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As the 2013 science fair season gets underway, get inspired by what's possible for student science—and science at home—with a recap of last year's posts about science projects, science news, and family science.

The New Year is underway, and even during the semester break, many students are working with zest, determination, and curiosity on their science fair projects. As we welcome in 2013 and the coming months of the science fair season, here is a brief look back at a few of our favorite Science Buddies blog posts from 2012. Some of these posts highlight science news and ideas for student investigation; others contain strategies and activities for families who want to make more time for science at home. Whether you are still looking for a science fair project or have resolved to make science a more routine part of your family's daily interaction, we recommend this collection of posts:

2013-lookback_galaxy.png Parent Perspective: Understanding Your Role in Your Student's Science Project The Science of Video Games Girls and Engineering
Science Fair Projects with Real-World Impact Lab Notebooks Science and Art: Mutant Sunflowers Putty Science: Family Fun with Polymers
Family Dinner: Serving Up Science High School Scientist Develops Cancer Screening Test Find a Feather, Pick It Up? The Wonder of Bioluminescence: Organisms that Glow
Arsenic and Rice Putting Your Eggs All in One (Dye) Basket Licorice Root, Please Artificial Intelligence and Cancer Diagnosis: Meet the 2012 Google Science Fair Winner

The above images link to the following blog entries:

We are also excited about all of the students who shared their science success stories with the Science Buddies community in 2012. You can reach their stories (and many more) in our Science Buddies in Action area. Are you doing a science project this year and want to share your experience? If so, email Science Buddies at blog@sciencebuddies.org.

Images: Dwarf galaxy (R. Jay GaBany (Blackbird Observatory)), bubble (Bigstock), bioluminescence (August Bach), rice (Wikipedia), eggs (Emily Weaver Brown), licorice (Wikipedia), Brittany Wenger (Andrew Federman).



Staff Picks: Science Buddies Kits

The Science Buddies staff shares their wish lists from the Science Buddies store. See what science and engineering kits they would most like to open up and give a hands-on try!

Each year, I poll the Science Buddies staff about something related to science, engineering, or technology that might be on their wish lists. The team at Science Buddies that supports our more than 15,000 pages of free, scientist-authored, K-12 science and engineering Project Ideas and resources is small, but the collective answers each year underscore what an interesting and diverse group we are!

This year, with the advent of the Science Buddies Store offering new convenience and ease of access to the right materials to use with one of our science or engineering Project Ideas, I asked the staff which kit they would most like to explore, individually or as a science exploration with their families. With over 50 kits available, their selections highlight only a few of our science project kits! Here are some of the ones our staff chose:

Kit Image
Kenneth Hess, Founder and President:
'Build Your Own Crystal Radio'

"I built one as a kid and would like to do it again, this time actually understanding why it works. Also, it would be very cool to use a multimeter to calculate how much power it receives."
Kit Image
Beth Rabuczewski, Director of eCommerce:
'Grasping with Straws: Make a Robot Hand'

"With just a few simple items, you can build a very good facsimile of the human hand. I confess to having a number of partially built soda straw hands around my house!"
Kit Image
Hugo Paz, Chief Software Architect:
'The Strength of an Electromagnet'

"I remember doing something like this with my classmates when I was a kid. Back then I didn't understand the physics behind it, but I thought it was really cool that you can make magnets with electricity."
Kit Image
Sandra Slutz, Lead Staff Scientist:
'Rainbow Fire'

"I adore fireworks, and the materials in this kit allow you to have your own mini colored-fire show. I can imagine using it on our next camping trip! Really young children, like mine, will grasp that different chemicals cause different flame colors, while older children and adults can grasp sequentially more complex explanations of the physics involved."
Kit Image
Teisha Rowland, Staff Scientist:
"Solar-Powered Water Desalination"

"It gets people thinking about how to solve a serious, real-world problem—getting clean water to people around the globe. It's interesting (and useful!) to explore how to make the desalination process more efficient by using completely free, renewable energy from the sun."
Kit Image
Courtney Corda, Vice President:
'Build a Gauss Rifle!'

"It is the hands-on engineering project most likely to be successful in drawing my son away from his current bad habit: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 (which I regret buying for him). It might also draw him away from Minecraft (a video game that cuts down on his use of COD MW3 but still pales in comparison to the experience of building something, anything in real life)."
Kit Image
Claire Hubbard, Product Design Engineer
'Burning Calories'

"I'm an athlete, and I've always wondered how calories are stored in food, transferred to the body, and then burned through exercise. This kit would help to introduce me to some of the science behind working out and proper athletic nutrition!"
Kit Image
Jayme Burke, Vice President of Development:
'Ultimate Bridge Builder's Kit'

"I live in the Bay Area, and I cross bridges all the time, but I really have no idea about how bridges are engineered. (Also Bridge Over the River Kwai is one of my favorite movies.)"
Kit Image
Sherry Smith, Grants Manager:
'How Does Soil Affect the pH of Water?'

"It contains all the materials I need for the #1 project recommended when I took the Topic Selection Wizard survey. I like the idea of traveling to three different soil sites, making notes about plants, and analyzing the soil samples."
Kit Image
Sabine Dukes, Controller:
'Make Your Own Soap'

"It is a science project I could use to make holiday gifts! I would love to take it further and experiment with different oils and fragrances. I could add some lavender from my yard to make it special. (Maybe I also like it because it reminds me of Fight Club.)"
Kit Image
Kaarin Graham, Project Manager:
'Electrolyte Challenge'

"I drink sports drinks during my tennis matches, and I would like to determine if sports drinks really work or if there are better alternatives that I should try."
Kit Image
Yvette Leung, Email Support:
'Potions and Lotions: Lessons in Cosmetic Chemistry'

"I always read the ingredient labels on all of the products that I buy, and this project would be a fun way to experiment and to create new and innovative products of my own. Who knows, I might even discover a secret formula for an amazing new cosmetic product!
Ben Finio, Staff Scientist:
'Robot Picasso'

"While I already have a LEGO® Mindstorms® kit, I've never used a VEX kit—and you can never have too many robot kits! Plus, I could always disassemble my Picasso robot and use the kit to build something completely new. As a kid I always preferred toys like LEGO and K'Nex that could be reconfigured into entirely new things when I got bored, so robot kits are a great fit for me."
 Sabine De Brabandere, Staff Scientist:
'Robot Picasso'

"I have been intrigued by robotics but never took the time to explore it. This project would definitively pull me and my family in. I love how consecutive projects naturally lead you into the world of robotics. Once there—your imagination is the limit! Fun for years to come!"

Which one stands out for you? Browse the science project kits in the Science Buddies Store, and let us know which kit you would most want to have—and why!



The staff of scientists, editors, and writers at Science Buddies work throughout the year to develop exciting new Project Ideas that encourage and enable hands-on student exploration of inspiring areas of science and cutting-edge topics of research.

We have more than 1000 Project Ideas for K-12 students in our library of free science, technology, engineering, and math Project Ideas. As the year winds down, we asked our staff to pick their favorites from the Project Ideas introduced in 2011 and share why they selected the projects they picked.

    Gauss Image
  • Ken, Founder and President: Build a Gauss Rifle!

    Why? "The Project Idea uses neodymium magnets to visually demonstrate important physical principles about acceleration, mass, velocity, and the conservation of momentum."

    Physics Image

  • Hugo, Chief Software Architect: Making It Real: Incorporating Physics in Video Games

    Why? "Physics was my favorite subject in high school. Now I develop software. This Project Idea brings both of them together—this field is what makes the current generation of video games so awesome."

    Students at Computer Image
  • Claire, Product Design Engineer: Creating a Video Game for the Blind
    Why? "I love that this project idea takes something often thought of as purely entertainment—video games—and shows how they can be used to solve common social issues like blindness."

    Planes Image
  • Debbie, Web Editor: How Far Will It Fly? Build and Test Various Paper Planes

    Why? "Making paper airplanes is a great, creative way to spend free time with my son and a great way to recycle paper around the house—especially holiday wrapping paper. What boy doesn't want to make a flying object to launch at his sisters?"

    Plants Image
  • Teisha, Staff Scientist: Hydroponics: Gardening Without Soil

    Why? "This project focuses on hydroponics, an emerging gardening technique that allows people to grow plants without soil, which creates new opportunities for commercially growing crops. Because having enough food is an issue in developing countries, new technologies for improving crop yields and crop adaptability are really important to explore."

    Drums Image
  • Kaarin, Project Manager: Customize Your Own Drum Set!

    Why? "This computer science project combines my son's love of creating music with his interest in how video games work. Combining the PicoBoard with Scratch is great!"

    Comets Image
  • Yvette, Email Support: Dirty Snowballs: How a Comet's Size Affects How Fast It Melts

    Why? "Comets have always fascinated me since I was a child, and they come in all different shapes and sizes, so this project allows you to investigate how the physical properties of comets can affect their lifespan!" (Another favorite for Yvette is A Sweet Sequence: The Cacao Genome*: I love chocolate, and this project combines both chocolate and genomics, a rapidly rising field of science, to find new ways of protecting cacao trees and increasing cacao production!)



Staff Wish List

Last year, I asked the Science Buddies staff what science, engineering, or technology tools were on their wish lists. The compilation of responses turned out to be an interesting roundup of most-wanted gadgets, a list that reflects the wide-range of personal interests that make up the small group of us at Science Buddies.

Despite the size of our site and the depth of our resources, there are only a handful of us. We are a small and busy team. We keep our "plates" full (agar and non-agar ones), and we work hard to keep up with the demands of the ten million students, parents, and teachers who use our resources each year.

As we prepare to celebrate Science Buddies' tenth birthday, I give you this little glimpse of the real people who make it all happen. This year, I again asked, "What's on your wish list." And, again, the range of answers surprised me! I hope you'll enjoy our shared wish list.

  • Ken, Founder and President, wants the Orion SkyLine Deluxe Green Laser Pointer. (We think he already has this, so it must be to add to his collection!)

    Why? "The beam of a green laser can be seen in the dark sky (red cannot), making it outstanding for pointing out astronomical objects to friends and family. Plus, it's really cool!" (But, be careful! To enjoy a laser pointer safely, check our Laser Safety Guide.)

  • Courtney, Vice President, wants a Roomba.

    Why? "It's easier than getting the kids to vacuum, and it looks like we could jury-rig it to do something funny, too!" She also wants a Day 6 Plotwatcher Time Lapse Video CameraWhy? "I've always loved seeing plant growth sped up on nature shows on TV."

  • Marisa, Director of Development, wants the iPhone Lens Dial from Photojojo.

    Why? "It's a compact photo-enhancing tool that sits on top of the iPhone's existing camera optic. It has a wheel attachment that spins, which allows you to take high-quality fisheye, wide angle, or telephoto pictures. It also has dual tripod mounts—one for portrait and one for landscape."

  • Sandra, Lead Staff Scientist, wants a Summer Shower 5.

    Why? "This year friends and family did a good job convincing me, the quintessential city-girl, that camping is fun. But I still need my daily shower! (Of course, I could just make my own!)"

  • Hugo, Chief Software Architect, wants LEGO® Mindstorms® NXT.

    Why? "Do I really need to say why? Programmable robots you can build yourself. I wish I were a kid again!" Hugo also wants a Kindle Fire. Why? "It's an affordable Android tablet. Read books, watch movies, play games, surf the web... what else do you need in the palm of your hand? I'd be walking around the house like a Star Trek guy with his tablet in hand!"

  • Claire, Product Design Engineer, wants a SodaStream Pure Black Sparkling Water & Soda Maker.
    Why? " I love flavored and carbonated water, but it can be so expensive! This machine allows you to add carbonation to regular tap water or juices. I would use it all the time!"

  • Debbie, Web Editor, wants a Rubik's Cube.

    Why? "I am determined to master the Rubik's cube! I was inspired by the "You CAN do the Rubik's cube" team at the recent Discovery Days Science Festival in San Francisco." You can download the guide and check out several Science Buddies Rubik's cube-based Project Ideas!

  • Michelle, Staff Scientist, wants a gift card to her local hardware store.
    Why? "The hardware store is a place where I can pick up anything and everything I need to build all kinds of experimental set-ups. Pumps, paint, hammers, lumber, rocks, cardboard, utility knives..... Visiting the hardware store is almost like a treasure hunt!"

  • Amy, Online Community Manager, wants a Squeezebox Touch.

    Why? "I love my original Squeezebox for playing Pandora music so much that I'd like one in another room. (The Music Genome Project is a pretty cool thing, too!)

  • Sherry, Grants Manager, wants Bushnell Deluxe Binocular Harness.

    Why? "To avoid bird-watching neck strain from holding heavy binoculars. I will reach for this harness when responding to rare bird alerts and waiting for birds to emerge."

  • Teisha, Staff Scientist, wants the Wingscapes WSCA04 Timelapse Outdoor PlantCam.

    Why? "Plants move in amazing ways, but because they move on such a different time scale than we do, it's often hard for us to notice. By taking a time-lapse video of a plant's movements over several hours, days, or even weeks, it's a lot easier for us to see how plants grow and respond to their environment. I'd use a time-lapse 'PlantCam' to watch the plants in my backyard, organic garden grow tasty vegetables!"

    • Yvette, Support Staff, wants the Solio Classic Universal Hybrid Charger

      Why? "I'm constantly on the go, and this would be the perfect gift to help me charge my phone, MP3 players, and other electronic devices while being eco-friendly!"

    (Editorial Note: Links to Amazon.com for some of the above products are provided for additional information. Science Buddies does not sell these items directly.)



Earth Day: Staff Picks!

As I wrote my blog essay in celebration of Earth Day, I found myself in unexpectedly bug-laden territory, without a compost bin, wind turbine, or reusable food container in sight. But Earth Day is about all of those things. It's about taking a moment to recognize what's around us, to take stock of where we are, and to consider ways in which we can make changes, big and small, that can make an impact on the environment. It's about conservation and awareness. Do you turn off the water while you brush your teeth?

I asked members of the Science Buddies team to pick their favorite Project Idea for Earth Day from the Science Buddies Project Ideas Directory. Here's what they chose:

    MarisaMarisa: The Big Dig

    Test how biodegradable different materials are, from paper products to different kinds of bags and other everyday items.

    PeggyPeggy: Swimming in Acid: Understanding Ocean Acidification
    Many scientists are concerned that the increased absorption of carbon dioxide is causing them to become more acidic. What impact does that have on the marine life? In this ocean science fair project, you will demonstrate ocean acidification and investigate the effect on the shells of marine life.

    DebbieDebbie: Growing a Soil Menagerie
    Make a mini biosphere (Winogradsky Column) to test the response of soil microorganisms to environmental changes in a closed system.

    SandraSandra: "Earth Day is about stopping to take the time to appreciate the outdoors and making sure that we humans are living in a way that allows future generations to do the same. Does that mean we're going to abandon our cars and turn off our electricity? Realistically speaking, I can't imagine doing that! Finding ways to solve environmental problems while maintaining our lifestyles seems more realistic. Here are two Project Ideas that I think allow us to start evaluating and tackling some of those environmental problems:"

  • Do Your Storm Drains Keep the Ocean Trash Free?
    Test models of local grated storm drain inlets to determine if they are designed in a manner that keeps plastic litter from entering your community's stormwater drainage system. If not, design a new model!

  • Water to Fuel to Water: The Fuel Cycle of the Future
    Follow in the footsteps of MIT researchers as you examine water's usefulness as a renewable energy source by observing how efficient a cobalt-based catalyst can be at helping to form molecular oxygen.

(Thank you to our partners and sponsors whose support helps up continue to produce environmentally-aware science and engineering projects and materials for K-12 students, teachers, and families.)



Earlier this week, we posted a list of cool science-y things you might add to your own wish list... things that would be fun to explore and might win holiday brownie points with Mom and Dad for sheer educational value. Hopefully you made sincere, compelling, and scientifically sound arguments. But now it's time to take a look at grown-up gadgets and science toys. Do you need to buy something for Mom, Dad, Uncle Joe, or Grandma? Maybe you've been thinking about what to give? Maybe you're hoping for perfect holiday brownies, in addition to the brownie points? There are tools that can help with that!

We asked the Science Buddies staff—the group of people who bring you all of our great science project ideas and resources—what was on their wish lists. Not surprisingly, they had some "scientific" answers! There are some unexpected but cool gift ideas on their lists... items, tools, and gadgets that you might be able to use in your own projects!

So, in the spirit of giving, we pass along this roundup of staff wishes. You might just spot the perfect gift for someone on your list... and we'll help by offering a few ways you might be able to "borrow" it for your own exploration!

(Parents, if you are reading along, we think you'll find some great suggestions here for things you might really use—and that would give you exciting new ways to bring more science into your house and into your dinner table conversations.)

  • Courtney (a.k.a. "Science Mom") wants a digital kitchen scale

    wishlist-scale.jpg"As I get older and more interested in higher quality, more expensive kitchen gadgets—and as I become a better cook and baker (which my family enjoys!)— I find that I really want to have a more accurate scale since weighing ingredients is the most accurate way to determine quantity."

    The good for me, too, angle: A digital scale can be used in many science projects that require accurate weighing, but that doesn't mean it's just for food (or just for the kitchen). A shiny new digital scale would come in handy in the Build a Raft Powered by Surface Tension project (Difficulty: 5-6). Or, if you do want to experiment in the kitchen, check out this materials science abbreviated project idea, The Fluffiest Muffins: Flour Type and Muffin Density* (Difficulty: 5).

  • Tina wants a heart rate monitor

    "I am training for next year's dipsea race, a 7.5 mile point-to-point off-trail race from Mill Valley to Stinson beach. A heart rate monitor will help keep me on track."

    The good for me, too, angle: Tracking heart rate is a great way to monitor how hard your heart is working. You could test-drive a new heart rate monitor instead of measuring pulse rate in the Fear Factor: Using Pulse Rate to Measure Emotion human behavior project (Difficulty: 5-8). Even younger students can use a tool like this as they explore A Day in the Life of Your Heart (Difficulty: 2-3).

  • Ken (founder, President, and astro-photographer) wants Canon Image Stabilized Binoculars

    "It's hard to hold binoculars steady enough to see clearly, but technology has come to the rescue. Image stabilized binoculars compensate for your every wiggle, holding the image rock steady, so it's easy to see the details on the moon, nebula, or birds!"

    The good for me, too, angle: After you satisfy your Spy Kids-inspired curiosity, these high-power binocs can help you observe things you can't easily get close to—or animals whose behavior might change if you get too close. Take a closer look at bird anatomy and patterns of adaptation in the Can You Predict a Bird's Lifestyle Based on Its Feet? zoology project (Difficulty: 3).

  • Sandra wants a Molecular Gastronomy Artistre Spherification Starter Kit

    "In my family we're hooked on the TV show 'Top Chef,' which is where I first heard about molecular gastronomy. Talk about a tasty fusion of chemistry and food! So, I'm hoping that there's a molecular gastronomy starter kit sitting under our Christmas tree this year. If so, I'll be experimenting and tasting my way into the New Year figuring out how to make fruit 'caviar' and Nutella powder."

    The good for me, too, angle: Besides getting to eat the yummy concoctions you create, you can investigate what makes the recipes work—and even invent a few of your own. You can get started experimenting with ingredient swapping projects like: Chemistry of Baking Ingredients 1: How Much Baking Powder Do Quick Breads Need? and Egg Substitutes (Difficulty: 2-5). And if Sandra gets her wish, she's promised to share new molecular gastronomy project ideas in the New year!

  • Rebecca wants eye droppers

    "My toddler knows his colors, so we want to start introducing the concept of mixing colors to make new colors. With eye droppers of water and food coloring, he can see the effect of mixing these colors on paper towels, rather than just mixing his ketchup and mustard at the dinner table."

    The good for me, too, angle: Eye droppers are a staple in many lab projects. You can put them to innovative use making your own markers (Difficulty: 3). Or, you'll find them handy as you study plant biology in the Plants on the Move! Experiments with Phototropism project (Difficulty: 6).

  • Kristian wants a Thermochron iButton -40°C thru +85°C data logger

    "We sometimes go on overnight backcountry skiing trips and are learning to build snow shelters (quinzhees). It would be cool to compare the temps inside the quinzhee compared to a tent or other structure."

    The good for me, too, angle: Lots of projects require frequent temperature readings. Wouldn't it be great to gather all that data even when you aren't there to read the thermometer? With the high-tech iButton (you can hook it up to your computer later to upload the data), you're all set to to explore an environmental engineering project like Rooftop Gardens: Are They a Cool Idea? (Difficulty: 4).

  • Michelle wants a new stop watch "Many of the projects I work on require timing reactions, measuring ball pitches, calculating velocities, and so on." (She also put a new "tape measure" on her list. She's a scientist through and through!)

    The good for me, too, angle: A good stop watch is a must-have for many physics or aerodynamics projects! Grab a stop watch as you hit the pavement for the Popping an Ollie: How Skateboarders + Physics = A Really Cool Trick sports science project (Difficulty: 4). Or, take an investigative approach to an edgy sport in Paintball Ballistics (Difficulty: 7).

  • Kaarin wants a weather station

    "It would be great to be able to see the outside temperature and humidity from inside the house."

    The good for me, too, angle: With an in-home weather station on hand, you can track all kinds of weather patterns, or explore the fog in the Foggy Forecasting: What Weather Factors Create Radiation Fog? project (Difficulty: 6).

  • Marisa wants digital BBQ tongs and a Nano-UV Disinfection Scanner

    "Digital tongs take the guesswork out of whether or not the meat is 'done.' Nobody likes food poisoning! And the scanner uses Nano-UV light to destroy microorganisms in 10 seconds—without toxins or side effects."

    The good for me, too, angle: Set your Nano-UV light loose on germs in the Death Rays: What Duration of Ultraviolet Exposure Kills Bacteria? microbiology project (Difficulty: 7).

    (Marisa also asked for an Orbitor Electronic Listening Device. (You may or may not want your parents to have that!)

  • Claire wants noise canceling headphones

    "I am traveling for the holidays and am hoping noise canceling technology might give me a peaceful flight!"

    The good for me, too, angle: You might find that noise canceling headphones can improve your focus when you're studying—or help you block out a younger sibling! But if you want a science spin, you could adapt the Frequency-Dependent Sound Absorption project to explore what frequency and volume are necessary to be heard through noise-canceling headphones (Difficulty: 7).

  • Amy wants a set of DSLR extension tubes

    "I really want a full-frame (non-crop sensor) upgrade to my DSLR—or at least a good 100mm prime lens. But I'd settle for a set of extension tubes for some plug-and-play variety and an easy macro boost !

    The good for me, too, angle: Extension tubes are not the same as a new lens, but they have the effect of magnifying the image and thus giving you the ability to explore macro photography—even if you don't have a bag full of lenses. A comparison of the quality of photos shot with extension tubes versus true macro lenses—or a quantitative study of the amount of light required for use with extension tubes—would make a great independent study! To get started thinking about how to construct a project like this, look at the Camera Lens Testing project idea (Difficulty: 5-9).

wish-timer.jpgThe reality... "kitchen" gadgets were high on the lists! There were also requests for digital kitchen thermometers and digital (and loud) kitchen timers.

We hope you find the perfect gift for anyone on your list. If you can "also" use the gift in your next science project, it's all good!

(Editorial Note: Links to Amazon.com for some of the above products are provided for additional information. Science Buddies does not sell kits or supplies directly. Any/all purchases are between you and the vendor you select.)



Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' staff scientist, Michelle Maranowski. ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Photo of PicoBoard from the Playful Invention Company
Project: Pinwheel Magic: Take a Spin with Animation

Scientist: Michelle Maranowski
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5

I have wanted to write a computer science project for Science Buddies for a while. But I didn't want to focus on a conventional project where you investigate clock speeds or learn to write applications with a particular computer language, although those projects can be a lot of fun, too. I wanted to do a project that highlighted the fun of computer science and programming—something where you didn't have to learn a complicated language before being able to do something really cool.

I was really excited when I found out about MIT's free Scratch programming environment. Scratch is easy to learn, and I started programming with it pretty much right after I went through the tutorial examples.

I should confess that I am the kind of person that loves to push buttons to see what happens. At the local science museum, I am always first in line at an interactive exhibition. I really enjoy seeing new information pop up on the exhibition's computer screen by pushing a button or moving a slider. Knowing that there was a sensor board that could be used with Scratch was a big attraction for me when I started thinking about projects. I couldn't wait to get my hands on a PicoBoard!

A PicoBoard is a collection of sensors that allow me to interact directly with my Scratch program. At a push of a button or a puff of air into the PicoBoard's microphone, I can make all kinds of things happen on the computer screen! What's not to love?

Using Scratch with a PicoBoard was fun, and when I started thinking about using real-word input to control my Scratch programs, all kinds of new ideas became possible, from simple things like changing colors of characters by using the slider sensor to making characters on the screen dance in response to music playing in my room.

I was looking for a fun computer science project, and I could tell that combining Scratch and the PicoBoard had potential. The idea of a spinning pinwheel came from the fact that I like to do things outside, and blowing on a pinwheel is a fun thing to do outside.

I am still not done playing with Scratch and the PicoBoard. I am currently working on a project where you can make an on-screen instrument. Stay tuned for more!

~ Michelle

For similar project ideas, explore this list of Scratch project ideas or browse the Computer Science interest area, sponsored by Symantec, in the Science Buddies Project Directory.



Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' staff scientist, Sandra Slutz. ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Project: Forensic Science: Building Your Own Tool for Identifying DNA
Scientist: Sandra Slutz
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 7-9

Sometimes, when I'm supposed to be sitting down and concentrating on a task, my mind wanders. You never know what will come of those momentary mental strolls. In this case, the result was a pretty cool Do-It-Yourself project to build one of the very basic tools used in a biotechnology lab: an electrophoresis chamber.

I was supposed to be working on a science project called Investigate Native Plant Evolution with Chloroplast Sequencing. The project shows students how to harvest plants indigenous to the area in which they live, extract DNA from the plants, and then sequence the DNA. Then (drum roll for the really awesome part) if the sequence is new, meaning if no one has ever recorded that information before, they can submit the data to GenBank — the public gene sequence data bank — for scientists worldwide to see and use!

The only downside to the project is that it requires access to some specific biotechnology equipment. As I started to write down the list of materials and equipment that the project calls for, I asked myself, "Hey, I wonder if you can build any of this stuff yourself?"

From there my mind went racing through a list of possibilities. What I finally settled on was an electrophoresis chamber, the fancy title for a box that you pass current through to separate DNA into different size pieces and get a look at those pieces. The electrophoresis chamber is one of the most common pieces of equipment in any biotech laboratory. Why? There are literally dozens of reasons, but here's an example:

Imagine you are working in a forensics lab trying to determine if the hair left at a crime scene belongs to any of the suspects. How would you do it? You would isolate DNA from the crime scene hair and some DNA from each suspect. Then you'd cut up each DNA sample using enzymes. When you cut the DNA this way, each person has his or her own unique pattern of pieces (similar to the way each person has a unique fingerprint—in fact the DNA pattern is referred to as a DNA fingerprint). To look at the DNA pattern, you would use an electrophoresis chamber. If one of the suspects' DNA pattern matched the crime scene hair's pattern, you'd be able to place that suspect at the scene of the crime.

As you can see, the electrophoresis chamber is an important tool for forensics research!

It turns out you can make a simple version of an electrophoresis chamber on your own kitchen counter using just a few household items like batteries, a plastic soap dish, some stainless steel wire, and baking soda.

Once you've built your electrophoresis chamber, you have lots of options for putting it to use. Don't feel up to processing DNA on your home-made electrophoresis chamber? No problem! You can use the same equipment to examine food dyes. Did you know that some of the primary colors (like red) in food dyes are actually blends of several colors? Can you guess which colors? Give it a try! You might just find yourself hooked on the power of kitchen biotech.

~ Sandra

For similar project ideas, explore the Biotechnology interest area, sponsored by Bio-Rad, in the Science Buddies Project Directory.

You may also enjoy these related blog entries:



Last month, Staff Scientist Dave opened a Science Buddies meeting with a small can of breath spray, a gas grill igniter, a film-canister, a homemade wooden apparatus to "hold" the canister in place, and the question: "Is it okay if I set this off in here?"

A few minty sprays into the canister, a few clicks of the lighter, and the canister was propelled across the room with a noisy "bang."

In subsequent demonstrations, Dave showed other ways to expand upon the initial experiment, even taking advantage of tire gauges and balloons, all the while pointing out the chemistry (and equations) behind the experiment.

Project: Getting a Bang Out of Breath Spray: Studying the Chemistry and Physics of a Small Explosion
Scientist: David Whyte
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 8

I chose the topic for Getting a Bang Out of Breath Spray because it involves making a great toy, a "Binaca bomb" that can be used to explore the chemistry and physics of a small explosion. To make the device, a small amount of ethanol (from Binaca breath spray) is spritzed into a film canister. The top is quickly placed on the canister, and the ethanol is ignited with a spark.

If all goes well, there is a loud "pop," and the canister flies through the air!

I like this project's vivid demonstration of how energy can convert into various forms: chemical energy from the combustion of the ethanol is converted into thermal energy (the heat that makes the gases expand in the canister), which in turn is transferred to kinetic energy in the form of the flying canister.

I also like that the project offers plenty of opportunity to explore questions about what is actually taking place during the explosion. There is more than just a "bang" and a "projectile" happening here. Some of the questions that can be asked include:

  • What is the pressure in the canister at the moment before it separates from the top?
  • What is the volume change that occurs when the gas is ignited?
  • What is the kinetic energy of the canister?

The project contains the science to determine the answers to all of these!

The project also has a nice mix of measurement and calculation. For example, the approximate temperature of the hot gas is calculated based on measurements of the pressure and volume.

Oh, and did I mention the project involves explosions?

~ Dave



Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' staff scientist, Kristin Strong. Kristin presented this project to the Science Buddies' team in February. It's got an icy, winter theme! ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Project: No Pain, Lots of Game
Scientist: Kristin Strong
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 4

My favorite project of recent ones I've worked on is the Science Buddies project, No Pain, Lots of Game, a project that looks at the relationship between video gaming and pain management.

Personal Connection

This project grew out of personal experience with my oldest daughter. When she was five years old, we discovered that she had a birth defect requiring chest and abdominal surgery. During her hospital stay, her pain was managed primarily with morphine, but during painful procedures, the surgeon advised us to put on a movie and to get her engaged in that before starting the procedure. During her months of recovery at home, my daughter would often wake up in pain, and again I used a combination of medication and videos to help her get through the night.

In 2008, when Science Buddies opened up a new interest area section on computer and video games, I wondered if any research was being done on using computer or video games to manage pain. I learned that indeed, throughout the country, studies are being done to see if video games and virtual reality games like Snow World can help alleviate pain in patients suffering from burns. Burn units were chosen for these studies because burns are some of the most painful kinds of injuries that people must endure, sometimes requiring months of daily wound care. I decided to try and write a science fair project for students that would parallel this real-world research.

Putting It All Together

An "ice bath" was used to create a painful circumstance for volunteers. We were then able to test to see if playing a video game helped reduce awareness of pain (or increase the ability to withstand and block pain).

The question that we're trying to answer with this video game science fair project is: Can video games be included in the repertoire of pain management strategies?

To try and answer this question, I decided to use an "ice bath" as a way to create pain without causing lasting injury. To test the project, brave volunteers were seated in a chair and asked to put the front part of one foot in the ice water, a situation that is uncomfortable and "painful." We asked each volunteer to leave his or her foot in as long as possible, and we measured and recorded the amount of time.

To test our theory about video games, we then had each volunteer play a video or computer game for 5 min, and, while the volunteer continued to play the game, the other forefoot was submerged in ice water for as long as the volunteer could stand that.
The data was then analyzed to see if the video games made a difference in how long the volunteers were able to endure the ice bath.

Real-World Results

I like this project because it can be done with things that many families have on hand, like ice, bowls, a stopwatch or way to count seconds, and computer or video games. In just a few minutes, you can set up an experiment that parallels research being done at big universities and medical schools. I think students will find it interesting to discover that there is great individual variation in sensitivity to pain—and in the ability of games to reduce or "dial down" pain.

Plus, there's a lot of room to extend and customize this project. One variation to the main project is to test various types of games to see if the "kind" of game or media source alters the outcome. Is Donkey Kong better than Dragon Warrior for helping block pain? Is TV just as good as a video game?

With an ice water bath and some brave volunteers, kids can find out.


For similar project ideas, explore the Video & Computer Games interest area, sponsored by AMD, in the Science Buddies Project Directory.



Scientist's Pick: Smart Slime


Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' staff scientist, David Whyte. David presented this project to the Science Buddies' team last fall. It's very cool! ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Project: Smarter Than Your Average Slime: Maze-solving by an Amoeboid Organism
Scientist: David Whyte
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 7-9

I was doing some background research on simple organisms that might be used in science projects when I came across an article entitled "Maze-solving by an amoeboid organism." The article contained just what I had been looking for—the basis for a novel project that was both cutting-edge science and also well within the reach of the kitchen scientist.

Materials Tip!

Kits for growing the organism, Physarum polycephalum, can be purchased from several science supply stores online.

The basic finding of the research presented in the article was that Physarum, a common inhabitant of wooded areas around the world, can find the shortest path through a maze set up on an agar plate. Physarum, also called slime mold, typically forms a large amoeba-like mass that moves over dead leaves and rotting logs looking for organic matter to consume.

Announcing their findings in the journal Nature, the researchers said they believe the organism changed its shape to maximize its foraging efficiency and therefore its chances of survival. They went on to claim that "This remarkable process of cellular computation implies that cellular materials can show a primitive intelligence."

In the lab, Physarum can be grown in Petri dishes that have a layer of agar on the bottom, so I decided to put Physarum to the test at home.

Conducting the Experiment

To set up the experiment, I placed pieces of slime mold in a 30-square-centimeter (five-square-inch) maze on an agar plate. On that same plate, I strategically placed a food source at two spots in the maze.

What happened?

The pieces of slime mold coalesced, and the organism condensed its entire body to form a mass that stretched between the two food sources and connected them. In each trial, the slime mold showed its ability to both solve the maze and find the food. Each time, it adopted the shortest possible route, effectively solving the puzzle.

The project idea I created for Science Buddies lets you devise your own maze to see for yourself how the slime mold behaves. You'll have to decide for yourself—is the slime mold "intelligent"? Are there limits to its intelligence?

Other questions you might ask as you work with the Physarum include:

  • What environmental cues is it using and how does it process information in ways that allow it to adapt?
  • What other tests can be devised to further explore how these remarkable creatures respond to the world as their senses experience it?

For me, any project that involves "cellular computation" and "primitive intelligence" in an amoeboid organism has lots of potential. In this project, what I discovered is that Physarum is a simple organism - one that you can experiment with at home—but it is not really so "simple" after all.


If this project sounds like fun, you might want to explore other Project Ideas in our Zoology section.



 Dimpled Smile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VirgilGriffithFace.jpg

Note: This month's "Scientist's Pick" is from Science Buddies' lead staff scientist, Sandra Slutz. Did you miss last month's "Scientist's Pick" write-up? Do you speak Ollie? ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Project: That's a Real Smile! ...or is it?
Scientist: Sandra Slutz
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 5-7

Maybe it's the fact that the holiday season is starting, or maybe it's the funny antics of my toddler - but either way I've been noticing people's smiles. And the truth is people smile a lot! But after a bit of people watching (a favorite activity of mine), I've noticed that not all smiles are created equal. For example there are the "I'm having a really good day" smiles, the "nice to meet you" smiles, and the "I'm going to plaster this grin on my face and look happy even if I'm not" smiles. There are probably a dozen more that you could separate out if you sat and watched people for a while.

So do you think you're any good at detecting "genuine" versus "social" smiles? After all that people watching, I sure thought I was! But after taking a 10 minute long Spot the Fake Smile test I was surprised to see how hard it is to tell the difference between a true smile and a false one. Sitting in the café watching people it seemed so easy; probably because of all the other social cues and context. But when it came to just watching videos of people smiling out of context, I wasn't very good at distinguishing the real smiles from the fake ones.

All this piqued my curiosity about the science behind smiles - and our instinctive ability to interpret or accurately read them. After a couple of hours of digging around in psychology literature, I realized that I'm not the only one who is fascinated by smiles. Scientists have been researching smiles for centuries! In fact it was the nineteenth-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne who first noticed that we use different muscles for genuine smiles versus social smiles. These two types of smiles also correlate with activity in two very different parts of our brains.

All these observations and research culminated in my writing a Project Idea about smiles for science buddies: That's a Real Smile!...or is it?

This science fair project, which is my scientist's pick of the month, lets you explore how good a group of people are at detecting different types of smiles, as well as their confidence in doing so. I had a lot of fun researching and writing the project. Hopefully, it will be just as fun for the scientists who try it out!

:) (genuinely),


P.S. If you'd like to try another "science of smiling" science fair project check out Is Smiling Contagious?

If you enjoy watching people, check out the other projects in the Human Behavior section of the Science Buddies Project Ideas library.



Note: A core team of scientists at Science Buddies work on an ongoing basis on the development of science fair project ideas that are grounded in real-world science and current events and are engaging. Working to excite a wide range of students, our scientists often work on projects that uncover and highlight the science that underwrites even everyday activities. Each month, we'll be asking one of our scientists "What's your favorite project idea from the ones you've recently authored and why?" With each monthly Scientist's Pick, we'll give you a behind-the-scenes look at what our scientists are thinking when they come up with the ideas they turn into project ideas for Science Buddies. We'll find out why they picked a certain project or problem to explore and why they enjoyed a certain project. We're kicking off this new blog feature with a pick from staff scientist, Michelle Maranowski. ~ Science Buddies' Editorial Staff

Project: Popping an Ollie: How Skateboarders + Physics = A Really Cool Trick
Scientist: Michelle Maranowski
Science Buddies' Difficulty Level: 4

Have you ever seen skateboarders in your city? The way they balance on a small plank of wood, dodging and weaving around obstacles, is amazing. I have always been fascinated by the skill, stamina, and strength that skateboarders exhibit. Most adults that I know find skateboarders kind of annoying and think of skateboarding as a silly hobby.

I spent some time with a typical skateboarder, Jonathan Perez, and I realized that for skateboarders like Jonathan, skateboarding is more than a hobby. Jonathan is passionate about skateboarding because he believes it is an art form. He also believes that his hobby has improved his balance and focus.

After watching Jonathan jump and spin, I realized that while there is art to skateboarding, the sport also demonstrates physics at work. I thought that writing a project on the physics of skateboarding might interest a lot of students who think that science has no application in real life and just belongs in the laboratory.

In the project "Popping an Ollie" we look at the how to do the most basic trick, the Ollie, and the physics behind it. The Ollie is the first step in more complicated tricks like the 360 kick flip. Some of the forces that act on a skateboarder are gravity, the weight of the skateboarder, and the force of the ground pushing back up on the skateboarder. In "Popping an Ollie," the skateboarder experiments with how his or her speed affects the height and the distance of the Ollie.

~ Michelle

If you enjoy skateboarding, try this Science Buddies project along with the other skateboarding project in the Sports Science section of Science Buddies.


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