it runs into something, it does gradually adjust and work its way to a clear path. Talking about what you observe helps your students practice articulating what they see and encourages them to think about and apply what they know.
  • Create a race path. How smart and how fast are your toothbrush-head bots? After the building is over, have the kids build a maze or race course to test and race the bots. Cardboard, recycled tubes taped together, wooden sticks, straws, even LEGO® can all be used to develop a cool pathway for the bots to navigate. As you and your students watch the bots move, you will find you have new things to talk about!
  • Personalize and customize! Once your bot works, it is easy to personalize it and make it your own. Add eyes! Add antennae! Add this or that to give your BristleBot your own style.

Have fun!

Share Your Family Science or School Science Project

What did your recent science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Family Math: M&M Color Statistics

What can you do with hundreds and hundreds of M&sM's? Family math!

MM's hands-on math family science activity

My family's lineup of summer hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math projects and activities included almost enough M&M's to bring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to mind. Maybe not quite that many, but summer was busy, and when I added three bags of M&M's to the list with this project in mind, I had in my head that we needed big bags of M&M's. When we sat down later with three kids, each with a family-sized bag of M&M's, and called up the family-ready activity version of the full Science Buddies M&M Math Project Idea, I realized we really could have used much smaller bags.

Undeterred (they are M&M's, after all, and not likely to go to waste!), we moved ahead. The activity calls for counting the M&M's in (at least) three different bags. This lets students analyze what is in a single bag and then compare those numbers to statistical data derived from combining and averaging the results of three or more bags.

I had three kids at the ready, so my plan was to have each tackle sorting, counting, and tallying a single giant bag. This way they each got to be hands-on, do their own math, get the results for their own bag, and then we would compile the data to get overall statistical information and see how each bag held up to the numbers.

The question in the project is pretty straightforward: which color M&M is most (or least) common in a bag of M&M's? I remember when I was a kid, and it seemed that the green M&M's were always rare. So before we started, I polled the kids. Two of them predicted a color they thought would be most common. One of them leaned toward thinking the colors would be equally dispersed, reasoning that a factory machine probably spits them out in relatively equal numbers.

Then we got to counting. There are many ways a student might approach this part of the project. One strategy that worked well at our table was to dump an entire bag of M&M's on a plate, and then sort them by color into piles on a large napkin. After the bag was sorted by color, the student started counting the M&M's of a single color and dropping them back onto the plate. All M&M's on the plate had been counted, and the piles remaining on the napkin were still to be counted. It was an easy way to keep track of the counting and the piles.

There was a lot of counting going on!

But it was immediately interesting to hear that the totals around the table were differing, sometimes dramatically, for each kid.

When they finished, they each did their tallying, finding out the total number of M&M's and the percentage of each color they had in their bag. Then we made a new chart, copied in all of the individual totals, and combined and averaged to get composite data.

The results were surprising, and not all of our bags held up to what the data told us should be true, which was interesting in terms of realizing that all bags are not created equal!

Sweet Success

In the end, this hands-on math activity was a lot of fun and worked well for a mix of age ranges that spanned elementary and middle school. I knew going into it that the math involved was on the easy side for the middle school kids. But as an exercise, the activity gave them a chance to get hands-on with statistics doing something that gave concrete and visual clarity and reinforcement to concepts they already know, like averages (mean) and probability, and introducing some potentially new terms like population and frequency. [Note: The Science Buddies M&M Math Project Idea guides a more detailed and comprehensive statistics exploration, including the creation of data charts and graphs. A student interested in this project and exploring statistics can take the activity further than we did for our family science activity!]

When finished, one kid made a pyramid of M&M's, which of course crashed and caused a great uproar from the disgruntled engineer. Another made a pie chart of the M&M's on the napkin, a work of art that was then, of course, unceremoniously dumped into a baggie during cleanup. The third bag of M&M's was put to very good use making Monster Cookies. It seemed to me to be a perfectly sweet way to end our hands-on science project and reward all that counting!

What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the ones above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Science Project / Suspension Bridge from straws - multiple images
How does the Golden Gate Bridge or another suspension bridge work? Does the suspension design help it support more weight than other types of bridges? In the "Keeping You in Suspens(ion)" science project, students put these questions to the test. With ordinary materials—straws, tape, string, paper clips, and a small cup—students can quickly model a suspension bridge and test its weight-bearing capacity compared to a simple beam bridge made from the same materials. How many pennies can each bridge support? Comparing weight-bearing capacity using different kinds of string (cables) or across different widths adds to the science fun!

See "Building Bridges" for a roundup of Science Buddies' bridge-related hands-on science Project Ideas.

What did your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (photos like the one above or photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see! Send it in, and we might showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog, in the newsletter, or at Facebook and Google+! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Basketball Science on the Court

Have a sports-oriented kid? Playing basketball can engage muscle power and brain power! For summertime fun, hit the courts to explore the science behind shooting hoops.

By Kim Mullin

Basketball Science

Better Basketball?

Can science help you improve your skills on the court? It might! Sports science projects let you explore the science and physics behind a favorite pastime. Shoot some hoops; score some science points.

Basketball season may be officially over, but it's a safe bet that lots of kids are shooting hoops this summer. With just a ball and a net, kids can engage their muscles, cardio-vascular systems, hand-eye coordination, and agility, all at the same time. Throw in a few friends, and you 'add teamwork and sportsmanship to the equation. Talk about a powerhouse!

Next time the kids head out to practice their shots, consider this: there are scientific principles involved in every shot! Trajectory, force, gravity, energy, motion, air pressure, percentage—injecting a little bit of science into summertime fun can be as simple as asking the right questions when you are out on the court and then putting a few of those ideas into action. Below you will find some Science Buddies sports science Project Ideas to help you and your kids explore the science behind the game.

  • Nothing But Net—The Science of Shooting Hoops: Doesn't every kid want to improve her shooting percentage? This Project Idea takes the scientific approach to the question of where your hands should be when taking a shot. Kids can apply the same ideas to other aspects of the game, such as whether or not to use backspin, or which is the best trajectory for the ball.
  • Under Pressure—Bouncing Ball Dynamics: If you drop a ball, how high will it bounce? What happens to the height of the bounce if you release some air from the ball? What about using different types of balls? This Project Idea offers a quick and easy way to explore the concept of air pressure.
  • How High Can You Throw a Baseball? A Tennis Ball? A Football?: Want to know how high you can throw a ball? There is a mathematical equation for that! Grab a friend and a stopwatch to test your throwing ability...and have some fun with physics!

Keep Your Brain and Muscles Fit This Summer

Whether you and your kids are on the court, in the swimming pool, or out in nature, summertime is a great time to remember that science is everywhere! Help kids explore new concepts, or let them show you how much they already know about how science fits into the equation. You all might just score an impressive three pointer! '



Math Riddles for All Ages

A new book brings math into the realm of bedtime stories. Whether you read it with your kids at night or during the day, Bedtime Math encourages families to talk about math every day—and to have fun doing so!

Talking About and Doing Math with Your Kids

We use math every day in countless ways. Don't be afraid to turn ordinary moments into math moments with your kids. It is good for them to add, subtract, and think about numbers and how they relate to real-world scenarios—and doing it as a family can be fun!

"The U.S. ranks 25th out of 34 countries when it comes to kids' math proficiency. One New Jersey parent wants to change that by overhauling the culture of math. An astrophysics graduate and mother of three kids, she started a ritual when each child was 2 years old: a little bedtime mathematical problem-solving that soon became a beloved routine. Parent friends began to bug her to send them kid-friendly math problems, too. Now Bedtime Math is gaining fans among children and math-shy parents around the country."--NPR

Do your kids love numbers, puzzles, and the challenge of a good brain tickler? Do you make it a point to incorporate math into everyday activities and scenarios with your kids so that the real-world application of basic math skills is tightly woven into things you do? When math is about more than rote memorization, many kids find it fun. Practicing math skills is always important and can help boost your student's number savvy and their number confidence.

A new book from Macmillan aims to help parents boost math awareness at home with fun and engaging math-based puzzlers for all ages.

Bedtime Math, written by Laura Overdeck and illustrated by Jim Paillot, offers parents clusters of related math puzzles, which Overdeck refers to as riddles, targeted at different age groups: wee ones, little kids, and big kids. With the three-legged approach to each story and set of math problems, Bedtime Math offers ease of use for parents (and teachers) and, in some cases, room to grow. Each riddle group shares the same general story line, but each difficulty level presents a new math question. With a multi-age group of kids or siblings, you can ask the riddles by age, or, with older kids, start with the "wee ones" riddle and then move on sequentially to the harder ones. They may find the "wee one" very easy. You might even get an eye-roll or two, but the stories are still fun, and by starting with the easy riddle, your kids may build momentum as they progress to each new level of difficulty.

Chapter 1 is titled "Exploding Food." Intrigued? The Bedtime Math video trailer (below) offers a glimpse into the book's fun style, clear language, engaging layout, and colorful illustration. You can view additional pages from the book at Amazon.com to get a sense of the clever stories Overdeck has crafted to draw students in. How many bites of Habañero peppers before you can't stand the heat? How many kids are screaming on the roller coaster? How many LEGO® bricks do you have left if the roof took x bricks from your starting number?

In addition to Bedtime Math (the book), Overdeck offers a free daily newsletter from (sign up on the Bedtime Math website) that delivers a tiered daily math challenge to your inbox. With kids home over the summer, you may find the newsletter, book, and Overdeck's blog, an easy and entertaining way to add a routine dose of math to your days and family time—or bedtime reading.

More Ideas for Family Math

How do you and your kids keep the math flowing during summer break? Check our "Making Room for Math" post for tips and suggestions for infusing summer days with easy doses of math. See also, "Weekly Spotlight: M&M Math" and the math area of the Science Buddies library of Project Ideas for science, technology, engineering, and math.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources for hands-on math are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.



Are there energy vampires in your house? There are probably more things sucking on your household energy than you realize! This summer, band together with your students to analyze your family's power usage—and to see what steps you can take to make a difference in your family energy usage footprint. From stereos to gaming systems to chargers for all of your devices, you might be surprised at how many things are plugged in—and how much energy each uses, even when it is just sitting around and waiting for your attention.

Energy Meter / Family Energy Usage Investigation

Power Usage You See and Don't See

How many things are plugged in around the house? How many of them still suck on power even when you are not using them? Many devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, even when you are not using them. If you add up all that phantom energy usage, is the amount significant in terms of your household energy bill?

Are there steps you and your family can take to improve your family's energy-efficiency and energy awareness? Set up a plan to target vampire power usage, and see if it makes a difference!

"When you aren't in the room, turn off the lights!"

"You all have to start turning off the lights!"

"It's sunny out, turn off the light."

"The lights are on in every room of the house again!"

"You don't need to turn every light in the bathroom on every time you walk in!"

Does the on and off of lights form a similar refrain in your house as you try and make your kids more aware of energy issues and trim corners on rising energy bills? The singsong of lights on and lights off is a buzz you will find in houses and buildings of all sizes. When we think of cutting down on the always-on energy, many people immediately think of lights. Have you been in an elementary or middle school and been surprised to find lights in classrooms off as the students work by daylight? Have you dutifully changed out light bulbs to more energy-efficient choices in hopes of saving an accumulation of pennies over time?

Lighting the Way

Attention to overhead and tabletop lighting may have some impact on your energy footprint at home, but the impact of your lights may be minimal in the context of the overall size of the print. Lights may be the most obvious culprit for a family's wasted electricity, but lights are likely only a drop in the energy bucket.

What else is running?

Some night when it is dark in the house, take a walk through the house and notice how many little lights you see, little green or orange or red or blue lights, signs that something is on, running, ticking, waiting for notifications, and otherwise sucking away at your power. Do you use a fancy single-cup coffee brewer that keeps water heated and ready to make an on-demand cup of coffee or hot chocolate? Do you use a digital video recorder to make sure you never miss a favorite show? These, and many other, devices and appliances draw some energy throughout the day, while they are sitting around and "waiting" for use. While many of the things plugged in may only use a trickle of energy when they are not actively being used by you, if you add up all the passive energy usage, you might be surprised! This kind of energy usage is sometimes called vampire or phantom power.

You may know when you glance at your computer that a blue light signals it is still on, and not in a suspended, hibernated, or "sleep" state even if it appears to be off. In another room, another computer may glow red for the same reason. Your gaming device may mean something different when the device light is red, green, or yellow. Devices and appliances with indicator lights are the ones you probably notice most often, but the lights you see probably only reflect a portion of the devices and appliances that are plugged in and possibly still running even when you are not using them.

Some devices give themselves away because they make more than their share of noise and/or because they kick in and out of activity, triggering lights and noise. The ever present hum of a digital video recorder or cable box, for example, may be a sound you notice when the house is quiet, a reminder that the TV is still active even when no one is watching. Gaming consoles, too, often whir in the background even when they are not being played. Even when flipped off, you may find that some devices seem to never "really" go off and may even kick back on when least expected, the disc insert slot lighting up at odd times as the system checks for and installs updates. It can be disconcerting when your kids are in bed, and suddenly the gaming system fires up and, with a whirring sound, starts spinning to life and drawing on the household power. But even the devices you don't think about, the subtle ones, may be hanging out waiting, and munching on a steady stream of energy.

How many devices have a digital clock face that is always on?

Summer Energy Investigation

With kids home for the summer, why not set up a student-led investigation into your family's power usage. With summer temperatures pushing some systems into cooling overdrive during summer months, energy bills may be on the rise, but with some detective work, some monitoring of energy usage, and some record keeping and basic applied math, you and your students can pinpoint engery-draining pitfalls and culprits—problems you may be able to tackle by changing how you and your family approach turning devices on and off.

Get the kids involved and see what a difference you can make!

The following Project Ideas offer a blueprint for carrying out specific kinds of energy usage analysis.

Bringing Energy Usage Issues Home

Consider these projects as a framework around which you can develop a family science activity. You will need to invest in at least one energy monitoring device, like the Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. (Investing in more than one would allow you to gather data about appliances and devices in multiple rooms at the same time, but you can track your energy with a single device over time.)

The Kill-A-Watt device helps you see how much power a device plugged into it uses. You plug an appliance into the Kill-A-Watt device, and then plug the device into the wall. With the electricity usage monitor in between your appliance and the power source, you can track how much energy specific appliances use. As shown in the " Killing 'Vampires'" project idea, you can use a multiple-outlet strip to measure the usage of a series of devices.

As you and your family get used to how the Kill-A-Watt device works, and what the numbers look like, you will have a better sense of what you want to test in your own home—and what times of day you want to take readings. (Someone may need to set a middle-of-the-night alarm a few times to get some important data about what always-on systems are doing while you sleep!)

A Whole-family Science Project

Your energy investigation will be specific to your family, your home, and your lifestyle. But here are some general tips for getting started:

  1. Get the last few energy bills out and show the kids how much power was used—and how much it cost.
  2. Take a field trip to the basement, garage, or exterior house location to show them the electricity meter and explain how the power company collects the data.
  3. Talk about vampire power consumption. This kind of continual power drain is also called phantom power or leaking electricity. What does it mean?
  4. Make a list together, as a family, of all the devices that are plugged in around the house. How many plugged-in things are there?
  5. Identify which devices are rarely, if ever, turned "off" (e.g., coffee makers with a heating device or clock, cable box, router system, etc.). Are there any devices plugged in that really don't need to be (e.g., a radio that is never used, a freezer in the basement that no longer works, etc.)?
  6. Work together to make predictions about which devices use the most energy.
  7. Set up a plan for what devices to measure. Let one of the kids be the record keeper for the project, or have each kid keep the data in a notebook so that everyone can "do the math" and see the data throughout the project.
  8. After making a list of which appliances and devices to test, first monitor usage of each appliance or device without making any changes. (Be sure and note your start and end usage on your household meter.)
  9. Be sure and run tests for active use as well as for phantom or vampire use on devices you think may be powering on, actively processing or making connections to a network, or otherwise staying "alert" even when not being immediately used.
  10. Run tests to see what difference there is between putting a computer to "sleep" and fully shutting it down. One may seem more convenient, but how do they compare in terms of energy usage?
  11. After gathering power consumption data about the various devices in the house, identify ones that could or should be completely turned off more routinely.
  12. Come up with a "green" plan for your house and family. Implement the changes you've identified. (Be sure to note the starting number on your household electric meter.)
  13. After a set amount of time, compare your results pre- and post-change. Did your changes make a difference in overall household usage? If you time your investigation to monitor usage for one month without changes and then one month after changes, you may be able to compare the bill, too!

Are there changes your family can make, long-term, that will make a big difference in the power you use? We would love to hear about your family's "green" investigation. If you wish to share how it went and what you discovered, email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of energy and power are supported by SAIC.



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Where's Waldo Visual Exploration Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that investigate the science behind visual search. When you are looking for a specific car in a crowded parking lot, what makes it easier or more difficult to spot the car? What if you are looking for your keys, someone in a crowd, or something specific on the shelves at the grocery? Do you enjoy puzzles and seek-and-find style books and games that make a game or visual brain teaser out of "finding" something that is hidden in plain sight. like Where's Waldo or I Spy?

What makes some objects harder to find than others or some I Spy books more challenging than others? Explore the science behind visual search by making your own puzzles, either using an online tool or by making hands-on, cut-it-out and glue-it-down (or draw it with markers) puzzles that you and your family can enjoy! From the number of distracters to the colors and size of them, there are plenty of angles to explore. This is a great summer science activity for the whole family!



Birds, frogs, ladybugs, and butterflies—these are a few examples of species in which growing waves of scientists are helping contribute to a global knowledge base. You and your family can, too!

Image: University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science describes ongoing research projects that invite collaboration, often around the world, between networks of professional scientists and interested members of the general public. These projects often rely upon the contribution of firsthand observation or findings from participants that enables widespread collection of global data on the topic. Citizen science projects may emerge in any field of science, and while nature-, environmental-, and zoology-oriented projects are common, citizen science is not limited to the outdoors. FoldIt, for example, is a game-based citizen science project where players are helping solve "puzzles" related to protein folding.

Get Involved in Science

Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard is full of photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources designed to encourage kids (and their parents) to become active participants in ongoing field research. Citizen Scientists is an inspiring and engaging choice, one families will enjoy and, hopefully, be motivated by. When you send in your first ladybug photos, let Science Buddies know! And next winter, if you participate in a bird count, share your totals with us, too. We would love to hear your stories.

Searching for Ladybugs

In Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard, ladybug hunting is highlighted as a summer seek-find-and-identify activity (although where you live will determine which activities are possible and at what time of the year). If ladybugs are common in your area, consider getting involved! The Lost Ladybug Project website contains many helpful resources for ladybug hunters, including a printable field guide (2 pages) that describes some of the most common ladybugs you might find in North America.

For more information about citizen science, see Citizen Science at Scientific American.

Have you or your kids spotted a ladybug recently? You may have watched your student observe the ladybug as it crawled around in her hand. Maybe there was even a small observational habitat created, for a half hour or so to see if the ladybug might eat a leaf (albeit a leaf a hundred or more times its size). When no gargantuan bites appeared in the leaf, maybe the ladybug was gently released and sent on its way. But what kind of ladybug was it? Did you know that there are more than five hundred species of ladybugs in North America and more than 4,500 species of ladybugs in the world? So what kind of ladybug did you see? Maybe it was one of a handful of species considered rare and once feared "lost" in the U.S. Don't you wish you had stopped to take a photo, make a drawing, and spend just a bit more time with the ladybug?

Spending that extra time immersed in searching for, observing, identifying, tracking or tagging, and chronicling the appearance of different species is exactly what Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard aims to inspire—in even the youngest of scientists, your children.

Ready, Set, Seek, and Find!

Some kids are fascinated, from the start, with insects, birds, frogs, lizards, and other creatures that turn up underneath a rock, in the trees, or after a hard rain. But even those who shy away from certain kinds of animals or insects benefit from hands-on activities and projects that reveal the rich diversity and wonder of the natural world. Citizen Scientists takes things one step further and shows that kids are already in position to help scientists and be scientists themselves!

This large-format book is a treasure trove of inspiring stories, ideas, facts, and motivation for young naturalists and their families. Written by Loree Griffin Burns and illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz, Citizen Scientists does an amazing job drawing in readers of all ages. Burns' writing is clear, engaging, and accessible, and her enthusiasm about the fact that even kids can get involved and take an active, hands-on role in global field science—from home—is palpable.

Citizen Scientists covers four different citizen science activities. Because the prime time for each of these activities differs and varies throughout the year, the book is organized by season: Fall Butterflying, Winter Birding, Spring Frogging, and Summer Ladybugging. In other words, you can't pick up Citizen Scientists and expect to immediately run out and begin tagging Monarch butterflies simply because the book gets you and your kids jazzed about the possibility of catching, examining, and labeling butterflies in hopes someone else finds them at the other end of their annual migration. Your ability to dive in with one of the covered species depends on where you live, what time of year it is, and what species are common in your area. You might not live somewhere, for example, where frogs are all that common!

Don't let this dissuade you from Citizen Scientists, however, and the mission and possibility of citizen science. Citizen Scientists may be a source of get-off-the-couch and out-of-the-house inspiration at any time of the year. Each section of the book is introduced with a wonderfully-crafted first-hand account that puts you, the reader, right in the middle of the action, standing in the cold on the morning of a bird count, sitting in the dark at night listening for frogs, or barely breathing as you wait for a butterfly to land so that you do not startle it away. Once you are part of the story and hooked, Burns offers more detail about how tracking is being done and why, about how the different species move or migrate, and about how people, including kids, around the world are pitching in to help scientists learn more.

The book is full of great photographs, diagrams, checklists, first-hand stories, historical notes, and resources to help kids find out more and get involved. Readers (and listeners and lookers) will enjoy the time spent with the book, and the book may catalyze family or student interest in either joining a large-scale project (like FrogWatch) or in creating your own small-scale nature-based investigation—just because.

No matter what species your family decides is of most interest, there is likely a great deal to learn. Starting at the wrong time of year, in fact, might be a good thing! With frogs, for instance, learning to decipher the different calls can be a huge challenge for citizen scientists, and there are resources you and your family can use to start familiarizing yourself with those calls, just as you might practice another language!

Encouraging budding naturalists to begin keeping notes, recording their observations, questions, and hypotheses, and even sketching what they see—either in the backyard or as they peruse field guides and reference material—is a great way to catapult kids into the role of active observers of the natural world and participants in global science.

After reading Citizen Scientists, you and your kids may, rightly, feel that you not only have a place in the world of science but have a mission and a responsibility to take a closer look at what is around you. Grab your gear, make some lists, and get started!

Making More Science Connections

If you enjoy Citizen Scientists with your students, you may also enjoy some of these outdoor and zoology-inspired science projects and activities this summer. Making a bug catcher is a great way to get started and see exactly what's out there in terms of backyard insects, but young birders will also find many ways to turn newfound or renewed enthusiasm for birds and other animals into hands-on science investigations, too:

  • Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity: how many different species will you suck up in your homemade collector?
  • What Seeds Do Birds Prefer to Eat?: different birds prefer different types of seeds and even different types of feeders. This project can guide and inspire a family's backyard science experiment even if you don't build a feeder from scratch.
  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences.: hummingbirds seek out the sweetest flowers as food sources. Do they see the color of a flower as a clue about the sweetness? Put it to the test by making and offering different colors of hummingbird nectar in this zoology science fair project, perfect for a backyard where hummingbirds are frequently spotted.
  • Can You Predict a Bird's Lifestyle Based on Its Feet?: get in the habit of close observation and recordkeeping by doing a survey of bird feet in your area. Whether you are watching in the backyard or at a local park or pond, see how many "feet" styles you can spot, identify the birds using a bird guide, and talk about what the feet tell you about the birds.
  • The Swimming Secrets of Duck Feet: different kinds of feet help different species of water birds perform different tasks related to their lifestyle and habitat. Your kids may not put simulated duck feet to the test as a family project, but after reviewing a bit about the different ways water birds use their feet, you might look at ducks at the pond differently next time and with greater appreciation of what their feet tell you about them!

Related blog posts that support science parenting and naturalist family science projects and enthusiasm:

More Science-themed Titles for the Read Aloud Crew

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas

Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas, written by Cheryl Bardoe and illustrated by Jos. A. Smith, is a beautifully told and rendered story of the life of Gregor Mendel. This book chronicles Mendel's years of study and his becoming a friar, a move that enabled him to further his studies and to engage in scientific discussions of the time, including the quest for understanding patterns of heredity. As the book turns to his now-famous experiments with peas, Bardoe goes into detail explaining both Mendel's preparation for his cross-breeding experiments and the results, over several years, of his observation of subsequent generations. She does a nice job, too, of couching her summarization of Mendel's pea plant investigations firmly within the scientific method. Though accompanied by plentiful full-color illustration, this account of Mendel's experiment, procedures, and findings will engage older elementary and middle school readers and listeners as well with its story of a scientist who, in the first year of creating hybrids, pollinated close to three hundred pea flowers by hand and went on to grow more than 28,000 pea plants! Sadly, Mendel's achievements were not recognized during his lifetime, but this book does a nice job presenting his story and work—and some introductory genetics—for a young audience.

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian, written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Julie Paschkis, tells the story of Maria Sibylla Merian, a naturalist and artist in the late 17th century. That, alone, marks Maria as unusual, but the context of scientific belief in 17th century adds to the mix. Maria was fascinated with insects and butterflies (some of which were then called "summer birds") at a time when insects, moths, and butterflies were thought to spontaneously generate from mud. Maria's careful observation and drawings helped reveal the pattern of metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Summer Birds is a short read, but will certainly encourage lively discussion!

See also: "Sparking Interest in Science and Science History for the Read Aloud Crowd" and "A Picture Book Look at the Engineering Spirit."



Boost your summer break with hands-on science the whole family can enjoy. From activities you can do with the kids in an afternoon, to projects you can set up as challenges for the kids to work on throughout the summer, summer science can help keep the summer doldrums—and summer brain drain—at bay.

Summer Science Ideas, Projects, and Activities for Home and Family Exploration
With its medley of lazy mornings, pool parties, crickets, and lemonade, summer break is here again. The hallmarks of summer break differ for every family, a recipe that gets tweaked year to year, a bit more or less of this, a splash of that, and a twist here and there. But one thing stays true for many of us—summer break means school is out for the summer.

Finding a balance of activities to keep students occupied during long summer days can be a challenge, but the summer break may also be a treasure trove of opportunity. Without school deadlines, school exams, and the trudge to and from school each day, students have more time to spend on areas of personal interest—and time to explore, pursue, and be exposed to potential new areas of interest as well. Of course, there is also plenty of time for the things they already love, whether that means shooting hoops at the corner park, playing video games, or perfecting skateboarding tricks.

It's all a matter of balance. But if left to their own devices (figuratively and literally), summer can be a slippery slope. You might look back and few months from now and see that the break melted away in a blur of screen time—a blur that brings with it the risk of brain drain, a measurable loss of academic learning, especially in areas of math and literacy.

Encouraging Summer Science

The good news is that finding ways to nudge, encourage, and empower them to do projects and activities that are both fun and enriching is easier than you might think. Giving a dash of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to some of your summer plans is a great way to occupy the kids with learning experiences and challenges that you can all feel good about. Plus, you might spark long-lasting interest that will carry them into the next school year—and maybe beyond!

The following posts are full of ideas for summer science activities and projects that make great choices for summer science, for the kids or for the whole family:

Summer hands-on science suggestion

Summer hands-on science suggestion / robots

Summer hands-on science suggestion / books

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hula hoop

Summer hands-on science suggestion / dinner table science talk

Summer hands-on science suggestion / make a collection

Summer hands-on science suggestion / m & m math

Summer hands-on science suggestion / towers

Summer hands-on science suggestion / hovercraft

Summer hands-on science suggestion / polymer putty

Summer hands-on science suggestion / marble run

Summer hands-on science suggestion / geodesic dome

Summer hands-on science suggestion / flower pigment

Summer hands-on science suggestion / capillary function

Summer hands-on science suggestion / grow crystals

Summer hands-on science suggestion / math

Elmer's® Products, Inc. is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies. Many of our summer science activities and projects involve Elmer's products!



With a bit of planning, you can stock up on materials your students can use to create a cadre of cool robotic animals, bugs, and creatures this summer. Upcycled vibrating motors may be your best friend for inspiring hands-on engineering with your kids, but there are plenty of ways to turn off-the-shelf bots and the Mindstorms® kit you may already own into a foundation for fun summer science with a friendly "critter" twist.

Bot style / critters and cute robots for introductory robotics engineering
With school out, there are even more free hours in the day for young engineers to tinker, to make, to wonder with their hands, and to innovate. Robotics enthusiasm has been brewing in my house in recent weeks, a hybridization of interest in RC helicopters, recycled art, Iron Man, and robots in general. We have always had an undercurrent of robotics interest, but recently I have watched the youngest sit at the computer and pull up videos of various kinds of robot projects, sifting through what's out there and synthesizing what he is seeing into a better grasp of what is possible. At nine, he's got big ideas!

Planning Summer Science

As I iron out plans for hands-on summer science activities and projects to both engage and occupy my kids during long summer days, I have been watching the stream of new and exciting Project Ideas being added to the Science Buddies robotics area. Bristlebots are a must-make for us this summer. It's a logical starting point, and it turns the familiar hex- and nano-bug concept we already know into a DIY activity. We can make them.

Jumping in with Bristlebots

Bristlebots are a great way to start kids off on a simple robotics engineering project—one you can pretty much guarantee will succeed. There is minimal wiring, a minimal number of parts, and for parents who worry about not having expertise to guide a robotics project, there are minimal steps where you (or the kids) might get off track. When it boils down to it, make sure you have one wire from the motor touching the top and one wire touching the bottom of the battery, and you are all set. If you decide to get industrious and salvage vibrating motors from the junk electronics drawer in your house, you up the challenge a notch (you might have to attach the wires), but the level of difficulty is still minimal—and the fun and sense of general robotics accomplishment pretty big.

Bristlebots, first introduced by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are a great launching point. A Bristlebot doesn't take long to make, and once made and set loose on a table, these little bots will take off on their bristly legs and be bounced around and redirected by hands or makeshift habitat walls.

But once those bots are scuttling around, chances are that you—or, more to the point, your kids—are going to want more.

You can extend the life of your bristlebot exploration by experimenting with different brush heads (as our Project Idea suggests), or by constructing ramps, mazes, and tunnels. But older elementary kids will surely want to kick things up a notch. They are going to have ideas about solar panels, about adding more brushes, about giving the bot more power, and about enabling remote control. Encouraging their thinking and innovation is important, and having some additional related projects up your sleeve to satiate and encourage their curiosity and desire to tinker, build, and make may find you and your kids breezing through a robot-inspired summer.

Robot Critters

Bugs, critters, pets, pals... call them what you will, but many student robotics projects generate small bots that skitter around, much like an insect.

Artbot from a plastic cup gets added personality with googly eyes!
Some builders will prefer the nuts and bolts look of a bot, admiring the visible circuits, the tiny breadboard, or the familiar look of a LEGO® Mindstorms® creature. Others prefer to spruce things up a bit, creatively masking a bot's hardwired construction with costuming that softens the edges and makes it "cute" or "friendly" in appearance.

How you and your kids customize a robot is completely up to you. If one day your daughter really wants a bristlebot that looks like a ladybug, it's doable. The same bot can be re-dressed another day to look entirely different. What's going on beneath the costume is where most of the exciting hands-on construction happens. But customizing a bot to make it "just right for its creator" is a step that brings hands-on engineering full circle for some creative-minded kids.

Here are a few robotics projects you can adapt to do with your students this summer as hands-on science and engineering activities at home:

  • Art Bot: Build a Wobbly Robot Friend That Creates Art: this bot is built from a plastic cup. Adding googly eyes to give the artist robot personality may be just the beginning! The full project has students explore how to guide the movements of the bot by adjusting the weights on top of the bot's head. For summer family fun, a basic art bot might be enough to kick start interest. (Grades K-3)
  • Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!: an introductory exploration of bristlebots, this project walks you through the basics and sets the stage for future bristle-based bot experiments. Masking the bot's toothbrush origins isn't covered in the project, but that doesn't mean you can't turn yours into something uniquely your own! (Grades K-3)
  • The Frightened Grasshopper: Explore Electronics & Solar Energy with a Solar-Powered Robot Bug: this exploration uses a ready-made bot, but it gives students the opportunity to investigate solar energy—and whether or not artificial light works for solar-powered critters and devices. With what your student learns in this project, she might have ideas for taking another basic bot in a new, sun-friendly, direction. (Grades 4-5)
  • Take a Hike: Train Your Robot Dog to Walk with a Virtual Leash: this project involves building a LEGO® Mindstorms® robot and programming the bot's sensors to respond to light so that you can "walk" your pet by controlling a light source, like a flashlight. If you already have the Mindstorms system, this is a great programming-based challenge for your builder. (Grades 6-8)
  • Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter: transform a regular bristlebot robot into a bot that you can guide around with a flashlight. This robot uses two toothbrush heads, two motors, and two light sensors and involves a more sophisticated circuit using a small breadboard. Bring on the tinkerers! (Grades 9-12)

The projects above are arranged in order of difficulty because when it comes to engineering, electronics, and robotics, your students will often learn in a stepwise manner, building upon skills introduced and used in one project when they move on to the next, slightly more difficult, project. All kids differ, but the general grade range for these projects are noted. Tinker-savvy kids can still enjoy the less difficult projects, and with adult involvement, younger students can certainly join in on projects pegged as appropriate for independent science fair engineering projects for older students.

Why not try them all!

Show Off Your Bots!

We would love to see the bots you and your students create this summer. Send us a photo, and we might share your bots on the blog or one of our other community spots!

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering are supported, in part, by Symantec Corporation.



Hands-on engineering doesn't always require high-tech materials. Armed with a stack of paper and the steps to folding a basic dart airplane, a volunteer leads a paper airplane station at a local science exposition and realizes, with surprise, that folding planes isn't something all kids know how to do! With guidance, paper airplane folding can lead to some far-flying—and fun—aerodynamics exploration.

paper airplane hands-on science / Mary Raven demonstrates basic dart folding at science fair
paper airplane hands-on science / student compares plane styles
Above top: Mary Raven demonstrates folding a basic dart paper airplane at a local Girls Inc. science fair. Bottom: Mary's daughter prepares to launch and test a different plane. How will it fly compared to a dart—and why?

Hands-on Science at Home, School, or After School!

Folding paper airplanes is a great way for students to experiment with core concepts like lift, drag, and thrust. The following science Project Ideas bundle hands-on aerodynamics exploration with paper airplane fun:

Along with origami fortune tellers and, these days, origami Star Wars finger puppets, paper airplanes are a seemingly eternal and archetypal pastime, a folding activity with a tangible outcome—a plane you can throw across the room or, accidentally, at a sibling. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.

When Dr. Mary Raven, Microscopy Facility Director at the Neuroscience Research Institute and Neuroscience Research Institute & department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, volunteered at her daughter's after-school program's annual science fair, she set up a paper airplane station so that the girls could experiment with the aerodynamics and physics of different plane designs. To get the most out of a hands-on comparative plane folding experiment, the kids folding the planes need to be comfortable with basic folding steps. Mary assumed most of the girls would have some history with paper airplanes. To her surprise, she discovered that folding paper airplanes was not something with which all the girls had experience. In the end, the girls that visited Mary's station at the Girls Inc. science fair got a crash course in basic folding, a fun dose of engineering, a nifty takeaway (paper airplane), and a great hands-on science experience.

Science After School

Mary's daughter, now in fourth grade, has been attending a local Girls Inc. after-school program since kindergarten, and Mary has been volunteering, each year, to lead a hands-on exploration with the girls at the science fair. According to Mary, science is typically part of the program schedule at Girls Inc., and when students request their top choice classes, engaging science-themed options like a Mad Scientist club are part of the available offering. But science really heats up with the yearly science expo when the girls get hands-on with a wide range of science and engineering activities.

"When you think science fair, you might think girls calmly presenting their projects" says Mary. "But the Girls Inc. science fair is more of a hands-on science show. Imagine 150 excited girls aged 5-12 running from station to station, and you have our Girls Inc. science fair."

At the science fair, various exploratory stations are set up for the girls to cycle through. This year, Mary says the stations included a math station, one focused on earthquakes, one on rocket launchers, one on hand washing (and visualizing germs with Glo Germ), a microscope-based station, and one featuring an iguana. The diverse offerings give the girls the chance to experience a number of different areas of science—who knows what might catch a young girl's imagination and spark lifelong interest—but as Mary can attest, 150 participants cycling through a hands-on science activity can be a challenge!

"I don't work with children for a living, and having one girl at home in no way prepares you for the experience of 150 excited girls asking every question imaginable," admits Mary. "I've tried several projects with the girls (prism optics, sun-prints, brain dissections), and I'm usually disappointed in my ability to share anything meaningful with a mass of swarming girls."

This year, Mary spotted a project at Science Buddies and thought it might be perfect for the science fair. "When I saw the experiment How Far Will It Fly? Build & Test Paper Planes with Different Drag posted on Science Buddies, I thought, 'hey, that looks like it might adapt to the wild of the Girls Inc. science fair.'"

Preparing for Hands-on Science with Kids

Having selected her activity for the fair, Mary spent time determining how best to convert the science "project" (something written with a single student performing a science experiment in mind) into a short-term hands-on activity that girls could do on the spot. When converting a full-scale project to an immediate and short-term activity, understanding both the audience and the main science concepts you want to get across is important. You want to craft the activity in such a way that the students are engaged and that there is a clear scientific takeaway.

Knowing in advance that girls would cycle through at varying times and that those at her station would all be in various stages of the activity at the same time, Mary planned ahead. She first made a poster that showed the basic steps for folding a simple dart plane. "I have learned the girls don't stop to read words," says Mary, "but I thought the examples might help."

She then gathered supplies: a stack of paper, a ruler, tape, scissors, and a clipboard for recording results. "I marked off the gym in 5 foot increments," says Mary, "and then with my poster board set up and papers at the ready, I waited for the girls to appear." Mary was ready, but she hadn't counted on the fact that not all of the girls had folded planes before. Even with the steps for folding a dart plane on the poster, folding the plane proved a challenge for some of the girls. "The first few girls trickled into the gym, and I quickly learned I was going to be walking the girls through folding the planes."

On the spot, Mary had to adapt and refocus her hands-on engineering activity. Testing multiple plane designs might not be possible; certainly, building three different planes with each girl was out of the question, says Mary. "I was a little surprised at how unfamiliar the girls were at folding paper. I was also a little disturbed to learn they called lengthwise folds 'hot dog' and widthwise folds 'hamburger,'" recalls Mary. Still, Mary and the girls stuck with it. "Some of the girls wanted me to fold [the plane] for them, but I think folding is a great 3D spatial skill, and using their own hands was important."

Despite the rocky start, "all the girls were able to fold a plane with help," says Mary. Not only were they able to fold a plane, but they were excited when they finished their planes. The immediate satisfaction of the project was evident for the girls who struggled through plane folding at Mary's station. "They were thrilled at how well the dart flew once it was complete."

Putting the Science in the Air

Rather than building multiple planes each, each girl flew her plane three times, and they took measurements and determined the average. Mary then guided the girls in modifying their original plane. "We added flaps in the back, and I asked the girls what they thought the flaps would do to the plane. None of the girls were certain what would happen, but when they tested the plane, they quickly realized the plane didn't fly well at all," says Mary. "They were able to deduce that the flaps were somehow blocking the airflow, and some girls realized that unfolding the flaps restored the plane's flying capability. I thought that was a great result!"

"I think making the planes was empowering for the girls," says Mary. "It gave them a tool to experiment with. They were excited to try flying it and to determine the best way to launch it. As much as I like the data collection and analysis part of the experiment, my favorite part was how the girls seemed to understand the manipulation. The concept of drag wasn't something they had heard of, and it isn't something they were likely to pick-up from a diagram. Still, after a couple of plane flights, they had a mental image."

And that's what it's all about, seeing the science in action, the cause and effect, the principles of science, like drag, and realizing that changing just one variable can make a dramatic difference. For Mary, this year's event was eye-opening, but she is happy with how it turned out and happy with the project she used as the basis for her activity. "I liked the aerodynamics (activity) because it is mostly hands-on interactive time, and the girls had something they could keep (the plane). Waiting is a killer in this format, and they love having something to take home."

"Overall, I'm very happy with the results although I still haven't achieved my vision of somehow ordering the disorder at my science fair table. If I had 4 volunteers, maybe?"

The Importance of a Single Volunteer and Role Model

We can't wait to see what Mary tries at next year's science fair, but we are sure that the girls who passed through her station this year benefited from having an interested adult take time to demonstrate, explain, guide, and encourage them to explore, question, and hypothesize.

"I think it is really important that the girls have contact with female scientist and engineers (or any scientist/engineer)," notes Mary. "Girls are very influenced by the female role models in their life. If you ask them why they are considering the career choice they are exploring, it is usually a female role model or relative that leads them to consider the option."

Note: After the fair, Mary suggested to the after-school program that enrichment programs in origami or in plane folding might be a great addition to the offerings. Do your kids and students fold paper airplanes now and again? If not, or if you are not sure, open up the basic dart instructions and grab a stack of paper. There are planes to be folded!

Interested in supporting and encouraging girls in science and engineering at home, in the classroom, or at a local school? See also: "Girls Explore Engineering with Marble Run Challenge" and "Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers."

Science Buddies Project Ideas in aerodynamics & hydrodynamics are supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.




The above photos were taken during the creation of a geodesic dome as a family math and science activity over spring break. The dome resembles the dome created in the "Dome Sweet Dome" math Project Idea, but we used straws instead of newspaper, a different assembly process, and threw in some duct tape customization for visual effect.

A model dome like this can be made in any size (as long as you figure out the relative lengths of the struts). This one is pretty big! Getting it in the car was definitely a challenge. The dome didn't weather its time squooshed in the trunk very well—a reminder that inexpensive plastic straws bend and/or crack under too much stress. (Stress-testing the strength of geodesic dome was not really our ultimate goal.)

Building the dome was a great hands-on math exploration project, but it took a good bit of time to work through all the necessary steps to prepare the struts for assembly. Each of my kids enjoyed different aspects of the project, but watching it come together in the end was awesome!

What does your science project or family science activity look like? If you would like to share photos taking during your project (like the photos you may have put on your Project Display Board), we would love to see and possibly showcase your science or engineering investigation here on the Science Buddies blog! Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Born on May 15, 1863: Frank Hornby, an inventor whose "toys" included Meccano, an engineering construction set of nuts, bolts, and strips of sheet metal. Hornby first devised the system for his children. When he moved on to mass produce Meccano, he marketed the product as "Mechanics Made Easy." Meccano sets, introduced for sale in 1902, resemble Erector sets, and today Meccano owns the Erector brand.

Whether beams and bolts or brick-based, toy building systems give kids (and tinkerers of all ages!) the chance to explore engineering, mechanics, and, today, even robotics. In the "Stair Master: Build an All-Terrain Robot" robotics Project Idea, students use LEGO® Mindstorms® to experiment with different kinds of wheel alternatives. Not every wheel suits every need. Identifying the challenge or problem is an important step in the engineering design process!

What does it take to build a successful all-terrain robot? The best way to find out and to test your theory about what will work is to put it to the test!

Making Science Connections

Our "today in Science History" posts make students, teachers, and parents aware of important discoveries and scientists in history and help connect science history to hands-on K-12 science exploration that students (and families) can do today. To follow along, join us at Facebook or at Google+. These frequent science history tidbits can be great for class, dinner, or car-ride discussion!



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Flower Pigment Chromatography Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of flower power projects, perfect for spring and Mother's Day! Paper chromatography is used to help separate a solution into its components. In these hands-on science activities, paper chromatography lets students see what makes up the "colors" of flowers. Are all red flowers the same in terms of pigment? Pluck a few petals and find out!



What color flowers do you want this week? Nature produces a wide array of wonderful colors, but plant biology opens the way for a whimsical "choose your own color" flower experiment, perfect for home or the classroom.

Family Science / Dyeing white carnations and capillary action of plants

April showers, May flowers, and Mother's Day... flowers may be out in abundance at your grocery or corner market, but not all flowers bundled and labeled for sale are straight from the garden.

This science mom's daughter was excited by the colorful flowers she saw at the store, including green carnations. Her mother took the moment of interest to talk about how plants get their nutrients—and how plant science is related to some of the "colors" of flowers for sale.

"I explained that many of the flowers she was seeing were not really like that in nature. So we talked about how flowers get nutrients and water, and then decided we'd try to make our own colored flowers. She actually came up with the idea of putting them in colored water after we talked about how plants drink and transport water!"

This mother/daughter discussion is a great reminder that a little science discussion can go a long way! Stopping to talk about what's going on and how science explains what has captured a kid's imagination helps kids make important connections between science and the real world and also encourages them to think about how that information can be used or tested. Sometimes your student might surprise you by assimilating the information and coming back with questions or suggestions, as this student did. She made the leap to wondering what would happen if they put flowers in colored water, and her mother took the next step—hands-on science at home.

"Of course, one color was not enough in our household. We needed to make a rainbow of colors... Seven seemed like a bit much to me so we compromised and did three."

Flower Science at Your House

Don't bypass those white carnations! They offer a wonderful opportunity for hands-on science with your kids. Will other white flowers work the same way? Give it a try and find out! The "Suck It Up: Capillary Action of Water in Plants" Project Idea will help guide your home experiment. For another version of this family project, see the Science Buddies "Staining Science: Capillary Action of Dyed Water in Plants" experiment at Scientific American.

What a great science activity to do this week with the kids in celebration of Mother's Day and Spring! The activity doesn't take much time or preparation, but the results may brighten up your kitchen table.

Share your school science project and family science stories by emailing blog@sciencebuddies.org. (You can also leave feedback on any Project Idea by clicking the "I Did This Project" link that appears at the bottom of the project page.)



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Crazy Crystals Chemistry Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that extend a classic chemistry exploration—growing crystals. Growing crystals makes for excellent and engaging hands-on, kitchen science that can be enjoyed by all ages, but what determines the size of the crystals? Explore the relationship between temperature and crystal formation in these science project and activity procedures:



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Flipbook Animation and Visual Illusion Science Exploration for home or school

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that explore the way the brain interprets a series of images. Both traditional cartoon animation and stop motion animation (like claymation) rely on the brain viewing a sequence of images as "in motion." By creating easy and fun flip-book animations, you and your students can explore how this optical illusion works—and how much information the brain can "fill in" and still perceive motion. These science project and activity procedures guide you through either an independent student project or a fun family exploration:



Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Balance Anything Marshamallows Physics Science Project

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that put your understanding of balance to the test! What makes some things topple and other things stable? Use marshmallows and wooden sticks to explore how the distribution of an object's mass determines how the object will balance. You can investigate using these science project and activity procedures:



Interest in student robotics continues to grow. Find out how to get your (and your kids') feet wet with hands-on robotics engineering projects and activities. From taking robotic steps with LEGO® to upcycling toothbrushes or recouping the innards of cast-off electronics, robotics projects can turn kids on to creative thinking and STEM tinkering! Start at the beginning with simple bots that require only a few parts, and then move on to increasingly more innovative and sophisticated designs, building know-how with each new bot. Watch your student's understanding of robotics engineering grow bot by bot!

"You did what with your brother's toothbrush?"

Nestled in between April showers and May flowers is something much less natural and more gritty, much more tech-savvy, sci-fi-inspired, and DIY oriented—National Robotics Week, April 6-14.

A growing wave of young tinkerers and builders are exploring robotics, often thanks to the availability of after-school robotics clubs and programs and summer science camps. Meeting the needs of both students interested in transforming their bot-building into school science projects and students and parents looking for guided home robotics challenges and explorations, the Science Buddies Robotics Area continues to expand, and there are more new K-12 robotics Project Ideas in development and coming soon!

Inspiring Young Engineers

Ben Finio, a scientist at Science Buddies, recently helped lead a group of kids in building awesome light-following Bristlebots at a Makerspace gathering in Ithaca, NY. Bristlebots, originally popularized by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, are DIY versions of vibrating robotic bugs. With a few simple components, possibly even upcycling a cast-off handheld device from the household junk drawer, kids and families can make their own vibrating bugs with toothbrush bristle bodies and legs. The upgraded model Finio invented and helped students build (shown in the video above) uses two motors and two light sensors to create a bot that will trail around after a light source. Talk about a cool tech spin on classic tag-along toys!

Racing Bristlebots at Science Buddies /  hands-on robotics project
Science Buddies Bristelbot ExplorationScience Buddies Bristelbot Exploration

The brand new "Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!" robotics Project Idea helps students turn Bristlebot building into a comparative science project. In this project, students are guided in building a base-model Bristlebot and then investigate the impact of using different materials. How will different toothbrush bristle designs affect the speed of the bot? Students will build and compare two bots in the project, but the project can easily be extended as students make their way through the toothbrush aisle at the grocery store in a quest for the best head of bristles for bot building (as opposed to teeth cleaning!).

Finio will be bringing a version of his light-tracking Bristlebot to Science Buddies in the future, but parents and students can get started now with their first Bristlebots. What other enhancements can you make to a bristlebot to change the core design?

Where to Start with Robotics

As is often the case with engineering and tinkering-style projects, Finio assembled his Light-following Bristlebot from assorted parts. Knowing how and what to take from disparate places to enable a successful hands-on robotics exploration can be a stumbling block for many parents and teachers who want to give their kids and students robotics opportunities but are unsure where to begin and what to buy.

Finio encourages parents, especially those with younger kids, to look for robotics projects that involve only a few components and don't require complicated circuits, mechanisms, or programming. Bots like the Bristlebot or an Art Bot (which uses pens for legs), can be easy but engaging entry-level projects, ones that parents can assist with or that older kids can undertake as a launching point for getting started with robotics.

Books on Bots

You can find many blueprints for robotics projects online, and if you work with a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, there are numerous project books for design inspiration. Here are a few other robotics titles you might explore at your local library or on a bookstore shelf as you search for inspiration and projects that fit you and your student's level of interest and expertise.

Robotics: Discover the Science and Technology of the Future with 20 Projects contains projects accessible even for new robot builders!

Robot Building for Beginners covers more advanced robotics engineering concepts.

Robot is part of the DK Eyewitness line of reference books for students.

Robots is another conceptual introduction to robotics for students.

My Robots: The Robotic Genius of Lady Regina Bonquers III is the invented history and sketchbook of a female robotics engineer. This one isn't just for girls but definitely has girl-power potential!

Investing in a robotics platform like LEGO® Mindstorms® or VEX is another pathway parents might consider. With a platform, kids can use build dozens of robots using designs available online or in the many, many books full of step-by-step bot ideas. The kits themselves may require substantial initial investment, but these kits have high reuse value, can be extended with add-on components, and offer programmability as well.

Empowering Student Robotics Engineers

At Science Buddies, students interested in robotics, of any flavor, or students who already have experience with or access to a system like LEGO® Mindstorms®, can find robotics engineering challenges that can be used for home fun or as the basis for a more involved science or engineering project for school.

The following Robotics Project Ideas offer a sample of the kinds of explorations students can find in the Robotics Area at Science Buddies:

Why Robotics

With its combination of innovation, creative thinking, engineering, and electronics, robotics can be a wonderful way to help encourage your student's engineering design skills, as well as important troubleshooting and problem solving strategies. If something doesn't work, figuring out why and then evaluating what you can do about it are core concepts when working with bots of all sizes. Equally important is the reality that there are no right answers in terms of "how" to build or design a robot.

Finio says he likes robotics for students and for STEM education because it is interdisciplinary. "Robotics is a combination of math, physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, programming, and sometimes even chemistry and biology," says Finio. "So whether you like using your hands to build things or prefer working on a computer, you can probably find something within robotics that you think is fun. Designing robots really encourages tinkering, prototyping, and trial-and-error. Even professional engineers rarely design robots that work perfectly on the first try!"

Light-sensing bristlebot construction / student robotics in action
Light-sensing bristlebot construction / student robotics in action
Pictured above: participants making light-following Bristlebots at a hands-on robotics event with Ben Finio, Science Buddies.

For more information about National Robotics Week, visit www.nationalroboticsweek.org.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in robotics engineering are supported by Northrop Grumman and Symantec Corporation.



In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects perfect for putting a portion of your kids' candy piles to scientific use! Use paper chromatography to explore the colors in candy coatings:



Finding the fun in April Fools' Day gags and pranks—and the science connections to capitalize on the fun!

Photo: Screenshot from Google Nose video.

It is April 1, and April 1 means April Fools' Day jokes and pranks from trickster friends and even companies. YouTube is coming to an end (and all the videos being deleted)? Did you hear about Google Nose Beta ("the new scentsation in search")? Twitter is apparently doing away with vowels, unless you pay for them. Maybe you spotted MAKE's headline about creating oranges from a 3D printer? Clever! (See the full write-up for some other smart April Fools'-inspired fictitious headlines.) Even the WeAreTeachers site got in on the April 1 fun with their write-up on the Standardized Multi-Systemic Technologically-Sound Fully-Differentiated Standard Central Academic School Standards, better known as the SMSTSFDSCASS. And the Elmer's Teachers Club shared a link to this video of a science teacher pranking his fifth grade class with a gravity hoax.

Hands-on April 1 Science History

April 1 also coincides with the birth date of Richard Zsigmondy, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist for research on colloids. If you have a preschooler—or ever were one—maybe you remember mixing up and messing with Oobleck? It's a classic example of a colloid, along with ketchup and quicksand, neither of which you probably want to squish around in your hands!

Tactile Oobleck, with its non-Newtonian fluid properties, seems right on track for an impromptu April Fools' Day hands-on science experiment either at school or at home. The ingredients for Oobleck are ones you probably already have in your kitchen cabinets. If you want to turn your Oobleck play into a more comparative science activity, you'll find directions for mixing up two additional solutions in the "Making Mixtures: How Do Colloids Size Up?" science Project Idea.

Fun Science Connections

Did you know Oobleck, the colloidal substance, gets its name from a Dr. Seuss title? Maybe you missed that one somewhere along the way? If so, you will want to check out Bartholomew and the Oobleck.

Suggestions for Playful April 1 Science

A few other suggestions for April Fools' Day science and conversations to capitalize on the prankster energy in the air:

Share your April Fools' science story by emailing blog@sciencebuddies.org.



Family Science / Egg shell activity and experiment images

Before settling down to serious Easter egg-dyeing with her family, this cool science mom did the "How Does a Chick Breathe Inside Its Shell?" activity with her daughter (age 9) and her nephew (age 3). Eggs and three-year-olds can sometimes lead to a scrambled science experience, but with a few extra eggs on hand, the experiment was a success!

"Believe me, a three-year-old will introduce some experimental variation into the procedure," admits the mom. "It is tough to do before and after weights if a small boy has removed some of the shell!"

To put their family science experience into perspective, one egg out of five survived, but even that one gave both kids a chance to explore the science—and math—at hand. They weighed the eggs before and after boiling on a kitchen scale and recorded their data, which is great practice for keeping a science project lab notebook!

"In the end, my daughter disproved her hypothesis," says the science mom. But a hypothesis that doesn't hold up doesn't mean the experiment failed, it means something was learned—and they got to talk about why they observed what they did and puzzle through what the experiment demonstrated. Keeping in mind that firsthand exploration and learning is the goal of a family science activity and much more important than being right or having all the answers ahead of time is all part of doing science at home with kids. This mom did a great job!

In addition to the allure of the eggs themselves, using the magnifying glass to examine the pores in an egg shell was fun for both kids, says the mom. Not surprisingly, the younger student found his own side-exploration with the magnifying glass, too. "He used the magnifying glass to closely observe the large hole he made in a peeled egg he was eating!"

What a wonderful science activity with the kids to tie in with other eggy activities last week. Way to go!

Share your school science project and family science stories by emailing blog@sciencebuddies.org. (You can also leave feedback on any Project Idea by clicking the "I Did This Project" link that appears at the bottom of the project page.)



Soft boil Eggs / science Activity Family Science Spotlight
Are you looking for a school science project topic or a hands-on science activity to do on the weekend or with your family? Science Buddies' science projects come in all sizes!

In this week's spotlight: a pair of eggy projects that are just in time for more Easter-inspired science with your family! Explore the soft boiling of eggs in our updated cooking and food science project and in the family-friendly activity at Scientific American's Bring Science Home.



When it comes to structural engineering, there is a lot to be learned from the shape of the mighty egg. At the same time, sitting on an egg doesn't always work out so well. From eggs to domes to bridges, there is family science at hand perfect for spring break exploration for young builders and engineers! Be prepared to be slimed by some breakages and dazzled by some shows of surprising strength!


Egg and Engineering: Over-easy Science

Eggs break easily when force is applied from a certain direction, but held or positioned differently, an egg can withstand a surprising amount of pressure! Put eggs—and structural engineering and design—to the test with your kids in fun hands-on engineering activities that will challenge them to think creatively, to innovative, and to experiment!

There are chickens at my son's elementary school, and it is great to see kids running to the coop in the afternoons to interact with the chickens, to help with coop duties, and, to check for eggs. With only a few chickens and a few eggs relative to the number of interested chicken watchers, there are some basic school coop rules about gathering the eggs. But when you are the only student around in the afternoon, and you find an egg, you may find that you just got lucky. My student stopped by the coop one afternoon last week and was excited to find an egg that had not yet been collected. It was, indeed, fresh from the chicken, and he insisted I feel how warm it was to the touch—warm and smooth and perfectly ovoid in shape.

Unfortunately, in addition to being warm and smooth, eggs are also fragile. Elementary school students know this. Most of them have had plenty of experience cracking eggs in school and home kitchen science and baking projects. But despite what they "know"—that eggs crack—sometimes maybe there is an irrepressible need to goof around with an egg. Maybe that need is especially strong when you've just gathered it, warm and smooth. But when you joke around and pretend to sit on the egg as the chicken must have, chances are good you will end up with a pile of gelatinous goo, even if you are not really trying to sit with all of your weight, even if, really, you are just being silly.

That is what happened to us, and egghead excitement quickly turned to nine-year-old despair. A broken egg isn't nearly as much fun, and the chickens didn't care that his egg had cracked. The chicken was done for the day. There wasn't another egg ready and waiting to be found. These are sometimes hard lessons that go along with chicken care, egg gathering, and any kind of hands-on science.

Unexpected Connections

The incident with the egg was a reminder to us that eggs are fragile. We crack them to break them open when we want to cook or eat them. While looking at science project ideas in preparation for this week's focus on Easter and family and class egg boiling and dyeing activities, I ran across the "Fallen Arches: The Surprising Strength of Eggshells" materials science Project Idea.

As the title suggests, the project is all about the strength of the egg shape or, more specifically, of half an egg—an arch. This is a fun hands-on engineering experiment for even the youngest of student scientists. With three half eggs, sitting point-side up and arranged in an evenly-distributed triangle, how much weight will they hold before caving? You and your young scientists might be surprised!

If you keep a few eggs aside when you boil others for dyeing, you can engage your students with a great hands-on science activity that easily feeds into other questions and experiments about structures and building designs. As you and your students talk about arches as a structural element, you may find that there are examples in your neighborhood that can add even more relevance to your exploration and your student's understanding of arches in the real world. A small stone bridge walkway that crosses a favorite duck pond of ours is built using arch shapes. An arch bridge is a classic bridge design, in fact. (To extend your discussion, look up keystones!)

From Eggs to Engineering

The following hands-on engineering projects can easily be turned into fun family science activities, great for spring break, summer vacation, or a rainy day. Many of these projects involve some combination of physics, structural engineering, materials science, and math, which gives them great range and versatility. A lot depends on what questions you and your kids want to ask and explore. Why, after all, are the half eggshells arranged in a triangle in the "Fallen Arches" project?

That you can spend an afternoon assembling straws or rolls of newspaper and wind up with an awesome three-dimensional object worthy of display gives these projects added pizzazz for families that love DIY projects and the art that evolves from hands-on exploration. On the flip side, there are structural engineering projects where the goal is to build them so that you can break them. For some kids and families, that is exactly the ticket for thrilling science!

Check the following Project Ideas for more suggestions for families that love to build:

  • "Dome Sweet Dome": build a geodesic dome using struts made from rolled-up newspaper. (You can do a similar activity with straws.)
  • "Building the Tallest Tower": great for the younger crowd as long as no one gets upset when the tower tumbles!
  • "The Effect of Bridge Design on Weight Bearing Capacity": test two different bridge designs, a Warren truss bridge from Popsicle sticks and a Howe truss bridge made from straws. This is a build and break project, so be prepared!
  • "Can a Toilet Paper Tube Support Your Weight? *": how big would a tube need to be for you to stand on it without it caving in? How does the answer change if you fill the tube with various materials?
  • "Newspaper Tower *": how tall of a tower can you build with two sheets of paper—and nothing else? What shape will it take to reach the greatest height and to maximize the paper and to make it stand?
  • "Paper Bridge for Pennies *": a bridge made out of one sheet of paper, a few paper clips, and the challenge to have it support 100 pennies? Let your engineers loose and see what creative solutions they devise!

Cracking Family Science

In the end, eggs do break easily when force is applied from a certain direction. But held or positioned differently, an egg can withstand more pressure than you might expect. Put eggs—and other building designs—to the test with your kids, and let us know what you discover and what fun you have doing science together!



Spring Break Science Family Project Ideas!
Great science activities and explorations for the kids to do at home can make surviving spring break a piece of cake!
Follow along all week as we highlight great picks for keeping the kids busy with hands-on science during spring break.

Carefully-selected projects and science activities can be fun and engrossing, and we have plenty of ideas for cool science explorations that take minimal preparation, use easy-to-find materials, and are engaging for a range of ages. (See our initial "Finding the Science in Spring Break" post on Spring Break science.)

Top Picks for Spring Break Science

We are adding to this list all week long, so stay tuned! The full list is shown below:

  • 2013-springbreak_1.pngSkipping Science: An Experiment in Jump Rope Lengths: When it comes to jump ropes, one size may not fit all! If you want to score high jump numbers, what is the perfect jump rope length for you? Get hands-on and find out!
  • 2013-springbreak_2.pngMotion Mania: Applying Physics to Hula-Hooping: Hula-hooping is fun but not necessarily as easy as it might look! The size and weight of your hula hoop may have a lot to do with your success as a hula hooper. In this hands-on, backyard science project, kids can build their own hula hoops from tubing and investigate to find out how the size and weight matter. Don't forget the duct tape for personalizing your hoop!
  • 2013-springbreak_3.png Make Monkeys Fly in the Blink of an Eye: With a screaming monkey (or another toy that can be launched from a rubber band) on hand, kids can explore the relationship between the stretch of the rubber band and the distance the monkey flies. What's going on? It's all about energy! Take some pictures. We want to see your monkeys fly!
  • 2013-springbreak_4.png Rocketology: Baking Soda + Vinegar = Lift Off: You may have to dig to find a few old film canisters, but when you mix in a few kitchen ingredients, a plastic film canister can lead to explosive fun with chemical reactions. Kick up the classic volcano experiment as you launch mini rockets and figure out the best ratio of ingredients to get the highest flight. Remember: safety goggles, adult supervision, and a clear outdoor place where the mess won't matter!
  • 2013-springbreak_5.png Turn Milk into Plastic!: Milk! Good for the body and, with the right chemical reaction, good for a hands-on creative activity. Experiment with the recipe for making milk-based plastic, and then use the plastic you make to create beads or small sculptures. This is a fun chemistry activity for kitchen scientists. What will you make with your milk plastic?
  • 2013-springbreak_6.png Bottled-up Buoyancy: What makes a submarine sink or rise? In this hands-on hydrodynamics exploration, students build a model submarine from empty plastic bottles and then experiment with buoyancy by changing the amount of water "in" the submarine and seeing what happens. With a rubber-band propelled launch mechanism and a working propeller, this #science activity is lots of fun!
  • 2013-springbreak_7.pngShaking Up Some Energy: create your own "shake it up" alternative energy, a la a "shake to light" flashlight, by making a simple generator and investigating the relationship between magnetism and the induction of electrical current. Wrapping 1,000-2,000 turns of wire around a plastic film canister will keep your tinkerer busy in this hands-on electronics project. But in the end, she will have a working example of battery-free power!

How did you fill spring break days? We would love to hear what science activities you did with your family. Snap and share your photos to put your family's science in the spotlight! (Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.)



Finding the Science in Spring Break

If spring break is on the calendar, take advantage of the week to tackle some hands-on family science or set the kids up with STEM projects that offer a fun challenge and some focused exploration.

Spring Break Science Family Project Ideas!
Great science activities and explorations for the kids to do at home can make surviving spring break a piece of cake!
This week is spring break in my house. Maybe it is in your house as well, or will be in a few weeks. The kids may be psyched to be home, but spring break often requires a bit of juggling for parents. As you plan how to balance the days, don't overlook science activities as a way to connect as a family in ways the kids will enjoy and you can feel good about.

Doing family science at home doesn't have to feel like reproducing a classroom lesson. There is no final exam and no research paper required, so relax and have fun with the process. It's okay to get messy and make mistakes! There are lots of options for family science that may tie in with angles of inquiry you and your kids already enjoy, that relate to a current area of interest, or that bridge the gap between art project and science experiment. The key is to find a project that sounds fun—for everyone.

Planning Family Science

After thinking through science, math, engineering, and technology projects that we might tackle this spring break in my house, I placed an order for some inexpensive supplies with an ambitious and creative hands-on math project in mind. In the week or so leading up to spring break, I tried to seed some anticipation and get the kids excited about what we will be doing. We talked about the general concept of the project, about the options we have for size and construction, about some real-world applications of the idea I've seen, and about the cool math at hand.

I have a few science activities planned for the kids this week, but this one is the biggest, and I selected it because it nicely spans their ages, fits with their interests, is entirely hands-on, will require focused involvement and time preparing our materials, and will be fun! Plus, in the end, we're going to end up with a giant "thing" as the result of our cooperative and collaborative math exploration. That I have tied in duct tape as part of the DIY activity will only add to the appeal of the process and of the product! I will be photographing our experience to share it here on the blog, so stay tuned!

Top Picks for Spring Break Science

We will be highlighting some great spring break science ideas all week at Science Buddies and, especially, at Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Join us in one of those places to follow along! Many of these activities use everyday or easy-to-find materials, so once you and your kids decide on an experiment or science project to do, it can be easy to gather supplies for a great hands-on family science exploration.

To kick off our spring break science celebration, here are a few of our top picks to get you started thinking about ways to infuse spring break with hands-on science. Both of these science explorations blend craft and science and burn off some energy at the same time!

  • 2013-springbreak_1.pngSkipping Science: An Experiment in Jump Rope Lengths: When it comes to jump ropes, one size may not fit all! If you want to score high jump numbers, what is the perfect jump rope length for you? Get hands-on and find out!

  • 2013-springbreak_2.pngMotion Mania: Applying Physics to Hula-Hooping: Hula-hooping is fun but not necessarily as easy as it might look! The size and weight of your hula hoop may have a lot to do with your success as a hula hooper. In this hands-on, backyard science project, kids can build their own hula hoops from tubing and investigate to find out how the size and weight matter. Don't forget the duct tape for personalizing your hoop!

We will be adding to our list of spring break science picks all week! We would love to hear what you try with your family. Snap and share your photos to put your family's science in the spotlight! (Email us at blog@sciencebuddies.org.)



Egg science is fun at any time, but if you and your kids are planning to boil and dye eggs this week, don't miss out on the great opportunities for fun, colorful, and possibly smelly, family science!

Eggs dyed with natural dyes / family science activity and experiment
Above: the results of our first attempt at using natural dyes for our eggs.

In the years that I have worked at Science Buddies, the tradition of dyeing Easter eggs has taken on new meaning and significance. Instead of simply being a requisite family craft activity, Easter egg preparations have become a conduit for a spring-themed boost of hands-on science with the kids. Really, in my house, the plastic eggs are where it's at. The plastic eggs are the ones that are hidden, found, and might be filled with something of sweet value. The real eggs are the ones decorated and then ushered to the climate-controlled sanctity of the fridge.

Our real eggs are pro forma, but we still dye a dozen or so each Easter just because, so we might as well make use of the opportunity to investigate what's going on with those shells, both inside and out.

Egg Science in Years Past

Our exploration of Easter eggs in the last few years has focused both on the boiling process and on the dyeing process, and we have learned a lot through trial and error and through comparing different approaches to each step. Particularly notable was the realization that hard boiled eggs really are not supposed to be grossly green on the inside! (I've been boiling eggs the way my grandmother taught me all my life!) But our heightened attention to the science at hand also led to interesting questions about pH levels and types of vinegar, and last year, we made our first attempt at using natural dyes.

That process, in and of itself, was beautiful and much more exciting than using the little plastic egg-shaped containers and grocery store dyeing tablets. Our series of mason jars filled with a rainbow of natural dye baths was stunning. If the eggs had turned out as vibrant as the waters themselves, the process would have been a home run for both kids and mom. Unfortunately, the final egg shades didn't live up to the colors at which their water jars hinted, and some colors (and ingredients) were more successful than others. Even so, the hands-on activity was fun, inspired lots of predictions from the kids, and gave us plenty of room to talk about how we might modify the process and our ingredients to enhance our results another year. Plus, in addition to the smell of hard boiled eggs in the air, we added a layer of boiled cabbage!

Bunny Steps with Egg Science

To get you in an egg-ready mood, read through my accounts of our previous explorations. My bunny-hop trail through the land of egg boiling and dyeing is, by and large, a cautionary tale of family science, but our experience might help you hone in on an angle of scientific inquiry to guide your family's egg-based activities this year:

  • "Hard-Boiled Science: "I thought that sickly green layer to the yolk was simply... a fact of a hard-boiled egg. It's not!"
  • "Putting Your Eggs All in One (Dye) Basket": "Underwhelmed by the sticker and glitter-approach to decorating eggs lining the shelves, I thought of the subtle tones of eggs dyed with natural ingredients and decided we should try it."

There are plenty of "egg"-centric projects at Science Buddies that you can modify for a home-based science activity with your kids. Even without an extra dozen eggs on hand for testing, these science project ideas can fuel family dinner discussions in preparation for Easter:

It's the Doing that Counts!

Any of these explorations can be easily adapted as a fun science activity for parents with kids in the house or even for classroom exploration. For families, if you will be dyeing eggs the weekend before Easter, plan ahead and make a bit of extra time to experiment with your family's boiling or dyeing process and to talk about why your results will differ if you change one of your variables. Get a scratch notebook out and assign one of your young scientists the task of recording your experiment. Give another a camera to document the process! How many eggs are you starting with? What color are the eggs? How many eggs are you adding to the pot at once? When are you adding the eggs? How many minutes will you boil the water with the heat on? How long will the eggs sit in the water after you turn it off? Do you use a lid? How will you cool the eggs? And then, what will you do with the second batch? Remember, to compare your results and test a hypothesis, you want to change only one variable at a time!

Any of these questions can be turned into a science activity with your kids. You can come up with a list of questions related to the dyeing process, too! Pick one question that sounds fun, and turn your yearly Easter egg dyeing into a family science activity. You don't have to compare everything. Just pick something that you all agree sounds interesting and makes you "wonder." Talk about it: What do you already know about the dyeing process? What questions do you have?

Designer Dye Baths

If you are looking for something really different and looking to get as far from a "box" craft as you can, the solution may be tucked away in your closet (or found at a local thrift store). The new "Dye Eggs Using Silk Ties for Egg-cellent Colors" chemistry Project Idea explores the science behind a DIY dye approach popular in home and garden and craft magazines. You can create your own "tie"-dyed eggs worthy of Martha Stewart using silk ties. (This is not your rubber-band t-shirt tie dye!)

Following any ready-made directions for using silk ties to dye eggs, you can create an array of eggs sporting novel patterns and designs. But what's the key? What's the science behind the process? We've got a science procedure that lets students ask science questions and put the process to a scientific test! (For a family-friendly spin of the tie-dyed eggs experiment, see the version we posted at Scienctific American.)

Better understanding how the process works and what really makes the colors and patterns transfer best involves some hands-on testing. Be forewarned! To ensure you are only changing one variable in the testing, this science project starts with raw eggs, and only half of them will be boiled during the dyeing process. At the end, half of your eggs may be pretty, but they will still be raw! Be prepared to blow out the insides before you put them on display! And, remember, the silk tie dyes are not ones that are necessarily safe to eat. These are "for display only" eggs!

Successful Egg Science

Boiling and dyeing eggs is a wonderful chance for creative and scientific fun with your kids. How did you spruce up the science in your egg-dyeing this year? We would love to hear! Leave a comment below to tell us what you and your kids or students did.



Tie Dye Easter Eggs / science Activity Family Science Spotlight
Are you looking for a school science project topic or a hands-on science activity to do on the weekend or with your family? Science Buddies' science projects come in all sizes!

In this week's spotlight: a pair of art-meets-chemistry projects perfect for Easter-inspired science with your family! Explore the process of using silk ties to dye eggs in our updated chemistry project and in the family-friendly activity at Scientific American's Bring Science Home.



By Kim Mullin

Try this quick and easy way to introduce kids to chemical reactions and polymers. One Science Buddies mom even used it for spur-of-the moment entertainment at a slumber party!

Simple household kitchen ingredients and materials let one science mom create a spur-of-the-moment science exploration for a group of early risers at a slumber party.

The kitchen chemistry science activity this mom did involves polymers. For another family science investigation of polymers, see "Putty Science: Family Fun with Polymers."

Got milk, vinegar, and twenty minutes? Then you can make plastic! Strange as it may sound in our era of petroleum-based plastics, up until about 1945, plastic made with casein (the protein found in milk) was very common. (If you have a knitter in the family, you may have even seen or used casein knitting needles.)

Plastic is a generic term for materials that can all be molded into many shapes. Plastics are all similar because they are all made up of molecules that are repeated over and over again in a chain, called a polymer. Polymers can be chains of one type of molecule, or chains of different types of molecules linked together in a regular pattern. When milk is heated and combined with an acid, such as vinegar, the casein molecules in milk unfold and reorganize into a long chain, a polymer. This polymer can be scooped up and molded, which is why plastic made from milk is called casein plastic.

Science to the Rescue!

Sherry Smith, Science Buddies Grants Manager and mom to 9-year-old Laura, didn't expect to be doing science projects at her daughter's slumber party. But when the girls woke up at 5:30 a.m., Sherry needed a fun activity to keep them occupied. Remembering Science Buddies' "Turn Milk into Plastic!" activity, she gathered the girls in the kitchen.

When Sherry described what they were going to do, the girls were immediately game. Says Sherry, "They are so used to arts and crafts projects, that I think the idea of a science project was much more exciting for them." That the "Turn Milk Into Plastic" chemistry investigation offers young scientists the chance for hands-on science and a creative and tangible take-away made it a great option for Sherry's sleepover contingent.

After gather the materials, Sherry heated a mug of milk for each girl and let them stir in the vinegar. The resulting chemical reaction created curds in the milk, evoking a chorus of "cool," along with one vehement "gross!" The girls noticed that one mug of milk and vinegar was producing far fewer curds than others—and enjoyed theorizing why. Most of the girls also liked squeezing the liquid out of the curds and shaping their plastic. The one who thought the curds were gross was able to participate by using her math skills when they wanted to increase the recipe by 50%. The polymer diagrams on the Science Buddies web site intrigued yet another of the early morning science crew.

Sherry loves that Science Buddies activities can engage kids who have a wide variety of interests, as happened at her slumber party. "In this case, one child didn't like curds but was proud that she could solve the math question."

Will Science Buddies be Invited to Next Year's Party?

Overall, slumber party kitchen science experiment was a big success for Sherry and her daughter. "The Science Buddies activity had much better results than store-bought science kits we've used in the past. The one mug that wasn't working was easily fixable and gave us way more to talk about. We learned a lot from the one that didn't work perfectly."

Will science be part of the entertainment at next year's party? It just might. And Sherry knows that with the help of Science Buddies, her kitchen supplies will be up to the task!

Science Buddies at Home and in the Classroom

The classroom activity Sherry used is part of a series of Science Buddies classroom activities designed to help teachers facilitate hands-on classroom science exploration in a short amount of time and with minimal preparation. The milk-based activity takes less than thirty minutes, including preparation! A full Project Idea related to this investigation, with in-depth background material and an experimental procedure, is available for independent student exploration.

Support for resources that help teachers increase hands-on classroom science opportunities is made available, in part, thanks to Elmer's® Products, Inc., Science Buddies official classroom sponsor.



Snap Photos from Science Camp

A new app and site from Elmer's® Products can help you capture and organize all the sticky, amazing, robotic, solar-powered, glue-filled, and otherwise amazing and inspired moments of summer science camp. Help your kids preserve the excitement of summer science by snapping photos that record their hands-on camp experiences!


What did your student make at science camp today? We'd love to see! Try the 1st Day app, and share a photo with us.

Elmer's Products is making a product donation to the Kids in Need Foundation for every 1st Day app that is downloaded (up to 200,000 products). The free app is available for both iOS and Android users. To learn more, visit: 1st Day.

Are your students at science camp this summer? With camps catering to so many interests, areas of science, and hands-on activities, summer camps offer exciting and engaging experiences and exploration for your kids—and the ability to try something new almost weekly.

It is always great to hear, "Look what I made today!" But recording moments from summer camp can be a challenge for parents. You don't want to miss the moment or not pay enough attention to the examples of hands-on learning scattered on tables and shelves, but walking in at the end of the day for "pickup" can be a whirlwind. There are logistics to take care of to sign your child out and check in with the camp leader. Your child may be overflowing with stories and news from the day, and you also need to make sure you gather all of your camper's belongings. And then, as you navigate the routine of camp pickup and prepare to weave your way to the car, your student may drag you to one room or another to show off projects and creations from the day.

Snap a Photo

Taking photos throughout the days of camp helps you chronicle your child's experience, but with dozens of parents milling around and the general "time to go home" vibe at the end of the day, dragging in your regular camera for a perfect photo opp isn't always practical. Using your cell phone to take pictures is convenient and makes sharing photos with friends and family via social media networks or email a breeze. ("Look what she made today!")

Keep in mind that some things made at camp don't "come home" at the end of the day—or even at the end of the week! Depending on the subject and materials, many camp experiences are about the process and the hands-on learning, even if there is no tangible take-away. For instance, LEGO® camp participants often build new creations each day, tearing apart what was created the previous day to salvage and reuse the pieces. Don't be in too big of a hurry to get back to the car. Snapping photos at the end of each day as your child shows off what she built helps validate the science camp experience for your student! Plus, as your student shows off the project, you will get to hear her explain how it works or what it demonstrates while the science or subject is still most fresh in her mind.

Family-friendly Photo App

After a week of camp, you accumulate a number of photos on your phone. With each passing week, the collection grows. But what happens to those photos? Are you good about uploading them to your computer and cataloguing them for later user? Do you print your cell photos the same way you do photos from your other family camera?

A new service from Elmer's Products makes it even easier to organize, track, and put your phone photo captures to use. The 1st Day site is designed specifically with back-to-school in mind, but parents may find that the online photo site makes memory keeping easier—all year long. From the first day of school to the science fair to summer science camp, 1st Day gives you a new and convenient way to better manage your cell photos—and school and camp memories.

The next time you walk into robotics or LEGO camp, pick up a paint-splattered child who has been exploring the art of Jackson Pollock, or watch your child show off the roller coaster he built from foam tubes, snap a cell phone pic with the 1st Day app and upload it to your 1st Day account. At the end of summer, you'll have a collection of summer photos that showcase your child's unique summer experiences this year.

When it comes time for the proverbial "What I Did Over My Summer Break" report, your child will be all set!

Elmer's Products is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies.



Families and young engineers can get hands on exploring the ins and outs of tower building using LEGO®, spaghetti, or even newspaper. Have fun seeing who can build the tallest tower, but be prepared for some structural collapses along the way as they explore what works—and what doesn't.


The Skytree Tower in Japan, shown above, is currently the tallest tower in the world and ranks third on the list of tallest structures in the world. Exploring tower construction with everyday materials or toys lets young builders learn more about engineering principles. A giant tower built from LEGO or pasta might come crashing to the ground, but that's sometimes half the fun! (Image: Kakidai, Wikipedia)
When you think of a city's skyline, or of notable landmarks in an area, you probably immediately think of structures that stand out either because of their architectural design, like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or because of their height. A building that rises above everything around it is certain to attract attention, and vertical living and working solutions offer a different approach for civil engineers tackling questions related to limited space and growing population. Reflecting the quest to build higher, listings of tallest structures and towers often seem like something from a global engineering competition, with new buildings reaching up to adopt the title of "tallest" only to, later, be replaced by something even taller.

The Tallest of Tall

A timeline of tallest towers, buildings, and structures chronicles a history of taller and taller structures as engineers conquer structural challenges and develop new ways to make materials like steel and concrete reach even higher. Today, the Tokyo Skytree, standing 2,080 feet tall, is listed as the tallest non-habitable tower in the world. The Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper in Dubai, holds the title of tallest man-made structure (of any kind) and rises more than 2,700 feet. Just last week, The Shard, a 95-story building in London, was named the tallest structure in Western Europe at 1,016 feet, but its regional claim to fame may be short lived. Already another tower is underway that is projected to out-climb it by year's end. That the Washington Monument stands just a bit more than 555 feet puts the sheer climb of these record-holding structures in vertical perspective. By comparison, Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago is the tallest building in the United States. Willis Tower stands 1,451 feet and held the "tallest in the world" title in 1973 and for almost a quarter century after. It lost the title to the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Putting civil engineering to the side, another tower completed this year in South Korea also set a record—the record for the tallest tower built from LEGO blocks. Rising skyward 105 feet, and built by 4,000 children using more than 500,000 bricks, the celebratory tower topped the previous record-holding LEGO tower by inches.

Scaled to Size

Whether real-world towers or LEGO creations, looking at the history of tall structures and at current towers offers important clues about fundamental engineering and materials sciences concepts that go into tower construction. Even toddlers building towers with chunky plastic bricks run into predictable structural problems. Stack too many Duplo® blocks one on top of another, and the tower, ultimately, will begin to lean and fall. Similar issues arise with smaller LEGO bricks, but the greater variety of brick sizes lets kids experiment with more sophisticated structural design as they search for various ways to increase stability to support greater height. The "Building the Tallest Tower" project lets students explore tower construction and the relationship between height and stability—especially in the context of shaking.

Other questions your tower builders might ask and investigate with their tower creations include: Does a tower require a certain shape? Are certain shapes more stable at greater heights? What's the mathematical relationship between the size of the base and a stable height? How do you keep a tower from bending? Why might it bend and at what height? What forces, like wind, does a tower have to withstand?

Beyond Bricks

While brick-based building materials like LEGO offer widespread ground for exploration and innovation, young engineers can also pursue tower construction using other household or toy-based materials and supplies. Building a tower from newspaper, alone, poses a fun challenge in problem solving and creative thinking. Add a bit of tape or glue in the process, and see how much taller the structure can rise.

For something completely different, bring out the pasta and challenge your builders to see what kind of tower they can construct using uncooked spaghetti noodles and Emer's® glue. The "The Leaning Tower of Pasta" project can help you get started. While the project offers a procedure older students can use for a school assignment or science fair, parents can use the general information as a guideline for a fun family science activity. Bring out the glue and pasta! Make sure you have plenty of pasta on hand, and encourage an exploration of noodle length as part of the investigation. Other building materials you and your students might try include toothpicks, popsicle sticks, straws, or even sugar cubes.

How high can you go?



Creating a display of a science collection can be a wonderful exercise in observation and classification. Plus, your student will end up with a tactile visual reminder and keepsake.

Creating a foam board display of a science collection can be a fun summer science activity that ties together science and art. Searching for new and unusual samples can be turned into an exciting summer quest, and mounting and displaying samples (or photos of samples) gives the project lasting value. )

Science Collection in a Nutshell

  1. Go with a high-interest theme. Even your backyard offers myriad directions for a science collection. Make suggestions, but let them choose what to collect.
  2. Stock up on guide books. Check out plenty of reference books and field guides to inspire your student and to help with identification.

  3. Plan seek-and-find adventures. Go out once a week, or more, with the goal being to find a few new samples.
  4. Consider a photo display. Photographing findings can be a good way to get started, and a photo-based display opens up the collection to a broader range of topics. Interested in frogs? Birds? Rocks? Even if your collector gathers natural samples, like leaves, encourage photographing each one for a digital record.
  5. Nurture nature drawing. Supplement the collection process by encouraging your students to make sketches, drawings, and annotations of the samples they find, both in habitat and once home. The act of drawing the shape or distinct features of a sample helps train your student's observation skills and increases the ability to see the differences between similar species.
  6. Make it last. Your student's visual display can be hung on a wall, mounted in a poster frame, or displayed in some other way for year-round enjoyment. For the foundation, Elmer's offers foam board in many sizes and colors. Depending on the kind of collection your student will be mounting, the Elmer's "GlueGuide" app (for iOS) may be helpful for selecting an appropriate adhesive.
  7. Label the collection. Use field guides to help identify what they find and encourage them to label each sample. This is a great chance to also talk about systems of classification!

Cataloging Science

In all fields, scientists are always on the lookout for new species, new discoveries, and evidence of evolution, hybrids, and more. More sophisticated forms of collection and documentation are often at the core of scientific cataloging. For more information, see "Desks Piled High, and Lizards for Lunch."

Some students collect postage stamps, coins, or baseball cards. Some prefer to nurture, seek, and expand collections of natural specimens. Leaves, feathers, rocks, and bugs are all common childhood collections as students explore the world around them with an eye to the ground, to the nearest bushes, to the garden, to the beach, or to what might be crawling around beneath a large rock. Creating display board collections of leaves or insects is a common school assignment, but for some young scientists, the desire to quantify and catalog the natural world is a drive that extends beyond the classroom walls and may continue into adulthood.

These kinds of collections inspire an appreciation for just how many species, in any domain, there really are. That there are more than 70,000 known species of flowering plants is a simple reminder that the natural world is much bigger than what you see in your own backyard. Visual displays of groups of natural objects, or of items related to a scientific theme, help viewers understand the scope and potential of certain areas, but they also make for interesting viewing. Harold Feinstein's photo collections, like One Hundred Butterflies and One Hundred Seashells, showcase difference, beauty, and variation in nature. As Fred Gagnon writes in the forward to One Hundred Butterflies, "butterfly collections and books are just some of the ways to tell people, 'Look what is out there in the world we live in every day. There is so much more than butterflies... yet look how many butterflies there are!'"

For those who appreciate the aesthetics of a grid or love even the hint of tessellation, visual displays can be both informative and artistic. Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley, for example, shows a fascination with the beauty and diversity of insects, but Marley's work is also mesmerizing in its arrangement.

Cultivating a Collection

Scouring the backyard, local parks, or nearby beaches for items that fit a collection is a great way to encourage observation and increased awareness of local habitats and biospheres. Especially if the collection centers upon something in which the student is interested, this can be an excellent activity for summer months. Frogs? Leaves? Beetles? Collections don't come in a one-subject-fits-all format, but the quest for building, identifying, and showcasing a collection lets a student delve into an area of interest, with tangible and lasting results. You might even find that a collection project helps shape and guide some unexpected summer excursions and may feed a growing passion in a particular area of science!

Getting Started

While a collection of findings from the backyard may not be as elaborate or as nuanced as a collection from a field scientist, this kind of student project can turn into an exciting quest and generate greater awareness of local biodiversity. The "Making Species Maps" and "Finding Phyla" projects offer guidance for getting a better sense of what species are in a specific area or local habitat. While these projects don't focus on a single species, they may help you and your students pinpoint a topic for a collection by first assessing what is around you. Similarly, the "Bug Vacuums: Sucking up Biodiversity" project can help you get started in thinking about how students can build and track an investigation of a nearby space, but you don't have to limit your students to bugs, insects, and worms!

Build a Photo Display

As part of an informal science collection process and project, creating a tangible display encourages students to work systematically on the project over a period of time. Some collections are added to over a period of weeks, months, or even years. Some collectors cultivate lifelong collections. With a visual display and catalog in mind as the "goal" of the collection, you will need to think through strategies for displaying the samples, but you (or your student) may or may not feel comfortable with a collection of once-live specimens. A workaround may be as close as your family camera. A photo-based documentation of findings and sightings can be a good entry point for a young enthusiast—and might eliminate concerns you have about 'pinning' samples. Plus, photographing a collection makes it easier to display a collection of larger or dimension objects, like rocks, shells, or sea glass. With photos, your students can work on cultivating a science collection that can scale with their age, interest, and the time spent scavenging.

Scavenging for All Ages

A photo-based collection lets even the youngest of students observe their surroundings and search for new samples to record. For older students, collecting photo samples can be a building-block opportunity for learning more about photography, but even without an understanding of focal point or aperture, passing out disposable cameras to your kids at the start of a nature walk can yield surprising results. Giving them the keys to independently document and record their findings may or may not generate high-quality photos, but you may find that they are more enthusiastic about the scavenger hunt with their own camera in hand.

Display the Findings

Once your students have amassed a number of photos, or finished their disposable cameras, print or develop the pictures. If you are working with digital photos, you might print the photos in varying sizes. You might also encourage students to crop or trim prints to best showcase the subject at hand. With a pile of printed photos, your students can mount them on foam board. Using reference books or field guides, encourage (or help) them to look up and identify samples captured in the photos and then label the photos on the board. (Tip: check out a few field guides from the library at the start of the project so they have a sense of what they may find, how specimens may differ, and how to make initial steps in identification or classification. They might also create a "most wanted" bucket list of samples they'd like to find.)

Start Small

Be realistic about what your student might manage to collect or locate. Your student might enjoy the challenge of trying to find a certain number of samples a week, a month, or over the total summer. But emphasize that a good collection grows over time. You don't have to have "every" sample in hand to start gluing things onto a display board. The board can be added to as the collection grows! Even a budding collection display can be pretty cool propped on a bookshelf or ledge, a visual reminder of a natural interest and of time spent exploring.

What will you find next for your display board collection? You might be surprised! Happy collecting!

Do you have a science collection? If you or your students have a science collection, we would love to see! Share photos (and your science collection stories) by emailing them to amy@sciencebuddies.org.

One Hundred Butterflies One Hundred Seashells Pheremone Field Guide Field Guide / Rocks

Elmer's Products is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies.



Making Room for Math

Multiplication tables? Fibonacci sequence? First 23 numbers of Pi? Algebra problems? Solid shapes? Bucky balls? Zany stories about rabbits that multiply exponentially? School may be out for the summer, but studies suggest that sending math skills on vacation might be a bad idea!

When it comes to math, summer counts! Look for simple ways to increase number-based activities and discussions as part of your everyday summer plans.

Potato Chip Geometry

M&Ms and juice boxes both offer room for math investigations. So do potato chips! "Saddle up for maximum snack satisfaction (mathematically speaking)," by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, tells the story of one mathematician and the calculus principles you can see in some potato chips. Not all chips are the same!

When it comes to math, the adage, "you snooze you lose" may ring alarmingly true. Studies show that math is the academic subject most at risk during the summer months, with students losing, on average, two months of grade-level knowledge.* Reading is a great way to help keep brain cells fired up over the summer, and tackling high-interest summer science projects lets students exercise a range of skills and hands-on problem-solving strategies. But with the loss of math skills adding up to possible academic setback, boosting opportunities for summer math can be exponentially important for your students. While some parents may shy away from putting more math on the summer schedule, it can be easier than you think to infuse summer days with hands-on and real-world math. No abacus required!

Adding Up Opportunities for Math

So what can you do to get them talking about numbers, adding things up, keeping division skills oiled, and encouraging them to see the geometry that appears in the spaces and objects around them? The following list offers some suggestions to help you ease math into your days. Keep in mind that you may have the best success if you focus on fun math activities, and be sure to pick and choose approaches and titles that are appropriate for your student's age and comfort level with math.

Guided math explorations. Step-by-step hands-on math explorations can be fun as a family activity family—or good for older, independent student investigation. The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can be turned into engaging activities:

  • "Juice Box Geometry": Not all juice boxes look the same, and they don't all hold the same amount! By exploring the dimensions of various rectangular juice boxes, students can see the relationship between volume, the dimensions of a three-dimensional box, and the packaging required to cover the surface area of the container. If your student is drinking something from a "box," grab a ruler, and see what you can learn from a few simple measurements. Does the formula-based calculation match up to the amount the package says the container holds? Do your students prefer ice cream to juice? You can adapt this math-based exploration to compare ice cream containers, too!
  • "M&M Math": What's your favorite color of M&M? What are the odds that you'll pull that color from the bag when you reach in? This tasty activity introduces students to statistics and probability. (Another colored candy could be used instead of M&Ms. Or, if your student enjoys sorting the candies and tallying the totals of each color, encourage an informal comparison of two different kinds of candy. Do they have the same amounts of different colors? Do they seem to have similar amounts of each color? Is your chance of getting a red one the same for each candy?)
  • "Dice Probabilities": Some games value certain numbers (or dice totals) more than others. What are the chances that you'll roll the number you need? Is it just luck? Or are there mathematical rules that come into play and help explain why you roll certain numbers? Put it to the test! This project compares combined values rolled using two different kinds of dice. Increase the odds for fun by having another friend or family member do the same test and compare the results!

sir cumference cover
Prime books. There are many engaging math-themed books available for students, especially for the elementary school crowd. Younger readers may enjoy titles like Sir Cumference: And the First Round Table, Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi, Sir Cumference and the Great Knight of Angleland, , all part of a series of medieval math adventures. Other innovative math-themed storybooks for the elementary school crowd include Multiplying Menace: The Revenge Of Rumpelstiltskin and Pythagoras and the Ratios: A Math Adventure. For books with less story and more puzzle, consider titles like Math-terpieces: The Art of Problem-Solving, The Grapes Of Math, and others by Gregory Tang. Similarly, The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat and Further Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat may captivate young math students.

Math CurseEven younger readers may enjoy puzzling through fictitious problems that can be solved with math in titles like Spaghetti And Meatballs For All!, or learning about important mathematicians in titles like Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. And for those with an eye to shape and form, The Greedy Triangle is an engaging introduction to geometry, and Can You Count to a Googol? helps kids understand the vastness of numbers. Then there is Math Curse (and the sequel, Science Verse), a clever romp through the math that appears in everyday situations. The tone is playful, and the visual treatment is engaging and fits the fast pace and high energy of the story. This duo makes a fun read-aloud pair for all ages and brings up everyday math and science in a playful way.

book cover

number devil cover
Titles factorial. For older elementary readers and math enthusiasts, titles like Math Trek and Math Trek 2: A Mathematical Space Odyssey encourage and continue math learning and problem solving at home. Math Trek 2 takes students on a fictitious space journey that begins with a launch pad countdown (using the Fibonacci series) before rocketing readers into a math-based journey that is both fun—and accessible. Activities are offered along the way for DIY exploration, but the story alone can be enjoyed as a family or for solo reading. Curious about the Golden Ratio or what a "golden rectangle" is and what that has to do with the spirals you see in nature? Math Trek 2 explains it all as part of the story. Another summer reading title that is more story and less workbook than some middle-school math books, The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, tells the story of a boy who falls asleep and has a series of math-oriented dreams.

Play a game. Playing number-oriented games is a wonderful way to keep kids practicing their basic computation skills while having fun. If your family is already game-oriented, time spent playing tried-and-true favorites like Yahtzee and Farkle can help boost your family's summer math. There's something to be said for adding up the value of your dice each round! With a bit of research, you can find directions for many other DIY dice-oriented games for math fun, or, for off-the-shelf ease, there are "Math Dice" versions for both younger and older students. In recent years, Set has become a household favorite for many with its pattern-based game play and Sleeping Queens has an unexpected but delightful element of math built into its play strategy, perfect for younger students. (Keep in mind that you can often "level up" your favorite family games to make them more challenging for your family as your students grow and acquire more math skills. Many families make up their own household rules for added fun.)

Tracking money. Tracking allowance, spending, goals, and percentages of savings that are earmarked for special purchases or long-term savings encourages students to use math skills, without them thinking of the task as school-oriented. Based on your child's savings or earnings, ask questions that encourage them to divide, multiple, add, and subtract. Create fictitious story problems that let them think through how much they might have if they buy this or that. Or query how many nickels, for example, a week's allowance is worth.

Counting collections. Whether your student collects baseball cards, comic books, state quarters, or natural objects like leaves, rocks, sea glass, or shells, number opportunities abound. How many do you have? How many of each kind? What percentage of your collection falls into a certain category? Look for the ways in which numbers tie into what your students are already doing. They'll talk about the underlying math as part of their own assessment and tracking of their collection!

book coverMake it a puzzle. A book like Mathemagic!: Number Tricks can be a fun summer selection for students of all ages. The "magic" examples are fascinating and fun to memorize and use with friends and family. The "tricks" also require a good bit of computation to work through the samples and see how and if they work. Multiplication by nines by glancing at your fingers? Nifty!

Watch a video. Downtime screen time can do double duty with math-based videos like those created by Vi Hart. From hands-on exploration and analysis of fruit roll-ups to an analysis of the spirals in pineapples (and SpongeBob!), Hart's videos are eye-opening, mind-boggling, fast-paced, and thought-provoking.

Fun with Numbers
The above suggestions are just a few ways to integrate math-focused activities and number-based thinking into your summer. Keep in mind that your challenge isn't, necessarily, to teach your kids new curriculum. Instead, focus on keeping the wheels turning and keeping them engaged with the "fun" of numbers related to everyday activities and objects. You might just inspire new admiration for all things numeric!



Planes, trains, and automobiles... all great ways to get around. But when it comes to exploring cool travel, the hovercraft shines with its ability to effortlessly glide across land or water. Make one at home to explore the aerodynamics at work!

DIY hovercraft science is perfect for Star Wars fans or kids who love any kind of vehicle. With some very low-tech materials like paper plates, foam board, or old compact discs, your students can build their own and learn more about how a hovercraft works. Get some balloons and let your students experiment with design and aerodynamics principles, and then let your driveway hovercraft races begin!

If you get some great in-air photos, please share them with us. We would love to see your family science hovercraft exploration!

Remember Luke's land speeder in the original Star Wars trilogy? Remember the way it skimmed across Tatooine's surface of sand as he went in search of R2-D2 and found Obi-Wan? While not necessarily a textbook example of hovercraft technology, the story set in a "galaxy far, far away" did a memorable job in 1977 of showing the potential—and alluring 'glide'—of an air-cushion vehicle (ACV). While the big-screen Star Wars version may have lodged the transportation mode in the public imagination, the first hovercraft, invented by Christopher Cockerell, predates the saga by almost twenty years.

Touted as an environmentally friendly design—it travels mostly above the surface—hovercraft are often associated with water, in part because they have become linked with rescue vehicles. While they are amphibious, hovercraft are not limited to water. Instead, hovercraft are multi-terrain vehicles. The DiscoverHover website describes them as "boat-like vehicles, but they are much more than just a boat, because they can travel over not only water, but grass, ice, mud, sand, snow and swamp as well." The craft's ability to ride on a self-generated and self-maintained cushion of air as it transitions between different terrain is at the heart of the vehicle's innovative aerodynamic design. When hovering, the hull of the craft, which can also float, is lifted off the surface and propelled by a cushion of air that is trapped under the vehicle by a structural "skirt" element.

DIY Hovercraft

Exploring aeronautics principles and design issues related to hovercraft doesn't require a factory, heavy machinery, power tools, or a sophisticated motor. You don't even need wheels! Using materials you probably have around the house, your students can park the die-cast cars for the day and embark on an afternoon's worth of hovercraft racing with their own balloon-powered vehicles.

The simplest hovercraft model can be constructed from a paper plate and a balloon. This model offers a hands-on look at how the craft moves, but repeated travels will probably put a dent in the design. Using foam board instead of a paper plate may increase the longevity of the model. Though thicker than a paper plate, foam board is sturdier and yet still lightweight, an important factor in DIY hovercraft success. If you have a sheet of Elmer's foam board tucked away in a craft closet, your young engineers can experiment with the shape of the craft. Does a circular hovercraft fly farther than a rectangular one? What diameter of circle works best? What is the relationship between the size of the circle and the size of the balloon? Does a foam board hovercraft fly as far as one made from a paper plate? What kinds of modifications can you make to the center where the balloon is stationed?

Recycled compact discs can also be used to make hovercrafts. Pass over a few old CDs, an equal number of drinking bottle valves, some glue, and a pile of balloons in varying sizes, and let your young engineers loose! If you're ready for the races to begin, the "How Does a Hovercraft Work?" project has the blueprint for designing your own miniature hovercraft. You can find additional family-friendly guidance in the CD Hovercraft cartoon from Howtoons. Figuring out what makes the craft hover longer or cover more ground is part of the fun—and part of the science exploration! Make sure to have the video camera ready for some short film footage, just in case there's a finish that's too close to call!

Going Bigger

While building and testing miniature hovercrafts is a great summer activity, especially for elementary (and younger) students, more industrious models are certainly possible and can be excellent under-cover summer projects, perfect for tinkering in the garage. The "Riding on Air—Build a Real Hovercraft" project outlines one approach to creating a leaf-blower powered hovercraft. As part of your background reading, tune in to the DragonFly episode in which Rachel and Sara build their own hovercraft—and troubleshoot problems they encounter on grass. To see another life-size example, check out this video from Howtoons' Saul Griffith.

How well will your hovercraft glide? Put it to the test!

Elmer's Products is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies.



Blueprints for Family Science Fun

In a series of fun and accessible family science projects, Science Buddies and Scientific American make it easy to add family science to your together-time activities.

Each week, Scientific American posts a new family science activity at Bring Science Home. Designed to be engaging for students ages six to twelve, and easy for parents to lead, these science explorations help families explore the science around them. (Image: Bigstock)
Through activities posted in Scientific American's Bring Science Home area, Science Buddies and Scientific American are helping encourage family science. Activities posted at Bring Science Home are written with parents of elementary school-age children in mind and are designed to make it easy for parents to choose to do science with their children, just as they might do an art project. Encompassing a wide range of topics, interests, areas of science, and "questions," these sciences activities use readily-available materials and can be great for summer, weekend, or rainy day exploration. Even more important, these hands-on science projects get families talking about science. For parents who may be uncertain how to approach science with their children, or may not think about science as something they should be doing with their kids, the weekly activities at Bring Science Home reinforce the value of family science and show parents how easy and fun family science can be!

Asking Questions; Finding Answers

Kids are naturally curious, and the best way to find out the answer to a question is often to put it to the test. The guided explorations available at Bring Science Home, many of which are family-friendly adaptations of Science Buddies Project Ideas, help parents investigate everyday science questions with their kids. Recent activities include:

For more information and a list of additional Science Buddies contributions to Bring Science Home, see: "Science Buddies Helps Scientific American Bring Science Home" (February, 2012).



Creating a batch of homemade putty puts polymers in the palm of your hand. This family science activity may inspire nostalgia, but your kids will have a blast exploring the tactile medium.


From slime-factor to elasticity to bounciness, homemade putty has all the ingredients for family science fun—and plenty of molecule chains! In this easy summer science activity your kids do a bit of literal hands-on mixing and, pop, out comes a wad a putty.

For more information about the (fascinating) history of Silly Putty, see: The Original Silly Putty.
When you think of the comics from the Sunday paper, as they were during your childhood, what comes to mind? (If you are under 30, ask your parents or a teacher!) First, they were in color, a novel weekend change from the daily black and white. Even if newspaper comics are really targeted for the adult, sit-with-the-paper-and-a-cup-of-coffee crowd, there is a certain allure to them for kids, especially in the slightly washed tones that were once the colors de jour of the Sunday edition. If memories of a stretchy, slightly hard but malleable wad of flesh-colored putty piggybacks on your childhood memories of the Sunday paper, don't feel bad. I'm right there with you. For some reason, when I think of Silly Putty®, I think of the Sunday comics, and vice versa. The Silly Putty timeline puts things in a bit of historical perspective, with Crayola acquiring the rights to Silly Putty during my childhood, followed by a resurgence of interest in the stretchy, bouncy medium and its egg-shaped containers in the 80s. What I didn't know back then was that the stretchy putty is actually a great example of science and what can happen when molecules link together in long repeating chains.

What Came First

The story of Silly Putty is one with a take-to-heart moral for scientists and engineers of all ages: invention sometimes is the result of an accident or a failed experiment. Or, in science project terms, what you discover when your hypothesis is disproven might be even more exciting than what you were hoping to discover! The second-level moral surely has something to do with having one's eyes open to unexpected possibilities.

Silly Putty was first created during World War II by researchers who were trying to develop synthetic alternatives to rubber, an important commodity that was rationed during the war. While more than one researcher claims the initial discovery, Crayola lists James Wright, who worked for General Electric, as the inventor. What Wright (at GE) and another team (at Dow Corning) had separately discovered in their labs was that a combination of boric acid and silicone oil yielded a stretchy substance that bounced when dropped. Despite its unusual (and entertaining) properties, the putty wasn't a viable alternative to rubber. No good use for the putty was found, in fact, until a toy store owner saw it and realized its tactile potential—as a toy. The familiar egg-shaped container came later, along with more than a quarter million units sold in three days, and the rest, as they say, is history, although the putty's path from the lab into popular culture didn't happen overnight. Though Silly Putty didn't enjoy simple rocket-to-the-top success, it did shuttle to the moon with the crew of Apollo 8 in 1968. Today, the putty even has a spot at the Smithsonian Institute.

Making Connections

While Silly Putty, from the store, can be a fun and inexpensive diversion for the kids, putty is one of many DIY mediums you can mix at home for a quirky, crafty, scientific experience that's perfect for the family, spans a range of ages, and gives everyone something to play with afterwards. Other interesting tactile substances you can concoct at home include Ooblek and Gak. While different in nature, the three together make a powerful trio for summer fun and hands-on kid science. Be forewarned, however, that differences in printing and ink technologies may make it hard to replicate your childhood Sunday comics memories. The nostalgia you may have when working with the Elmer's® school glue, on the other hand, may more than make up for it. For your kids, you'll be highlighting some important science concepts that help explain how many materials we use every day are created. Plus, the outcome of the project is a wad of goo with a small amount of slime-factor that can stretch, bounce, and squoosh. For certain age groups, it doesn't get much better than that!

Silly Science

Substances like Silly Putty are part of a class of materials called polymers. Like other molecules, polymers are compounds, but they are large and may contain tens of thousands of atoms. Compare this, for example, to water, a compound of hydrogen and oxygen that contains three atoms. A good way to visual the difference between small molecules (like water) and polymers (also called macromolecules) is to think of the size difference between a crystal of salt (small) and a strand of spaghetti (larger and longer).* Like the strand of spaghetti, polymers are long chains of molecules strung together. These strands can also be tangled up to create a giant mess of polymer chains. Are you still envisioning a bowl of spaghetti?

Part of what makes polymers interesting is that each polymer has unique properties and behaviors defined by its molecules. Some polymers are stretchy. Some are sticky. Some are hard. Many familiar and commonly used polymers are synthetic, but there are also naturally occurring polymers, including cellulose, starch, proteins, silk, chitin, and rubber. What you want your putty-mixers to understand is that Silly Putty has its characteristic stretch and bounce because of the molecules from which it is made.

Bring on the Polymers

Using a combination of Elmer's white school glue, borax (a cleaner made from sodium tetraborate), and water, you can create a substance similar to Silly Putty. The polymer in DIY putty is not the same as in a commercially sold egg-container of Silly Putty, but glue and borax react to form a similar polymer structure. One of the ingredients in Elmer's glue is polyvinyl acetate—a polymer. When you combine Elmer's glue with borax, a chemical reaction occurs, and borax molecules create links between molecules of polyvinyl acetate in the glue. As more and more cross-linked molecules form, the polymer begins to take on new properties—and new substance. Since you wouldn't pick up and play with a handful of glue, you know that something has happened in the mixing because your putty isn't sticky like glue.

Figuring out the optimal ratio of glue to borax is a great science exploration for students. As you mix up separate batches with varying amounts of the two main ingredients, you can compare the differences in the resulting substances. If you want to focus on a single batch until you determine a formula that feels and works well, start with a single recipe from one of the sources below and add small amounts of the borax solution until you reach the desired consistency. Just be sure and work the borax into the glue solution well each time so that it mixes thoroughly before you add more! (Tip: have your students take the putty from the bag, feel it, stretch it, and manipulate it with their hands to evaluate the consistency. Is it too sticky? Is it too hard to squish? Does it break too easily?)

The following resources can help guide your exploration. The full Science Buddies Project Idea can be used during science fair season, but the general procedure gives you a blueprint for turning the project into an exciting family activity:

Squishy Fun

Be prepared for some experimental zaniness after the putty is mixed. Once students get past the initial sensation of how the putty "feels" in their hands, seeing what happens when you do "this" or "that" with the putty is part of the fun and part of the science-based observation the activity inspires. All you have to do to turn up the volume as they squish the putty around in their hands is ask: does it bounce?

Note: Dispose of your glue and borax waste in a trash bag, not down the sink.

Elmer's Products is the official classroom sponsor of Science Buddies.

* Spaghetti analogy appears in Carnegie Mellon's Introduction to Polymers.



Hooked on Manga: Comic Science

If your readers are fans of one comic format or another, you may find that science-themed manga titles are a welcome addition to your younger and middle students' summer reading lists.

Guidance for Parents

If your kids gravitate toward graphic novels like dinoflagellates to nutrients in an algal bloom, feed their interest and give them a boost of summer science at the same time! Parent's GuideWe've got suggestions for manga and comic titles you might consider for your readers, but if you have questions or need additional help evaluating graphic novels, you might talk with your local children's librarian or look at A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love.

Science All Summer

Our list of summer science suggestions offers just a few great hands-on science explorations from our library of Project Ideas. Roller-coasters and marble runs, too, make our radar for summer fun, and we will be highlighting other summer-friendly ideas all summer long. How about submarines? With a bit of soda bottle construction, students can explore hydrodynamics and submarine science in the "Bottled-up Buoyancy" project, based on an activity from Howtoons. Presented in full-color comic style, Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless! is a collection of DIY projects the main characters cook up after a parent challenges them to "make something other than trouble."

In my house, manga and the graphic novel format rule. For years, my students have been devouring manga titles, a reality that made me even more thankful for the library early on when I realized they were zipping through titles in under an hour—and ready for more. With some favorite series containing 40-50 volumes, we've put our library account to sizzling use through the years. Although there's no Da Vinci-esque script involved, my students read backwards with the same ease as they do forwards.

While there are themes they prefer, I've discovered that their affinity for the genre—and the comic format—crosses all boundaries. We've read through the graphic novel shelves at the library and broadened our appreciation of traditional-style comics with healthy doses of classic and unforgettable strips like Calvin and Hobbes. Their willingness to read virtually anything presented in panels opens up exciting terrain when it comes to science content.

Cartoon-style Science

Many students, even students who are excellent readers, enjoy the comic genre (at large), which makes it wonderful that there are increasing numbers of titles available, including a wide range of science-themed graphic novels. There are cartoon-style collections of project ideas, comic book stories of science clubs and science-studded plots, biographies presented in graphic novel format, and illustrated guides devoted to major areas of science.

Earlier this week, we posted a super-sized list of great summer reading selections for older students and adults from the popular science shelves. That list included Feynman, a graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 and known for his eccentric personality, spotlighted both in famous classroom lectures and in a series of autobiographical titles. For readers with an interest in physics, quantum mechanics, subatomic particles, and nanotechnology, Feynman may be an interesting launching point. As a follow-up—or a starting point in a different area of science—these titles from the "Manga Guide" series are ones your middle-to-upper-grade students might enjoy over the summer as a supplement to some hands-on exploration.

Loose Science
 The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook When it comes to full-color graphic novels aimed at the younger audience and with few illusions of being truly educational, there are a range of titles for students to latch onto. From the Amulet series to Jellaby and Zita the Spacegirl, the genre is brimming with books to entice young and middle readers. Because many of these stories are quasi-science fiction in nature, science often lurks within, even if it isn't center stage. Reading about characters who are scientists, explorers, and inventors is a fun alternative to other character archetypes and might help engage students in their own science exploration—and in the possibilities offered by science-related career paths. Even Babymouse did a stint as a scientist before the team behind the series introduced Squish, the school-aged, Twinkie-eating amoeba who stars in a series dubbed "a tale of microscopic proportions" (see Super Amoeba, Brave New Pond, and The Power of the Parasite).

When science is presented as cool, fun, and often-accompanied by a bang, a bit of time travel, or a world-changing discovery, there's fertile ground for the imagination—and for growing awareness of science. For fun downtime reads for your middle readers, books that offer less textbook science and more story, you might consider graphic novels like The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook, Knights of the Lunch Table: The Dodgeball Chronicles (there's a science teacher in the mix), and The Knights of the Lunch Table #2: The Dragon Players (building robots takes center stage). Similarly, the titles in the Daniel Boom AKA Loud Boy series also have science, engineering, and invention as underlying themes. The kids who are part of this group each have a questionable super ability, but you'll find that there's something scientific afoot in each adventure. Or, for a greener spin on the graphic novel, Luz Sees the Light explores the importance of sustainability and reducing one's reliance on fossil fuels.

A Taste for More Traditional Books?

Evolution of Calpurnia TateWhile the graphic novel format seems to have gone viral for many school-age readers, the format isn't for everyone. We'll be posting a list of summer choices for chapter books and novels for elementary and middle readers. Here are a few non-comic titles to get you and your students started:

We would love to hear about science-themed titles you and your students enjoy!

Notes and reminders:
  • An audio book version of an interesting novel can be perfect for time spent in the car, either on a long trip or just back and forth from camp and other activities
  • Titles above may deal with typical (or far-fetched) elementary school or school-age scenarios and themes. Know your readers.
  • For a list of science-themed titles for older readers (and adults), see Summer Science Reading.



Building paths for marbles to race, climb, and loop brings physics to heart-pounding life—minus the admission fee, height requirement, and endless wait in line. A willingness to uncover principles of energy and laws of motion is required; cotton candy is optional.

Image: Bigstock

Roller coasters and marble runs offer an engaging platform for invention, engineering, and physics-based investigation. Get hands on exploring what kinds of loops are possible, how energy changes during a ride, and how the laws of motion come into play. Building a simple marble-run or tube-based coaster is only the beginning. Can you wire your track to add lights or sounds? Can you make your run motion sensitive or trigger an effect as the marble passes a certain point?

Try this at home!

Roller coaster science can be fun for the whole family and all ages! Younger students can learn about the laws of motion and centripetal force by using Jell-o, marbles, and paper cups to investigate how we stay in our seats when riding a roller coaster and going around loops. There is more at work than just the seat belt! This is a great—and jiggly—family science opportunity. If you give it a try, we would love to see a photo and hear how it went!

One of my family's favorite stopping spots at the Exploratorium, our local science museum, is the "Tinkering Studio" where a pegboard wall, bins of low-tech building materials, and rolls of masking tape are available for impromptu marble-run construction. The build-at-will lab is nestled in the far back corner of the museum, but it's a beeline destination for many. The perpetual hands-on exhibit invites kids of all ages to position ramps and tubes so that a marble will roll down one length, drop to another, and continue, hopefully, until it lands in some form of cup at the bottom. Some kids build small-scale runs, content to see the marble make it through one or two connections and into the cup. Others create more sophisticated runs, testing and re-testing to correct angles and positioning as they work on perfecting their layouts. Always, the energy in the air is exciting, and when a kid stands up, holds a marble over the starting point for a final run, and sees the construction succeed, the marble rattling to its final stop in a plastic bin at the bottom, the reward is clear: I made it work.

Having seeing how immersive this kind of building can be, I have often thought it would be amazing to line a hallway or bedroom wall with pegboard for this purpose at home. There are many ways to transform a household wall into a space for creativity, invention, and hands-on, perpetual discovery. At various points, I considered both magnetic and chalkboard walls, but marble runs may have more longevity in terms of kid interest. With their quirky and wide-ranging assortment of parts and components and anything-goes aplomb, run building , captivates and challenges both tape-happy younger students and older students with a developing thirst for structural finesse. Whether you take a DIY approach and put together your own wall-based, standalone, or travel-ready kit, or whether you invest in a ready-made marble run or rollercoaster building kit, these kinds of activities, an extension, maybe, of early fascination with brick and block building, are great for letting kids explore principles of physics and engineering.

The Roller Coaster Connection

While angles and trajectories are critical to a marble run's success, the path usually moves in one direction, top to bottom, and any quasi-lateral rolls probably still involve a bit of a decline. Roller coasters, on the other hand, often climb, drop, and climb again, which requires different energy and momentum. What makes a ride thrilling in person is often a combination of speed and stomach-lurching looping, a combination that relies upon and illustrates Newton's laws of motion and conservation of energy. Students who love to ride roller coasters can turn summer amusement park thrills into an informal physics exploration with a homemade vertical accelerometer using "The Chills and Thrills of Roller-Coaster Hills" project. Take the tool along for the ride and measure the g-force at different locations during the ride. Be prepared to ride several times in a row to gather data!

Using the DIY accelerometer to collect g-force measurements gives validity to riding "just one more time" at the amusement park, but once home again, there's plenty of thrilling science to recreate with a DIY roller coaster made from foam tubing. The "Roller Coaster Marbles: Converting Potential Energy to Kinetic Energy" physics project guides students through construction and the tracking of potential energy as it is converted to kinetic energy during a marble's path from start to finish. The same tubing can be used to investigate the math upon which coaster loops depend. The "Roller Coaster Marbles: How Much Height to Loop the Loop?" project explores the ratio between height and loop size. It wouldn't be much fun if you got halfway up the loop only to slip back to the base and stall, right?

Making Connections

Perfect for at-home exploration, marble runs and roller coaster experiments fall in line with bridge building, tower construction, and even exploration of simple machines. What will your students construct this summer?

In a recent essay, Dale Dougherty writes: "'Making creates evidence of learning.' The thing you make—whether it be a robot, rocket, or blinking LED—is evidence that you did something, and there is also an entire process behind making that can be talked about and shared with others. How did you make it? Why? Where did you get the parts? Making is not just about explaining the technical process; it's also about the communication about what you've done."

If you have a student that loves to build, invent, design, and problem-solve in hands-on ways, see the Engineering Design Process guide.



Beat Brain Drain with Summer Science

Student "brain drain" during the summer is more than just media hype. Statistics on academic loss offer a cautionary tale, but taking steps to infuse summer fun with summer science can help keep critical skills in motion. Summer science might be just the synapse boost your student needs to bridge the days between school years!


Summer is a great time for students to engage in big and small science projects at home—no grades required! Doing science in the summer can help keep important academic skills fresh. Plus, summer science can be fun! What will your students question, discover, build, or explore this summer? (Image: Bigstock)
With the final bell of the school year, summer break begins. The kids may be all cheers, but for parents, the sprawl of long summer days can pose a number of challenges. Part logistical and part practical, you may find yourself wondering, what will they do all summer? Even if your calendar is already studded with family vacation and a smattering of summer camps, there is probably still a stretch of free-form days ahead, more days off than on.

If you feel torn trying to sort out how to balance the need to pay tribute to the "break" of summer and still keep your kids' brains on track, you are not alone. Summer shakes up familiar routines and schedules. Bedtimes may get an extension, and TVs might get more airtime, but even as you give your kids some needed downtime, keep in mind that research shows that school-age children are at risk of losing up to two months of learning over the summer. It's a startling statistic, one that should be a motivator for parents. Letting your students get sucked into a summer daze can have repercussions in the coming school year, so take extra care in making sure that summer activities offer a nice balance of "just for fun" and "fun with an educational twist."

Science That Isn't for an Assignment

Creating opportunities throughout the summer that use important reading and math skills is important, and longer summer days and less structured schedules can add up to perfect opportunities for science exploration and exciting science activities that let your students have fun while putting cognitive and creative skills to use. With no "classroom" assignment to rein them in, summer gives students the chance to explore science questions and topics of their own choosing and without needing to juggle other homework. Summer science is about the science, not the grade, a simple reality that frees students up to explore—just because. With no project display board requirement and no research paper to turn in, students get to dive in and enjoy the fun part—the hands-on investigation.

Kickstart a Summer Science Exploration

During the school year, thousands of students use Science Buddies Project Ideas for class assignments and science fairs. Many of these projects are also great for at-home exploration, either solo or as a family activity. The following suggestions highlight a few summer-friendly science explorations from our library of Project Ideas:

  • Shimmy Shimmy Soda Pop kitShimmy Shimmy Soda Pop: Develop Your Own Soda Pop Recipe: Mix up and sample your own carbonated beverages while you explore the chemical reaction that occurs when you mix baking soda and citric acid. How much of each ingredient do you need to create the perfect drink? What happens to the drink when the amounts of each ingredients change? What does it mean for a soda to be flat? Can your bubbly soda be too bubbly? Have you ever dumped lemonade crystals into a bottle of carbonated water and had it bubble up and overflow the bottle? Have you twisted the lid off of a bottle of homemade seltzer and had the cap fly into the air? What's going on? This food science project is perfect for the aspiring chemist, the kitchen scientist, or even the chef-in-training.

  • Build Your Own Crystal Radio kitBuild Your Own Crystal Radio: Get hands on in this electronics project and wire your own crystal radio to pick up AM stations without plugs or batteries. What stations can you tap in your neighborhood? This project is a great exploration for the budding electrician or electronics enthusiast. Turn things around, and you can make your own DIY transmitter to learn more about how radio stations are broadcast. Really ambitious? Go full circle and set up your own crystal radio to pick up your own transmissions!

  • Rocketology: Baking Soda + Vinegar = Lift Off!: For some students, science fun in the sun is all about things that pop, boom, float, or fly. This chemistry project gives new zest—and combustion—to experiments with baking soda and vinegar. The volcanoes in the sand you remember from your preschool days were fun, but this project kicks things up a notch. What's not to love about blasting empty film canisters into the air? For more explosive fun, try Coke® & Mentos®—Nucleation Goes Nuclear!. What's the difference between a chemical reaction and a physical reaction? This soda geyser can help you find out.

  • Make Your Own Soap kitThe Chemistry of Clean: Make Your Own Soap to Study Soap Synthesis: A great choice for the DIY-type, the aspiring chemist, or the soap enthusiast, this chemistry project explores the process of making soap—and how you "purify" soap using salt. If mixing up custom, non-edible concoctions is up your student's alley, you might also encourage making lip balm or exploring the art of making perfume.

  • Veggie Power kitVeggie Power!: This energy-focused exploration of fruits and vegetables as power sources is excellent for the "green"-minded student and electronics fan. What kinds of foods generate the most power? Head to the produce aisle for an assortment of fruits and vegetables you can put to the test. What can you power with foods from the vegetable bin?

  • Do You Have the Willpower to Taste Something Sour?: Mix up batches of lemonade and put your family and friend's sour power to the test. What trends can you spot? Combine this project with Shimmy, Shimmy Soda Pop (above) for added twist, or take it a step further with the "Do You Love the Taste of Food? Find Out if You're a Supertaster!" project. Put an end to dinner-table arguments about what's too salty, too spicy, or too sour by figuring out just how many taste buds you have. Is anyone in your family a supertaster? A bit of blue food coloring can reveal your tongue's papillae truth.

  • 2012-gamestar-summer-square-120px.pngGot video game?: If spending time playing one video game or another is how you plan to spend a large chunk of your summer, why not shake things up and create your own game? Put what you already know about what makes a game great into developing your own game for friends and family to try. Tools like GameMaker can help get you started, and younger designers can get a fun introduction to video game design basics by completing quests and building games in Gamestar Mechanic. For a more immersive summer video game design experience, check out Gamestar Mechanic's new four-week summer online learning program. Designed especially for students ages 10-14, the online course extends the Gamestar Mechanic experience and gives students the benefit of working with a professional game design mentor.

  • 2012-blog-rollercoaster.png
    The Chills and Thrills of Roller-Coaster Hills: If you'll be hitting the coasters at an amusement park, this project will guide you in building and using a homemade accelerometer you can take along to learn more about acceleration and gravity on your favorite rides. Which rides are most thrilling—and why? For more hands-on fun exploring the science behind roller coasters, build an at-home marble run. Grab some foam tubing, and create your own monster marble ride! The potential energy is there, ready and waiting, for a super summer investigation!

  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences.: For the backyard birder or budding zoologist, this project lets you turn your window-view into a simple zoology experiment. What happens if you offer different colors of food to hummingbirds? Is the color most important? Or is the amount of sugar what really counts? Set up some testing feeders and see what happens! You can also experiment with bird seed to learn more about the preferences of birds in your area.

Several of the Project Ideas listed above are available in kit format. Ordering a Science Buddies Kit makes it easy to hand over a box of science goodness to an older student. Everything you need (except perishable items) will arrive in the box!

Investigate a Hobby

If your students spend summer days pursuing a favorite pastime or sport, encourage them to explore, question, test, and think about the science at work behind their favorite activities.


Vacation Science
Taking a mini-trip? Have a family vacation scheduled? With a bit of planning, you can map out exciting science opportunities on trips of all sizes. Depending on where you are going, encourage students to learn more about local birds, wildlife, fauna, or terrain. Are there examples of bioluminescence in the area? There's plenty to explore while camping, too. From marshmallows, to crickets, to navigation, being out in the woods can boost your family science. (Make marshmallows at home before you head out and then experiment with s'mores techniques by the campfire.) See our blog round-up of campground science suggestions for more ideas. If car or plane travel is part of your vacation plan, carry along a box of science trivia cards to help pass the miles! Finally, no matter where you go, even if it's just to a corner park, encourage students to document sightings and record observations—or to sketch things they imagine—in a journal. (Image: Evan-Amos, Wikipedia.)
From golf swings to baseball bats to RC helicopters, learning more about the underlying science might help improve their skills. For the DIY-minded, making paper, making markers, and dyeing fabric all blend creativity and science—and they will have something they made when they are done! Creating sunprints can also tap an artsy side while letting them more about the colors of light—and an early approach to photography. If your student would rather be behind the camera, nudge her to try some key lens tests or go primitive and experiment with a pinhole camera to get a back-to-basics understanding of exposure—and a crash course in the history of photography!

Summer Reading

As one of the two academic areas most at risk during the summer months, daily reading is a summer must. As you and your students scour the shelves and reading lists for summer choices, be sure and pepper the list with science-themed titles. From fiction with a science twist to accessible, engaging, and potentially mind-boggling non-fiction titles, there are great science choices for students of all ages. Stay tuned for our suggested summer reading list for older readers and for parents! (See also suggestions for math-related reading and manga and cartoon science picks.)

Science for All Ages

While you may want to encourage your older students to tackle independent summer science investigations, summer is a great time for family science activities that can be fun for all ages. Our list of Project Ideas for Home contains suggestions for easy-to-do projects that don't take a lot of preparation, don't take long to complete, and can be done with basic household materials you might already have on hand. Many of these are perfect for doing with younger students. You will also find family-centered adaptations of Science Buddies projects at Scientific American's Bring Science Home.

Stay Tuned

We will be highlighting other summer science ideas in the coming days and weeks! We would love to know what you try, what projects your family does, what science books you read, and how you and your students keep the science learning going all summer long. Share your stories by sending email to amy@sciencebuddies.org. Have a picture to go along with your summer science fun? We'd love to see!



Families who gather around the table to eat turn off the electronics, put down their books, pass the salt, salad, or main course, and tune in to one another. With busy schedules carving out the hours of the days for both students and parents, the minutes shared over a meal give everyone a moment to slow down, regroup, and refocus. Working a bit of science into your dinner table talk can be easy—and rewarding for everyone involved.


Compelling dinner discussion isn't always spontaneous! In her cookbook, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time, and on her blog, Laurie David includes numerous suggestions for table talk, and the Huffington Post runs a weekly dinner topic column that highlights an engaging news story for family discussion. News and human interest stories can certainly springboard your family's dinner conversation, but with a bit of planning, you can spice up your mealtime talk even more by adding a dash of brain-boosting or awe-inspiring science. You might just increase your family's science, technology, engineering, and math literacy (STEM) one meal at a time.

When you think of "family dinner," you probably aren't alone if some larger-than-life image of a perfect, smiling family comes to mind. Many Generation X parents carry a mental image of family dinner that's a sitcom amalgamation of the Cleavers, the Bradys, and the Cosbys, all rolled into one. Depending on the state of your own dining table, that image might seem to be one of mythic and unattainable proportions, or maybe it's the kind of image that keeps you going as you strive to put in place healthy, happy, and meaningful routines for your family.

For years, the media has depicted family mealtime as a mark of a "happy" family, and nutritionist and child education experts alike have chimed in on the importance of the family meal. Proponents of eating together cite studies that show long-term benefits ranging from academic achievement to healthier eating and better social choices among teenagers. In an age where the family dinner could run the risk of seeming old-fashioned, the idea appears to be alive and well, a reality boosted by the fact that President Obama and his family, too, observe a family meal. Despite busy schedules and the ongoing proliferation of fast food places, many families do have a routine of shared meals, expect members of the family to be home and at the table for dinner most nights, and view dinner as a cornerstone of family interaction.

Steering Table Talk

What families discuss over dinner varies table to table. Some families share stories of school, the team, friends, extended family, or the day at the office. Some families talk about headline news. Some families share a "high" and a "low" for the day. Some dinner conversations are simply free-form or free-for-all. Part of what time together at the table offers is a window for family members to talk to each other. But what happens when conversation wanes? If you want your family dinners to succeed, being prepared with ideas for "table talk" can be as important as deciding what to serve.

Luckily, with a bit of forethought, it can be easy to uplevel dinner table talk into something meaningful beyond, "what's the green stuff in my pasta?" While your meals shouldn't turn into a classroom lecture, family dinner can provide a perfect opportunity to spend an extra five minutes talking about science with your kids. It doesn't take much preparation to bring a wholesome nugget of science or engineering to the table. Do it subtly, as moms do, and your kids might not even recognize that you're charted new territory at the dinner table, squeezing a bit of chemistry or engineering trivia in between the school gossip and the talk of weekend plans.

Pass the Science, Please

These tips can help you find easy ways to increase the neurons firing around the table. Go ahead and share "highs" and "lows." It's important to check in with your kids—and yourself. But with just a bit of a stretch, you can turn "pass the salt" into something that might generate an aha moment, might raise a question about how the world works, might inspire further research or experimentation, or might let your student show off something learned this year. You might even find that science talk leads to some very funny and exciting conversations!

  • Dish Up a Simple Fact: Often all it takes to kickstart a good conversation is a morsel of knowledge you can toss into the air and see where it falls. Our "Today in Science History" posts (at Facebook) are perfect examples of the kinds of bite-sized trivia you can share with your kids at the table. The fact itself may be finite: "this person was born on this day in x year and is best known for y and z." But the discussion can be much more open ended. Often, I tell my kids something about what I learned about a famous inventor or scientist that I've researched to write the science history tidbit for the day. Sometimes, I tell them simply to highlight an interesting biography so that they hear about all kinds of different careers and about people who made discoveries and inventions even as teens or tweens. Did you know that Mary Anning found her first full skeleton when she was only 12? Did you know that Philo Farnsworth was a teen when he first hypothesized the "television"—and he got his inspiration from looking at a field!

    Sometimes, you may find that your students already know a bit about the person or fact you bring to the table. That's great! When I brought up Richter's birthday and asked my boys if they knew what he developed, my fifth grader had his own question. Did you know that Richter got the credit for the Richter scale but someone else actually worked with him? The nice thing about the science history blurbs is that they are short and compact, and yet they highlight a potentially cool person, an area of science, and something of historical significance.

  • Make It a Game: Turning science trivia into a table game can be a lot of fun, especially if you are a game-oriented family or your kids respond enthusiastically to friendly competition and the chance to show off what they know. Dust off the box of Trivial Pursuit cards lurking on the top shelf of your closet and put them to use! Or, try a set of science-themed flash or trivia cards like Prof. Noggin's Wonders of Science. These cards can be perfect for dinner, but be careful if you think you'll just do one or two a day. Your kids might enjoy the game of it and zip through a bunch of cards before asking for seconds. (Note: cards like these may not offer any explanatory info—just trivia.)

    Keeping a book of "must know" science facts on hand can also offer a fresh flow of information. Check out books like 101 Things Everyone Should Know About Science (2006) or Scientific American's Ask the Experts: Answers to The Most Puzzling and Mind-Blowing Science Questions (2003). The Instant Physicist: An Illustrated Guide takes a slightly different, non-Q&A approach, but each statement (and accompanying illustration) is sized just right for raising family conversation. Which books will work for your family may depend on the ages of your students and your family interests, but books like these often pose a question or fact—and then offer a detailed answer or explanation. This approach may work better than simple trivia questions for younger students.

    If science, in general, feels too broad to get you started, consider focusing on a theme, like the Periodic Table. Grab a guide like The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe, or the related deck of Periodic Table cards, and start exploring. For kids that like to memorize facts, there are a bunch of angles to master, from the organization of the table to element symbols, numbers, and identifying details. What to do: gather trivia sources, just be careful to look for current sources (or be on the lookout for things that may have changed). For example, a book or game card that still cites Pluto as a planet is worthy of an out-of-this-world dessert discussion. Your kids may even be entertained by hearing about the mnemonic device you learned in school for memorizing the order of the planets—back when there were nine pizzas to serve! Talking about mnemonic devices is a perfect add-on dinner topic! If you have older kids, try having each be responsible for scrounging up an interesting or "new-to-me" science fact on a certain night of the week.

  • Headline News: Make room in your own newspaper reading, news watching, or social media following to stay in sync with science news, events, and discoveries. Knowing that the Venus Transit is coming before it happens lets you talk about it and make a plan for safe viewing. (There's some math to figure, too. How old will you be before it comes again?) When news about arsenic levels in brown rice hit the papers, it was a perfect time to talk not only about the science at hand but about the history of arsenic. Filling your kids in on the notable history of arsenic could prove to be an eye-opening meal starter! What to do: add key science media streams to your social media spots, like Facebook or Twitter, including National Geographic, NASA, Discovery, Scientific American, and Science Buddies. Depending on where you live, be sure and add local sources, too, like KQED QUEST in the Bay Area. Still read the paper paper? Clip interesting tidbits and bring them to dinner!

  • Read Science Writing: Science writers help open up the world of science in ways that illuminate and explain all the nooks and crannies of science. These writers translate and transform research coming from the labs and science headlines from around the world into stories for the general reader. Whether the subject of the story is frightening, awe inspiring, cautionary, or revolutionary, even sharing an opening passage to a well-crafted and engaging science essay can open up all kinds of discussion (and maybe even a vocabulary lesson or two!). Try essays from NY Times Science writers like Carl Zimmer or Carol Kaesuk Yoon, or blog posts from Scientific American, to get a taste of dazzling prose that brings science to life. What to do: print out a paragraph or two, bring it to the table, and have someone read it. See what conversations evolve.

  • Encourage Inventive Thinking: In addition to talking about experiments and results, mix things up a bit sometimes by posing a hypothetical problem. For example, you might ask, What could we create that would take care of "this" problem? Being able to act on the idea isn't a requirement. Just brainstorm what might work and why. Think about what went into coming up with using PET bottles as a way to disinfect water using the power of the sun. It was an inventive solution—and one that can be used to help improve drinking water around the world. Your family challenge discussions can be smaller-scale. A recent Science Buddies success story highlights a fifth-grade student who wanted to create a video game to share with his grandmother, who is blind. Another story features a student who wondered what kind of reusable water bottle she should use to reduce her exposure to germs. Ryan Patterson, one of the science fair success legends profiled in Science Fair Season,developed a robotic glove to help deaf people have more privacy in conversations. Nutshell stories like these can help inspire creative thinking and problem solving, but try tossing out a new challenge. How can we solve this? How could this be improved? What to do: come up with a stash of challenges that require assimilation of knowledge and creative problem solving.

  • Surprise Them: Sometimes the best way to generate discussion is to shock your students with a science fact that seems hard to believe or even impossible. For example, did you know a polar bear's fur is transparent? Or, go really far out: Did you know that a thimbleful of a neutron would weigh as much as a skyscraper? (You might also find this fact written in terms of a number of elephants, which may be more fun to ponder!) What to do: search for fun or odd-but-true science facts you can dole out at dinner. The Library of Congress' Everyday Mysteries section can launch you in the direction of the unexpected when you need to kickstart the science conversation.

  • Know Your Family: Putting more science on the menu doesn't mean you have to be limited to classroom facts and trivia. One way to make science engaging for you and your children as a topic of conversation is to talk about the science involved in their areas of interest or hobbies. An Angry Birds obsession can yield an interesting discussion of video games and physics, and news of a camera body made out of LEGO gives both the photographer and the builder something to ponder. Whether they fly RC helicopters, play the piano, veg out with video games, love detective books, or are amazing visual artists, there are science facts and science angles you can talk about—which will help them learn to find and explore the science that underwrites everything they do! What to do: talk about what they already love, but ask questions that encourage thinking about how things work and why.

Your Own Recipe

The above suggestions are just a few ideas to get you going. There are many, many more ways you can weave science talk into your meals. In a Washington Post article earlier this year, Casey Seidenberg suggests creating a "jar" of dinner table conversation starters. This would be a great way to stay ahead of your family meals and create your own custom blend of science topics gathered from some of the above sources. After a few science game nights, bring out the jar and pull out a science talk starter. Or make pulling a topic the way you kick off each meal.

Whether you are already a family that eats together or think it's worth a try, we know that with a bit of experimentation, you'll find your own perfect recipe for dinner table science success! We would enjoy hearing about your family discussions, what you try, what books and games you find that help keep your dinner talk educational, science-minded, and entertaining. Send your suggestions and stories to: amy@sciencebuddies.org.



The Venus Transit offers a wonderful opportunity for family summer science and an easy DIY science activity—making a pinhole viewer. From parallax to exoplanets, tomorrow's transit raises plenty of talking points for students and their families, but a safe viewing strategy is a must.

During the Venus Transit, Venus will appear as a dark spot crossing the face of the Sun. Safe viewing is a must, but families can witness this event, which won't happen again until 2117, using a simple pinhole viewer. It's a great opportunity for summer science! Image: Jan Herold, Wikipedia

This afternoon, our family science activity will involve cardboard and aluminum foil as we make a pinhole viewer in hopes of catching tomorrow's Venus Transit. Given the sad-but-true tale of our pinhole tube projector attempt last month for the eclipse, we will be making and trying a shoebox pinhole viewer this time—and hoping for much better results. Having briefly viewed the eclipse through a shoebox viewer another group brought to the top of the hill where we were struggling to catch an image through our makeshift tube projector, we have a good sense of how small our viewing of the Venus Transit will be—and with a transit, unlike an eclipse, Venus will appear only as a small dot as it crosses the surface of the Sun. Still, we're hoping for clear skies and a clear view.

Pinhole Planning

In preparation for the coming transit, I spent time talking with Terik Daly, Staff Scientist at Science Buddies and a doctoral student studying planetary science at Brown University. In part, I wanted to know how off-base we had been with our viewer attempt last month.

After reading through my account of our viewer, Daly confirms, much to my relief, that in theory what we tried should have worked. Something went wrong, but the concept was sound—and we were able to cast the Sun during the afternoon, just not later during the actual eclipse. (I still think the heavy winds at the top of the hill didn't help us—or our taped-together cardboard tubes, which seemed even more flimsy when held up into the wind.) Daly did note that aluminum foil, because it is opaque and highly reflective, might have increased our chances of success.

What's the Big Deal?

The Venus Transit is a 243-year cycle, arriving in pairs, eight years apart, separated by first 121.5 years and then by 105.5 years. The last Venus Transit was on June 8, 2004, making tomorrow's transit the second in this transit cycle. The next Venus Transit won't be until 2117. Those numbers alone are important, but as noted in recent Scientific American coverage of the coming transit, this year's transit will be one of a small handful of transits that have been recorded: "Only six transits have been observed in history: in 1639; 1761 and 1769; 1874 and 1882; and 2004."

Beyond the fact that you may only get one or two chances to see a Venus Transit in your lifetime, the coming transit is a big deal for astronomers. Historically, transits helped astronomers gauge the size of our solar system. "Until the 20th century it was the only way to determine the distance from Earth to the Sun," reports Jay Pasachoff. As Summer Ash explains in a post on Scientific American's Budding Scientist blog, astronomers used the principles of parallax to determine the distance of the Sun from the earth. Using measurements from two viewers at different locations, the distance from the sun can be triangulated. With that measurement in hand, the "distances to all the other planets known at the time could be derived." Based on calculations made during the Venus Transit of 1882, Ash notes, astronomers concluded that the Sun is 93 million miles away.

A Model for Exoplanet Research

According to Daly, transits continue to offer astronomers useful information, particularly because transits can reveal exoplanets. "Transiting is one of the major ways that astronomers detect extrasolar planets," says Daly. "NASA's Kepler mission, for example, has identified over 2300 exoplanet candidates (with 61 confirmed exoplanets) using transit techniques."

The Venus Transit, he explains, offers the general viewer a better understanding of how transits work, which in turn helps explain how astronomers are able to use transits to detect exoplanets near other stars. Those watching the Venus Transit will see a decrease in light from the Sun as Venus crosses in front of it. In the same way, astronomers observe and track the light from other stars. "Decreases in the amount of light detected from a star indicate that something is blocking that light, and if those decreases are periodic, it suggests the object doing the blocking is orbiting the star—a planet," says Daly. "Of course, detecting extrasolar planets is more complicated than that," he adds. But "this transit is a fantastic opportunity to conceptually understand 'transit timing,' an important method of exoplanet detection, the method used by NASA's Kepler spacecraft."

Venus Transit as a Benchmark

In addition to helping demystify the search for—and discovery of—exoplanets, Daly notes that the transit offers additional information about Venus, including more data regarding the composition of Venus' atmosphere. "While we have other ways to study Venus' atmosphere, transits are one of the very few sources of information about the composition of exoplanet atmospheres," explains Daly. "The Venus Transit is a chance for scientists to test their methods for using the light from exoplanet transits to understand the atmosphere of the transiting planet." In other words, studying Venus' atmosphere via the Venus Transit—and comparing that information to other known data—helps astronomers corroborate the approach of drawing conclusions about an exoplanet's atmosphere based on its transit.

Making Connections

Students and families who will be observing the Venus Transit can learn more about how the transit helped astronomers understand our solar system by learning more about how parallax works. The "A Puzzling Parallax" project is an introductory project that can help families better understand the relationship between distance and viewing perspective. For an immediate example, close one eye and hold a pencil out in front of you, lining it up with an option in the distance (a light switch, a tree, etc.). Now switch eyes. This distant object is no longer lined up with the pencil; it will appear to have shifted . This shift based on the difference in viewing perspective is central to parallax. Using hula hoops and a ruler, you and your family can explore further! For a more advanced study of parallax, see "Similar Triangles: Using Parallax to Measure Distance." (The project is more difficult, but the introductory material may be perfect for better understanding the concept of parallax and talking about it with your students.)

In addition to studying parallax, building a pinhole viewer gives you and your family a chance to build a simple scientific apparatus. The following Projects Ideas and resources can springboard some fun exploration of pinhole cameras:

Sources Referenced Above for Additional Reading:

Note: A safe viewing method is required for watching the transit. Do not look directly at the Sun.

Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources in the area of Astronomy are sponsored by support from the Northrop Grumman Foundation.



Creating a pinhole projector for the eclipse encourages hands-on family science—and offers a lesson in perseverance. Family science doesn't always turn out exactly as planned, but everyone learns something along the way. Tubes, tape, and a pinhole lead to unexpected reflections of the eclipse for this family.


Positioning a pinhole projection tube takes some practice, but this kind of hands-on family science activity encourages active thinking—and troubleshooting!

Making Connections
You can springboard your experience with pinhole systems into a more extensive exploration of pinhole cameras! These Science Buddies Project Ideas can help get you started:

I am not a scientist. I am a writer who works for Science Buddies, and so I approached yesterday's eclipse not as one of my scientist colleagues might, but as a mom who tries to make science and DIY a part of everyday life for her two kids. Sometimes what we try works, but not always.

After all the research I did last week on the eclipse and on possible ways to safely view the eclipse, I wasn't sure we should even bother trying to view the eclipse. Part of me worried that my youngest would be unable to resist the temptation to look at the sun despite all my warnings of the dangers. Part of me worried that seeing a projection of the eclipse about the size of a quarter and in black and white would be anticlimactic, especially compared to the stunning full-color photos of eclipses online. But part of me, the part that is more and more attuned to the importance of taking advantage of hands-on family science opportunities like this one, felt like we shouldn't miss the chance to try our own pinhole viewer, especially since the Venus Transit in early June will also require a pinhole solution.

The Planning Stage

Before the sun rose on Sunday morning, I spent time scouring online directions, trying to figure out the most sure-fire approach—and the one most likely to work with what we had on hand. That the materials for a pinhole viewer can be scrounged up in your average basement and for little or no budget was a plus. We decided to try a tube-style pinhole projector, rather than a shoe box viewer, mostly because the Exploratorium directions I reviewed recommend a tube at least 6 feet long and offer a correlation between the tube length and the projection as approximately 1 to 1/100th—the image projected with be 1/100th of the length of the tube.

"The length of the box is important. The longer the box, the bigger the pinhole image. To find the size of the image, multiply the length of the box by the number 0.0093. If your box is 5 feet (60 inches) long, your solar image will be 60 x 0.0093 = 0.56 inches in diameter."

With this "six foot" recommendation in mind, I worried that a "shoebox," probably measuring in at about a foot and a half, would yield too small of an image to generate any real wow factor. While the directions made use of long triangular boxes, other sites suggest you can use wrapping paper tubes or similar "lengths" of cardboard tubing. Looking around the house, I spotted a few tubes in varying states of decline from having been used as a sword or bat. Game to join in the project, one of my sons turned up two empty toilet paper holders. We gathered tape, scissors, a few index cards, a sheet of cardstock, a pin, and headed to the backyard. (We couldn't find the aluminum foil for the pinhole, so we decided to test with paper and then buy foil before the official observation.)

Trial Run

Knowing that sometimes even the simplest of projects don't pan out as I expect—or as easily as directions indicate—my thought was to assemble our tube and try it out in full sun to make sure we could project an image onto paper. That way, I reasoned, we would be ready later in the day for the eclipse. Once outside, we got started. Knowing that our small backyard is a bit of a wind tunnel as it flows down the hillside from a high point in San Francisco, we taped a piece of white cardstock to a large wooden board that we use for mounting in-progress watercolor paintings. This let us put the surface on which we wanted to project our image on the ground without it blowing away either during our testing—or during what turned out to be a long session of taping!

The Exploratorium directions involve creating a pinhole covering on one end of the tube and then cutting a viewing opening into the side of the tube near the bottom, similar to the way shoe box viewer designs are constructed. The image is then projected onto the bottom wall inside the tube. With the small diameter of the wrapping paper tubes, it didn't seem likely that cutting a viewer into the tube would work or offer much viewing space. Given that you can create a basic projection with your hands or a piece of paper, we thought we might be able to project through the length of the tube and onto paper, without a side-viewing opening—and cast the image onto paper instead of into the bottom of the tube.

Exploring the Variables

At the outset, we wanted to prove to ourselves that this process "could" work before we worried about creating a bigger and better pinhole apparatus. So before we began our attempts to connect various tubes, we made a paper circle to cover the end of the sturdiest tube, taped it on, and carefully poked a pinhole. We then took turns trying to project an image through the pinhole and onto the paper. Positioning the tube precisely so that only its opening was in shadow and the small circle of light appeared on the paper can be more difficult than it sounds, but my fifth grader immediately understood how to move the tube to get it in the right place. (Throughout our testing, he had better luck with this process than i did!)

Initially dismayed by how small the projected circle was, we talked about different lengths of tubing and about different diameters of pinholes. Although everything we had read indicated we needed a very careful and small pinhole, we wondered if a larger pinhole might yield a larger projected image. We tried holes of varying sizes. We tried just a sheet of paper, knowing that one of the simplest ways to project is with a single sheet of paper and a single pinhole held above another sheet of paper. We held up a toilet paper roll and immediately cast a large circle on the paper. "But Mama, that's just pure light," insisted the oldest. Returning to our sample single tube, which was casting the expected circle, we started connecting two long tubes, adding torn index cards to help shim the slight differential in diameters, taping extra index card pieces around the seams to help block light, and adding lots and lots of tape.

Unfortunately, when you hold a six foot or longer wrapping paper tube in the air, there's a good bit of bend. That problem magnifies when one of the tubes has been played with and suffered during one battle or another. We spent a good bit of time troubleshooting stray bits of light, peering through one end or the other to ensure we could see clearly through the tube, finding a stick to knock out spider webs we discovered were partially blocking our view through the tube, and taping and retaping to try and stabilize the tube so that it wouldn't bow or collapse when we held it up high. (Note: we did not look through the tube at the sun.)

Show Time

We planned our day with the eclipse in mind, and when the optimum viewing time rolled around, we gathered our things and headed outside. The difference in trying to find the projection point with the sun so low in the sky was immediate. We had to stand much farther back from the paper than we had mid-day to position the shadow on the paper, and we had much more trouble finding the spot. Even when it seemed we had the tube's shadow positioned properly, we were not seeing the pinpoint. We were seeing the eclipse, however. We kept seeing the crescent shape that we knew meant the moon was in place, obscuring most of the sun, but we were seeing it as a result of our hands. The tiny opening of my hands around the tube was casting the eclipse image to the paper. The eclipse was in progress, but we couldn't find it with the projector.

Thinking that maybe our angle in relation to the sun, keeping in mind we are downhill with a fence rising behind us, might be causing a problem, we headed to the street and then to the top of the hill, hoping that at the clearing we would find an optimal spot. As we walked up the hill, bracing our pinhole tube projector against typical San Francisco winds, I continued my cautions about looking at the sun, more concerned than ever that the temptation would be too great once we reached the clearing and were facing the sun directly as it sat out over the ocean, which is visible from the hilltop.

We reached the clearing, turned out backs to the sun, and positioned our wooden board, which we had to move into the street to give ourselves enough room to cast the shadow. We saw the crescent over and over again, but we never did successfully see the pinhole projection. While we struggled to make it work, someone pulled up across the street in a car with solar glasses on and sat back to enjoy the solar show. Giving up on the long tube, we separated it and tried to use only the smaller length, hoping the single sturdy tube would give us an image. As we continued to struggle, another group of young adults showed up, hopped out of their car with a small shoebox projector, and immediately found pinpoint success. "There it is!" After more failed attempts to find our own image, I asked if we could take a look, and, indeed, we both saw the smaller-than-a-dime-sized crescent of the eclipse, clearly cast onto the far end of the shoebox.

Best-laid Plans

Disappointed that our hard work, testing, and planning hadn't paid off, we headed back down the hill. As we walked up the sidewalk to the house, we noticed that a neighbor's bush was casting a shadow onto the side of our house, and in every light spot, we could see a crescent. Hundreds of tiny crescents. Once upstairs again, we looked out the back window and saw a similar effect on a fence down the hill where a tree's shadow was showing the eclipse.

Our pinhole projector didn't work. As a parent, it was disheartening to have our science activity fail, and I spent a good bit of time apologizing that it hadn't worked. I know we each learned something, and that our afternoon of testing and questioning was important, but we didn't succeed, and that's frustrating. I really wanted the experience to "work." It didn't. Next time, we take what happened this time, change our approach, and try again. I haven't given up, but my son is clear that for the Venus Transit, he wants to use a shoebox.


Home again, defeated by what should have been a simple astronomy project—one perfectly suited for my DIY-minded household—I logged into Facebook. The first image I saw was from a friend who is also an elementary school teacher. Her family had created what, compared to our wrapping paper tube, seemed like a most enormous pinhole projector. Seeing it perched in the arms of a tree, I could only shake my head and laugh. Even with science, it is critical to keep everything in perspective.

When he came home from school the next day, my fifth grader reported that when they talked about their weekends, more than half the class had tried to observe the eclipse. According to their class discussion, we were not alone. Only a few of them had success with the kinds of viewers they tried to build and use. That we were at least one of the ones that had tried... matters.

When our lead scientist reviewed my experience and the trials and tribulations of our failed pinhole projector, her advice was immediate: try the shoebox version next time—and get some aluminum foil.

Venus Transit... here we come!



Watching kids trying to create super bubbles reinforces the importance of hands-on learning for this science mom—and reminds her that parents should watch but not take over.

Image: Bigstock.

A trip to the science museum strikes a chord for a science mom contemplating her role as a parent supporting her son as he tackles his first school science project. Interested in exploring bubble science with your students? Blow the Best Bubbles from Scientific American's Bring Science Home section features a family-friendly version of the Bubble-ology Science Buddies Project Idea.

Last week I was at a local science museum with my kids. As they explored a nearby exhibit, I sat on a bench to wait and ended up watching a group of students who were crowded around a table filled with giant bubble solution and a variety of metal rings. This hands-on exhibit is a perennial favorite. One of my sons always ends up stationed here, and despite the generous size of the table, which invites and enables several kids to get their hands in the bubble liquid at a time, there is always a crowd. For kids of all ages, it seems there is something irresistible about bubbles, especially the allure of creating giant ones. But it's a process that can be more difficult than it looks.

Time and time again, as I watched, kids swished their rings around in the liquid, lifted, and pulled, hoping to drag a ring full of solution from the tray and release an amazing bubble into the air. From where I sat, it was easy to see when someone was pulling too quickly or at the wrong angle. There's definitely a try and try-again mentality needed to figure out what works and what doesn't. As an adult, I felt certain I could have gone over, swirled a ring in the liquid, and pulled up a giant bubble. I probably couldn't have, but I'm sure other parents watching over their children's shoulders felt the same thing. I could see it in their faces. Some of them clearly wanted to step in, to put their own hands on the rings, to guide the process to an exciting conclusion—a beautiful bubble.

But for the student, the hands-on process of interacting with the bubble solution, maneuvering the metal rings, and experimenting with the timing and angle of their movements to find the balance necessary to successfully lift a ring full of the solution from the table and create a bubble is a wonderful learning opportunity. Left to explore, to troubleshoot what was happening when the bubbles popped instantly or when none of the liquid stayed on the rings, gave them the chance to question, to problem solve, to hypothesize (even in their heads), to test (try again), and to learn (whether they realized it or not). Stepping in and creating a wonderful bubble for them might garner some oohs and ahhs, but it wouldn't offer the same moment of experiential learning.

An Important Reminder for Parents

Sitting there and watching the maneuverings at the bubble table was a wonderful diversion. I leaned forward many times, breath held, hoping for a bubble to succeed, and when one of my sons took his place at the table, I watched as he tried several times. I watched, too, as he stopped and watched another kid, a few years older, who was successfully creating some spectacular glycerin displays. My son watched, and then tried again, clearly trying to deduce the difference between that student's technique and his own. From my vantage, it seemed the difference might have something to do with where they were positioned around the table—and possibly from which direction air might have been circulating. I did try and get his attention to suggest he move around the table when another spot opened up, but otherwise, I just watched, enjoyed the momentary pit stop on the bench, and thought about how important it is for parents to support the scientific process without taking over.

Tearing Tape

When we moved to the Tinkering Studio where the kids build marble runs by connecting a variety of odds-and-ends to a peg board, my involvement was needed by one of my sons. He needed me to stand nearby and tear masking tape. That was all. With a marble run, you can test as you add each new element and make adjustments to ensure the marble drops through, finds the next tube, funnel, or railway, and continues to the next step. When something doesn't work out, you move it, alter the angle, change the distance, tighten the tape or holding pegs, or you try another arrangement. He didn't need me to solve what wasn't working. What he needed was a person who could tear tape. The design, the learning, the ultimate vision, and the invention of steps necessary to bring the marble run to fruition were his tasks—and he was up to the challenge.

A Take-Away Lesson

An afternoon at the science museum is always fun for them. Whether they spend time at favorite exhibits or try new ones, they always find plenty to excite and inspire them. They always touch, feel, see, observe, and, most importantly, ask questions. But our afternoon in the giant repurposed airplane hangar where the museum sits was important for me as well. My oldest student is doing his very first school science project this year. For the first time, I am a parent overseeing my own student's science project, most of which needs to be completed at home. On paper, I know the boundaries. I know where to draw the line. I know how the process should go. But when it's your own student, the entire issue of parent involvement takes on new life, and the stumbling blocks seem very clear.

Being the parent supporting and shepherding a student's science project is an interesting position, but it can be a difficult one for parents because it's far too easy to be too involved or too controlling. It's also easy to expect too much, and it can be tempting, sometimes, to try and guide a student's interest during the selection process into an area of parental interest (or expertise). In reality, when a student chooses a project that is about something in which she is interested, and chooses a project that is appropriate for her grade level, skill set, and assignment, she should be able to do most of the project on her own. She may need you to sign the credit card slip for supplies or chauffer her around for materials or a research trip to the library. She may need help with safety steps and with planning. But mostly, her science project should be one she can do independently. Even if a parent itches to be more involved, really, the best thing to do might be to stand back and tear the tape.

A Focus on Hands-on Science

With all of the national attention on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in recent months, chances are higher than ever before that your K-12 student will be required to do a science project, most of which will be conducted out of the classroom. Given the importance of engaging in hands-on science exploration, this is a wonderful opportunity for students to investigate a scientific question, formulate a hypothesis, run an experiment, and see what happens. As Courtney Corda, Science Buddies Vice President and "Science Mom" recently wrote in an article on parent involvement for PBS Parents, "When your child works on a science project, she is putting the scientific method into action and learning more about how to actively understand the world around her. Her assignment is clear, but as a parent, how involved should you be?"

Science Buddies' Helping at the Right Level at Every Step chart is designed to help parents better understand how to successfully support and encourage a student's science project without stepping over the line and being "too" involved. We've all seen examples of projects (in every academic area) where it is clear that a parent has been heavily involved. Don't be that parent. Know that by letting your student do the work, your student will learn more and will, hopefully, enjoy the process. Don't worry that your student's project, done by your student, might not look as accomplished as another project for which an adult has taken the lead. Science projects shouldn't turn into a competition between parents! Trust that your student's teacher can evaluate your student's project in terms of the assignment and grade-appropriate expectations. The results might not be as perfect as if you'd done the project yourself. That's to be expected. The display board might not look like a professional designer put it together. That's to be expected. The hypothesis might not have been proven true. That happens, and it's absolutely okay! And the project might not be worthy of Nobel attention. Most aren't.

Understand the End Goal

Keep in mind what the K-12 science project is all about. Often the end result of a science project is a small measurable result or confirmation of a single scientific principle. The size of the outcome isn't what's important. Instead, the value comes from seeing the science unfold, putting a question to the test, and examining and interpreting the results. The motor a student makes as a first electronics project may not power a household appliance, but it will teach her about fundamental electronics principles, ones she might use as a launching point for her next experiment or invention.

So, tear the tape if it's needed, help with the procurement of supplies, be available as a sounding board and to help with suggestions when troubleshooting might be required, realize that you may need to assist your student in learning how to pace the stages of the project between the assignment and due dates, and certainly be prepared to join in at any aha moments or when something particularly cool happens in the experiment. But don't take over. It's not your science project. It's your student's. And remember, throughout the process, you get to do something amazing: you get to watch and enjoy seeing your student engage in the scientific process with enthusiasm and confidence. It may be a sideline job, but it's an important one!

(Please see Courtney's full article at PBS Parents: "How to Help Children with Science Projects Without Doing It for Them.")



Many beaches and waters glow blue or green thanks to marine organisms that create their own light as a result of a biochemical reaction.

The above photo, taken by photographer August Bach at Grayton Beach, shows "waves" of glowing blue light cast by bioluminescent organisms along the Florida shore.

The image below shows the startling bioluminescence of the Panellus Stipticus fungus.


Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City can see firsthand photos of bioluminescence in the "Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence" exhibit, which includes amazing photographs of bioluminescence taken by Japanese photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu. (Images: Grayton Beach, courtesy of August Bach. Fungus, Wikipedia. )

When I was a kid, I remember hearing exotic tales from other kids who went somewhere on one school break or another and saw waters and beaches that glowed. The image of neon green waters created a lasting impression in my head. I doubt, at the time, that I understood the difference between bioluminescence, fluorescence, phosphorescence, and chemiluminescence. All I knew was that they said the water glowed. Growing up relatively land-locked in a mountainous area, the idea of glowing waters was certainly something mystical—maybe similar in mystique to the Northern Lights. If you don't live somewhere where you can actually "see" the aurora borealis, it's hard to fully comprehend what it must be like to witness such a display firsthand.

Today, though I'm no longer landlocked, I still haven't been anywhere with glowing waters, and my fascination with photos of glowing coastlines—and amazing spectral displays—remains strong. I am sure the aura of wonder that surrounds bioluminescence partly explains my response to the wonder of Pandora in the Avatar movie. How can you watch such a beautiful, luminous, natural terrain and biosphere and not catch your breath? Though Pandora in the Avatar is fictional, real hotbeds of bioluminescence can be found around the world. Bioluminescent (or "Mosquito") Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico and Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, are two notable destinations for viewing marine bioluminescence. In the continental U.S., pools of bioluminescence can be found on both coasts.

I haven't been in the right place at the right time to walk across a glowing stretch of sand, but you may not have to travel far to find examples of bioluminescent organisms. My fifth grade student recently participated in a fieldtrip to NatureBridge at Golden Gate (formerly the Marin Headlands Institute), and a nighttime beach exploration gave him a firsthand appreciation of bioluminescence and phytoplankton.

Self-Contained Systems

What's going on when you see organisms that glow, blink, or appear to light up? Bioluminescence.

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. A bioluminescent organism is one that lights up by virtue of a biochemical process. An example of chemiluminescence, bioluminescence occurs when a chemical reaction takes place between an organic substrate, luciferin, and an enzyme, a luciferase, which serves as a catalyst. The oxidation of the luciferin by the luciferase results in an inactive oxyluciferin and a visible light. Remove the oxygen, and the light goes out. In some organisms, the luciferin and a catalyzing enzyme (the equivalent of the luciferase) are bound together, along with oxygen, into what is called a photoprotein. The addition of ions, often calcium, turns 'on' the photoprotein. In all cases, the light is considered a cold light as it doesn't produce heat. And, colors of bioluminescence vary by organism. Green and blue are common, but many organisms produce other colors of light.

While marine-based organisms that glow often steal the show when it comes to photos like the ones featured in this National Geographic photo collection, many types of organisms bioluminesce, including single cell organisms, bacteria, fungi, earthworms, beetles, fish, jellyfish, and even squid. If fireflies, or "lightning bugs," are common in your area, then you've seen bioluminescence in action as the insects rise from the grasses at dusk, appearing to blink on and off like small lights as they drift through the night.

Making Connections

Students curious about bioluminescence can find many different questions to ask and angles to explore. Why do these organisms bioluminesce? Are the chemical reactions cyclical? Are they triggered in response to something? How long does the glow last? Are there conditions that negatively or positively influence the biochemical process?

During firefly season, students not near a bioluminescent beach, may be able to develop a custom science project to turn the timeless pastime of catching lightning bugs in a jar into a novel science investigation of bioluminescence. But another approach to studying bioluminescence, independent of your geographic location, is to use marine dinoflagellates. Dinoflagellates are single-cell organisms that use whip-like tails for movement. Many dinoflagellates are bioluminescent. By cultivating dinoflagellates at home, you can conduct your own first-hand studies of marine bioluminescence. In the Bioluminescence: Investigating Glow-in-the-Dark Dinoflagellates biotechnology Project Idea, students can study culture samples of marine dinoflagellates, either Pyrocystis lunula or Pyrocystis fusiformis, to examine the relationship between light and dark and the organism's bioluminescence.

Science Buddies Project Ideas in Biotechnology Techniques are sponsored by generous support from Bio-Rad Laboratories.



Learning from Worms

April showers bring May flowers, or so the saying goes. But if you look closely, you'll find that April showers also bring creepers, slimers, wrigglers, and crawlers out in force. Every student's and every parent's tolerance level for organisms like insects, arthropods, annelids, and isopods varies. But the simple fact is "bugs" are everywhere—and some of them, like many kinds of worms, play an important role in habitat webs and biospheres.

Students can learn a lot about by observing worms and the roles worms play in local habitats. Image: Holding worm, Bigstock.

Did you know that earthworms help continually process the soil in which they live, converting dead matter into nutrients for the soil and tilling the soil so that it's loose and permeable? Worm scientists, or oliochaetologists (OH-lee-o-KEY-tal-o-gists), know! By turning your attention to the dirt and what's crawling around within a soil-based habitat, you and your students can get wise to the value of worms.

Taking a Closer Look

Most classrooms encourage hands-on observation and interaction with different classes of bugs, worms, and insects, a process of acclimation that begins early. Younger students often watch the development of butterflies or cheer on their favorite isopods in ad hoc sow and pill bug races across their tables or through small mazes they've constructed to see how these bugs deal with obstacles. For many students, learning about biology, zoology, ecology, and the environment begins with early bug exploration and bug-based science projects—both in the classroom and at home.

I was at the Exploratorium in San Francisco recently, and an encased biosphere equipped with external viewing scopes encouraged kids to take a closer look at the "microcosm" at play. Whether peering directly through the glass or through a scope, viewers were invited to observe what is really going on in the soil, in the water, and in and around various plants. A casual look didn't immediately reveal anything other than the terrain of the habitat. An impatient viewer might even have said the dome was "empty" when, in fact, it was thriving with life.

If you continued to look, you might suddenly see the dirt in front of you differently and spot, first, a single insect or two. Then, newly aware of the nuances of the habitat, your eyes zoom in on another location, and you see that the habitat is teeming with different kinds of organisms. There were hundreds, or even thousands, of small multi-legged organisms in one section that I was looking at, all visible to the naked eye. I didn't spot them right away even though they were writhing right in front of me. Sometimes all you have to do is really stop and look.

Warming Up to Worms

This April, rain or shine, make time to really look in the natural spaces around your house or at a local park. Turn over a rock or a log. What do you see? Go out in the early morning after a rain and look at the ground. Find anything interesting? There are plenty of buggy projects you can explore with your family to get a better understanding of your local biosphere, but there's a lot to learn by taking an especially close look at worms.

Wiggly worms perform important tasks that are critical to the health and survival of other organisms. Chiefly, many worms are "decomposers." By eating dead plants, worms process the debris and return important nutrients to the soil. At the same time, by tunneling their way through soil, they keep the soil aerated, which allows water and air to enter. Thanks to worms, your plants and vegetables have a better chance of success!

The following Project Ideas offer a number of ways in which you can turn worm hunting into worm observation and informal scientific testing with your kids and students:

Share Your Own Tips for Family Science!

Earth Day is coming up this month. While any day is a great day to talk about ecology and the environment with your students and kids, we especially encourage a bit of extra attention in April. If you do something bug-oriented with your students, we'd love to hear how it went, what you observed, what they learned, and what made it fun. Share your stories by emailing a short summary of your experience to scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org. We may feature your story, activity, or idea in an upcoming newsletter!

Science Buddies' Project Ideas in Zoology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.



A year after an egg-based impromptu family science exploration, this science mom prepares for the next phase of her family's hard-boiled egg and dye bath testing: natural dyes.


The process of hard-boiling and dyeing eggs offers a great chance for informal, at-home, science exploration. The eggs shown above were dyed using an assortment of natural ingredients and showcase a range of colors that can be achieved by experimenting with fruits, plants, and spices. Image: Emily Weaver Brown, used with permission.

My hastily scrawled grocery list over the weekend included eggs and egg dye. After a count of eggs still in the fridge, I ended up not getting the eggs, but I did check out the choices of dyes available at the store. Surprisingly, there are not that many options. Commercial egg dyeing kits seem to not have changed dramatically in the last decade. You can tie-dye your eggs, shrink wrap them in plastic wrappers, draw on them with a white crayon before dropping them in their dye baths, or use stickers, glitter, and glue for added visual boost—or to disguise splotchy dye-jobs or fingerprints created by impatient hands.

A More Natural Approach

Studying the boxes on the display in front of me, I recalled my excursion into depths of egg boiling last year—and a photo I used of beautiful eggs dyed with natural ingredients like beets and tumeric. Underwhelmed by the sticker and glitter-approach to decorating eggs lining the shelves, I thought, with rising conviction, of the deep, rich, natural tones of the eggs I spotted last year and decided we should try it.

I picked up a slimmed down set of cups and tablets, just in case. But it doesn't take much searching to realize that there is a lot of potential in natural dyeing. The Martha Stewart site has a short list of favorite ingredients for natural dyeing, from onions to coffee. The Better Homes and Gardens site contains an extensive flower-, fruit-, spice-, and vegetable-based list of All-Natural Easter Egg Dye Recipes. Finally, for the visual-minded (like me), the photos in this blog post show the sheer range of wonderful tone and hue possible with natural dyeing. The post also dives into the science behind the dyeing, with particular attention to the pH of the ingredients and dye baths, which is critical to the uptake of the dye and the intensity of color you'll see (even with commercial tablets).

(I forgot to get white vinegar. I think they really should put it next to the dye packs for convenience!)

A Lifetime of Icky Green Hard-boiled Eggs

In the course of a year, we don't boil that many eggs. Deviled eggs and egg salad aren't foods commonly found in our fridge or on the table. Basically, once a year, I'm faced with the task of boiling a few dozen eggs for Easter—hoping they don't crack and ooze in the process.

Last year I documented our initial impromptu investigation and our quest for the perfect technique for hard-boiling an egg. We defined the golden chalice of our search as eggs that were not cracked, were yellow inside instead of sickly green, and were, on the whole, less stinky. We then moved from testing hard-boiling techniques to exploring the role of vinegar (and acidity) in the dyeing process. I chronicled the story of our eggs, and our informal scientific study, on the Science Buddies blog. After all, moments and activities like these are wonderful opportunities for family science. And now, here it is, egg-dyeing time again.

Last year's blog post gives me a roadmap for repeating and extending our testing this year with my young scientists. If I can gather the ingredients, I think we'll try the natural dyeing approach this time around, too. And then, we'll stack the eggs in a bowl—leaving them out for no more than two hours—and enjoy filling, hiding, and re-hiding plastic ones. We basically dye a dozen or so "just because"!

Making Connections

If your family will be dyeing or boiling eggs this month, there are a number of related questions you might ask and experiments you might consider. The following project ideas and resources give you additional chickenfeed as you build a stockpile of egg-related topics of conversation, perfect for talking over while you wait for the eggs to take on rich color:



By Kim Mullin

Children may feel like summer vacation is a distant dream, but July will be here before we know it.


A summer science program can be the start of a lifelong interest and an enthusiasm about science that can continue into the school year.


Science Program Leaders and Directors: The MOST-Science project needs your help! The nationwide research study is taking a comprehensive look at youth science opportunities that take place outside of school. Visit the MOST-Science website to learn more.

While lazy, carefree days can allow kids to relax and use their imagination, time spent at camp, especially a science-based camp or program, can expand their horizons in wonderful ways. Plus, they may have so much fun that they won't even realize they are learning.

Science Camp Can Be a Life-Changing Experience

The words "summer science camp" may conjure up visions of chemistry labs, but remember, science is everywhere around us. From oceanography to robotics, food science, and even roller coaster physics, summer science camp can take a child just about anywhere!

Depending on where you live, summer camp choices can be overwhelming: arts, academics, sports, or just plain ol' fun-in-the-sun. What should you and your child choose? To learn why time spent in a summer science program is a great idea, see What is a Science Camp and How to Choose, part of the Science Buddies Summer Science Camp Resource.

Also, don't miss our story about a teen whose passion for robotics started with hands-on fun at a summer camp when he was an elementary school student. Today, he's taking on even more exciting challenges—and helping inspire others! What might your child be inspired to do after a week at a science camp?

Finding the Right Camp for Your Child

To find a great science camp, talk with teachers and other parents. First-hand experience can be invaluable in knowing what a particular camp is really all about. Also be sure to check our online listings in the Find a Summer Science Camp section for camps and programs in your area. (Camp directors, you can submit your camp information to our directory by completing our Summer Science Camp listing form.)

Summer should be a time of fun, growth, and discovery for kids. Science camp can deliver it all in one package!



New Paper Plane Record

A plane designed by John Collins set a new world record last week. Thrown by former football quarterback Joe Ayoob, the plane flew 226 feet, 10 inches in an indoor hangar on the McClellan Air Force Base, breaking the previous record by more than 19 feet!

Paper Planes

Folding paper airplanes is an age-old and ageless pastime. How many planes does the average person fold in a lifetime? How many have you folded? Probably more than you can count!

While not everyone can fold or remember the intricate steps involved in folding a paper crane, most people have, at one time or another, grabbed a sheet of paper and folded an airplane. Whether the plane is a classic design with speed and distance in mind or a stunt or trick plane, there is that moment when you give the bottom edge one last crease, hold it up, and throw it across the room. Like riding a bike, once you know how to fold a paper dart, you'll probably always be able to fold one. But how far can a paper dart fly? What kind of throw works best? How do design variations affect flight? What's the best paper for the longest flight? What size paper should you use? These are all great questions to ask, and they are questions students can explore in fun, flight-based science projects!

Students interested in investigating the aerodynamics of paper airplanes may enjoy the following projects:

Parents/educators: these projects can be great investigations to do with kids at home or after school!



Arsenic and Rice

If you think arsenic poisoning is something relegated to the pages of mystery novels, think again. Arsenic may be in foods you routinely eat—but it's undetectable by taste or smell. How much arsenic in your diet is safe?

Number 33 on the periodic table, arsenic is a naturally-occurring heavy metal—and a much-used poison throughout history. Because it appears in the soil, arsenic may be lingering in foods you and your family frequently eat. Recent research raises questions about arsenic levels in rice products, apple juices, and pear juices. Image source: Wikipedia.
When I spotted a headline in my Facebook stream a few weeks ago that warned of arsenic in food products made with rice, or sweetened with brown rice syrup, I was curious. The NPR headline wasn't alarmist. It was, instead, middle of the road: "Yes, There's Arsenic In Your Rice. But Is That Bad?"

I didn't know it then, but apparently I had missed out on public alarm over similar headline news (and FDA response) last year about arsenic levels in apple juice. The idiom "what you don't know can't hurt you, right?" comes to mind as particularly foolhardy when it comes to health consciousness, and catching wind of potentially dangerous levels of 'poison' in my rice wasn't a comfortable thought. From the indulgence of a comfort food like rice pudding to my favorite short-grain brown rice, good with just about everything (including milk and sugar), to a frequent menu of ethnic foods, often accompanied by rice, the grain has earned 'staple' classification in my vegetarian diet. And, while my kids haven't wholeheartedly jumped on the bean and spinach train of my healthy eating, "rice" is something they've grudgingly adopted as a frequent side dish and part of my attempt to incorporate more whole grains in their diets.

My health-consciousness hackles already raised, as I read the initial report, I got even more icky feeling when I saw that the levels of arsenic in brown rice are reportedly higher, on average, than in the ostensibly less-good-for-you white counterpart. Great, I thought. Here's another instance where many of us have made lifestyle eating changes in the name of whole grain and better health, and suddenly we find out that what we did with the best of intentions can actually be causing unexpected (and unseen) harm.

Further reading told me that while the FDA has established guidelines for the acceptable threshold of arsenic in bottled drinking water, there are no regulations in place for food products—or beverages other than water. I'd read enough. In what has become my typical modus operandi since I began working at Science Buddies, I fired off an email to our Lead Scientist. In part, I wanted to know what a student could do to explore this issue. In part, I wanted her opinion of the issue and the potential health risk.

It was from her response that I realized I'd somehow overlooked the rampant apple juice reports last year. Her response clued me in to the larger spiral of arsenic concern but also gave me the kind of "slow down, be objective, and understand the facts" counsel which you might expect from a scientist. In other words, she put the 'headline' in perspective: Arsenic is in our food chain.

A Dark History

Mystery reader or not, most of us are familiar with the classic whodunit plot that involves poisoning by arsenic. Agatha Christie favored arsenic in her mysteries, along with a host of other poisons, strychnine being the most common, but "Arsenic and Old Lace" may be one of the most famous of arsenic-laden storylines. At the heart of the tale are "two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and 'just a pinch' of cyanide" (Wikipedia).

With arsenic having a prominent and deadly role in such stories, I started looking at arsenic more broadly, trying to make sense of the fact that a known poison was also part of last night's dinner, which I cooked for myself. As I started down the research path before me, a path scattered with arsenic-laced grains of brown rice, I quickly realized that arsenic has a fascinating history, one that gets increasingly insidious, dark, and creepy the farther you look, from its use as a rat poison to its, ostensibly well-earned, nickname, "the inheritance powder."

Digging into the history of arsenic as a choice for mystery writers leads to interesting facts about the availability and early uses of arsenic, and a scan of a list of historical poisonings (alleged and confirmed) shows arsenic popping up a fair number of times. Perusing the Wikipedia entry on arsenic poisoning brings other well-known historical figures to the forefront as possible victims of the secret poison, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

And then, of course, there was Mary Ann Cotton, convicted in 1873 of murdering more than 20 people, including her children, with arsenic. Though not a household name in the way other serial killers have occupied public consciousness, Cotton's tale is frightening and might make you think twice about accepting a drink (or a rice ball) from a friend! One of the most unexpected finds in my jaunt through the history of arsenic poisoning was an article from November 2011 covering a current mystery writer's speculation that Jane Austen, whose cause of death at age 41 remains the subject of much conjecture, may have died of arsenic poisoning.

Hidden Ingredients

Given the history of arsenic and its association with "secret" poisoning, it's certainly discomfiting to realize that arsenic isn't something confined to the intrigues of centuries gone by or the dark and dusty upper recesses of a mystery book protagonist's kitchen cabinets. Instead, arsenic, in trace amounts, may well be sitting on the shelves of many of our cabinets and most of our grocery stores.

In reality, arsenic is a naturally-occurring element in the Earth's crust, number 33 (Arsenum) on the periodic table. From arsenic released by volcanoes to arsenic produced as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, arsenic, in both its organic and inorganic forms, appears worldwide. Studies have shown that animals even need a trace amount of arsenic in their diets. Whether humans also need a bit of arsenic—and how much—has yet to be conclusively determined.

Why Rice?

Part of the problem is that the soil rice is grown in may contain arsenic, both natural and residual, and rice may absorb arsenic more easily than other foods. As for the difference in arsenic levels between brown and white rice, a report in the MinnNews suggests that processing rice may remove some of the inherent arsenic: "The arsenic accumulates in the rice's outer hull and stays there unless the hull is removed (as it is during the processing of white rice)."

While studies are relating the amount of arsenic detected in brown-rice syrup to the limits of arsenic allowed by the FDA in drinking water, whether or not the same thresholds can be considered safe in food has not been determined. Reports, however, like this one in USA Today from December 2011, suggest that even 1/2 a cup of rice a day, may provide too much arsenic for health safety.

So arsenic surrounds us. It is, as I was warned, a part of our food chain. Even so, arsenic in certain levels is toxic—and arsenic is a known, but undetectable to the consumer, factor in certain foods. In other words, you don't have to be someone's victim to be ingesting a known poison. Think about how many foods are rice-based. Cereals, salads, puddings, and even snacks may be made from rice or contain brown-rice syrup, commonly used as a sweetener. Rice cake anyone? Energy bar? If rice contains arsenic, and it doesn't have to be monitored or regulated, it seems to me we have a problem. Checking ingredients labels won't help. "Arsenic" hasn't been "added." Complicating matters is the fact that not all brown rice or brown rice syrup contain the same levels of arsenic, a reality that seems to beg the question: why isn't it being regulated?

Making Connections

Unfortunately, arsenic detection isn't something students can tackle at home or in a kitchen-based lab. But students can look at the larger picture and take into account that arsenic is a heavy metal, a class that also contains silver, copper, mercury, nickel, cadmium, and chromium, all of which can be toxic in certain environments. The Heavy Metals and Aquatic Environments project lets students investigate the impact of the heavy metal copper (Cu) on an aquatic environment containing snails and plants.

While students can't evaluate the relationship of arsenic and rice—or the impact of arsenic on human biology—as easily, a firsthand investigation of heavy metals and the consequences of increased levels, and of buildup, can help students better understand the unfolding news and research related to arsenic.



Image: Wikipedia.

Visitors to Scientific American's Bring Science Home section are treated to an exciting array of activities that encourage families to explore hands-on science. Thanks to an ongoing content partnership between Science Buddies and Scientific American, many of these activities have been created by Science Buddies as fast, family-friendly guided explorations based on our longer science Project Ideas for students.

A Focus on Family Science

Scientific American first launched Bring Science Home in May 2011 as a series of daily activities, a month-long celebration of family science. In response to the overwhelming success of the series, Scientific American began expanding Bring Science Home in October 2011 with new installments added each week.

Every Thursday, Bring Science Home offers a new family-centered science idea, replete with accessible introductory and explanatory material and a guided, hands-on experiment. With topics ranging from pigmentation in fall leaves to whale blubber to static electricity, the activities posted at Bring Science Home take core science concepts and package them for parents in activities that are easy to follow, fun, and use common household materials, natural objects (e.g., leaves), or even toys. Some of these activities are classic experiments that can help users understand important science principles. Concocting a stretchable substance like Silly Putty, for example, offers a perfect—and tactile—look at polymers. Plus, you can have fun testing the putty on the Sunday comics! Similarly, using cabbage to make an indicator solution with which you can test the pH of liquids around the house makes learning about acids and bases a fun and colorful experience—although maybe a bit smelly!

Whether parents are looking to incorporate more science into their family's routine days, or whether they are looking for accessible explanations that can help them talk about and explore science questions that arise (e.g., "Why did my hair crackle when I pulled off my sweater today?"), Bring Science Home invites parents to dive in and investigate science with their families—and to have fun doing so.

"As a kid, I often spent an afternoon after a big rain storm with my brothers tromping down to a local drainage stream to see what the water had washed in," wrote Katherine Harmon, associate editor for Scientific American, in her introduction to Bring Science Home last spring. "And it wasn't unusual to find us sitting around the kitchen table with our hands coated in a green, oozy cornstarch-and-water mixture, wondering at its weird properties. My parents aren't scientists or university professors, and my brothers and I didn't think of these diversions as science. But they were—and these simple activities, along with the questions and conversations they prompted, have stuck with me into adulthood."

With quality, hands-on and engaging content from partners like Science Buddies, Bring Science Home makes these kinds of science experiences and adventures easy for families to adopt and incorporate—no previous science experience required!

Informal Science Exploration

Dr. Teisha Rowland, a staff scientist at Science Buddies, has worked on the weekly activities that Science Buddies has contributed to Bring Science Home. For Rowland, the positive impact of home-centered science is far-reaching. "Bringing science home lets students see that science is not just something that is confined to the classroom setting. Instead, science is something they can explore and investigate on their own, outside of school. This helps students and parents see how science is important in their daily lives, and how it's around them all the time."

Each activity Rowland has prepared for Scientific American has origins in a longer Science Buddies Project Idea. Selecting projects from the Science Buddies library of more than 1000 Project Ideas and rewriting them as engaging activities of high interest to families and students ages 6-12 requires creatively rethinking the experiments, especially in terms of time. "The Scientific American activities are created to be quicker and easier to do than the Science Buddies Project Ideas on which they are based," explains Rowland. "This allows busy families to do a science activity without having to do much planning."

Science Around Us

The bottom line: science is everywhere, and science can be fun. Making parents more comfortable with science, however, and with their ability to integrate science at home, is a critical step in the process of increasing science literacy. For Science Buddies, activities selected to be a part of Bring Science Home are specifically chosen because they start where families are—at home—and focus on what families might be doing anyway, whether it's cooking in the kitchen, blowing bubbles in the backyard, taking a nature walk, or playing with certain kinds of toys.

"The Project Ideas selected to be made into Scientific American activities," says Rowland, "are particularly focused on exposing children and their families to tangible science that takes place around them all the time, such as how leaves change color in the fall and how a remote control sends signals to a radio-controlled car. This helps them see how relevant science is to their daily lives."

Turning science into an a la carte experience may make it as easy to explore friction or building design as it is to do an arts and crafts project, something many families routinely do together. When a LEGO tower can become the basis of a science or engineering discussion, the learning can happen even while the bricks are being snapped together and even amid the shrieks that are bound to accompany the tower's collapse.

"Scientific American's Bring Science Home is a forward-looking initiative that address a very real need in the area of K-12 science education today," says Rowland. "Science Buddies is excited to be a part of helping address this need for students and their families."

Bring Science Home is part of Scientific American's commitment to Change the Equation and the White House's Educate to Innovate campaign.



Licorice Root, Please

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Licorice root may help fight cavities and other oral health problems, but most "licorice" candies are actually flavored with anise. Image source: Pikaluc, Wikipedia.

Willing to try a licorice-based toothpaste?

When it comes to candy, certain flavors fall into a category that tends to require a more sophisticated palate. That's my decidedly non-scientific assessment having watched my own kids and their love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with all things "mint," something to which dental-care product developers really should pay more attention since many "kid" pastes still have a bit of mint "bite" to them. After witnessing thousands of mint-related shrieks and mini-rebellions, I've thought about the way our palates change and grow with time. We know this about spinach and brussels sprouts, right? But clearly there are certain flavorings, as well, that we potentially grow into (and out of).

Already there has been a softening to mint. For a while, we dumped strawberry toothpaste and existed harmoniously with a single tube of mint, but it was short-lived. Someday, I have no doubt they may prefer a real candy cane in December to a sickly, sweet and sour, fruit punch flavored one. Someday, I am sure they'll look at me in disbelief when I recount the fit thrown at the dentist when one selected a chocolate toothpaste from the picture-based menu only to realize when it hit the tongue that it was chocolate mint. For now, even mint-flavored dental floss is frowned upon, and in reality, most dental flosses have at least a hint of mint.

Mint isn't the only category of candy flavoring that seemingly grows on one with age. While, personally, I look back fondly on the world of Atomic Fireballs, Hot Tamales, and even Big Red chewing gum, which my grandfather stocked in his shirt pocket, along with Juicy Fruit (I guess I pre-date the sugarless gum industry!), my kids won't come near cinnamon-flavored candies. I doubt they'd cozy up to something ginger-flavored or black-licorice flavored either.

I remember liking black licorice, and as an adult, I can vouch for the goodness of a chocolate-ginger combo, but I can't imagine my kids opting for either over something sweet, sour, and sure-to-turn-the-tongue-bright-blue.

It's too bad, because a toothpaste with a base of licorice root might help safeguard our trips to the dentist's office!

The "Root" of Things

Recent studies have shown that licorice root has benefits for oral health—cavity-fighting benefits. Scientists behind a study in the American Chemical Society's (ACS) Journal of Natural Products cite licorice root as being instrumental in helping fight both tooth decay and gum disease. Licorice root has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for various reasons, and to enhance the properties of other herbal additives, but the recent US-based study focused specifically on the effect of compounds in licorice root on bacteria common to the mouth. According to studies, licoricidin and licorisoflavan A, two compounds found in licorice root, help inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause cavities as well as bacteria related to gum disease.

In reality, however, those looking to take advantage of licorice-laden oral healthcare will need to find their licorice somewhere other than the candy aisle because licorice root is commonly replaced by anise oil in candies. So if you decide to add licorice to your list, be sure and check package labels and ingredients.

Making Connections

Tooth decay is a widespread problem, but it is one that can be helped with both preventive and routine care. According to the CDC, "tooth decay affects more than one-fourth of U.S. children aged 2-5 years and half of those aged 12-15 years." Those are high percentages, as is this startling statistic: "one-fourth of U.S. adults aged 65 or older have lost all of their teeth."

Can licorice root make a difference? How safe is licorice root? How much can be taken? For how long? Are there other risks?

These are just a few of the questions researchers have to consider and explore, and there are already warnings accompanying stories about the benefits of licorice root that indicate there are counter-risks related to blood pressure and potassium levels. Licorice root is also a legume, which raises additional considerations for those concerned about gluten. As one might expect, licorice-root Altoids® probably won't suddenly be appearing in the dental health aisle as an end-all solution to oral health.

Further exploration, however, seems prudent, and students can jump in by learning more about the ways in which licorice root interacts with oral bacteria.

Taking it Further

Students interested in designing an independent science project focused on the anti-bacterial properties of a substance like licorice root may find the underpinnings of their project in the The End Zone: Measuring Antimicrobial Effectiveness with Zones of Inhibition Project Idea, adapted to use licorice extract and bacteria cultured from swabbing the inside of the mouth.

As with any bacteria-based project or study, however, it is important for students to fully review and be mindful of SRC guidelines and rules regulating bacteria projects. The Science Buddies Microorganisms Safety Guide offers additional information.



Find a Feather, Pick It Up?

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The feathers showcased in the photo accompany a recent essay in Audubon Magazine (screenshot above) are breathtaking to look at. But how safe are feathers to pick up?
We're out for a rare walk around one of my favorite spots in the Bay Area, Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. We've fed the geese and practiced our aim as we tried to toss bits of salvaged and saved bread to them and the mallards. We know the gulls will swoop in, loudmouthed and pushy, to steal away our stale but doughy offerings. My youngest has greeted his "friends," the gray coots with their white-spotted foreheads, red eyes, and chartreuse feet. We've stopped and peered up into the trees where the great blue herons nest in the spring months, though we know that despite the weather, it is too early for them. We've shooed away the flock of pigeons that has crowded around in hopes of sharing our bag of bread.

The bags all emptied out, we're heading around the perimeter of the lake, a path that will take us past a small tunnel made of branches and twigs that they can just barely crawl through, across a bridge (see the keystone?), along the lower level of the tiered paths that wind around the small mountain to a beautify city lookout at the top, past the Japanese pagoda and the waterfall, around the boathouse (which no longer sells ice cream treats), and back to the car.

They run ahead, footsteps kicking up dry dirt and rock as they move along the path, pausing now and again to peer at a treasure on the ground, a shiny rock ("a crystal"), a perfect stick, a dandelion, a squirrel jumping away with a foraged scrap, a Steller's jay that has jumped from the ground to a branch above with a loud squawk.

They run ahead as I take photos from behind, of them, of branches, of light on the water.

Lowering my camera, I focus in on what has now captured one's attention.

"Don't pick that up!"

It's a feather.

He pauses and looks up at me, his fingers inches from the feather.

"Don't pick that up. They can carry disease."

Back in the Day

I remember when feathers could be picked up, when feathers were magical and marvelous, when you could run your finger along the edge of a feather and be amazed by the softness. I remember the impossible discovery of a peacock feather.

Many years have intervened between then and now. Many years, two children, and a host of frightening flus that have lingered in public—and parental—consciousness. The residue of those years and those flus has accumulated into a frothy, sticky, mostly unfounded, squeamish sign of my age, one that comes oozing over the sides of the admonishment: "Don't pick that up. It's dirty!"

Needless to say, while we have small collections of rocks, broken shells, shark's teeth, and other treasure we've accumulated through various walks and expeditions, there are no feather collections in our house. Not even one.

All of that came rushing home when I saw a photo by Robert Clark highlighting a feature essay by Thor Hanson in Audubon Magazine. The photo is an 'almost' grid of forty-seven feathers, brightly colored, samples of bird plumage from species of birds I've no doubt never seen. These are not your ordinary, everyday pigeon feathers, the ones I am most tempted to disallow my kids pick up and handle. These are feathers that remind us of the beauty and wonder of birds, the exotic free-flying nature of birds, and the sheer diversity of birds. But this is a reminder from a new angle. Feathers.

The photo is a stunning visual entrée into an equally captivating essay underscoring the beauty, novelty, and incomparable nature of features. No matter what your relationship with birds, or whether or not you would or would not have picked up (or let your children pick up) a feather on the street yesterday, Hanson's high-flying essay on feathers may sweep you away. Hanson's essay weaves together the scientific and the aesthetic, the personal and the historic, the pragmatic and the mystical, and emerges as a beautiful and inspiring exposé on feathers, a distinguishing feature of birds, one that is unique to birds, one at which you may not have stopped before to marvel or think about too deeply. After reading this essay, I think you will. I think you'll pick up a favorite blanket or winter vest and think differently about the realities of feathers. You might even look up a photo of a golden-crowned kinglet so that you can have an image to pair with Hanson's story of a night spent in sub-zero weather—and the realities of the small golden-crowned kinglet sleeping somewhere in the open air, relying on its feathers alone for warmth.

Making Connections

"On any given day, up to four hundred billion individual birds may be found flying, soaring, swimming, hopping, or otherwise flitting above the earth. That's more than 50 birds for every human being, 800 birds per dog, and at least a half-million birds for every living elephant. It's about four times the number of McDonald's hamburgers that have ever been sold. Like the robin, each of those birds maintains an intricate coat of feathers—roughly one thousand on a ruby-throated hummingbird to more than twenty-five thousand for a tundra swan. Lined up end on end, the feathers of the world would stretch past the moon and past the sun to some more distant celestial body." ~ Thor Hanson

Hanson's essay is thought-provoking and eye-opening, and for students with an interest in birds, or even an interest in paleontology, there is plenty of potential for inspiring and inspired science projects that may find a launching point in an essay on feathers. One path students might follow involves considering the question: where did feathers come from? And why do birds, alone, have them? A project looking at the history of feather formation will take students back to the age of dinosaurs. That's right, scientists now label birds as a living form of dinosaur, a fact students can investigate further in the "BLAST into the Past to Identify T. Rex's Closest Living Relative" genomics Project Idea.

A Shift in Perspective

After reading "The Multiple Miracles of Bird Feathers," I found myself wondering about the weight of "don't touch that" fear I've somehow picked up along the way, part of the baggage of socially-induced paranoia that many parents carry around, especially when and if we are too busy to stop, question, and get the facts. If faced with the kinds of delicate, diverse, exotic, breathtaking, and mesmerizing feathers shown in the Clark's photo, I doubt I could insist we leave the feather where it lay. That's why we carry anti-bacterial hand gel, right? But can I let go of my concern about the ordinary feathers we're more likely to discover in our regular outdoor excursions? After all, while there is a wonderful plethora of natural terrain in and around the Bay Area, we're still in a city. Hawks perch on the streetlights in front of my house and nest in the trees out back, but there are also thousands upon thousands of pigeons and starlings and blackbirds, even in the parking lots of the grocery stores.

Questioning my own concern, I talked with our Lead Staff Scientist, someone who has gotten used to the fact that I approach many of my science stories from a non-scientific starting point. I didn't simply ask are feathers safe. Instead, I asked, how feasible is it for students to do a project in which they investigate either the kinds of bacteria that might linger on bird feathers collected in a local area or what approach one might take to best ensure the safety of bird feathers if one wanted to collect them. (Before I asked, I did a quick search engine search and read just enough to know that, most likely, the parental baggage I was carrying around was unjustified, far-fetched, and should be shelved—in favor of a rekindling of the magic, beauty, and scientifically-amazing properties of feathers.)

Our lead staff scientist confirmed that while it's "possible" to get a disease from bird feathers, the probability is very slim. Still, there is a question that can be asked, and so there are projects that can be designed and procedures that can be put in place to explore how "safe" found feathers might be. Is a parent who says, "Don't touch!" right—or just over-protective?

Putting Feathers to the Test

There are three kinds of health hazards that can be carried on a feather: parasites, bacteria, and viruses. Of the three classes of possible health problems one might trace back to feathers, culturing bacteria from feathers and analyzing the bacteria colonies that grow is the most likely course of investigation for student research. Students interested in developing an experimental procedure that could be used for a microbiology-based study of feathers might find the procedure used in the Germ Invasion Project Idea a helpful starting point. Is exposure to UV light a helpful strategy?

Safety Considerations and Guidelines

Because there are many rules, regulations, and safety guidelines that have to be followed for student science investigations that deal with microorganisms, devising an independent course of study examining microorganisms and feathers requires careful attention to safety guidelines, awareness of any local fair rules, as well as ISEF regulations, and may require the supervision of a teacher or mentor or access to a specific kind of lab. In addition, your project may require pre-approval from fair officials.

For more information about safety considerations when working with bacteria, and about related ISEF rules and regulations, visit the Microorganisms Safety Guide and the Projects Involving Potentially Hazardous Biological Agents resource.

Science Buddies Genetics and Genomics Project Ideas are sponsored by a generous grant from Life Technologies Foundation. The Germ Invasion Project Idea was developed by Laurie Usinger, Bio-Rad Laboratories. Bio-Rad Laboratories sponsors the Biotechnology Techniques Interest Area at Science Buddies.



The "Science" of Giving

(Editorial note: the following fun science giving suggestions and selections are from one Science Buddies science mom and do not represent official endorsements by Science Buddies, with the exception of the Science Buddies Kits. Many of these gift ideas are related to Project Ideas in the Science Buddies library, however, and we've provided links to those projects where possible.)

With a bit of creative thinking, you can inject your holiday gift giving with a bit of extra science energy. Great science kits or multi-purpose gadgets and tools can bolster your gift lists in ways you can feel good about—and in ways they might not even realize have a bit of a "good-for-you" spin. If you have a reputation for giving socks, this list is especially for you! Plus, many of these suggestions are small-scale, low-cost, great ideas for a bit of an "extra," now or any time! And, who knows... your student's next science project or science fair investigation might just stem from one of the following:

Gamestar Mechanic Picoboard Crystal Radio Kit



Mom of Two Emerging Video Game Designers


Got students who are interested in video games? There's science and engineering to be discovered and leveraged—even as they rack up points and level up! The December 2011 issue of the Science Buddies newsletter focused on video and computer game design projects.


The National STEM Video Game Challenge is underway! Deadline for entries: March 12, 2012. More information and guidelines...

I remember when one of my boys wanted to be a firefighter. That may well be a rite of passage for many toddlers, right along with an interest in cars, trucks, and every form of construction vehicle you can possibly pass on the road. I don't know exactly when the shift occurred or how much overlap there was, but it seems as if he has "always" wanted to "be a game designer." The firefighter costume and hat ended up in a pile of castoffs, but the allure of being a "game designer" has persisted—no costume required. His younger brother's genes didn't fall far from the tree, and he, too, at seven, wants to work on video game development, although I've often heard him clarify that he wants to 'test' video games, which I think he interprets as more 'playing' and less 'working'!

Plugged In

We really are a 'gaming' household. It is something that other parents often don't agree with or understand. That's not to say we're not well-rounded. We are. We do academics. We play sports. We read lots. We build LEGO. We specialize in paper airplanes. We have strong art interests and hobbies. But we do play video games—lots of them.

Sparking Interest

When I started working on this month's issue of the Science Buddies newsletter, a special issue on video and computer game projects and their relationship to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, it was exciting to be reminded that while my immediate parent community on the play yard after school may not be embracing video games en masse, there is, in fact, a strong push for viewing gaming as a foundation upon which to teach, build, and apply STEM skills.

As part of my research for the newsletter, I watched AMD's Changing the Game video. I watched a video of winners from the 2010 National STEM Challenge and checked out this year's competition. I took a look at the video game design category in the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

I looked more closely at the information on our Kid-Friendly Programming Languages page. And, one by one, I started visiting many video and computer gaming sites and resources sponsored and developed by AMD Changing the Game, the AMD Foundation, and its partners, sites like Level Up!, Ludo Dojo, and Activate!. As I jumped from site to site, I was amazed and excited by the glitzy, glossy, fun, energetic, and very 'clued-in' world of support and engaging content available for K-12 students who are interested in designing their own computer and video games. A wealth of materials is available on these sites for teachers and families, too, making it easier for adults to help support these projects both in the classroom and at home.

The message on all these sites is clear—video game projects can help engage kids on an academic and STEM level. By supporting game development projects, research, and investigation, we can encourage and empower students to turn an activity they enjoy into a platform for learning, creative thinking, and problem solving.

Responding to the Challenge

The team at Science Buddies has developed a number of new video and computer game Project Ideas and resources to support video and computer game science and engineering projects. Many students begin their exploration of "programming" using the free Scratch environment, developed by MIT. There is much to like about Scratch's drag-and-drop interface and approach to learning the "logic" of programming, and Science Buddies has Project Ideas and resources to help jumpstart student exploration.

Our Scratch-based Project Ideas let lets students explore animation and computer program design and logic in interesting ways, like customizing a drum-set, controlling a pinwheel, making a greeting card, or creating a simple game of dog chases cat.

More recently, a number of Project Ideas have been added to our growing Video and Computer Game area that involve game creation using GameMaker. In these Project Ideas, students can explore an exciting array of video game design topics, including the importance of physics engines, procedural music, and even issues related to accessibility. Students can also explore video games as a way to help educate others and spread the word about important issues or environmental concerns.

newsletter-amd-gamestar.pngGamestar Mechanic

On the list of sites I visited during my survey of video and computer game development sites was Gamestar Mechanic. As soon as I realized that Gamestar Mechanic "is" a game, I knew it was something we had to explore! Created by the Institute of Play and E-line Media, Gamestar Mechanic is an online game development environment that revolves around a "game" that teaches some of the fundamentals of video game design. As players work through the on-screen comic book storyline and solve the "quests" presented, they earn sprites (characters), backgrounds, music, colors, and other game elements that can be used in games they design. Some of the quests involve "fixing" existing games, for example, making changes in gameplay or layout to make the games work properly. Players are, in other words, "mechanics" in this virtual storyline. By working through the quests, players earn the ability to create their own games.

I logged both of my kids in at Gamestar Mechanic one evening, just to see how they would respond to the interface—and to see if it really was as cool as it seemed like it might be. They sat side by side at different computers, each going through the story, and the excitement and enthusiasm was palpable. They loved it! As I moved around doing other things, I was hearing talk about "platform" games and "top down" games and "oh, I'm going to change the gravity this time!"

Gamestar Mechanic was a total hit. They worked through all the free content in a short amount of time, but they were completely engaged in the process—and definitely wanted more. (Note: there are a limited number of quests available for the free membership; a paid membership contains a larger number of challenges, more elements available for use in games your student creates, and access to special game content. My review is based solely on their exploration of the free membership.) Parents can find out more about Gamestar Mechanic here.

Making Connections

My work on the December 2011 newsletter, sponsored by AMD Changing the Game, was inspiring on many levels. I can't wait to see what kinds of games my students develop in the next few years.

See Also

Is your family techy or video-game oriented like mine? You might enjoy these previous posts:

Science Buddies Video and Computer Game Project Ideas and resources are sponsored by the AMD Foundation.



Pumpkin Seed Puzzle

By Kim Mullin

With Thanksgiving this week, you might even be counting on pumpkin pie after dinner, at least once! If the baker in your house is using fresh pumpkin, it's a perfect time for young scientists to turn pumpkin guts into a scientific investigation. Image: Wikipedia
Pumpkins seem to be everywhere in the fall, and with good reason. Fall is when pumpkins turn ripe, so we eat them (mmm, pie!) and use them for decorations.

If you've ever opened up a pumpkin, you know that it is full of "pumpkin guts." Stringy, messy, and full of seeds, many people just throw the guts away. Others like to roast the seeds for a tasty snack.

A pumpkin is a squash. Open up other kinds of squash, such as an acorn or butternut squash, and you'll find similar stringy guts, full of seeds. Why? Because seeds are how many plants make new plants. If you plant seeds from a fresh pumpkin, with a little water and care, you might get a new pumpkin plant next year—your very own pumpkin patch!

Why do you think pumpkins have so many seeds? After all, some fruits, such as an avocado have only one giant seed. Do all types of squash have lots of seeds? And what about size? Do you think that a large pumpkin will have more seeds than a small one? Explore more about seeds in different kinds and different varieties of fruits in the How Many Seeds Do Different Types of Fruit Produce project.



Can You Harvest the Moon?

By Kim Mullin


The large Harvest Moon is a full moon different from all others in the year. It is followed each year by another "different" moon, the Hunter's Moon. Source: Wikiepedia.

Although most of us don't live on farms, harvest is something we think about in the fall. We decorate with pumpkins, gourds, and multi-colored corn when we celebrate fall holidays. And, in the United States, many of us eat a hearty meal on Thanksgiving Day to commemorate the Pilgrims' first harvest celebration in 1621.

You may have heard of the Harvest Moon, but the moon certainly isn't something we can harvest! It is actually a term to describe the full moon that is closest to the autumnal equinox. It happens at a time of year when farmers are busy harvesting crops—thus the "harvest" moon.

Phases of the Moon

The full moon is only one of the moon's phases during each lunar cycle. You may know that the moon plays a role in the ocean's high and low tides. But does the "phase" of the moon matter? In The Moon and Tides project, students can investigate the correlation between phases of the moon and the tides. Charting the tides in relation to the phases of the moon over a year lets students track the differences in tides during a full moon and a quarter moon, for example.

Do the phases of the moon also effect agriculture? Do plants need moonlight to stay healthy? Do they grow better when planted during a particular phase of the moon?

Thanksgiving is still a few days away, but the Harvest Moon for 2011 happened a few months ago! Still, these are questions students and families might consider as "harvest" comes to the table and the fall harvest season begins to ebb.



The Goo on Gluten


The above ball of dough has been kneaded. Students can explore kneading as one variable that influences the strength of the gluten in a food.

For many of us, Thanksgiving brings with it the feast mentality and ushers in a season full of special treats and baked items. From familiar pecan and pumpkin pies on Turkey day to dozens and dozens of cookies throughout December, 'tis the season of homemade goodies.

Clever bakers can turn the extra time in the kitchen into a scientific smorgasbord of experimentation. Starting with investigations into the role of baking powder, the use of egg substitutes, the secrets behind flakey crusts, and the quest for perfect chocolate chip cookies, the kitchen can be a hotbed of science (and math)!

But kitchen science doesn't have to be about dessert. Aspiring food chemists can find all kinds of recipes for exploration, even some that let them investigate the science behind human health and nutrition and current eating crazes. For example, what's up with gluten?

Holding It Together

Breads and bread- or grain-based dishes are, for some, the top of the comfort food list, and what you like best about certain foods may boil down to the presence of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. From pasta to pizza dough to giant pretzels, many familiar food items contain gluten. With its connection to wheat, this may sound like a good thing. After all, there's been a strong "whole grains" push in recent years, which accounts for more lunchboxes containing wheat or multi-grain breads. But the words "gluten-free" appear in more and more conversations, magazines, and ads these days.

There is a health condition related to gluten. Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is a genetic disorder. When people with celiac disease eat something with gluten, the small intestine reacts and can be damaged. For those with celiac disease, eating gluten-free is a necessity, not a lifestyle choice. But many people are choosing to follow gluten-free diets.

Making Connections

What's the gluten debate all about? What role does gluten play in familiar foods?

These are questions the student scientist can explore while experimenting with some favorite recipes. The Great Globs of Gluten! Which Wheat Flour Has The Most? project lets students investigate the role of gluten in foods. Be forewarned though, this project is completely hands-on in every sticky, gooey way!

After getting a better understanding of the influence of gluten, students can go on to taste-test recipes that contain varying amounts of gluten or no gluten.




"Glowing" germs let students test their hand washing techniques, evaluate areas of the hand, and investigate germ transmission! Image source: Glo Germ, used with permission.

With its emphasis on creepy, crawly, nighttime fun, Halloween is a perfect time for things that glow, from the flickering lights inside carved pumpkins to neon sticks. Last week, we took a look at the chemical reaction that happens when you snap open a glow stick—and a great chemistry project that lets students put their electronics-knowhow to use to measure the power of a glow stick's chemiluminescence.

'Glow' can be fun, but 'glow' can also be used to detect things otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Many things glow under a black or ultraviolet light, and casting a black light around a crime scene is a familiar part of a forensics investigation. A black light and a specially formulated hand "lotion" can even help students better visualize the lasting power of germs!

Healthy Hands

As the pumpkins on the stoop cave in and find their way to compost, the shifting seasons—and the 'flu shot' banners hanging in many pharmacies—bring winter colds to mind. Good hand washing is always important, and you can catch a cold at any time—not only in fall and winter months. But with Halloween over, a heightened awareness of "flu season" kicks into gear.

You may have heard that you should wash your hands for a full twenty seconds—a length of time you can approximate by singing "Happy Birthday" twice. If you wash for twenty seconds, odds are that you'll have gotten most of the germs. Right?

It depends. Are some areas of the hand harder to clean than others?

Putting It to the Test

In the Spread the Soap, Not the Germs microbiology project, students can investigate hand washing and explore questions related to length of time, parts of the hand, and even temperature of the water used for washing. Using Glo Germ, students add glow-ready germs to their hands and then wash them. After washing hands, they can use an ultraviolet light to see whether they "got" all the germs or not.

If germs always glowed, healthy hand washing habits might be a lot easier to instill!

Taking It Further

If you're interested in exploring germs—either the spread of germs or efforts to get rid of germs—you can find many ways to customize or alter the Spread the Soap, Not the Germs project. Do you use a no-wash antibacterial hand sanitizer? Put it to the Glo Germ test! Or, take a completely different approach and explore the way germs travel during typical school interactions. Get the germ train rolling by planting some Glo Germ either in a central (or much-touched) location or on someone's hands. How many students in a class will pick up the germs by the end of the day?

Wath the Glo Germ Dragonfly video with this project to see how Jordan and Sydney put Glo Germ to the test to investigate the spread of germs—and the best way to prevent germs from spreading when you sneeze!

MedImmune, a Science Buddies sponsor, helps encourage and support classroom and student awareness of flu and cold prevention.



Candy Chromatography


Brightly colored candies in your Halloween bag might be the key to your next science investigation! Image: Wikipedia.

Trick or treat! Today's the day! But what will you do with all the candy you accumulate going door to door in this year's costume? Can you really eat that much candy? After the initial excitement of dumping your bag of sweet loot in the floor, sorting it out, exclaiming over favorites, maybe making some sibling trades, and eating a few more than usual pieces of candy for the day, what will you do with all of it?

You might just find that your next science project is lurking there at the bottom of your bag!

Candy Appeal

Beyond the sugar, part of the fun of a candy is how it looks. It may taste great, but the success of a candy also depends on features like shape, color, and size. Food developers really have to think about the appearance of the candy. Will it catch your attention? If it does, you might choose it over another candy, which is what candy marketers want.

Many candies have brightly colored shells or coatings. Even if they all taste the same, a handful of a single kind of candy might contain a number of different colored exteriors. Those bright colors are made up of various dyes. Your favorite candies may melt in your mouth and not in your hand, but with a bit of science, you can figure out what dyes were used for each color.

Chromatography is a technique used to separate a mixture or solution into its individual components. So instead of seeing just the end result (the sum of all components), you can backtrack to find out what ingredients were used to make up the final solution—the color, in this case.

In the Candy Chromatography: What Makes Those Colors? food science project, you can experiment with paper chromatography to investigate the colorful exteriors of favorite candies. Once you have a bit of practice analyzing colors of a single brand of candy, try comparing two favorite coated candies. Are the reds the same?



Glow-in-the-dark Chemistry



Glow-in-the-dark items can be fun year-round, but the eerie glow of a chemiluminescent reaction like the one shown here fits right in at Halloween! Image: Wikipedia.

It wouldn't be Halloween in many houses without an assortment of light-up sticks. My kids call them "glow sticks," and though they don't last all that long, they're always fun for trick-or-treating. Really, they're fun throughout the year. Many bedtime hours are interrupted by the discovery of a forgotten canister of glow sticks, all of which simply have to be activated right then. (Why is one at a time never enough? Mom logic says that the canister could last an entire week rather than just a few minutes of snapping and a few hours of glowing. Kid logic says differently!)

When I was growing up (back in the nineteen hundreds, as my kids like to remind me), glow sticks were more a safety feature. You kept light-up sticks on hand in the house for emergencies or power outages. I remember them being thicker, brighter, typically neon green, and not intended as a toy. But, getting to break out and break up a light-up stick was always a treat—even if it meant the electricity was out!

Today, glow sticks are everywhere. Circuses. Ball games. Concerts. Amusement parks. Today's sticks appear in many colors and are thinner and less expensive. No longer are these sticks destined to be tucked away for a cool-Mom-rainy day or a true blackout. They're good for anytime. Did I mention they're thinner? And cheaper?

Tale of a Stick Gone Bad

A stash of glow sticks turned up in my house recently, which meant some bedtime procrastination, all in the name of 'glow' fun. As the tube of sticks was divvied up and activated, one of them broke during the bend-and-crack phase. The snapping of the sticks, of course, is one of the cool things about glow sticks. The sensation of breaking the inner core, breaking it again, and again, and again until the core is completely liquefied is undeniably fun.

We didn't realize the outer plastic casing had broken on one until the lights were turned off, and we realized a set of hands were dotted with a few specks of 'glow.' With the lights back on, we tried to see where the 'glow' had come from. My young detective waved the stick all over the place and shook it hard, trying to reveal the break. While the leak wasn't large, it was there. When we turned the lights off again, the rug showed a star-studded smattering of glow dots from the shaking. Bending the stick a bit more, we finally saw where the liquid was escaping, and we "drew" on a paper towel with it for a bit, the neon liquid the ink on our white paper towel—a glowing signature.

Even a broken glow stick can be fun.

But they don't last all that long.

And, really, they aren't all that bright.

Turn those statements into questions, apply a bit of electronics know-how, and you're all set for a cool and illuminating science project!

Measuring 'Glow'

The Measure Luminescence in Glow-in-the-Dark Objects chemistry Project Idea lets you put the 'glow' in glow sticks to the test. Just how bright are they? For how long? And does it make a difference if you crack them open in hot weather or in cold?

In this science project, you can find out!

What's Going On In There?

At the heart of a glow stick is a chemical reaction that starts when you twist or bend the stick. A reaction between two of the chemicals in the stick releases enough energy to "excite" the electrons in the fluorescent dye causing a fluctuation in energy levels and the release of light—the chemiluminescence and the "ahhhh" moment in the dark.

In this project, you are guided through the assembly of a light detector, a circuit that lets you measure the light produced by these sticks. The sticks themselves will be closed up in a jar. You might miss seeing the 'glow,' but you'll get a lot of satisfaction tracking the readout on the light sensor—and knowing you built the circuit yourself!

Still... make sure you stock up on some extra glow-sticks, just for fun! And, once you're done with the experiment, you can re-use the jar from the project (without the foil covering), cut open a bunch of cracked and glowing sticks, dump the contents together in the jar, and enjoy an unusual "night light" for a few hours!




Kim and her kids spotted an Argiope aurantia like the one shown here on a daily walk. Image: Wikipedia, Deisy Mendoza.

Family Exploration

Remember, your students are curious about the natural world around them. A simple walk to school or through a park can be a revelation—and a great opportunity to talk about science. But you have to slow down and look! There are spiders—and much more—to be discovered!

Related posts:

By Kim Mullin

There are about 34,000 different species of spiders in the world, and in Northern Virginia we see quite a lot of them in the fall when they are busy eating and reproducing in preparation for the coming winter. While a large spider in the house can make me jump, I like to think that spiders are benevolent creatures, eating the insects that pester us. And, their webs are a perfect addition to the landscape at Halloween!

On our walk to school each day, my children and I pass a neighbor's garden. In the growing season, it's brimming over with flowers and vegetables, and we enjoy seeing what's new. One day, however, we spied something different and unexpected—an enormous yellow and brown striped spider! We'd never seen such a large spider outside of a display case. Its markings were very distinctive, so we easily identified it at a spider website later that day. It was a black and yellow argiope, or corn spider. It turns out that this spider is harmless to humans, but it sure was doing its part to control the insect population!

After successfully identifying one spider, we took a closer look at the other spiders in our neighborhood. We discovered that light brown funnel weavers are common in our yard. They create an open-ended funnel to one side of their web and hide there until something becomes entrapped! We also discovered a wolf spider, which hunts for its prey, rather than making a web. A hunting spider was a new idea for me!

Biodiversity—Learning About the Creatures Around You

What kind of spiders do you have where you live? Or other creatures? If you are curious to learn about your local biodiversity, explore these Science Buddies Project Ideas:

  • Bug Vacuums: Sucking Up Biodiversity: Have you ever wondered what a wildlife biologist does? These scientists study and monitor the health of habitats and ecosystems, often by identifying and counting plants and animals. Take on the role of a wildlife biologist by examining the biodiversity of insects in your own backyard using a homemade bug vacuum!

  • Finding Phyla: Animals come in all shapes and sizes, each a small part of the amazing diversity of life. These differences can also help us to classify animals into different groups. Which group do you belong to? How many different types of animals can you find around your home? Do this experiment to investigate the diversity of animal life around your home.

(Science Buddies Project Ideas in Zoology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.)



Sounds Like Halloween

Family "Listening" Fun

What does Halloween sound like? Ask your kids, and they'll probably come up with a rapid list of eerie sounds they associate with Halloween. You can explore principles of the Movie Music science project with students of all ages. If you want to separate the music from the movie, you might gather instrumental music samples that each have a different "feeling" (e.g., happy, scary, hopeful). Listening to these kinds of tracks and categorizing them by sound can help all of you "tune in" to what you're hearing! Need some "scary" scores? Get your glow sticks ready, huddle under the blankets, and sample a few from the list at left. (Note: It may be best to do this during daylight hours with younger students! You can also try the same listening experiment with other, non-scary types of music.)

From public haunted houses to dark and spooky neighborhood garages opened up for a ghoulish Halloween walkthrough, a big part of the "scare" factor involves your ears. What you hear may be as important in creating a scary experience as what might jump out at you or tickle your neck. Indeed, part of what makes a haunted house perfectly eerie is the soundtrack that goes along with it—all the noises orchestrated to raise the hair on your arms, make you shiver, and leave you with little doubt that there are things unknown lurking around you.

The same is true at the movies! The music that goes along with high and low points in a movie differs based on the genre or kind of movie and on the emotion or context of the scene. Put the music from the opening of an animated film in place of the music for an intense moment in a thriller, and the effect of the scene might be totally different.

Put It to the Test

Whether you are gathering sounds for your own haunted walkthrough or hoping to keep the season alive after the jack-o-lanterns have all been tossed, the Movie Music project can turn a fascination with eerie sounds into a science exploration—one that could carry you right into the next season! What goes into the composition of a perfect thriller soundtrack? Is there a formula? What instruments are common to music used with different kinds of scenes or movies? What key? What tempo? Do the scales rise or fall?

Gather some samples from various genres of movies, and see what you can find out about the importance of the backtrack in the success of various types of films. When you tune in and really "listen" to what you are seeing on the screen, you might be surprised at how important the music is!

The following list contains links to a number of creepy, classical and movie tracks to help get you started thinking about the similarities of "scary" music, the kind of music you might hear in a suspense or mystery movie:

Happy listening!



Trick-or-Treat Science

Halloween is next week, and you may have your mind on the treats you hope to rack up going door to door in your neighborhood, candy bag open. While Halloween's entourage of ghouls, goblins, and zombies may push science from your mind, you don't have to carve too many pumpkins to turn up a treat bag's worth of great science ideas related to Halloween.

All this week we'll be spotlighting some creepy crawlies, some things that go bump in (or light up) the night, and some other Halloween fun—all with a jolt of science thrown in.

Stay tuned for a round-up of Halloween science ideas—especially projects you can get started on after you've calmed down from the haunted house, after you've counted out and sorted your candy, and once the sugar buzz drops and the reality of a science project on the horizon comes back into focus!



The Science of Too Sour


Tang, an orange-flavored, powered drink developed by William Mitchell was popularized on board NASA's Mercury flight in 1962. Experimenting with powdered drinks and levels of "sour" can offer kitchen science fun for the whole family! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Born on October 21, 1911: William A. Mitchell, a food scientist who created many classics for General Foods that might ring a bell for teachers and parents, from Pop Rocks candy to Tang. Even Cool Whip and quick-set Jell-O, a duo often used together, lead back to Mitchell.

You may or may not stock Mitchell's foods in your fridge and cabinets, but his list of food-related patents leaves little doubt that he was an innovator with an eye to the ways in which chemistry is at the heart of food science. Showing students the connection between cooking and science can be eye-opening, fun, and creative—plus, it's a great way to spend time together and to make them more independent in the kitchen even as you whet their appetite and curiosity about science.

Mouth-Puckering Fun!

One of the great things about science experiments related to food is that kitchen science can be immediately hands-on. Everyone can get involved mixing and baking and tinkering with recipes and ingredients—and then everyone can help taste-test! There are many food-related Project Ideas on the Science Buddies website that are perfect for families wanting to do a kitchen-based science activity. You could bake cookies or boil pasta together, but for many kids, "sour" may be an exciting place to start with food science!

Do your kids have a penchant for all things sour? Do you? Is a tolerance or a love of "sour" something that differs from person to person, similar to tolerance for saltiness or sweetness?

My kids might run a mile from peppermint. They might hide behind the couch at the thought of cinnamon (no Atomic Fireballs here!). But they love anything sour, and today's drugstore candy shelves never fail to offer up the goods. A current favorite (though Mom- and dentist-disapproved) is a lollipop that also has a sour liquid you squeeze directly on your tongue. It's the kind of makes-you-wiggle-all-over super sour they love. But is it something only a kid would love?

It's a question worth asking, and the Do You Have the Willpower to Taste Something Sour? project gives you a way to put the question to the test in your own kitchen. This project, geared toward early grades, is great for a classroom experiment, or families can modify the project (using fewer volunteers) to make it a fun activity for a hot afternoon, a playdate, or an engaging over-the-weekend experiment. As you and your students mix up batches of lemonade with varying levels of "sour," you'll all have fun—and learn something about human biology and food science!

(Science Buddies Project Ideas in Health and Human Biology are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation. To view other parent- and family-focused science resources and content, visit our Parent Resources section.)




Dr. Mohamed Babu, India, turned thirsty garden ants into a cool series of photos and an interesting hands-on look at color sense and insects.

You've heard of being caught red-handed? The brightly colored abdomens of the bugs in a series of photos taken by Dr. Mohamed Babu (Mysore, India) leave little doubt as to which colors of sugared water the translucent-bellied ants in his garden had been sipping. Reportedly, his wife noticed that the ants turned white when they sucked up some spilled milk, which gave him the idea for this colorful garden science experiment—and photo opportunity.

The images of the 'technicolor' ants are striking, but there's plenty of room here for further student exploration! The photos Dr. Babu took, and his observations as to which colors the ants clearly preferred, leave a colorful trail for student research into color-preference among animals and insects.

Color Sense: Aesthetics or Survival?

In the wild, 'color' provides a lot of information. Some colors are perceived to indicate something safe. Other colors signal danger or poison. Some species, in fact, have certain colorful exteriors that warn others away: don't eat that brightly colored frog, it is poisonous! And when a blue-tongued skink sticks out its tongue, predators perceive "danger" and run away! (Keep in mind that most animals and insects don't see color the same way humans do, but they still process "color" information.)

Making Connections

Students intrigued by the way the ants' bodies visibly soaked up the color in Dr. Babu's photos, might experiment with local ants to see if they have similarly translucent body parts. (Or try a variety of "clear" mite.) Or, as part of a controlled exploration, students might replicate the process Dr. Babu used to see if local ants demonstrate similar color preference. His ants, for example, notably preferred two of the four colors of sugared water he made available.

Other science projects that could be explored for a color-sense science project include:

  • Do Milkweed Bugs Show a Color Preference for Egg-Laying Sites?: The brightly colored exterior of a milkweed bug may warn predators that it "tastes" bad because of the toxic sap it slurps from milkweed plants. In this project, students explore whether or not the color of the milkweed plant matters to the bugs when they select a site for egg-laying.
  • How Sweet It Is! Explore the Roles of Color and Sugar Content in Hummingbirds' Food Preferences: If you feed hummingbirds, or know someone who does, you probably know that there is a specific color commonly used for kitchen-brewed, sugary hummingbird food. Is the color alone enough to make a hummingbird choose one solution over another? In this project, students ask, "what is more important... the color of the solution or the amount of sugar it contains?"
  • Perfect Plating: Which Food Presentation Technique is Best?*: Humans, too, evaluate food based on color. We know, for example, that plates of food that contain green or orange are likely to be more nutrient-packed than plates of food that are all white. But even beyond our knowledge of vitamins, we may "respond" to foods based on color. This cooking and food science project encourages exploration of how "presentation" affects response to food. While this project looks at what might be considered "serious" cooking, if you are around small children, you might ask... does changing the color of the food change the chance that they'll eat it?

A 'Closer' Look
If colored ants don't give you the creepy crawlies, you might enjoy seeing this wonderful series of seriously zoomed-in insect photos by Stephen Gschmeissner!

(Science Buddies Project Ideas in the area of zoology are sponsored by Medtronic Foundation.)



Form and Function: A LEGO Camera


carynorton-legotronfinal_0001.jpg Legotron camera, by photographer Cary Norton. Image used with permission, courtesy of Cary Norton.

Photographers with an engineering streak are always looking for creative ways get an image from an unexpected source. Sometimes invention starts with a big (and heavy) box! Other times, innovation comes in a smaller format, the challenge for a reduced (or upcycled) footprint being part of the novelty and the fun. Turning empty mint tins into pinhole cameras, for example, is an irresistible DIY project for some — and one that can turn out surprisingly good, and characteristically dreamy, pinhole-style photos!

When it comes to point and click, the intersection between art, design, form, functionality, and quality provides a framework for thinking both outside the box and "about" the box, and starting with unexpected materials — or "kid" materials — can yield exciting results and new perspective. An unexpected LEGO camera built by professional photographer Cary Norton has garnered an overwhelming thumbs up recently for its novel construction. He constructed the housing for his Legotron 4x5, a working, large-format, manually-focusable camera out of the classic, colorful building bricks.

If you've ever made a basic square house or "parking garage" from LEGO bricks, you've got the basic shape, but Norton's camera housing slides in and out to focus and integrates a 127mm ƒ4.7 lens. The Legotron took many months to create, from initial idea to the working model. Norton has posted technical specs on the process and implementation on his blog, and the sample photos are impressive!

Making Connections

Reading Norton's blog notes suggests many possible ways you might branch out and further his exploration of LEGO camera modeling to create your own fully-functioning camera. As you consider what's possible, the following science projects can help you learn more about camera construction:



It's hard to believe that a year ago I wasn't yet wise to the squawking, oinking, glass-shattering, wood-breaking, and highly addictive cacophony of Angry Birds. Slingshot a little bird through the air to knock down a structure that seems like a house-of-cards rendition of the Three Little Pigs? When it comes right down to it, that's exactly what you've got... a modernized and mobilized twist on the tried and true fairy tale story of the pigs who each tried a different building material to try and safeguard their house. In the Angry Birds twist on the classic, the pigs have stolen the eggs from the birds and are hiding in structures made of glass (ice?), stone, and wood. There is no big bad wolf in this version, but there are a bunch of attitude-laden and cleverly-endowed birds standing in line for a chance to be hurled into the pig-built structures. Each type of bird has a certain skill or special ability. Some have extra mass. Some have explosive personalities. Some can accelerate to hurdle with increased force into the target structure. But even a big blue boomerang bird is only as effective as the finger doing the tapping. And the little blue birds that split into three and rain down, doing damage especially to glass—those, too, require an understanding of starting angle and knowing "when" to tap to create a perfect and effective split.

When you strip away all the squawking, you've got a game of angles and trajectories, mass and velocity, geometry and physics.

Seeing with Fresh Eyes

I'm probably not the only parent who has justified a few extra rounds of Angry Birds with the half-formed thought that there's science involved in even subconsciously calculating the appropriate angle and pullback strength for launching the next bird. Determining the moment to release the special effect only adds to the scientific fun. And when you're left with just one or two pigs to target, precision becomes the name of the game.

In my house, we take turns playing the angles, and we've beaten every new set of levels as they came down the pipe, racking up golden eggs and pineapples and stars, but I have to admit, not once did we really analyze or question the gravity of the gamescape. At the same time, we have mastered the gravity. We know how to approximate our angles based on the gameplay, based on what we have learned will happen in the space, in the world of Angry Birds. We have internalized the parameters of the gameplay, even if we didn't stop to realize that those parameters are entirely fictional, that they don't map to the same gravitational forces of Earth. Pull out a rubber band, tuck a small toy in place, and fling it through your living room, and it immediately becomes clear that there's something different about the way these attitude-laden birds fly.

Making it Real

As it turns out, Angry Birds offers an interesting platform on which to base discussions of physics and laws of motion. As reported by Wired in response to an article in eSchool News, physics teachers are flocking to the game as a way to hook students by turning something fun, familiar, and "cool" into something that can transform textbook principles into hands-on (or fingers-on) learning.

According to the eSchool News article, teachers like John Burk, a physics teacher in Atlanta, GA, are working with students to "figure out" the laws that govern the gamescape of Angry Birds. What are the laws of physics that dominate this world? How does the gravity in Angry Birds, for instance, differ from our own? Why does it differ? How would the game change if the gravity was similar to our own? These are all questions that can be asked—and are being asked in innovative classrooms where student interests can be leveraged and ricocheted and catapulted into something spectacularly fun and educational—all in the name of science.

Making Connections

For students interested in the science behind the angles, there are a number of Science Buddies Project Ideas that offer additional testing ground, background material, and suggestions for experimentation with principles of angle, trajectory, velocity, and energy. These projects may be exciting on their own or might be used as an overlay onto a novel investigation into the physics of popular gaming worlds. With projects from physics, aerodynamics, mechanical engineering, and even sports science, there are many related "angles" and paths to explore. Here are a few to get you started:



Inspired by Neil Armstrong

Born on August 5, 1930: Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.


The story of Neil Armstrong's historic Apollo 11 mission captivates and inspires many young moon watchers. With the right science projects, they can turn their enthusiasm into an exciting hands-on astronomy project! Image: Wikipedia.

In 1966, Armstrong was part of the NASA Gemini 8 mission. Gemini 8 was his first spaceflight, followed in 1969 by the historical Apollo 11 moon landing mission, during which he and Buzz Aldrin explored the surface of the moon.

Making Connections

Armstrong's career didn't start out in space or even with sights set on the moon, but he was in the air as a naval aviator prior to becoming an astronaut in 1962. Students interested in space exploration—or fascinated by all things lunar—may enjoy these hands-on Science Buddies Project Ideas:

  • Craters and Meteorites: This project allows students of all ages to explore the relationship between the size of a meteorite and the resulting crater. The difference in "crater" size when you drop a marble and an orange, for example, is pretty dramatic!
  • HAMing It Up with the Astronauts*: Students with a passion for space, or those interested in amateur radio, may love the challenge of making radio contact with the International Space Station (ISS). For those looking skyward, making informal contact can be an adventure with its own version of a pirate's treasure map--finding the X that marks the spot for a chance communication is part of the fun!
  • Lunar Crater Counting*: By analyzing historical photos and a lunar atlas, students can explore the topography of the moon from afar, learning more about the craters that dimple the surface of the moon and making hypotheses about the formation of those craters.
  • Astronomer: Students can learn more about the astronomer career path, one way to focus on the skies and what is and might be out there!

For a sweet mental boost, a pack of freeze-dried space ice creamspace ice cream might be a justifiable mid-experiment snack! (Actually... students might find a project in that, too!)

(Science Buddies' Project Ideas and resources in the area of Astronomy are sponsored Northrop Grumman Foundation)



The Artful Side of Bacteria

It's a strange reality when you realize that bacteria can be beautiful.
One Science Buddies' Science Mom finds art at the Exploratorium.

The photo above shows a portion of one of the two Winogradsky bacterial panels at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, we moved from a quick stop at Crissy Fields (and an unplanned ocean dunk for one) across the street to the Exploratorium for a few hours of mesmerizing hands-on science exploration. Our small ad-hoc group of seven to eleven year olds found plenty of tactile demonstrations that generated the expected "oohs and aahs." As I wandered around, following the lead of the youngest science explorer—who was stopping at every station—I, too, got excited by the range of projects and the power and exhilaration that letting kids actively and informally "do it" brings.

I snapped many phone photos that afternoon, and as I admired different displays and activities, a number of Science Buddies Project Ideas came to mind that I knew could extend the hands-on experience to further discussion and exploration either in the classroom or at home.

Unexpected Wall Art

One exhibit that really fascinated me was a set of "pictures" hanging on the wall. I am always on the lookout for ways in which art and science intersect, and that Science Buddies stresses and encourages students to explore science as it relates to hobbies and areas of personal interest is an approach I really like. So when I rounded a corner and saw a wall of abstract art—a display of bacteria and light—I was immediately captivated.

The art itself occupied two large, fully-enclosed, wall-mounted Winogradsky Panels, each filled with bacteria-laden mud that had taken on impressionistic shapes in a spectrum of colors, including reds, greens, and golds. From afar, you see a piece of "art"—not millions of bacterial organisms. In reality, this display is a version of a Winogradsky Column, an experiment which enables students to observe and investigate the growth of a microbial community and the influence of oxygen and light.

Studying the super-sized Winogradsky Panel exhibit at the Exploratorium, observers are immediately able to see role of light on the microbes. There are sections of the display where a small panel has been used to block the light, and when you lift that panel, you find that the bacteria has not grown underneath in the dark. That the display also spotlights the natural "beauty" of bacteria is possibly an unintentional off-shoot—and beauty if in the eye of the beholder—but the display looks much like something that might hang on a gallery wall.

Making Connections

For students, the principles that lie within the layers of a Winogradsky Column are ones that can shed new light—and new color—on an understanding of microbes, biosystems, and photosynthetic bacteria. The following Science Buddies Project Ideas can get you started:

  • Students bent on exploring bacteria can learn more about communities and the interconnectedness of microbial organisms by building a mini biosphere that acts as a Winogradsky Column in the Growing a Soil Menagerie geology project. Using these biospheres, students can observe how various agents balance or disrupt microbial communities.
  • Students intrigued by the "color" of mud panel (or column) "art" can learn more about the characteristics of bacterial colonies, and the ways in which chromogenesis (or color) can be used as a way to characterize and distinguish between bacterium, in the Science Buddies's guide to Interpreting Plates.
  • Students can assess biodiversity by analyzing plates and categorizing microbes that form in different locations in the Germ Invasion microbiology project.
  • Students interested in biotechnology can explore the "color" of bacteria from a completely different angle in Bacterial Transformation Efficiency.

(Science Buddies resources in the Geology Interest Area are sponsored by Chevron.)



Blow: From Marshmallows to Microbes

The parts of a woodwind instrument, like the clarinet reed and mouthpiece shown above, could turn the band into a bacterial hotspot! Photo: James Eaton-Lee Njan Wikipedia.

At Maker Faire a few weeks ago, I wandered with my kids through a maze of techno-geeky wonderment. We started our day-long exploration of things that lie at the intersection of science, art, and DIY with a roundup of scuttling, skittering, line-following, light-seeking bots. They might not be useful around the house, but there was plenty of simple robotics wow-factor to go around. Solar-powered, light- or color-sensing, motion-detecting... there were a bevy of bots to explore—and numerous opportunities to remind my young inventors, "See, you could program your Mindstorms® to do something like that."

Zigzagging around a corner, we ended up in front of the Howtoons booth. If you've poked around the Science Buddies directory of Project Ideas, you might have run into the Do Submarines Need Fins? project from the Aerodynamics & Hydrodynamics area. The project is based on Howtoons' illustrated Soda Bottle Sub engineering project. I am a big fan of the graphic novel format (yep, adults read them, too), and it's great to see the quality (and quantity!) comic-style work HowToons is doing illustrating science projects.

As we stood there looking at the samples on their table, the guy behind the table took a split-second look at my 7-year-old and pulled out a shiny white beauty of a PVC-pipe-based marshmallow shooter.

Image: Howtoons

The marshmallow shooter is a classic HowToons illustrated design project, and he was quick to show off the admirable distance he could launch a marshmallow into the crowd (a belated "oops" to the lady in blue fifty yards or so away!). My little guy, saucer-eyed at the thought of beaning tons of unsuspecting people with squishy white pellets, and a veteran in the marshmallow shooter world, was quick to ask, "Can I try it?"

He couldn't try it, of course, because to use a marshmallow shooter, you have to put your mouth to one open end of the tubing and blow, the air making a rapid circuit through the pipes to propel the marshmallow out the other open end. Right... it was covered in mouth germs and filled with droplets of spit. Bottom line: marshmallow shooters should not be shared.

The HowToons guy explained that. (Maker Faire folks get plenty of practice explaining things to a curious but sometimes unknowing or young crowd!) I reinforced the germ-laded explanation. And we moved along.

With or without the chance to blow marshmallows, there was plenty to see! And the chance to push buttons and send gigantic fireballs shooting out of the top of a variety of devices once outside was enough to divert even a seven-year-old.

Making Connections

A few days after Maker Faire, I spotted a story at ScienceNews that brought the marshmallow shooter moment to mind: "Don't share that clarinet: Bacteria can linger on woodwind instruments for days." Hinging on recent findings from a team of microbiologists at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, the story notes that microbes linger longer on certain types of instruments than others. In particular, instruments that use a reed (a type of cane) harbor bacteria longer than instruments made of metal.

Another recent report in Science Daily also cites the lasting power of bacteria on instruments, both woodwind and brass. A study of 13 instruments that hadn't been played in at least a week turned up a whopping 422 kinds of bacteria.

While similar, the two reports seem to differ in terms of the "importance" of knowing that the band can be a microbial hotspot, and the findings do not conclusively indicate that sharing a woodwind contributes to the spread of germs between players. Even so, I'm figuring that sharing marshmallow shooters might be a safer bet!

Making it Your Own

Whether you're in the band or just want to know your risk factor with PVC piping, exploring the lifespan of microbes on instruments — or other blow-based apparatuses — is something that could be worthy of a DIY science project. Our Microbiology Techniques & Tips can help as you think about designing your own experimental procedure.

  • Curious about the difference between the lifespan of bacteria on reed-based instruments compared to metal ones? It may have something to do with the oligodynamic effect. You can learn more about the toxic effect of certain metals on bacteria in the Is the Gold in My Jewelry Real? project.
  • Got a novel idea for helping quickly, easily, and reliably disinfect instruments? Take a look at the Engineering Design Guide and get started developing and testing your solution! (See here for a list of standard approaches to cleaning instruments.)
  • Wondering if you can build a bot or program your LEGO® Mindstorms to use marshmallows? Get building with the Go, Gadget, Go! Building Robots with LEGO® Mindstorms® project. How far can your bot throw?

We want to see what you come up with!



Hard-Boiled Science

Hard-boiling and dyeing eggs offers a number of avenues for families to explore both food science and chemistry. Forgoing boxed dye tablets, the eggs shown above were dyed using natural ingredients like turmeric and beets. Photo: Whiteley Creek, used with permission.

We hard-boiled and dyed eggs over the weekend, and the process opened up unexpectedly fertile ground for scientific exploration in my house. A simple, early-morning Google search clued me in to the fact that for at least a decade, I've been boiling my eggs incorrectly. Not only that, but according to my quick from-the-chair research, it seems that all my life I've been unwittingly eating overcooked hard-boiled eggs. I thought that sickly green layer to the yolk was simply... a fact of a hard-boiled egg. It's not! And the smell? Are you familiar with the sulfur-smell that often accompanies the hard-boiling process (or your Easter morning memories)? Only if you are also a victim of what may very well be the over-cooked, hard-boiled egg syndrome.

Newly aware of the fact that hard-boiled egg yolks should have beautiful sunshine-yellow-orange insides, I scanned a few online sites only to realize that there are dozens and dozens (to the power of Google) of supposedly "tried-and-true" ways to hard-boil the perfect egg. Few of them agree on the specifics, but they all agree that the yucky green color is not the goal.

Weekend Kitchen Science

I tend to be a bit over-cautious about cooking times, and I don't have any reason to willingly eat undercooked eggs, so I was a bit unsure about hard-boiling for considerably "less" time than I've done in the past. (It has since been pointed out to me that when frying eggs... I do leave the yellows slightly runny, so there's no logical reason to defend over-hard-boiling.) Given my food-bacteria-paranoia, and faced with scores of varying approaches, I decided we would try two different hard-boiling methods... and see how each turned out.

Obviously, we had a science experiment in the making! Later, when we dyed eggs, my 10-year-old was quick to understand that in order to evaluate the results, we needed to keep track of which eggs were which, so we assigned one batch of eggs to the orange, red, pink tubs and the other batch of eggs to the blue, turquoise, green, and purple tubs.

Our exploration didn't end there, however. When it comes to raising science questions worthy of Saturday-afternoon family exploration, we were on a roll. When you dye eggs, you're supposed to add vinegar to the mix in order to maximize the intensity of the dye. The pH of the vinegar affects the binding of the dye, but most instructions call specifically for white vinegar. As things often go in my house, my initial search of the lazy Susan cabinet (you know, the one that spins around and has cans stacked two or three high and a dozen or so buried inches back) didn't turn up white vinegar. What I did turn up was two bottles of apple cider vinegar, a salad dressing favorite. Frustrated that I couldn't find plain ol' vinegar, but aware that two kids were waiting to dye the requisite eggs—and trusting that I had what it took to make the process work—it seemed we'd have to give it a try.

Given that changing the pH of the water is the point of adding vinegar to the dye solution, apple cider vinegar should work, but would it work? Would the color of apple cider vinegar change the color of the dyes? Would the "sweetness" of the vinegar change the effectiveness? Did we really need yet another science experiment in the same day?

Luckily, I had two sets of dye tablets, and so we started out by prepping a set of dye baths for all colors using apple cider vinegar. We waited for the tablets to dissolve. We added the water. We submerged the eggs. A few minutes later, the eggs seemed to be taking on no color at all. It seemed like the apple cider vinegar not only wasn't working... it almost seemed to be interfering with the process. With a bit more searching, voila, I turned up a bottle of white vinegar, and we started again. I prepped a single new dye bath with vinegar, and we watched the reaction as the white vinegar began dissolving the dye tablet. There was pronounced fizzing and bubbling... which we had not observed with the apple cider vinegar.

With a small quantity of household Easter eggs at stake, I made a decision... scrap the apple cider vinegar. I dumped all the initial baths, rinsed the little plastic, egg-shaped tubs, and made new dye baths with white vinegar. Had we truly been going to document our results, we'd have run our trials side by side. But we didn't have that many hard-boiled eggs ready and waiting!

In the end, we had a handful of dyed eggs. They weren't Martha Stewart-worthy, and even with white vinegar, we didn't get the dye intensity we'd hoped for. It's something we'll explore again though! And next year, maybe we'll try more natural dyes, like the ones you can achieve using turmeric powder, beets, cabbage, and other natural plant-based ingredients. (I wish I'd seen these eggs earlier!)

In reality, the apple cider vinegar should have worked. Science Buddies staff scientist, Sandra Slutz confirmed for me Monday morning that using it in place of white vinegar should have been fine. "Making the water more acidic is what matters for increasing the dye uptake," she told me. I was maybe too quick to give up. If we'd had pH strips on hand, we could have furthered our informal study by comparing the pH level of the two vinegars. All things considered, it sounds like our dye experience is a good starting place for a longer, more controlled experiment.

The Proof is in the Yolk

And how did the hard-boiling turn out? We didn't know until the next day when we cracked and peeled eggs from each "method." Was there a difference? You bet! We had one set that sported the well-known sickly green ring. And we had one set with sunny, yellow-orange yolks. We noticed something else, however... the sunny ones were much, much harder to peel cleanly. (Okay, they were impossible to peel cleanly. Do you have a guess as to why? Have a hypothesis? Any thoughts on what you'd need to do to ensure your testing is controlled?) There's definitely room for some further exploration of hard-boiling and of the difference the "age" of an egg makes on the end result. And obviously there's room for a more formal experimental process! But we were excited about what we did—and about how things turned out.

Making Connections

With the egg hunt in my house over (and, ironically, we hunt plastic eggs—we dye eggs out of a sense of "you're-supposed-to" tradition), I poked around on the Science Buddies website today to see if we had a project that would have given me the golden key to perfect hard-boiling. What I discovered is that we have a project that deals with soft-boiling. So if you're interested in eggs... you might just find an egg-citing project in Egg-cellently Cooked Eggs: The Process of Soft-Boiling an Egg. Or... create your own variation with hard-boiled eggs. Or... tackle the dyeing process and see what it takes to get dazzlingly bright dyed eggs!

Something else came to mind, as I watched the dye tablets react with the vinegar in our little plastic containers. The dispersion of the color was immediately clear, and you could watch the tablet as it fizzled down, smaller and smaller until it disappeared. As I watched, I thought about a set of projects on the Science Buddies site that create a pretty amazing visual display of chemistry... a swirling, color-changing display, in fact. The projects are a duo involving the Briggs-Rauscher (BR) reaction:

What's really interesting about these projects is that the reaction is what is called an "oscillating" reaction. It doesn't simply go from A to B and then stop, as many reactions do.

From the project:

Most chemical reactions ... move in one direction, from reactants (starting chemicals) to products. In this chemistry science project, you will experiment with a rare and exotic reaction that oscillates. The reaction products appear and disappear for a number of cycles. Because the products are colored, the solution appears alternately blue, then yellow, then clear.

There's definitely room in this project for a "wow that's cool" reaction from a class or a group gathered for an informal science experiment!

[Science Buddies encourages adventures in family science, even when they don't turn out as expected! For tips and suggestions on making more room for science exploration and discussion at home, check out our Science Mom's video appearances. And be sure to browse our list of science projects perfect for the weekend.]



Earth Day: Turn Over a New Log

"Beetle collection at the Melbourne Museum, Australia," Wikipedia In celebration of Earth day, take a colorful entomological look at biodiversity by browsing Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley.

When it comes to things that creep, crawl, or fly, I'm of the squeamish variety, and I well remember a high school science class assignment that involved finding and mounting fifty different insects. My "ick" is seemingly instinctive, but I also remember being enchanted by variations of beetles and the coloration and patterning in them and other hard-shell insects. As an adult, I tend to stick with the "ick", but spend an hour outdoors with a group of elementary school students, and it is hard to remain unmoved by their natural curiosity and fearlessness, by their wide-eyed embrace of the world around them, of things that lurk in corners and under logs, rocks, or piles of leaves. I may not embrace the slime left by a snail in one's palm, but that snails appear all along the hedges in the morning dew or after the rain... is worth noting. The way isopods navigate a hodgepodge obstacle course of blocks and pencils... is cause for excitement. Ladybugs, worms, spiders, ant colonies, stick bugs, beetles, butterflies... there's a lot to explore at ground-level.

In thinking about Earth Day this year, I thought about a profile of Dr. Edward O. Wilson (by James Gorman) that I read in New York Times Science. The piece begins with a description of Wilson, an entomologist and zoologist, on his hands and knees scrambling through the leaves near historic Walden Pond. The essay goes on to depict Wilson as brimming with an irrepressible zest for what Gorman terms the "micro wilderness"— the "wilderness" that can be found when one stoops down and really looks at what's happening on the ground.

There is an old saying that you are never more than a few feet from a spider, whether you see glistening woven signs of them bridging the corners of a windowsill or door jamb or not. For Wilson, the bio-diversity that can be observed a few centimeters below the ground is an endless source of wonder, and the number of creatures in even a square foot of wilderness can tally in the tens of thousands.

A Big-Screen Example

The essay on Wilson came to mind recently when I watched Avatar. I was the only one in my house that hadn't seen it, and I finally watched it, in part, because of an essay I read by another New York Times Science science writer, Carol Yoon. In "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream," Yoon practically swoons over Avatar and the intensely-colored, very blue, lush, and "flowing" world of Pandora. Her review of the blockbuster hit is from the perspective of a scientist, maybe one that has often been cynical of big-screen representations of science and scientists. According to Yoon, Avatar got it right.

"When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: "Yes! That's exactly what it's like!"

Watching the movie, it is almost impossible not to catch one's breath at the natural world that's been enlarged, given shape, color, luminosity, and a clearly visualized interconnectedness with both the indigenous Na'vi people and other flora and fauna. There are many, many "that's almost like x" or "that reminds me of" moments as you watch the characters traverse and interact with Pandora, and every viewer probably has a different favorite. From plants that curl up at touch to jellyfish-like organisms to the bioluminescence of the ground when it's walked across, Pandora is visually captivating. The quiet moments of natural exploration and revelation in the movie are mesmerizing. And, if Yoon is right, it's exactly the kind of pop culture representation that can both satisfy scientists and make a general viewing audience stop and think.

Earth Day, Once More

For someone who self-describes as squeamish, maybe it's unusual how profound I found the essay on Wilson. Similarly, I love Yoon's giddy response to Avatar, and her elucidation of all the ways in which, for her, Avatar's Pandora does a wonderful job taking what we know and turning it into something mystical and compelling.

Inspired by their stories, I wonder if the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day might be to trek out into the woods, turn over a log, and really look to see the "wildlife" in motion. That there would almost certainly be birds to hear and maybe glimpse would be a bonus. And if you're lucky enough to spot a frog or a salamander, great. Take a notebook, write down what you see, make a quick sketch or two, and enjoy time spent appreciating, observing, and learning about the Earth right under your feet and maybe just beyond the mainstream road in your neighborhood.

A Focused Approach

The following projects can help you and your students turn renewed awareness and appreciation of what's underfoot into a stepping stone for scientific exploration:

Making Connections

For other ideas on talking about biodiversity with students, ones old enough to watch Avatar, check the "Nature's Call: Drawing Inspiration From 'Avatar' to Study and Create Organisms" teacher's guide from NYT's The Learning Network.



Watch Science Mom on Mom's Homeroom

sciencemom-lever2.jpgCourtney Corda, AKA "Science Mom," appeared in a video segment (Episode 6) of Mom's Homeroom this week with a roundup of great tips for parents whose students are doing science projects or preparing for the school science fair.

Walking a group of students through the Give It a Lift with a Lever physics project, Courtney explains that there are six kinds of "simple machines," the lever being one of them. The project, geared for grades 3-6, guides students through the building of a tabletop lever constructed from familiar household objects: a ruler, a ballpoint pen, and a bar of soap.

With the device hooked to the edge of a counter, Courtney explains concepts like "load end," "effort end," and "fulcrum" as the students test the lever by "lifting" objects like pennies or marbles. With the "simple machine" in place, students can explore what happens when changes are made to the design. What happens to the amount of effort required to "lift" something when the length of the effort arm is changed?

Empowering Your Students

For parents, Courtney offers the following advice:

  • Let students choose their own topics. Our Topic Selection Wizard can help students locate exciting projects that they might enjoy doing. Forcing a topic can be a big mistake!

  • Let them do the work. Rather than making suggestions that tell them "what" to do next, ask open-ended questions that encourage your students to problem solve and to apply what they're learning and observing to the task at hand.

  • Help them stay on track. Science projects often involve many steps, and the classroom assignment may have multiple components, including background research, a report, the experiment itself, a conclusion, and the sharing of results and data. Parents can help students by setting up milestones that will keep them focused and help them sequentially work through all steps of the science project experience.

Keeping Perspective

In the end, reminds Courtney, a science experience should be fun, positive, educational, and empowering. It doesn't matter if the original hypothesis is proven true or not. What matters is the time spent actively exploring the science at hand—and the ability to communicate what was learned from the experiment or project.

A Site for Moms

In its 3rd year of production, Mom's Homeroom, sponsored by MSN and Frosted Mini-Wheats®, is a comprehensive online destination for moms looking for information to help them support their children's academic success and achievement. Led by a diverse group of moms—Victoria, Michelle, Jillian, and Alba—the Mom's Homeroom site contains video "episodes," articles and usable resources (like quizzes and printables), and blogs all designed to make it easier for moms to connect with "actionable, thought-provoking and entertaining insights on a broad range of top-of-mind educational topics."

To learn more about Courtney and to watch other video segments from our Science Mom, visit the Science Mom section of the Science Buddies website.



Summer Science Programs

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blog-scicamp-globe.jpgRoller coasters? Pinball machine design? Model planes? Stop motion animation? Renewable energy? "Myth-busting" (putting those science stories to the test)? Video game programming? Kite flying? Greenhouse gardening? Cooking? Photography? Medicine? Animal care? Biochemistry? Architecture? Earthquake detection? Wind power? Geo-sciences? Aqueduct and river ways engineering? Robotics? Invisible ink and spies-like-us skills?

When it comes to summer science, that's just the tip of the school's-out-let-the-hands-on-learning-begin iceberg!

Whatever field you can think of... whatever your areas of interest... there's probably a summer science camp or program that can let you really immerse yourself—and learn important science at the same time! You'll have fun with hands-on activities, exploration, and creative building or experimentation. But you'll also be learning, which is good for you and may be the icing on the cake when it comes to parents choosing enriching summer programs.

The Parent Perspective

When students come home from camp bubbling with facts about Newton's laws, gravity, kinetic and potential energy, lift and drag, torque, pulleys, and the pH scale... you know they're soaking up facts about the way the world works. But you also know they probably haven't been sitting at a desk, heads bent over a textbook. They're excited! They're brimming! And they might have tangible creations in tow that demonstrate what they've learned.

It's true. Summer camps provide a unique opportunity to teach a specialized curriculum in completely out-of-the-box ways. Summer science can and should be fun, and most summer programs work hard to create captivating and innovative science experiences that let students learn by doing. No testing required!

Programs vary, and themes often change week to week or year to year, so you'll want to spend some time exploring camps in your area. Our Summer Science Camp Resource is designed to help you learn more about what science programs offer—and to help you find great summer science opportunities where you live.

Take a look!

The Science Buddies Summer Science Camp resource is sponsored by a generous grant from the Motorola Foundation.

Motorola Foundation logo



[Editorial Note: Amy, whose blog entry appears below, is one of several "Science Moms" at Science Buddies!]


Image source: screenshot from video trailer of The Case of the Terrible T. rex.

We love our math and our science and our computers in our house, and when we see a description of a coin launcher made from a toilet paper roll and a piece of leftover balloon, it sticks in our heads until we try it. (Of course, concerned about the relative weight of a coin flying through the air at slingshot speed, I did advocate the launcher be tried with small LEGO bricks instead to minimize breakage and injury!) Risk of projectile damage aside, we enjoy our gadgets and a healthy number of "let's-see-how-or-if-it-works" moments, but we also love to read. Books, books, and more books line our shelves, spill out over the sides of buckets and baskets, peek out from under the seats in the car, and weigh down our bags when we travel.

My boys are three years apart, and so we've cycled through a few series entirely, twice. Some of those are elementary cult classics in their own rite. The A to Z Mysteries and The Magic Tree House series are two series that we read, start to finish, and then again. Other series have had transient roles in our out-loud reading. Geronimo Stilton, Cam Jansen, Horrible Harry, Jigsaw Jones.... We've read them.

If you're noticing a trend toward mysteries, you're right. Statistically, it's been the most popular read-aloud genre in our house this year. That doesn't mean we haven't read scads of other things. We have. But a great mystery series... can be golden, and I've spent a lot of library trips scouring the shelves looking for another series that will catch first-grade attention, inspire, excite, and tide us through another set of weeks of bedtime reading.

A Lucky Find!

When I stumbled over a Doyle and Fossey, Science Detectives book by Michelle Torrey, I was thrilled to find another "mystery"-styled series that, like Jigsaw Jones and Cam Jansen, features two students (one male and one female) who have hung up their shingle as detectives. As soon as I started, I realized there is something special about these—especially from the science angle and for a Science Mom!

Psst! Head for the Lab (and then Outdoors)
A fun scientific spin on the classic baking soda and vinegar explosion is all wrapped up and ready for lift-off in the Science Buddies Rocketologyproject idea.
The first story I read told the tale of a fellow classmate (not the most likable girl) who calls for help because, basically, she's stuck in a laundry chute where she fell trying to grab her phone as it fell in. After checking things out on the scene, Doyle and Fossey head back to their "lab," do a bunch of research, draw up some diagrams, form their hypothesis, put together a plan, and then head back to, basically, create a small baking-soda-and-vinegar-inspired explosion to blast her free. Case solved, scientific explanation offered by the detectives, payment made in full (though not in money), and they are on to the next case. (Each book contains several different cases to solve.)

I've read a number of the Doyle and Fossey Science Detectives lineup since, and I love that the stories themselves are full of science and serious kids who do their best thinking in their lab, apply science to every problem, and take their decaf coffee black (no hot chocolate, thanks). Doyle's got wild, stand-up hair that is the color of cinnamon toast, and he's often found monitoring his own experiments and recording his observations in his lab notebook. Nell Fossey, on the other hand, is a naturalist, with a jungle-esque bedroom full of aquariums, terrariums, and cages. To add to their innate interest in scientific investigation, the duo is lucky to have parents with skills and jobs that fit perfectly into supporting and encouraging their young detectives, and they have an amazing reference book that always has the perfect chapter to help guide their scientific problem-solving when they are faced with a new case.

In the Name of Hands-On Exploration

In the back of each book, there are tips and brief hands-on experiments that give students and families a bit more information about the science that played a part in the cases—and a way to test the concepts in an age-appropriate way. Each "Activities and Experiments for Super-Scientists" back-section is in the neighborhood of 20 pages, and some of the basic info appears in each volume. In addition to fun activities, these pages cover things like the importance of a lab notebook (and how to use one), the scientific method, and hypotheses. All of these science "staples" are things you see Doyle and Fossey use and do—and they are cool doing it! The projects themselves (which tie in with the stories in each book) offer an easy starting point for families to begin talking with elementary students about principles of science. For example, one volume contains a mystery that centers upon static electricity (and a poor, hungry cat). In the back of the book, there is a related "shocking" activity.

I like the short projects lend themselves nicely to deeper exploration through the Project Ideas at Science Buddies. Parents interested in doing hands-on science projects with their students will find a handy list of projects that use readily-available materials in the Parents section of the Science Buddies website.

(Note: The Doyle and Fossey books are marketed for grades 3-5.)



Perseids meteor from 2007
A Perseid meteor striking in 2007. Source: Wikipedia, Mila Zinkova

I read about the Perseid meteor shower in the newspaper the morning of August 12—the day the annual meteor shower was predicted to peak. The Science Mom in me flagged the event, but even so, I thought to myself, "I'm not sure I want the kids to miss their bedtime again."

Over the summer, it is so easy to not enforce bedtimes, and I have lately fallen into the sliding bedtime trap, the kids growing crankier by the day as they get less and less sleep. (Possible science experiment: is it my imagination or is it true that most kids wake up at pretty much the same time regardless of when they went to bed?)

I didn't think about the meteor shower again until dark had fallen. Just as I was trying to muster up the will to enforce bedtime, I heard my husband suggest to the kids, "Hey, let's go outside and look for shooting stars."

The cat out of the bag, the kids started begging me to stop working (filling out mountains of school registration forms) and come outside. I said the familiar "be there in a minute." Many minutes later, my daughter came running in the house, full of excitement. "Mommy, Mommy, you have to come out NOW. We just saw a meteor!" How can you say no to that?

Putting the school forms aside, I grabbed some blankets (welcome reinforcements) and headed out to the best spot on our property for a good view of the Eastern sky without tree interference: our driveway. The four of us laid together in our driveway, staring up into the moonless, clear night sky. It was a very peaceful family moment.

As we lay there gazing at the stars, my husband explained what he knew about the meter shower. He didn't mention that it is called the Perseid meteor shower or that it comes every August as Earth passes through the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet. I didn't offer that information either. Instead, we quietly gazed up at the sky, waiting and waiting. Dad explained what a meteor is. I pointed out the Milky Way. My son asked, "Why do they call it milky?" My daughter answered, "Look at it. See how the sky looks milky there? That's why."

I thought to myself, "Wow, this is worth the ignored bedtime." There we were together as a family, gazing up at the stars. No tickets, no travel, no planning. Just a couple of sleeping bags, a clear night, and the possibility of something spectacular.

When my son announced that he was tired and wanted to go to bed, I escorted him in, leaving my husband and daughter to wait for more meteors. I hadn't seen any, but I was too tired to go back out after my son was in bed. In the morning, the report was excellent: dad and daughter bonded while sharing the sight of half a dozen decent meteors!

~ Courtney, "Science Mom"



Science Mom's Radio Appearance

If you missed Science Mom on the radio Saturday morning, you missed a great talk about science, parenting, and the ways in which science impacts every aspect of our lives!

The Science Mom Perspective

"You have to get kids at a young age thinking critically and asking questions—'Is this true?'"

"We have to open up our outlook about what it means to be a science-literate citizen. It doesn't mean that you have to be a rocket scientist. It means so much more."

"Don't worry about starting with science. Start with your kid's own interests."

Science Mom talked with Joanie Greggains about Science Buddies and the importance of bringing science into the home and making it part of everyday family life. Encouraging parents to not be intimidated by talking about science with their kids, Courtney stressed: "It's not about having the answer. It's about having the willingness to find the answer."

Giving parents examples of the kinds of science projects that can help parents explore health and fitness with kids, Courtney and Joanie talked about projects like these from the Science Buddies directory of project ideas:

You can download or listen online to Courtney's May 8, Science Mom appearance on the Joanie Greggains sho (KGO AM 810): http://vaca.bayradio.com/podcasts/Joanie8am050810.mp3. (Courtney's segment appears about halfway through the show.)



Science Mom on the Radio

twitter-SM-2010.pngCourtney Corda, our very own Science Mom, will be live Saturday morning (May 8, 8:30 AM PDT) on the KGO radio Joanie Greggains show.

A former PE teacher, Joanie Greggains is a special advisor to the California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Tune in as Courtney talks with Joanie about the importance of science literacy and the ways in which students interested in sports can find exciting projects that put scientific principles in context of something they enjoy.

Courtney will be talking about projects from the Science Buddies project library that are great choices for family-centered science and sports science experiments and conversations—whether over a bowl of cereal or at the park with a jump rope in hand. (We'll post a full list here on the blog after the show!)

More from Science Mom

If you missed Science Mom's TV appearances, catch up with the videos online. To stay up-to-date with future appearances and Science Mom news, subscribe to Courtney's Twitter stream.



"Science Mom" Courtney Corda appeared live on View from the Bay today to demonstrate the way enzymes and proteins interact when you mix various fruits with gelatin. For Courtney, the kitchen is the perfect place for parents to get hands-on with kids about science and can be a wonderful way to explore chemistry and to relate scientific principles to everyday activities.



Courtney "Shakes" Things Up on TV

Courtney was live as resident "Science Mom" on ABC's "View from the Bay" last week. Tune in as she talks about science literacy, the basics of earthquakes, tectonic plates, P-waves, and the importance of putting real-world science into concrete and hands-on form in front of (and with) your students and kids.

Her on-air demonstration of the "shake table" created as part of the Set Your Table for a Sweet and Sticky Earthquake Shake science fair project idea (Science Buddies' difficulty level: 4) shows how easy it can be to set up a project that can demonstrate a number of variables and scientific principles. Using household items like sugar cubes, marbles, peanut butter, a puzzle box lid, cornstarch, and Play-Doh, Courtney explains how the project can be used to highlight the fact that while what a house is made of is important, you also have to evaluate what a house is built upon.

There is plenty of room for students to formulate questions and hypotheses as they predict the outcome of an earthquake on various kinds of simulated soil. They can also expand the project to look at differences in architectural design and building materials.

If you try this project in your class, let us know how it goes!

(Courtney also appeared on "View from the Bay" in June. Did you miss it? Catch up here as she demonstrates acids and bases with "Cabbage Chemistry.")



Science Buddies on Air

In her appearance on The View from the Bay, Science Buddies Vice President, Courtney Corda, talks about the value of making science an everyday subject and topic of family discussion. Courtney encourages parents to approach science first and foremost by linking science and underlying scientific principles to an area of interest for their students and to engage students with hands-on activities and scientific projects.

Courtney reminds viewers that fostering a love of science is important. Supporting a love of reading or instilling and modeling healthy eating habits are vital concerns for parents, says Courtney. So, too, is science education.

Watch the video clip for practical tips on bringing science into the home and see Courtney, her son, and another mother-daughter team put cabbage to work as a pH indicator.


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