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Science Buddies Blog: April 2011 Archives

Science Buddies Wins Prestigious SPORE Award

AAAS / Science logo
The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) is awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science.

When you hear the word "spore," what comes to mind? Single-celled, self-replicating organisms? The whacky creatures in a popular video game? Something that grows and adapts? Something that spreads? Depending on the context, a "spore" might fit any of those descriptions. And with the encouragement of Science Buddies Project Ideas and resources, students can experiment with spores--or with slime molds or the use of water as a renewable energy source or patterns of bird migration or ocean acidification or chloroplast sequencing. They can even pinpoint the center of the Milky Way!

As founder and president Kenneth Hess notes, "every year, ten million K-12 students in North America must complete a science project." The hardest part of the process for many of those students is selecting a project. At Science Buddies, students can choose from over a 1000 projects in over 30 areas of science. From genomics to ocean and environmental sciences, students can access exciting free Project Ideas on the Science Buddies website, many of which enable them to follow in the footsteps of today's cutting-edge researchers, exploring new and developing science techniques, procedures, and questions.

For the last ten years, Science Buddies has been seeding interest in, and excitement for, science and furthering science literacy both in classroom settings and at home. This process of providing tools to support science literacy and to encourage students to explore areas of science they might not have considered has been part of Science Buddies' approach since its inception, and Science Buddies' offerings have continued to grow and evolve. Student by student, teacher by teacher, parent by parent, and researcher by researcher, the Science Buddies community has spread.

Today, Science awarded Science Buddies a Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, an award created to recognize "the best online materials in science education." "We want to recognize innovators in science education," says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science.

"We're extremely honored to be recognized by such a prestigious publication that represents the entire scientific community," says Hess. "It provides tremendous validation for our efforts to advance science education and literacy."

And with recognition, science literacy spreads and spreads again and again and again. It's a replication process worth celebrating.

Science Buddies is honored to be named a SPORE recipient.

Hard-Boiled Science

Hard-boiling and dyeing eggs offers a number of avenues for families to explore both food science and chemistry. Forgoing boxed dye tablets, the eggs shown above were dyed using natural ingredients like turmeric and beets. Photo: Whiteley Creek, used with permission.

We hard-boiled and dyed eggs over the weekend, and the process opened up unexpectedly fertile ground for scientific exploration in my house. A simple, early-morning Google search clued me in to the fact that for at least a decade, I've been boiling my eggs incorrectly. Not only that, but according to my quick from-the-chair research, it seems that all my life I've been unwittingly eating overcooked hard-boiled eggs. I thought that sickly green layer to the yolk was simply... a fact of a hard-boiled egg. It's not! And the smell? Are you familiar with the sulfur-smell that often accompanies the hard-boiling process (or your Easter morning memories)? Only if you are also a victim of what may very well be the over-cooked, hard-boiled egg syndrome.

Newly aware of the fact that hard-boiled egg yolks should have beautiful sunshine-yellow-orange insides, I scanned a few online sites only to realize that there are dozens and dozens (to the power of Google) of supposedly "tried-and-true" ways to hard-boil the perfect egg. Few of them agree on the specifics, but they all agree that the yucky green color is not the goal.

Weekend Kitchen Science

I tend to be a bit over-cautious about cooking times, and I don't have any reason to willingly eat undercooked eggs, so I was a bit unsure about hard-boiling for considerably "less" time than I've done in the past. (It has since been pointed out to me that when frying eggs... I do leave the yellows slightly runny, so there's no logical reason to defend over-hard-boiling.) Given my food-bacteria-paranoia, and faced with scores of varying approaches, I decided we would try two different hard-boiling methods... and see how each turned out.

Obviously, we had a science experiment in the making! Later, when we dyed eggs, my 10-year-old was quick to understand that in order to evaluate the results, we needed to keep track of which eggs were which, so we assigned one batch of eggs to the orange, red, pink tubs and the other batch of eggs to the blue, turquoise, green, and purple tubs.

Our exploration didn't end there, however. When it comes to raising science questions worthy of Saturday-afternoon family exploration, we were on a roll. When you dye eggs, you're supposed to add vinegar to the mix in order to maximize the intensity of the dye. The pH of the vinegar affects the binding of the dye, but most instructions call specifically for white vinegar. As things often go in my house, my initial search of the lazy Susan cabinet (you know, the one that spins around and has cans stacked two or three high and a dozen or so buried inches back) didn't turn up white vinegar. What I did turn up was two bottles of apple cider vinegar, a salad dressing favorite. Frustrated that I couldn't find plain ol' vinegar, but aware that two kids were waiting to dye the requisite eggs—and trusting that I had what it took to make the process work—it seemed we'd have to give it a try.

Given that changing the pH of the water is the point of adding vinegar to the dye solution, apple cider vinegar should work, but would it work? Would the color of apple cider vinegar change the color of the dyes? Would the "sweetness" of the vinegar change the effectiveness? Did we really need yet another science experiment in the same day?

Luckily, I had two sets of dye tablets, and so we started out by prepping a set of dye baths for all colors using apple cider vinegar. We waited for the tablets to dissolve. We added the water. We submerged the eggs. A few minutes later, the eggs seemed to be taking on no color at all. It seemed like the apple cider vinegar not only wasn't working... it almost seemed to be interfering with the process. With a bit more searching, voila, I turned up a bottle of white vinegar, and we started again. I prepped a single new dye bath with vinegar, and we watched the reaction as the white vinegar began dissolving the dye tablet. There was pronounced fizzing and bubbling... which we had not observed with the apple cider vinegar.

With a small quantity of household Easter eggs at stake, I made a decision... scrap the apple cider vinegar. I dumped all the initial baths, rinsed the little plastic, egg-shaped tubs, and made new dye baths with white vinegar. Had we truly been going to document our results, we'd have run our trials side by side. But we didn't have that many hard-boiled eggs ready and waiting!

In the end, we had a handful of dyed eggs. They weren't Martha Stewart-worthy, and even with white vinegar, we didn't get the dye intensity we'd hoped for. It's something we'll explore again though! And next year, maybe we'll try more natural dyes, like the ones you can achieve using turmeric powder, beets, cabbage, and other natural plant-based ingredients. (I wish I'd seen these eggs earlier!)

In reality, the apple cider vinegar should have worked. Science Buddies staff scientist, Sandra Slutz confirmed for me Monday morning that using it in place of white vinegar should have been fine. "Making the water more acidic is what matters for increasing the dye uptake," she told me. I was maybe too quick to give up. If we'd had pH strips on hand, we could have furthered our informal study by comparing the pH level of the two vinegars. All things considered, it sounds like our dye experience is a good starting place for a longer, more controlled experiment.

The Proof is in the Yolk

And how did the hard-boiling turn out? We didn't know until the next day when we cracked and peeled eggs from each "method." Was there a difference? You bet! We had one set that sported the well-known sickly green ring. And we had one set with sunny, yellow-orange yolks. We noticed something else, however... the sunny ones were much, much harder to peel cleanly. (Okay, they were impossible to peel cleanly. Do you have a guess as to why? Have a hypothesis? Any thoughts on what you'd need to do to ensure your testing is controlled?) There's definitely room for some further exploration of hard-boiling and of the difference the "age" of an egg makes on the end result. And obviously there's room for a more formal experimental process! But we were excited about what we did—and about how things turned out.

Making Connections

With the egg hunt in my house over (and, ironically, we hunt plastic eggs—we dye eggs out of a sense of "you're-supposed-to" tradition), I poked around on the Science Buddies website today to see if we had a project that would have given me the golden key to perfect hard-boiling. What I discovered is that we have a project that deals with soft-boiling. So if you're interested in eggs... you might just find an egg-citing project in Egg-cellently Cooked Eggs: The Process of Soft-Boiling an Egg. Or... create your own variation with hard-boiled eggs. Or... tackle the dyeing process and see what it takes to get dazzlingly bright dyed eggs!

Something else came to mind, as I watched the dye tablets react with the vinegar in our little plastic containers. The dispersion of the color was immediately clear, and you could watch the tablet as it fizzled down, smaller and smaller until it disappeared. As I watched, I thought about a set of projects on the Science Buddies site that create a pretty amazing visual display of chemistry... a swirling, color-changing display, in fact. The projects are a duo involving the Briggs-Rauscher (BR) reaction:

What's really interesting about these projects is that the reaction is what is called an "oscillating" reaction. It doesn't simply go from A to B and then stop, as many reactions do.

From the project:

Most chemical reactions ... move in one direction, from reactants (starting chemicals) to products. In this chemistry science project, you will experiment with a rare and exotic reaction that oscillates. The reaction products appear and disappear for a number of cycles. Because the products are colored, the solution appears alternately blue, then yellow, then clear.

There's definitely room in this project for a "wow that's cool" reaction from a class or a group gathered for an informal science experiment!

[Science Buddies encourages adventures in family science, even when they don't turn out as expected! For tips and suggestions on making more room for science exploration and discussion at home, check out our Science Mom's video appearances. And be sure to browse our list of science projects perfect for the weekend.]

Earth Day: Staff Picks!

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

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

    MarisaMarisa: The Big Dig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Day: Turn Over a New Log

"Beetle collection at the Melbourne Museum, Australia," Wikipedia In celebration of Earth day, take a colorful entomological look at biodiversity by browsing Pheromone: The Insect Artwork of Christopher Marley.

When it comes to things that creep, crawl, or fly, I'm of the squeamish variety, and I well remember a high school science class assignment that involved finding and mounting fifty different insects. My "ick" is seemingly instinctive, but I also remember being enchanted by variations of beetles and the coloration and patterning in them and other hard-shell insects. As an adult, I tend to stick with the "ick", but spend an hour outdoors with a group of elementary school students, and it is hard to remain unmoved by their natural curiosity and fearlessness, by their wide-eyed embrace of the world around them, of things that lurk in corners and under logs, rocks, or piles of leaves. I may not embrace the slime left by a snail in one's palm, but that snails appear all along the hedges in the morning dew or after the rain... is worth noting. The way isopods navigate a hodgepodge obstacle course of blocks and pencils... is cause for excitement. Ladybugs, worms, spiders, ant colonies, stick bugs, beetles, butterflies... there's a lot to explore at ground-level.

In thinking about Earth Day this year, I thought about a profile of Dr. Edward O. Wilson (by James Gorman) that I read in New York Times Science. The piece begins with a description of Wilson, an entomologist and zoologist, on his hands and knees scrambling through the leaves near historic Walden Pond. The essay goes on to depict Wilson as brimming with an irrepressible zest for what Gorman terms the "micro wilderness"— the "wilderness" that can be found when one stoops down and really looks at what's happening on the ground.

There is an old saying that you are never more than a few feet from a spider, whether you see glistening woven signs of them bridging the corners of a windowsill or door jamb or not. For Wilson, the bio-diversity that can be observed a few centimeters below the ground is an endless source of wonder, and the number of creatures in even a square foot of wilderness can tally in the tens of thousands.

A Big-Screen Example

The essay on Wilson came to mind recently when I watched Avatar. I was the only one in my house that hadn't seen it, and I finally watched it, in part, because of an essay I read by another New York Times Science science writer, Carol Yoon. In "Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist's Dream," Yoon practically swoons over Avatar and the intensely-colored, very blue, lush, and "flowing" world of Pandora. Her review of the blockbuster hit is from the perspective of a scientist, maybe one that has often been cynical of big-screen representations of science and scientists. According to Yoon, Avatar got it right.

"When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: "Yes! That's exactly what it's like!"

Watching the movie, it is almost impossible not to catch one's breath at the natural world that's been enlarged, given shape, color, luminosity, and a clearly visualized interconnectedness with both the indigenous Na'vi people and other flora and fauna. There are many, many "that's almost like x" or "that reminds me of" moments as you watch the characters traverse and interact with Pandora, and every viewer probably has a different favorite. From plants that curl up at touch to jellyfish-like organisms to the bioluminescence of the ground when it's walked across, Pandora is visually captivating. The quiet moments of natural exploration and revelation in the movie are mesmerizing. And, if Yoon is right, it's exactly the kind of pop culture representation that can both satisfy scientists and make a general viewing audience stop and think.

Earth Day, Once More

For someone who self-describes as squeamish, maybe it's unusual how profound I found the essay on Wilson. Similarly, I love Yoon's giddy response to Avatar, and her elucidation of all the ways in which, for her, Avatar's Pandora does a wonderful job taking what we know and turning it into something mystical and compelling.

Inspired by their stories, I wonder if the perfect way to celebrate Earth Day might be to trek out into the woods, turn over a log, and really look to see the "wildlife" in motion. That there would almost certainly be birds to hear and maybe glimpse would be a bonus. And if you're lucky enough to spot a frog or a salamander, great. Take a notebook, write down what you see, make a quick sketch or two, and enjoy time spent appreciating, observing, and learning about the Earth right under your feet and maybe just beyond the mainstream road in your neighborhood.

A Focused Approach

The following projects can help you and your students turn renewed awareness and appreciation of what's underfoot into a stepping stone for scientific exploration:

Making Connections

For other ideas on talking about biodiversity with students, ones old enough to watch Avatar, check the "Nature's Call: Drawing Inspiration From 'Avatar' to Study and Create Organisms" teacher's guide from NYT's The Learning Network.

The da Vinci Way

Sample page from journals of Leonardo da Vinci. Image: public domain.
Born on April 15, 1452: Leonardo daVinci, a "total package" when it comes to the quest for knowledge. Students learning the importance of a lab notebook might find inspiration in da Vinci's famed journals. The notebooks contain over ten thousand illustrated pages, written in mirror cursive, in which da Vinci recorded daily observations, including science and engineering schematics.

See our "Lab Notebooks" blog entry for helpful tips and tricks compiled from staff scientists at Science Buddies.

What do your science notebooks look like? Do you have a picture to share? We'd love to see!

Celebrate the History of Space Flight


Screenshot from First Orbit (the movie), created by FirstOrbit.org.

Today marks the 50 year anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's 108-minute, first human in space, orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. It's a big day in the history of space exploration and flight!

To join in the celebration, make a bit of "space" in your day for some space history!

  • Make contact.

    Students (or classes) interested in space studies can try and make contact with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). Our HAMing It Up with the Astronauts* project can help get them started.

  • Explore liftoff.
    Students can learn more about the power behind liftoff when they use an online NASA simulator to design an ion engine, part of a propulsion system which is replacing the standard chemical propulsion system.

  • Think big.

    Students can explore a range of astro-related science projects in the Science Buddies Project Ideas Directory.

  • Look ahead.

    Explore a space- and astronomy-related careers, including Aerospace Engineer and Astronomer.

  • Tune in.

    Don't miss First Orbit, a free hour-and-a-half YouTube video that weaves together original footage and new footage from the ISS to recreate, in real time, that first flight. Class popcorn party anyone?

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