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What variables make a game popular with players, and do boys and girls choose different types of games? Design a survey-based science project this summer and do some statistical analysis of the data you gather. Your results might be eye opening and informative in terms of game design, the gaming industry, and what works and what doesn't depending on the audience.

Boys and girls and video games / Student science project



There are only three girls, as far as I know, in the clan in one of my current favorite games. With a staggering more than seventy-five thousand clans floating around in the game, and hundreds of thousands of players around the world, clan members come and go. A few other self-identified female players have pitstopped in our clan before moving on, but three of us have been clan members for a long time and seem to be staying—three out of a clan that typically weighs in right around the max of fifty players.

That simple statistic—3 out of 50—seems revealing. It seems to support gender stereotypes about who plays video games. But there are other variables to consider. Age and location, for example, throw a possible wrench into the picture. Our clan is global. Twenty-four hours a day there are people in our clan online from all around the world, and there are players of all ages, a strong mix, in fact, of adults, teens, and even younger players. How old might you guess the three girls are? Where do they live? Do age and location have anything to do with which games boys and girls play?

Minecraft skin

Who is the Hero?

In a game like Angry Birds, the gamer remains off screen. You pull the slingshot, but your identity is not part of the game. What matters is what happens between the birds and pigs in response to your aim and launch. In games where players appear on screen as a visible protagonist, choosing between available characters—or enabling customization of one's avatar—is a common game element. Minecraft players, for examples, create and change "skins" to control the appearance of their character (like the one shown above).

In story-based games, however, players often take on the role of a predetermined main character, a protagonist who appears in video cutscenes as well as in game play. Some story-based games offer a choice of playable characters, but many do not. Does the gender of the playable character make a difference in terms of who buys and plays a game?

Discussion and speculation surrounding previews of new Zelda, Halo, and Assasin's Creed titles suggest that the gender of playable characters is, indeed, a big deal for many gamers.

Conducting survey-based science research projects like Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? and Gamers: Myth or Man? can help you better analyze today's gaming scene and make some predictions about the future of game development and design.


Survey Says

To learn more about setting up and using surveys as part of a science project, see the Designing a Survey and Sample Size: How Many Survey Participants Do I Need? resources from the Science Buddies Project Guide.

To view more science project ideas like the ones discussed here, see the Video and Computer Game section at Science Buddies.

In other games I play, the balance of male to female players appears more equal or, in some cases, maybe tilted to the "more girls" side. Who plays Words with Friends? Who plays Candy Crush? Who plays Hay Day or Farmville? Who plays Infinity Blade? Who plays Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls? Who plays Temple Run or Subway Surfer? Who plays Minecraft or Wizard 101? Who plays Pokémon, Zelda, Uncharted, or Assasin's Creed?

Or maybe we need to step back and ask, what kinds of games are those listed above—and does that have anything to do with who plays them?


Games, Games, Everywhere

As an adult gamer, "who plays games" and "what games do they play" is an interesting social puzzle. As a parent of kids who also play video games, I find the gender dynamics fascinating. After all, kids today are kids growing up in an age saturated with video games, mobile apps, social media, and an always-on, always-connected, pervasive tech-based lifestyle and social reality.

I often ask my teen "do any of the girls you know play video games?" While most of the boys he knows do play video games, Minecraft, Terraria, and phone-based games like Clash of Clans topping the list in current popularity, his sense is that most of the girls do not. The ones that do appear to be on the fringe.

It can't be that clear cut. Or can it?

Is it really true that video gamers are still, by and large, male? Or is that stereotype outdated, wrong, and a real misreading of today's gaming scene? What does the type (or genre) of game have to do with the numbers of males and females who play? What trends can be found in different age groups, and how do those age groups compare to one another when you look at gender demographics?

These are great questions for a gamer to ask, and a clever gamer can turn questions like these into a really cool science project that does a study of human behavior, social trends, and the video gaming industry—and opens up opportunities for doing some impressive statistical analysis of the results.


Surveying the Gaming Scene

The Do Males and Females Play the Same Types of Games? science project offers a framework for designing and conducting a survey of gamers to see if girls and boys differ in the genre of games they choose.

With summer break here, you could do a social-media or text-based campaign to get friends (and their friends) involved in answering your survey. (While the project outlines a traditional paper-based survey, you might want to set up an electronic survey instead and run it through your social streams to cast a really broad net for responders. The more people who take the survey, the more data you have to help support your findings!)

Before you get started, be sure and really look at the games that are on top of the charts today. (Make sure you keep a list of your sources and the dates since top game lists change frequently.) What categories or genres of games do you want to ask about? The list of genres and example games in the project helps get you started, but you will want to spend time editing and adding to the list to make it really fit today's gaming scene. You might also want to create additional categories to study different platforms and the subcategories of games that appear on each platform. You may find that you want to ask about genres (as the project shows) but that you also want to ask about a bunch of specific games, since some games cross genre boundaries or defy easy classification.

There are lots of ways to customize and personalize a study like this, but summer is a great time to get started. You may be surprised at what you learn about gaming, gender, game genres, platforms and devices, and how people of different ages approach gaming. With a bit of data crunching down the road, you could crank out a large portion of next year's science fair project without leaving the couch this summer. (If you are thinking that far ahead, it might not hurt to drop your teacher an email first and let her know you are tackling a summer science survey that you hope to turn into your science fair project.)

We do advocate leaving the couch, but this kind of study makes it easy to combine something you love with something that can really shine a light on social trends. Not only can a project like this give you better insight into gaming and the personality and profile of gamers, but this kind of data is also critical for aspiring video game designers and developers. The more you understand people who play games, the better you can develop successful games that attract thousands and thousands of players and fans. (For a related science project that compares gamer stereotypes to real gamers, see Gamers: Myth or Man?.)

We would love to see the survey you create and hear about your experience with the project!



Note: assumptions above about the number of boys vs. girls in games the author plays are based on guessing from user names or avatar photos or based on things said during in-game conversations. Many players do use ambiguous names or adopt a different identity during game play.

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Nick and Tesla Explore Robotics


The science-savvy twins return in book two of the Nick and Tesla series. As their summer of intrigue and engineering continues, they find themselves in the middle of a small-town mystery and a bunch of robots. Along the way, they make their own—and you can, too!

Nick and Tesla Book 2: Robot Army Rampage

Fun with Robotics Engineering

Like many beginning robotics engineers, Nick and Tesla build their own robots using toothbrush heads. Follow along as they design their bots, try out the DIY build from the book, and continue the exploration with bristlebot projects from Science Buddies: Racing BristleBots: On Your Mark. Get Set. Go! and Build a Light-Tracking Robot Critter.

Book 2 in the Nick and Tesla series, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself, picks up where the first book left off. Having solved the mystery surrounding the neighborhood mansion, Nick and Tesla have settled into their summer with their scientist uncle.

As Robot Army Rampage by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith (Quirk Books) opens, Nick is experimenting with a homemade volcano, Tesla is working on a rocket, and Uncle Newt is tweaking a compost-fueled vacuum, which (of course) explodes, creating a smelly mess that sends them all running from the house.

The action in Robot Army Rampage moves from Uncle Newt's neighborhood to the town of Half Moon Bay. Escaping the fumes from the compost explosion, the kids and Uncle Newt head for pizza and catch their first glimpse of what turns out to be a wave of robots that have quietly taken up residence in businesses on Main Street. Inspired, the kids head to the local electronics and hobby store for parts to make their own robots.

At the Wonder Hut, a few new players enter the story, including Dr. Hiroko Sakurai (a former scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a store employee, and a joystick-controlled robot modeled after the Curiosity Mars rover. Unfortunately, the shelves for robotics parts at the Wonder Hut are, mysteriously, empty.

With no new parts, the twins challenge each other to build a robot from what they can salvage out of their uncle's lab, and the robot engineering begins. Their first bots are also the first projects in the book that readers can make themselves—Nick's Do-It-Yourself PC Leftovers Wander-Bot and Tesla's Do-It-Yourself Semi-Invisible Bottle Bot. With coat hangers, an empty soda bottle, a cast-off fan from an old computer, and some basic hardware and electronics parts, readers can build their own bots and put them to the test.

Building and battling robots takes the kids' minds off of their parents (who have been mysteriously whisked to Uzbekistan), but when Tesla's bot is crushed under a set of bike wheels, a new mystery rolls in, and the story takes off.


Mystery on Main Street

The father of one of the neighborhood kids from book one owns a comic book store on Main Street. When a valuable collectible comic is stolen, the kids decide to try and help solve the case.

As the kids play detective, robots continue to appear in town and be interwoven in the story. Early in their investigation, Nick and Tesla decide to use robotic bugs to distract their first suspect. Again, the siblings have different ideas about the design of the bugs. One wants to use LED eyes. The other wants to incorporate grape jelly to make a gooey mess. They argue, too, about the body (housing) of the bugs, debating the merits of cardboard or bottle caps. Ultimately, they compromise on toothbrush robots with mini vibrating motors (which are suddenly back in stock at the Wonder Hut).

From the Wonder Hut store clerk, the twins learn that Dr. Sakurai has been giving robots to the businesses in town to help promote the store. What follows is a comedy of errors and a series of misreads and half information as the kids try and sort things out.

As the mystery begins to unravel, the robots in town take on sinister overtones. But Nick and Tesla are up to the challenge. During a final showdown, Nick improvises exactly the right tool to save the day. Read the book to find out how (scientifically) his Super-soaker Bot Blaster takes down a robot army!


Making Connections

Readers of Robot Army Rampage will delight in Nick and Tesla's second summer adventure. As they follow along, they will pick up general robotics vocabulary, information, and inspiration. Servo motors, actuators, hydraulics, pneumatics, kinematic functions, micromotors... it's all here! As in book one, Robot Army Rampage contains guided versions of some of Nick and Tesla's inventions as DIY activities for readers, including Nick's Do-It-Yourself PC Leftovers Wander-Bot, Tesla's Do-It-Yourself Semi-Invisible Bottle Bot, Homemade Robo-Bug, Replacement Angel Hoverbot, and the Totally Improvised Super-Soaker Bot Blaster.

Readers can find similar hands-on science and engineering projects at Science Buddies that extend the fun and encourage students to try out additional approaches to building and designing robots and hovercraft! See the following science project ideas, blog posts, and family science activities for more information:

On the Nick and Tesla website, students, parents, and teachers can watch videos of projects from the book. A great educator's guide is also available for parents and teachers. The guide includes vocabulary, chapter summaries, questions for discussion, writing/research suggestions, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) notes, and more.

Don't miss our in-depth look at book 1, Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself and stay tuned for our review of book 3, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle! Book 4, Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove: A Mystery with a Blinking, Beeping, Voice-Recording Gadget Glove You Can Build Yourself, is scheduled for release in October, 2014.


If you have a favorite science-themed book—for any age—let us know!

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Fireworks displays are fun to watch and a tradition accompanying many community celebrations. With a simple family science activity, the mystery behind the dazzling night-time sky show can be explored. This is colorful hands-on summer science—minus the "boom" of fireworks explosions!

Fireworks / science activity to see what makes the colors

What makes all the great colors you see during a fireworks display? Experiment with a fun backyard family science activity to see firsthand how different chemicals produce different colors when burned.

Find other great hands-on science activities for families to do together in the Science Buddies Science Activities area.

Do you and your family head out each 4th of July to watch fireworks in your neighborhood? Do you tune in on New Year's Eve to watch fireworks that herald the start of the new year? In cities big and small, many hours of planning, preparation, and staging result in awe-inspiring fireworks displays designed to dazzle watchers with the biggest, brightest, and best bursts of color and light.

If the skies are clear, fireworks are sure to elicit oohs, ahhs, and cheers. From big explosions of color to subtle pops that splatter the sky with colorful trails, fireworks displays are full of amazing effects. Do you have a favorite fireworks pattern? Maybe you really like the Chrysanthemum, the Willow, or the Spider? Or maybe you love a good Saturn Shell or ring?

The shape (what it looks like when it explodes) of a fireworks effect varies, as does the height at which the fireworks climb before they explode. But part of what makes fireworks so mesmerizing is their color in the night sky.


Making Science Connections

You and your students can experiment with hands-on science to better understand what causes the colors you see in the sky during a fireworks demonstration. The Discover the Flaming Colors of Fireworks science activity is a fun way for you and your family to do science that ties in with popular July 4th celebrations in the US this week (or for Bastille Day celebrations later this month, or to better understand fireworks that happen any time of the year!).

The hands-on activity guides you and your students in experimenting with two different readily-available chemicals to see what colors these chemicals produce when burned. One of the chemicals you will use is ordinary table salt (sodium chloride). The other, copper sulfate, can be obtained from a pet store. These two chemicals will produce flame colors that are clearly different from one another, making this science that students can easily "see"—even in the dark!


More Chemicals, More Colors

For students wanting to investigate the colors of flame produced when other chemicals burn, or for students interested in turning this science activity into a full-scale science project, the Rainbow Fire kit from the Science Buddies Store contains the chemicals required to do the more comprehensive set of flame tests described in the Rainbow Fire physics project idea.

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3D printing has opened a cool new frontier of custom manufacturing that brings freedom to individuals interested in design, invention, or just in need of a rare or unusual part. With a hands-on modeling and design project using Autodesk 123D Make, students can design and assemble a layered 3D model for a better understanding of how 3D printing and additive manufacturing works.

3D printing is all the buzz. From replacement parts for household objects or toys that are broken to one-of-a-kind creations to a large-scale approach to manufacturing that may revolutionize the way products are made, 3D printing has changed how people think about "making" things that once required industrial machines and molds. In addition to giving individual inventors and designers new options for testing out ideas, 3D printing brings new possibility to many big industries, from automotive to healthcare. 3D printing is a game changer, and industry and DIY and maker communities alike are excited by what 3D print technologies enable, but the printer in your school computer lab or home office probably still prints out the same flat images and text as it always did.

What is 3D printing all about? What does it really mean for a printer to "print" a ready-made, fully-functional object, on demand, similar to the way you might request an item from a vending machine?


One-of-a-kind Designs

You may have read stories about "printed" objects ranging from artificial organs to cell phone accessories and other tchotchkes, things that someone wants to make but doesn't need a million of or even a hundred. Or maybe what you need is a specific little piece to replace something that is broken, a piece that is hard to find or no longer made. With 3D printing, you can make just one of any item you can imagine—as long as you can create a digital 3D model. There are no expensive molds and machines that have to be made, customized, or altered to handle each design or each change. Instead, using a digital design file as a blueprint, a 3D printer prints out the object, layer by layer.

With 3D printing, the z axis comes into play as the printer adds "depth" to the print. In order to create a file for 3D printing, designers use computer-aided software to create a 3D model of an object that can then be printed with a special 3D printer. Depending on the printer, 3D printed objects can be made from a variety of materials, including rubber, plastics, paper, and even metals. Using the digital blueprint, the printer (loaded with the chosen material) extrudes the material layer upon layer, similar to the way that a regular printer deposits ink as the printer head moves back and forth across the page—only dimensionally instead of just in flat, horizontal rows.


Creating Paper Models

The layer by layer approach central to 3D printing is an example of additive manufacturing. In traditional manufacturing, an object might be created by taking a block of material and removing (or subtracting) material to get to the desired shape. Sculpting something out of a block of soap or a block of wood, for example, involves a subtractive approach—you whittle away what you don't need to leave only the desired shape behind. With additive manufacturing, layers of material are added, one by one, to build the object to the desired shape and size. Only what is needed is used, so there is less waste.

That virtually any object imaginable, including artificial organs, can be constructed by printing "layers," may seem hard to believe. A novel software application from Autodesk helps remove the mystery of additive construction by giving users a hands-on way to create their own additive models.

Autodesk's 123D Make auto-converts 3D digital objects into 2D vector-cut patterns or templates. Using 123D Make, students can print out the individual layers needed to construct a 3D model (designed in another program) and then glue or tape the layers together to manually build the 3D object. Using paper (or cardboard) to construct a 3D object from layers lets students see, from the ground up, how a 3D printer creates a 3D object from layers. It's a great creative exercise, but using 123D Make is also a great way to take a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts look at how an object can be built from layers—and how computer-aided design and modeling is related to what a 3D printer will "do" when printing out the dimensional object.


Making a 3D Model

Using 123D Make, students can explore fundamental principles of 3D additive design by making their own 3D object from layers. Opening up one of the many gallery examples is a great way to get started. Choose a model like a "skull," "rocket," or "rhino," and you can immediately see how layers are used to create the item. With 123D Make, students can change the size of the item, change the direction of the "slices" (which plane is used for slicing?), and even view the same object as it could be assembled using various techniques, including stacking (layering) and paper folding.

Once a design has been finalized, it can be laser-cut (professionally) or, for an at-home look at the process, the design can be printed out on multiple sheets that contain all of the slices necessary to make the object, layer by layer. Trace and cut the shapes from cardboard, grab some glue, and you have the makings of a fascinating creative engineering activity. (Some versions of the 123D Make application animate the assembly steps, layer by layer, as shown in the screenshot below. All layers are numbered for DIY assembly.)

Screenshot from 123D Make Screenshot from 123D Make Screenshot from 123D Make
Above: Using 123D Make, students can see and print all of the layers needed to construct the 3D object.

123D Make is available as an iOS or Android app, a standalone software product, and a web application.


Next Steps

After experimenting with a cardboard-based, glue-it-together 3D model, students can continue to explore 3D modeling and 3D printing using one of a range of Autodesk tools. The Autodesk 123D site connects students with a number of free apps and tools, resources, and samples to help jump start exploration of 3D and computer-aided design.

autocad-apps.png
Above: Autodesk offers a full suite of 3D modeling and 3D printing tools.


Premier Design Tools for Educational Use

Autodesk gives students, educators, and educational institutions free access to professional design software, creativity apps, and real-world projects. For more information, details about education use, and to download software, visit the Autodesk Education Community.


What Will You Make?

If you are already a user of Autodesk software, we would love to hear from you! If you try 123D Make, or any other tool on the 123D site, please let us know. We would love to see what you build, design, explore, or even print!




Science Buddies' resources for students, teachers, and parents remain free thanks to support from sponsors like Autodesk.

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Twins Nick and Tesla launch a homemade rocket right into the heart of an unexpected mystery in book one of this fun science and engineering-themed series for middle readers. Sent to stay with an uncle for the summer, the kids quickly find their DIY spirit and engineering wits are going to be key tools in helping unravel what's going on—and keeping them safe from the jaws of some very unfriendly guard dogs!

When a book for readers in grades 4-7 starts out with a Danger! Danger! Danger! Danger! warning page, you know something is up. Four all-caps danger alerts on an all-black page can only mean that turning the page can not be a good thing, right? Of course not! For kids who pick up the first Nick and Tesla book by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith (Quirk Books), the introductory danger warning probably ups the ante tenfold in terms of anticipation of the story and projects that follow. Lucky for them, the story lives up to the ominous warnings, providing a fast-paced tale of intrigue, engineering, danger, and zany science. The plot may not be entirely believable, but the combination of exciting elements and innovative DIY projects in action yields a guaranteed pager turner.


Thumbs Up for Science and Engineering

When you meet Nick and Tesla in the opening pages of Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab: A Mystery with Electromagnets, Burglar Alarms, and Other Gadgets You Can Build Yourself (book 1 in the Nick and Tesla series), the 11-year-old twins have just landed in California and are on their way to stay with an uncle they barely know because their parents have suddenly been whisked away to work on an urgent science project (studying soybean irrigation) in Uzbekistan. Readers get their first glimpse of the twins through the eyes of a taxi driver who thinks something about the pair signals trouble. He notices that one of them is holding A Brief History of Time and one is holding Theory of Applied Robotics: Kinematics, Dynamics, and Control. He notices the black SUV that follows them from the airport to Half Moon Bay. He senses that these are no ordinary kids. Even so, he drops them off at a house where an automated lawn mower contraption is running amuck, and the first Nick and Tesla adventure begins.

These kids may have gotten ditched by their parents for the summer (the details remain mysteriously murky), but they have clearly landed in a wonderland of science and engineering, the kind of no rules, no parents, and junk food galore summer break scenario of which some kids dream—with a fully stocked science lab and workshop at their disposal. The doorbell at their Uncle's house chimes before they touch it, and although they debate about the possibility of a motion detector, they poke around and track down a pressure sensor plate. As they walk into Uncle Nick's house, they enter a world of chaos, something that sounds like an engineering junkyard, science lab, Petri dish, and compost bin combined, all guarded by a cat that has clearly licked the icing off of their "welcome" cake.

The zany scene only gets crazier when they hear someone calling for help and go to the basement lab to discover their uncle is trapped in a blob of orange goo—a spray on clothing experiment that still has a few kinks to be worked out.

Mentos and Diet Coke Explosion science project

Continue the Exploration

Kids who are inspired by the hands-on science and engineering activities in the Nick and Tesla books can find more great activities and science projects at Science Buddies. Projects that tie in, nicely, with Nick and Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab include:

Other projects students might explore after experimenting with wrapping their own electromagnet coils and triggering some soda-based chemical reactions include:

Christmas lights, an Easy Bake oven, Petri dishes, burners, saxophones, soldering irons, mattresses filled with compost... it's all here, as is a waif-like girl who appears to be trapped in the mansion down the street, guard dogs, burly bad guys, a town with a lackadaisical police force of one, and the kind of kids-hang-out-in-the-neighborhood vibe that feels like something from the past. The difference is that these kids may be hanging out in the neighborhood, but they are not just riding bikes and skipping rocks as they wile away their summer exile. Instead, they end up embroiled in a mystery that requires ingenuity, science acumen, and engineering to solve. Luckily, they have a bunch of ideas up their sleeve and are up to the task.


Nick and Tesla's first project in the book is the Low-tech Bottle Rocket and Launcher from PVC Pipe. This one may just be a boredom buster for the twins, but it effectively launches them right smack in the middle of intrigue. The nice thing about the projects is that these are not simply paper plate projects. These are DIY projects that have a bit of oomph to them, and while there are some ordinary materials in the mix, readers will need some specialty parts (and possibly a trip to the hardware store) to complete some of them. Even so, with a bit of adult assistance, these projects feel "doable" by kids. The projects are also nicely woven into the story. When the PVC pipe rocket flies over the fence, and their initial attempts to retrieve it are foiled by a pair of dogs, the pair whips up a RoboCat Dog Distractor, a clever adaptation (on wheels) of the classic Mentos/Coke reaction.

With the stage set, the story continues to unfold as the kids work to solve the mystery of the abandoned house, the ghostlike girl, and a lost pendant. They spout Occam's razor even as they design their Christmas-is-over Intruder Alert System for peace of mind. And in the end, when they really are stuck exactly where they should not be, with seemingly no way out, their resourcefulness again pays off as they scrounge together the parts for the Do-it-yourself Electromagnet and Picker-upper and put it to surprising but good use as part of a last-ditch escape plan.

As the book wraps up, all the kids safe and sound and plenty of food in the house, you know that summer has just started.... Stay tuned for our in-depth look at book two! If you can't wait, check out Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself, Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle, and Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove: A Mystery with a Blinking, Beeping, Voice-Recording Gadget Glove You Can Build Yourself (coming this fall).


Highlight on a Good Read

For the parent reader, the story verges into the lane of far-fetched, especially when the kids decide to trail the pseudo-construction workers' van. The gizmo they use, however, is undeniably nifty. Nick and Tesla set up a low-tech Semi-invisible Nighttime Van Tracker using a highlighter and a black light. Though you don't want to think of kids trying to follow bad guys with a contraption like this (much less on bikes and at night), the concept of the tracker is cool. This is certainly a simple and low-tech project the kids might try at home for other reasons. (You can see the project, and others from the book, in action in Bob Pflugfelder's videos on the Nick and Tesla site.)


More Summer Science Reading

If you have a favorite science-themed book—for any age—let us know!


Update: See our in-depth look at book 2, Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage: A Mystery with Hoverbots, Bristle Bots, and Other Robots You Can Build Yourself!


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A Super Science-filled Summer Break


Ready or not... into the summer break we go. With school (almost) out for the summer, take stock of some great science activities and challenges that are perfect to help keep kids engaged and actively learning during the break. Science may be even more fun when it is "just for fun"!

2014 Science Buddies Summer Science GuideThe long summer break can feel bittersweet for parents who worry about their students whiling away countless hours on the couch or in front of a screen and losing academic ground. Beyond the buzz of vacations and camps, and after the novelty of sleeping in and staying up late wears off, the summer sprawl can even begin to feel, at some point, a bit amorphous for students. There are a lot of hours to fill!

Luckily, there are loads of engaging science and engineering activities that can be done at home for fun or as independent summer projects and can tie in with other summer pastimes and hobbies.


Great Science on the Schedule

Every year, we pull together suggestions for summer science activities and experiments. Our roundup lists from the last two years contain many wonderful suggestions for projects kids can do during the summer and ways parents can inject a bit of science into summer planning.

This year, we will be unveiling a new area of Science Buddies in June that will be a great resource for family summer science—and family science all year long! But there are lots of projects at Science Buddies that students can enjoy even when they don't need to do a "science fair project" or complete a science project assignment.

As you look ahead to summer, remember, doing science doesn't have to be for school! You and your kids can earn an A++ this summer by exploring science and engineering at home.

Here are some of our picks for this summer:

2014 Summer Science Guide: Art Bot Robotics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rainbow Fire Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Putty Polymer Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Soft Robot Gripper Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Paper Dolls Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Electromagnet Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Grape Soda Chromatography 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bird Feet Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Rock Candy Crystal Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Cabbage Grow Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Water Float on Water Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Ant Barrier Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Hydroponics Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Electrolytes Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Hummingbird Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Ice Cream Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Bristlebot Toothbrush Robots Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide:  Carbonated Soda Science Project

2014 Summer Science Guide: Bubble Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Biosphere Science Project 2014 Summer Science Guide: Milk Carton Boats Science Project


More Great Choices for Science at Home

Don't miss these other roundup lists of great "what to do over the break" science, technology, engineering, and math projects as well:

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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.

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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! '

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / Hula Hoop Hands-on Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of science projects perfect for burning off some energy and getting your "spin" on. What is the secret to a good hula hoop? Experiment with the weight and size of different homemade hoops to see how each affects your ability to keep a hoop in motion. What's the best combination? Can you hula hoop longer with a lighter or heavier hoop? Why?

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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.

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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!

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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!


2013-blog-ladybugs.png
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."

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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!

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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.

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When reading to your children, look to the great range of science-inspired titles to infuse your read aloud time with exciting science themes and people from the pages of science history.

Summer Reading with a Science Twist / Science-themed book lists for the read-aloud crowd

Children of all ages love to be read to, and reading to your students, and encouraging older students to read every day, is especially important during summer months. Library and bookstore shelves are full of wonderful and imaginative titles, and picture books to share with the youngest of audiences blend rich illustration with lyrical narration designed to bring the words and stories alive for readers and listeners. This includes stories about science, technology, engineering, and math—and the people who have worked, innovated, and made discoveries in those areas!

As young listeners begin to follow and understand longer stories, sometimes the true stories are the ones that create the most excitement, stories that are incredible and awe-inspiring because they really happened. Is she real? Did that really happen? She spent all of her days doing that? He lived his whole life thinking of numbers? These stories often simplify biographical details, but in making a scientist accessible to young readers, they offer examples of what it means to be a scientist.

As you make your reading lists for summer (and anytime) reading with your children, consider adding some of the titles below to the mix. Each tells the story of a person in science history, someone who was once a child, once had a question, a dream, a hobby, an interest in tinkering, or an insatiable curiosity. As you share these stories with your students, you might find you learn something new about these familiar figures as well!



Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci
From pineapples to shells to the centers of an apple, the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence surround us. But it took the curiosity and persistence of one mathematician to make the world begin to see the ways in which the pattern of numbers recurs over and over again in nature. That mathematician was once a boy, and as this quasi-biographical account of his life suggests, he was a boy with a head for numbers and a love of counting, but a boy that many people overlooked and discounted—hence the nickname "blockhead." Though the book, written by Joseph D'Agnese and illustrated by John O'Brien, offers an imagined account of many of the details of Fibonacci's life, it does a great job of introducing and illustrating the discovery of the Fibonacci series and the prevalence of the pattern in the world around us. This is a charming title for a young mathematician and a good introduction to an important concept in math history for middle readers.


The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps
The Watcher, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter , introduces children to Jane Goodall and her fascination with animals and the natural world from the time she was a child. The story follows Jane to Gombe where she searches and waits for the chimpanzees that she hears but, for many months, never sees. Jane's fieldwork, and slow acceptance by the chimpanzees, is depicted in sparse text that accentuates the solitude of the story and the work. The importance for Jane of documenting her story and the chimpanzee behavior is highlighted in the book, and one image shows Jane surrounded by years and years of notes. When Jane leaves the forest to go and speak to the world on behalf of chimpanzees, readers of all ages feel the separation and her desire to be back in the place she calls home—the forest. (Older readers may enjoy Goodall's autobiography aimed at a young audience: My Life with the Chimpanzees.)


Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau
This story about Jacques Cousteau, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Éric Puybaret, begins with Cousteau's childhood interest not only in water but also in engineering and movies and then follows his life as he first finds a way to see underwater, develops a way to breathe underwater, reconditions a ship, and begins making movies of underwater life. The story ends with Cousteau's growing awareness of the impact of pollution on marine life and a call to readers of all ages to be aware of environmental problems—to help save the sea.


Odd Boy Out: Young Albert
This story of Albert Einstein, written and illustrated by Don Brown, begins with his birth—and everyone's dismay at the size of his head. As the story shows, Einstein's childhood didn't follow all typical expectations. He was a late talker. He was temperamental. He was not a great student. But when it came to things of interest, he was focused and determined, a point the book illustrates beautifully. When he discovers math, the world opens up for Einstein in new ways. The story moves quickly through Einstein's life, only touching in the final pages about the contributions he goes on to make to understanding of space, time, and energy. The focus here is, largely, on Einstein's isolation and difference, his outsider status. To some extent a sad story of one of the world's greatest minds, it is touchingly told and illustrated and helps bring to life one of the world's most pivotal thinkers.


On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein
On a Beam of Light, written by Jennifer Berne, author of Manfish, and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, also chronicles the story of Einstein. With whimsical illustration, On a Beam of Light traces Einstein's development from early childhood to adulthood, years in which his curiosity continued to drive and guide him. Einstein's famous question about what it would be like to travel on a beam of light, a question inspired by a ride on a bicycle, is wonderfully depicted. As with Odd Boy Out: Young Albert, students will find the scientist come to life in this book.


The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12)
This book about John James Audubon, written by Jacqueline Davies and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is an instant classic for anyone with a soft spot for birds and a love of art. The story starts when Audubon is eighteen, recently sent to live and learn in America, and has discovered an empty pewee bird nest in a nearby cave. Audubon waits and watches. He sees birds return to the nest and begins to wonder about migration. Are these the same birds that used the nest the year before? Where do they go in the winter? The book skirts the history of scientific thought on migration, and then follows Audubon as he puzzles over questions and comes up with a way to test and see if the same birds return to the nest. The story of his first bird banding is charmingly told, and young readers will cheer along when the birds return in the spring. If you are encouraging your students to draw every day or keep nature journals throughout the summer or year, the illustrations throughout this book of Audubon's notes and observations offer excellent examples and inspiration. Note: this is a longer book and certainly appropriate for middle and older readers as an entree into the life of the famed naturalist.


Stone Girl Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning
As this title by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Sheila Moxley, shows, Mary Anning got a 'shocking' start—she was struck by lightning at a young age and survived. Mary's father sold curios, small fossils, to tourists. Mary grows up searching for fossils in the cliffs above her home in Lyme Regis, and as a young girl, she discovers a fossilized full skeleton of an Ichthyosaur. The presence of the Philpot sisters, two female scientists Mary met, offers a reminder of the importance of mentors and role models on students—and future scientists! For additional reading about Mary Anning, the first female paleontologist, see also: Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, and Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries.


The Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth
The Boy Who Invented TV, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Greg Couch, documents the story of an engineer who changed the world—with the development of a working television. Farnsworth's story is one from the farmlands and a story that begins during the early 1900s when electricity was new (and scarce) and the phonograph and talking pictures first appeared. The book balances Farnsworth's early habit of asking questions, tinkering with equipment, and interest in engineering with the responsibilities of his life on the farm. Readers follow along as he tackles the idea of television and, over a period of several years, works on the development, creating prototypes, testing, and then making changes and trying again. Aimed at middle readers, this longer story reminds readers that even teenagers can invent something revolutionary!




More to Come

We will be sharing reading suggestions throughout the summer here on the Science Buddies Blog. The above list is just the beginning! For additional science-themed reading suggestions and book lists, see these other posts from Science Buddies:

If you have a favorite science-themed book—for any age—let us know!

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Weekly Science Activity Spotlight / M&M math and statistics Science Project for School or Family Science

In this week's spotlight: a pair of projects that put statistics in the palm of your hands. In these hands-on math projects and activities, students investigate to find out how often each color of M&M appears in a bag or group of bags. Have a guess as to which color appears most often? Put your guess to the test! What is the likelihood of pulling a yellow M&M from a brand new bag? After this activity, your student will be able to give you the odds—with some statistics to back them up!



Tip: These math-based activities can make for great summer break fun! Extend the exploration with other kinds of candies or compare data from small samples and larger samples. Just be sure no one eats the samples before the counting is done!

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It takes a lot of talent, determination, conditioning, training, and dedication to make it to the Olympics. But every sport also involves points at which angles, trajectories, momentum, and laws of physics intersect with raw talent and the thrill of performance. Learn more about what goes into Olympic-caliber success by investigating the sports science involved in your favorite Olympic events.


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Watching the Olympic Games together raises a number of exciting opportunities for sports science conversations with your family. We've got suggestions for sports science angles you can explore, at home, in between Olympic-coverage on television. Talking about some of these concepts can be a great way to blend favorite sports and some educational family science talk at dinner! (Image: Bigstock)
Excitement around the world is building as the Olympic torch is carried on the final legs of its journey. The 2012 Olympic Games begin this weekend, and millions will be watching the opening ceremonies as the Games kick off with a tribute to all athletes and participating countries. This year's Games include thirty-six large categories of sporting competition, many of which contain a number of separate events. Summer Olympic sports range from gymnastics, cycling, swimming, and track and field to beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, and Judo.

While thousands of spectators will file in to watch events in London, many of us will watch from home, including many young athletes for whom the 30th anniversary games may inspire the spark of a dream.


Watching the Games

Those who qualify to compete at the Olympics have amazing ability in their sport. In coming weeks, fans will hear and read many stories about these athletes, stories of their dedication, their rigorous training and demanding schedules, and, often, of their perseverance. These athletes are among the best, the fastest, the most flexible, and the strongest, in the world.

As you watch the games—and observe the differences in times, routines, and results—you might wonder what factors make a difference in performance. While there is no discounting talent, the more an athlete knows about the science of her sport, the more chance she has of standing on the podium and receiving a medal. From your spectator spot at home, you and your family can talk about some of the elements of sports science that relate to the sporting events you will be watching on television during this year's Olympics Games or to other favorite sports and athletic activities.


Winning Gold

The Olympics offer an exciting opportunity to think about what makes a difference between those who medal and those who don't. There may be exceptions. There may be displays of record-breaking talent in unexpected places, but there is plenty of science that underlies each sport. You and your family might have fun, in between favorite events, exploring some of these sports science questions and even putting some of them to the test at home.

Here are a few Science Buddies Project Ideas that can help you uncover kid-friendly science to talk about during the games or at dinner. While each of these projects can be conducted as a science fair entry, using the background information and general steps of the Experimental Procedure, you can turn these into family science explorations. If a casual family science experiment is the goal, you may find testing these concepts a lot of fun, and there's no need for multiple trials. Leave the multiple heats for the track and field participants!



  • "Balancing Act: Finding Your Center of Gravity": Exceptional balance on the beam is important for gymnasts during their routines, but many sports require good balance. Walk through the steps of this project to learn more about your own center of gravity.
  • "Drag Racing in the Water": Speed in a swimming race has a lot to do with how smoothly a swimmer's body passes through the water. This project helps you understand the importance of reducing drag in the water. You won't see swimmers wearing street clothes in the pool, but you might look at swimmer's gear with fresh understanding after experimenting at your local pool!
  • "Speed Quest": Many Olympic sports are feats of speed. The fastest runners, swimmers, and cyclists will take home medals in the next two weeks, and you will see and hear plenty of speed measurements—world records, speeds for certain races, and speeds needed to qualify for final heats. Learn more about how to calculate and understand speed, and then put your own speed to the test! You'll also learn to compare speeds in races of different distances.
  • "Jumping Distance": Do events that take place in the center arena of track and field keep you on the edge of your seat? If you have tried standing and running long jumps before, you know how amazing the distances Olympic track and field athletes jump can be. This project helps you investigate the importance of the "running" start in the running long jump and will give you a better understanding of the relationship between the starting distance, the speed, momentum, and the ultimate jump.
  • "Jack and Jill Went Up a Hill and Came Biking Down After": Choosing the Best Gear Ratio for Speed": Learn more about how bicycle gears work, and what range of gears generate the most speed as a cyclist comes around a curve and into a straightaway.
  • "Nothing But Net: The Science of Shooting Hoops": Grab a ball and experiment with your basketball shooting technique. If you are watching the Olympic Games, see if you can tell how the most successful players get off their shots!


The Olympic Spirit

Have fun watching the Games and making your own real-world connections at home as you uncover some of the science at work beneath the medal-winning performances. You might even find that the seed of a science project for the coming school year gets planted by your family exploration!


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The Eyes Have It!


Get the kids together, build a simple vision protractor, and play a fun game of "now you see it, now you don't" while exploring the world of peripheral vision.


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Have you ever joked with your kids that you have eyes in the back of your head—letting you see things even when you seem to not be looking? While you probably only have eyes in the front, your eyes do use two different kinds of vision processes. So even when you are paying attention to something in front of you, you can see things that appear to the sides of what you are focusing on. How far to each side can you see? Is the range of peripheral vision the same for everyone?

You and your family can explore by making a cool vision protractor from foam board. Forget about the chart with the big "E" as you measure what "else" you can see, even when you aren't trying to! (Image: Bigstock)

It's a Side Issue

You are reading an exciting mystery in your favorite chair and suddenly spy one of your kids sneaking into the room to scare you. You and your kids are throwing baseball in the backyard, and as you catch the ball, you notice a friend waving at you over the fence. What do these two activities have in common? Peripheral vision!


One Set of Eyes, Two Kinds of Vision

We are almost always using both central vision and peripheral vision. Central vision is what we use to focus our eyes on one particular thing, such as a few words in a sentence or a particular tree in the yard. At the same time, our peripheral vision fills in the surrounding information. For example, if you focus your eyes on a tree in the yard, your peripheral vision fills in the grass, fence, bushes, and sky that are around the tree. What you see with peripheral vision is less sharply focused.

Our peripheral vision is controlled by the rods and cones in our retinas. Cones are sensitive to color, whereas rods are sensitive to motion. Rod cells are also better at sensing objects in dim light than cone cells are and are responsible for detecting things moving toward you before you can focus on them. The placement of the rods and cones on our retinas controls our peripheral vision.


Test Your Peripheral Vision

Just as people have different running abilities, people also have differing peripheral vision abilities. Using foam board, string, and a few other simple materials, you and your kids can build a vision protractor to compare each other's peripheral vision. The "Now You See It, Now You Don't" project guides you through the process. Once complete, the vision protractor is a fun tool for exploring what we really can and can't see. Test each other by moving small objects in and out of your range of vision. But don't cheat! Always keep your eyes focused on a fixed object directly in front of you.

Other questions you might explore using the vision protractor include: Is it easier to see some colors than others? Are larger objects easier to see than smaller ones? What role does ambient lighting play in peripheral vision? What if the objects are moving? What if you didn't have peripheral vision? How would your life be different?

Build the protractor, test your vision, and see how fun family summer science can be!






Science Buddies Project Ideas in Human Biology & Health are sponsored by the Medtronic Foundation.
Elmer's Products is the official classroom sponsor for Science Buddies.

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Rising sixth-grade student weighs in on the first week of Gamestar Mechanic's summer video game design camp. The first week was all about platformers. Do you know what it takes to make a top-notch platformer like Super Mario or Donkey Kong?


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Unit 1 of the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Program focused on platformer games. Students were presented with an engaging set of challenges and materials within a special section of the Gamestar Mechanic environment (screenshot above shows a portion of Unit 1's interface). The program from E-Line Media offers an immersive summer game design experience, one that may parlay into further school-year science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) exploration based on video game design projects—or even participation in competitions like the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Related posts and resources at Science Buddies:

Gamestar Mechanic's online summer video game design program is underway! Geared specifically for students ages 10-14, the virtual summer "camp" gives students who love video games, or who have already begun exploring video game design, a chance to level up their knowledge of video game history, major game styles, and core design elements. As they work through four weekly units and tackle various activities, assignments, and challenges, participants will get plenty of fun and focused hands-on game design practice. Budding game designers will also benefit from feedback from other student designers, their instructor, and, in the end, an industry pro.

On paper, a camp that involves four weeks of making and playingvideo games sounds like a great opportunity for the student video game enthusiast. Not only does the student get to spend a month playing games and tackling video game design challenges, but the course is flexible in timing and can be worked in and around other summer activities and programs. What's it like from the student perspective?


One Designer's Experience

Science Buddies is taking a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look at the Gamestar Mechanic Summer Program by peeking over the shoulder of Matthew, a student designer taking the course. Soon to be a middle school student, Matthew particularly enjoys math and science, reads manga, plays soccer, is a visual artist, and has a deep affinity for video games, especially one for iOS, Nintendo DS, Wii, and Facebook. Before he could read, he was telling people he wanted to be a video game designer.

In past summer experiences, Matthew has used Stagecast Creator and Multimedia Fusion. After learning about Gamestar Mechanic from Science Buddies, he worked through the quests there. He also recently explored Yoyo's GameMaker. This summer's Gamestar Mechanic program is a next step in the exploration of video game design for Matthew. He's already a fan of the Gamestar Mechanic platform, so at the outset of Week 1, he was excited about the course and hoping to both learn more, encounter some new challenges. In short, he's looking at this summer camp experience as a way to level up!


Unit 1: The Platformer

The first week of the course focuses on platformer games. Whether they know the terminology or not, most gamers are probably familiar with games in this genre. Classic games like Donkey Kong, Mario, and even early Sonic all exemplify the platformer format.

The first week's course materials kick off with an excellent and engaging video in which a headset-wearing guide walks users through the key elements of a platformer game. From perspective to gravity, students get a video-based crash course in what really "matters" in this genre—and a look at plenty of examples of games that demonstrate these key elements. Did you know that being able to "jump" is particularly important in a platformer? Couple that fact with the importance of perspective, and you've got the foundation for a game. "Jumping is what makes a platformer a platformer," says Matthew. "If your character can't jump, you'd have a top-down," he explains.

Being a veteran at Gamestar Mechanic, Matthew was familiar with much of the material for week one, but the videos, game samples, and challenges helped review and reinforce key concepts. Differentiating between the platformer and another core style, he continues, "In a top-down game, bird's-eye view, you can't jump, and you don't change gravity. But in a platformer, you can control gravity." Gravity makes a huge difference in game play, says Matthew. "Set it to six, and you feel like you have a 1,000 pound boulder on your back."

In addition to perspective and gravity, students learned about various jumps that can be used to navigate the spatial elements of a platformer. "I learned what all the jumps are called—hook, horizontal, and vertical—and how to use them to their highest potential inside of my games." He says that the examples helped him think about the importance of using the various jumps effectively.

After completing his first game assignment, a platformer, he moved on to one of the extra-credit challenges for the first week—design a re-make of a retro classic platformer. "That was really cool," says Matthew, who admits to searching for his old copy of Super Mario for the Gameboy to relive the fun after watching the Super Mario video in the course. "That assignment was cool because you were able to see you can make games like Sonic using Gamestar Mechanic," he says. "Sometimes, you can even make them better!"

When asked about the importance of a young designer going back and looking at a timeline of video games, Matthew notes that he hadn't heard of all the games he learned about in the first week of camp. Games that are familiar and nostalgic for older gamers are sometimes games younger games don't know at all. The course's careful attention to the history of design and gaming upon which tomorrow's games will build is a cool stepping stone for the participants and helps connect what they are learning to the video gaming industry at large.


Moving Ahead

Matthew is now working on Unit 2—the Action Game. Stay tuned as we check in with him next week to see how it's going.


Sign-ups are now open for the next sessions of the Gamestar Mechanic Online Learning Program, with six-week sessions beginning September 10, 2012.

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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.



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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?


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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.



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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.

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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!


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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!


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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.



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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!


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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!



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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.

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A new online video game design program from the makers of Gamestar Mechanic offers video game enthusiasts the chance to move from player to designer—with the help of industry pros.


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"Whether you're a beginning game designer or have some prior experience, the key way to 'level up' is to keep making games and getting feedback on your work."
~ Brian Alspach, E-Line Media

Virtual "Summer Camp" for Student Video Game Designers

A new four-week summer program for students combines the power and fun-factor of Gamestar Mechanic with customized feedback and mentoring from industry professionals. With this new program, E-Line Media, the company behind Gamestar Mechanic, hopes to create a new learning pathway for student video game designers. Game on! (Four-week sessions begin July 2, 2012! Learn more.)


Supporting the Science of Video Game Design

The following Science Buddies resources and Project Ideas help students turn an interest in video game design into a science project:

Xavier / Student Success Story
Students Succeeding with Video Game Design Projects

More and more students, like Xavier (pictured above), are exploring video game design angles in projects for schools, local fairs, and competitions like the National STEM Video Game Challenge and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Check these two recent success stories:

Are your students enrolled in camps this summer? From camps that triangulate art, science, and physical play to create a multi-faceted day-to-day experience to specialized camps that offer the ability to focus on a particular subject, hobby, or skill over an extended set of days, summer camps invite exploration through hands-on projects and activities. While lanyard-making still makes an appearance at some camps, the "meat" of many camps lies in their ability to enable an immersive subject- or theme-oriented experience that lets students explore new fields or dive further into areas of high interest.

Offering an à la carte approach to summer, camps have cropped up en masse in recent years to intersect with a wide range of student interests, including LEGO, robotics, science, art, music, cooking, and even skateboarding. In short, if your student has a particular interest or passion, there is likely a camp—even for video game design and programming.


Virtual Summer Camp

E-Line Media, the company behind Gamestar Mechanic, a popular online video game design environment, is giving summer camp a virtual boost with the introduction of a new four-week, online video game design program. Created for students ages 10-14, the flexible program combines the appeal of the Gamestar Mechanic interface as a fun, engaging, and easy-to-learn entry point for kids interested in gaming or game design with the expertise of professional video game designers who will work with and mentor the young game makers. Through a series of exercises and challenges, students will, over the course of the four-week program, further their own design portfolio as they explore and create platform games, adventure games, and action games. The program culminates with each student's creation of a final project, a game that showcases the student's growing skills as a video game designer.


The Story Behind the Virtual Summer Program

Science Buddies caught up with Brian Alspach, Executive Vice President and General Manager for E-Line, to find out more about the summer program.

Q: Gamestar Mechanic does a great job, year-round, of introducing students to fundamental video game design concepts—and hooking them on making their own games. What was the inspiration behind creating a more "class-like" virtual summer program extension and experience?

A: We see lots of young people with an interest in making games. For some, that interest is just beginning, and we think Gamestar Mechanic and the self-moderated learning experience you can have there can help a student with a burgeoning interest get started on a learning pathway in game design. But we do see it as only the start of a pathway, and for kids who want explore that interest more deeply, we want to build out the entire ecosystem around game design. That includes deeper learning experiences like the online summer program.


Q: The summer course is designed with students ages 10-14 in mind. How flexible, or extensible, is the learning opportunity in terms of skill level? Will the course scale and provide both challenge and room to grow for someone who has been building games for a while using Gamestar Mechanic? Or is the course primarily for the beginning game designer?

A: Whether you're a beginning game designer or have some prior experience, the key way to 'level up' is to keep making games and getting feedback on your work. One of the unique things that the summer program offers is an opportunity to do this in a highly scaffolded environment with instructors and game industry pros who are dedicated to working with the young designers and giving them that kind of feedback. It creates a unique opportunity for growth and self-expression around the areas that the aspiring young designer is interested in.


Q: Does the course use Gamestar Mechanic as the sole development environment?

A: It does. At this stage of the online learning, we're trying to keep the focus on game design, both because it's the area where we have the most experience but also because the skills that make someone a good designer tend to be underrepresented in approaches that, say, have kids jump into the technical side of game creation right away. Over time, we'll be expanding our online learning program to include courses that focus on other topics and disciplines within game design—programming, art creation, other game genres, etc..—so this course will serve as a nice entry point to set kids up for those future experiences, too.


Q: By approaching video game design as a 'game,' Gamestar Mechanic makes it easy—and fun—for 'players' to get started with game design. To what degree do you feel the environment prepares students to jump to the next level in game design (e.g., more object-oriented design and programming)?

A: I think approaching it as a game is a great way to build motivation, keep kids engaged, and create opportunities to learn from examples, especially at an early stage. But it really is an entry point to a learning pathway of increasing flexibility in game making, more technical skill being required. If you don't have a solid grounding in design concepts and skills, it's easy to lose your way. These online courses are one way we're approach building out that pathway, and I think this first one in the summer program provides a good starting point.


Q: Based on how the course is structured, what will a typical student exit with in terms of a portfolio of games she has designed?

A: There is a mixture of optional and required game making projects in the course, so students can exit with a portfolio of something like a dozen games by the time they complete the course, with a combination of instructor, pro-designer and peer feedback on all of them.


Q: Pairing aspiring game designers with industry experts is an exciting aspect of the program. How will this component work? Who will the students be working with, and what kinds of interaction can they expect?

A: We think it's a really transformational thing. The kids will have personal instructors, who are educators and students of game design, who will provide coaching and feedback throughout the course. In addition, a subset of their game design assignments will be reviewed by 'game pros'—real folks working in the game industry as designers, producers, artists, etc.... We've got a really neat format where the pros playtest the students' games and video capture their play along with a PIP window with them giving their feedback. The kids get to see a pro react to their game in real time and get suggestions on how to improve it.


Q: What is most exciting to you about this new summer program?

A: For me, the opportunity to connect kids with mentorship and coaching from the instructors and pros is really compelling. If you're a kid with an interest in, say, sports or music, there are tons of support structures you can draw on to help you along the way. That doesn't exist for the most part if your interest is in making games, so we're excited to be taking our first steps to help create some of them.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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Summer Science Reading


Your students need to keep reading—all summer long. Reading helps fight summer brain drain, but if you encourage your students to read books with a science theme, the pages read do double duty. And you? If a popular science title isn't what you would typically grab for a vacation read, it might be time to shake up your summer reading. Science Buddies staff offers suggestions for engaging science-themed reads for tweens and up.

As our elementary school principal wrapped up his "morning circle" announcements a few weeks ago on the last day of school, he closed with: "And students, don't forget to read this summer. Every day." There were a few token groans around the circle, but I couldn't help but smile, happy to have had the critical importance of summer reading highlighted in that way—as a reminder to parents as well as to students. Statistics are clear that reading and math are two areas of learning at the most risk over the summer. I'm sure it's no coincidence that public libraries around the country offer prize-laden summer reading programs as incentive to keep kids reading. I remember a "bookworm" club years and years ago. When it comes to reading, not much has changed. What has changed is the availability of so many other things to do, to schedule, and to flip on, all of which can put time spent with a nose in a book on the back burner, for students and adults alike.

No matter what activities, vacations, camps, or schedules you keep during the swathe of summer days, make sure there is plenty of reading going on. As you help your students choose books and encourage them to read a few more chapters, be on the lookout for great science picks. Mix daily reading with science-themed books, and what do you get? The combination can be a recipe for exciting, immersive, eye-opening, mind-expanding summer reading. We encourage plenty of hands-on science exploration over the summer, both small ones and longer-term ones that bridge the days and develop throughout the break. But reading about science can also broaden a student's frame of reference and open up new paths of potential interest—for everyone in the family! Set a great example, and stock your own to-read shelf with some of today's most exciting popular science titles.


"Checking Out" Science

After reading Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch... and What It Takes to Win last month and finding myself really caught up in the stories of the students profiled, I started pulling a wide range of science-themed books from the library shelves. In recent weeks, I have been surrounded by piles of science and math titles, stacks of books brimming with information on nests, spirals, chemistry, physics, poisons, biology, and more. With each one I picked up, I found myself hooked in different ways.


Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built ThemNests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them has been open next to me for a number of days. Nests The book is a beautiful collection of photos of birds nests—and their eggs. If you think all nests are woven baskets of twigs, you will find Nests an eye-opening and wonderful exploration of the amazing diversity, artistry, innovation, resourcefulness, adaptation, and sheer functionality encapsulated in the nests made by different kinds of birds. Twigs, man-made debris, saliva and spider webs only tap the surface of the range of materials used in nest construction, and each species builds nests that tell a story, in part, of the local habitat. Accompanying Beals' photos are short but thorough profiles of each species covering nest-building, mating, parenting, migration, and other distinguishing characteristics. This is a book birders of all ages, life-list or not, can savor.


Intrigued by the bevvy of kitchen chemistry titles on the market, I cracked open the pages of What Einstein Told His Cook 2, one of a series of books from Robert Wolke. In this volume, Wolke tackles a broad spectrum of questions from readers of his Washington Post column in categories like beverages, dairy and eggs, vegetables, seafood, and grains and carbohydrates. In response to seemingly simple but earnest questions, some of which bring up family kitchen lore handed down through the ages, Wolke explains the science that underlies everyday observations you can make in the kitchen. Wolke's approach targets the casual science reader and kitchen enthusiast. You might find an answer to a question you've wondered about, or an answer to something you've noticed but never thought to question. Ever asked why tea stored in the refrigerator turns cloudy?


What to Read

After scanning titles, reviews, and book blurbs on some favorite science-related and bookseller sites, I had scores of amazing-sounding titles I wanted to look up, check out, thumb through, curl up with, or share with my own students. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and FalloutThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, with its glow-in-the-dark cover, might be next on my to-read list, but I've also been wanting to read something by Jane Goodall, and my own interests leave me curious to see Field Notes on Science & Nature. Some titles are just tantalizing and intriguing, like Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History and The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. But then there are titles exposing the dark side of plants, the underbelly of poison, and a beekeeper's efforts to save the bees. With so many popular science titles vying for attention, I asked the Science Buddies staff to share favorite titles they recommend for both high-school readers and adults. Their suggestions, shown below, contain both new and classic titles from popular science, and even a perennial science fiction favorite, that you and your older students may enjoy. We would love to hear your favorite science titles as well!

While you shouldn't always judge a book by its cover, here's our list of suggestions for summer science reading:



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements Feynman Botany of Desire The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory The Hot Zone The Coming Plague A Brief History of Time The Selfish Gene Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters I,Robot Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales Coincidences, Chaos and all That Math Jazz Cooking for Geeks Desert Solitaire The Flamingos Smile The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout A Passion for Mathematics: Numbers, Puzzles, Madness, Religion, and the Quest for Reality Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science What Einstein Kept Under His Hat: Secrets of Science in the Kitchen Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!


We will be posting other lists of some of our favorite middle and K-5 titles, including some graphic novels and manga, and some suggested math titles, so stay tuned!


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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!


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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.

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    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.


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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!

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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New Summer Science Fellows Videos


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Our Summer Science Fellows recently turned the camera on themselves and had a great time shooting videos related to two of our Project Ideas. Here's a recap from Maddy:

"In July, the six Science Buddies Summer Fellows met and discussed ways that social media could be used to connect more students, teachers, and families to Science Buddies resources. After considering the various ways individuals use online media, we agreed that a fun and engaging approach to getting the audience interested in, and excited about, Science Buddies Project Ideas would be to create YouTube videos demonstrating cool Project Ideas ourselves.


We hope these videos will become a series of YouTube vignettes. For our first two installations, we decided to demonstrate the following projects:

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The videos, posted on the Science Buddies YouTube channel, reflect the diverse personalities, interests, and talents of the Summer Fellows, and we hope that they highlight and spread our enthusiasm for Science Buddies and science education."

It looks like the Summer Science Fellows had a great time, and we hope you enjoy the videos! We're looking forward to seeing more! The two projects demonstrated in their first two videos can be found here:


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Building Bridges


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Born on June 13, 1806: John Augustus Roebling, an engineer especially known for suspension-style bridges and the design of the Brooklyn Bridge. From straws to balsa wood to egg shells, students can get hands-on this summer exploring and testing bridge construction. In an episode of the "Magic School Bus," Ms. Frizzle's class experimented with gum drops and toothpicks. What will you use? (Image Source: Wikipedia)


Today in Science History: Are you following our updates on famous scientists and engineers? It's a great way to spark inquiry and discussion over the summer. We post these updates on our Facebook page. Please join us there!


A classic Magic School Bus episode involves making a bridge out of materials found in the bathroom in order to cross the bathtub, in which an alligator is lurking. To complicate matters, Ms. Frizzle's class has been shrunk! At two inches tall, the span of the bathtub seems about the size of the Grand Canyon!


Making Connections

Connected building blocks stacked vertically make a tower. But the same connected stack stretched side to side between two elevated objects creates a bridge.... and brings up bridge-related problems, like sagging! Shorten the distance of the bridge, and you may minimize the sagging. But if you need to span a bigger area, what can you do?

Tinkering with concepts of bridge design and principles of structural engineering is something students can explore alone or in teams, and summer is a great time to gather household supplies, and see what works. Bridge building offers a creative activity, a brain teaser, and an engineering project all wrapped up in one. Make it a challenge! Which kind of bridge is strongest? How can you test bridge strength? How can various kinds of bridges be reinforced to increase their strength? Which type of bridge holds up best in an earthquake? How wide can the bridge be before and remain strong?


In Action

For hands-on fun with bridges and an introduction to structural design, check out the following Science Buddies science fair project ideas:

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