Happy New Year – Return to Normal?

Frosty Field

All of us have this definition of normal.  With the holidays completed, there is this sense that we are going to return to normal.  But, what is that?  Really, what we are saying is that we are returning to that ordinary state of routine.  For families with children, this means that we are returning to a school routine.

January is also a time when we reassess our school year goals and set some new goals as well.  So, what are your goals for the remainder of winter and into spring?  Have you though about adding some science activities?  January is actually a great time to look at your science curriculum.

The homeschooling catalogs will be coming out soon.  So, it is a great time to start thinking.  But, there are other resources that come out during January.  Here are some good ones to start your creative juices flowing:


Sky and Telescope has come out with their 2015 Observing Calendars and Information.  There are other sites as well – the Sea and Sky has their Celestial Events Calendar  out as well as Stargazing Tonight.

Science Fairs

It is time to think about those science fair projects (if you haven’t already started).  The International Science and Engineering Fair is in May – and students are required to participate in qualifying fairs.  You can find information about affiliated science fairs here. Many local fairs are in February – so if  you haven’t found your dates – it is time to look.

Global Science Events

Every year there are a number of scientific and medical meetings held around the world.  And while, they may not be directed toward you and your family personally, many of these meetings have auxiliary events.  For example, the American Chemical Society which will be meeting in Denver in March and in Boston in August usually supports a science activity for families and school children as part of their meeting.  Thus, looking to see if one of these events is coming to your area may inspire an activity or a lesson plan.  You can find one listing of Science Events here.

Weather and Climate

In addition to astronomy, there is also sky watching as related to weather, clouds, climate, etc.  Winter is a great time to look for the Aurora Borealis – you can find the forecast for viewing here. Of course there are a number of sites that follow weather – there is the NOAA.gov and Weather.com.  These should provide you with lots of activities.

Check out the Calendar

Earth Science Week  – has extended their celebration to the entire year.  National Engineering Week is February 22-28, 2015 and information can be found here.  Earth Day is April 22 and many professional societies have activities planned.  Pi Day is March 14 and this year is special because of the year.  (You might also search STEM activities – UCF is holding a STEM Day on Jan. 30, 2015, and STEM Saturdays are being held at Northern Illinois University. There are a host of other Colleges and Universities that are doing STEM outreach – so checking your local community college, or other higher learning institution may also provide you with inspiration.)

Finally, watch the museum and library calendars you never know what might turn up there.

October is…… And, the winner is ……

You could say that October is Science Month!

Next week features the announcements of the Nobel Prizes.  So, look for a number of science related stories and features from various science organizations and businesses.  You can anticipate that the news will be filled with science applications connected to the winners of the Prizes in medicine, chemistry and physics.

Additionally, October generally features announcements for various science competitions.  Check out the Intel, Siemens and other notable companies as they begin to announce their regional and national activities.  (You can also check out Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Science Channel – for many activities, lesson plans, etc.)  There are sites with monthly themes such as the Siemens Science Day in addition to topic specific sites.


October features National Chemistry Week (October 19-25, 2014).  This years theme is the Sweet Side of Chemistry – Candy.  There are a number of activities planned around the United States.  These will be hosted by Local Sections of the American Chemical Society, as well as Student Chemistry Clubs.  You can find teacher resources and associated materials at the American Chemical Society NCW website.  Of particular note – related to this NCW topic – was the dedication of the second National Chemical Historic Landmark related to the production of sugar on October 1.  This Landmark recognizes the work of Rachel Holloway Lloyd, a woman chemist.  (The first recognized the work of Norbert Rillieux, whose birth record states “Norbert Rillieux, quadroon libre, natural son of Vincent Rillieux and Constance Vivant. Born March 17, 1806. Baptized in St. Louis Cathedral by Pere Antoine.”  More information about the work and life of Rillieux can be found here.)

October is a great time for slime, glowing science, bubbling punch, and other fun home/class experiments.  Take a few minutes to do a quick search of the American Chemical Society education resources while you are looking at the Sweet Side of Chemistry – to find a bunch of “goolish” fun activities.  (You can also find sites related to Zombies, Bone Chilling Science, Vampires, and even a bit of graveyard science.)

Have fun and don’t forget to stay safe!  (PS if you need safety resources you can always pick up a copy of Staying Safe while Conducting Hands-On Science.)

Time to keep your eyes peeled –


Detective EyeAccording to the World Wide Words – the phrase “to keep your eyes peeled” which means to stay alert, appeared in the lexicon of the United States in about 1850.  There does not seem to be any consensus as to how the expression came about other than it was probably a derivative of “to keep your eyes skinned.”  It seems to have appeared in newspapers around 1853.  (My quick research noted at least two uses of the phrase by two different newspapers – The Kenosha Telegraph and The Daily Morning Herald of St. Louis, Mo.) Ahh.. Summer is the time to digress a bit.

But, it really is time to be alert to the various science opportunities that are about to be announced.  August and September are prime announcement months for competitions, opportunities, enrichment programs, and potential internships.  These announcements are generally timed to correspond to with the beginning of the school year.

The challenge, of course, is finding out about the opportunity in time to meet the deadlines and application requirements.  Which is why, you need to start now, as many of these programs have requirements to submit letters of intent by the end of October or mid-November, and application requirements in December or January.

Don’t forget to check out local competitions – you may be able to find out information from looking at your local school’s websites and/or through the library.  Many professional societies such as local sections of the American Chemical Society, and the AIChE hold local competitions and have various opportunities.  (Also, look for your local science fair website – regional fairs are not associated with a particular school and have various ways of entering.)

Here are some links to current science competitions:

Intel’s ISEF

Competitions Listed on NSTA’s website

Here is a Try Science’s list of available competitions.

The Siemens Science Competition

Young Scientist Challenge


Picture Credit (Used with License) Copyright: http://www.123rf.com/profile_chudtsankov’>chudtsankov / 123RF Stock Photo

Are you science adverse?

You are facing the new school year, and you know that you need to incorporate science into your curriculum; but you probably feel like:

science storm

There may even be a few reasons that you have put into words.  But, mostly, the underlying fear of science is due to the perception that science is “hard” and you had to be really smart to understand it.  This fear is experienced by parents, teachers, and students.  The only people who seem to like science are those who are “smart.”

Of course, this may or may not be the case, but in the United States there is a resistance to teaching and learning science.  Which is really funny if you think about it, as each and every one of use does something that involves science everyday – and we don’t think twice about it.  Do you play a sport? – Most sports involve lots of physics.  Do you cook? – Cooking involves chemistry.  Do you drive, walk, or cycle to work? – Lot’s of science and engineering are involved here, every thing from judging speed (physics), to the types of roads (asphalt, specialized paint for the line) you drive on involve science.  The list is endless.

There was a very good opinion piece in the Washington Post earlier this year about Americans’ aversion to science.  In his piece, Michael Gerson wrote:

Science has its own explanation for why people are resistant to scientific beliefs.  … Our intuitions about the physical world are generally accurate on a human scale, but on matters that are not immediately related to our survival – say on quantum motion, or the effect of physical phenomena on DNA – our intuitions are pretty much useless.  Science has often advanced in an uphill fight against common intuitions.

Fundamentally, this means that people view science as something that is not easily explained and doesn’t make sense to them.  And, to add to that the specific language or terminology used by scientists, it is enough to make you want to just throw your hands in the air and do something else.

But, now you are faced with the task of actually teaching science.  What are you going to do?  First, take a deep breath.  Then, throw out the fear.  (Remember, most of the time you are scared of something it is because you have never tried it before)  Take it one step at a time, and tell yourself that you can do it (or, at least you can find the right resource to help you do it).

So, here are some recommendations that can help you:

1) Pick an age appropriate curriculum.  There are lot’s of choices.  For younger children, science is usually observational such as watching a plant grow, or looking at how simple machines work.  Check out your catalogs for something that looks like fun.  For preschoolers, I always go back to what do scientists do – they observe, they measure, and predict what will happen next.  It is a very simple statement of the scientific method.

2) Look for resources in your area to support your curriculum.  This could be the library or local museum.  They may have programs that relate to your specific curriculum or you can tailor your curriculum to correspond with what your local resources are doing.  Don’t have a local science or natural history museum  – then look a virtual opportunities on the internet.

3) Look for ways to incorporate science via other topics.  For example: in your art curriculum, you might be able to incorporate the mixing of colors, the chemistry of paints, or the balancing of objects in a mobile. There are lots of places where science intersects with art.  Similarly, sports are another area where you can investigate science doing hands-on activities.  Remember, you as the parent or teacher don’t necessarily have to be the expert , all you have to do is connect the appropriate resources – like the library, internet or a local person who knows about the topic.  (I remember a high school teacher in my area for her high school chemistry class gave an assignment that was to interview a person who works with some type of chemistry.  Most of her students tried to find a chemist or a chemical engineer, but her list of potential interviewees included the person at the hair salon who dyed hair, the lawn care person, a mason, a water treatment plant operator, and an artist.)

4) Ask questions.  There are lots of people who have been where you are.  Lean on your support groups.  They can provide some additional resources.

5) Be safe and have fun.  Science is really fun, if you don’t make it a huge mountain.  One of the reasons that people are afraid of science is because that feel they have to tackle high level science first.  You can start off with fun activities.  Get excited about trying new things.


Rodeo Science

Wild Pony Race, Laramie Jubilee Days 2013

Wild Pony Race, Laramie Jubilee Days 2013

Have you thought about it or seen an article on it – the science of rodeo?  As July is prime rodeo season in the United States: Fourth of July Weekend, Cheyenne Frontier Days, and Cavalcade just to name a few, it seems like an appropriate question to ask.  And, as it turns out, while there is lots of science going on; there is not a lot of it published as “rodeo science.”

Here are some prime examples of science at work at the rodeo:

Animal Breeding Programs – Rodeo involves two types of athletes, the human and the animal.  The “rough stock,” the bucking bulls and broncs are highly valued animals.  Additionally, for the timed events humans team up with their animal partner, typically a very well trained and bred horse.  Additionally, there are cattle, goats or sheep that are used in the timed or other events.  Thus, there is a great deal of science going on to ensure good genetics are passed on to the next generation of livestock.  For the “rough stock,” there are numerous “born-to-buck” programs to breed future champion broncs and bulls.  In these programs, the genetics are carefully monitored and tracked.

Nutrition and Veterinary Science – Once the animal is physically in the world, care is essential to keeping the animal healthy.  Animal nutrition specific to the animals breed and work is complicated science.  Add to that the variety of animals used in rodeo, the nutritional needs of the individual animal competitors can become a full time job for the rodeo stock contractor.  This is in addition to the veterinary care that these animals receive to ensure they are in good health while on the rodeo circuit.

As for the human competitor’s partners, these horses receive constant care and attention during training as well as the rodeo season.  Their diets and health are monitored daily by their teammate and are routinely seen by veterinarians.   Horses that travel are required to maintain certain paperwork signed by veterinarians and are required to show that paperwork prior to entering various rodeo or fair grounds.  (Olympic horses that travel outside the United States have what are known as equine passports so that they can travel to various competitions.)

Safety Science – In the early days of rodeo, protective gear was a good saddle, a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a long sleeve shirt. Today, you see several different types of protective gear – both for the cowboy or cowgirl and the animals.  For the horses used by the cowboy or cowgirl, you may see specialized boots, shoes, and other gear to help protect the horse’s legs and feet.  For the roping steers, you will see horn wraps.  Horn wraps are used to protect the steer from injury due to the rope.  Then there is the “rough stock” rider’s gear: gloves, vests, neck protection, and safety helmets. This equipment has become more and more “high tech” with the advent of advanced materials and information on sports injuries from other sports. Even the cowgirls wear shin guards to protect their legs when running the barrels.  This doesn’t even address the equipment worn by the “bullfighters” or your chute workers.

Equipment – There is a variety of equipment that is used in rodeo events; from the hand hold rigging for the bareback bronc to the ropes used in steer or calf roping.  (Did you know that there are ropes designed for the person who throws left-handed versus right-handed?)  The saddles that are used by the steer wrestlers will be different than those used by the barrel racers.  The ropes, riggings, and other equipment are designed for the specific uses and are always being modified and improved.

In addition to this “hidden” science, there is obvious evidence of physics.  What goes up – must come down.  Or, pure examples of Newton’s Laws – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction or an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon.  As the horse or bull bucks, the cowboy has to react to the changes in momentum and the forces that the animal is generating in order to stay on for those 8 seconds.  If not, he is going to experience gravity usually in a pretty spectacular manner.

The human rodeo competitor not only has to account for his/her own motion and reactions but for those of the other competitors – the horse, the cattle, or the bull.  These competitors do more complex calculations in a brief 4 seconds for the ropers, 8 seconds for the “rough stock” riders, and 15 seconds for the barrel racers, than most theoretical physicists will do in their entire lives.  The only difference is that rodeo competitor never writes it down and if they are really good gets to take home a buckle and maybe a bit of prize money.


Basic Laboratory Skills

I have been working on a laboratory course that can be taken as a self paced course at home or to be used by teachers in a small classroom, a cooperative school system, or even a regular classroom/laboratory setting. The idea behind this course is that you don’t need to have a lot of expensive laboratory equipment to be able to gain some essential hands-on laboratory experience and investigate a variety of chemical concepts.  Of course, you still need to be safe, and you still need to use good technique; but expense and specialized items should not be a barrier.

Thus, I have set off on this adventure, and have been very surprised at what I have found so far.  If you look at the current education standards there does not seem to be a list of laboratory techniques that students should be exposed to or master while in elementary, middle, or high school.  There is a lot of discussion about observation, understanding of concepts, and reviewing/analyzing data, but nothing related to a hands-on technique based experience.  There are comments about the importance of the laboratory experience in science, but not  anything specific about the fundamental skills that should be obtained.  Of course, this presents a challenge.  To do science, you need to have some basic skills.  But, we haven’t articulated what those skills are.

When I teach Kindergarten students, I tell them that scientists observe, measure, and predict.  Of course, this is a simplified version of the what we really do – but it boils the scientific process to the essentials.  Scientists observe their surroundings and phenomena.  Then formulate a hypothesis about what they are observing, and develop an experiment to test that hypothesis. During the experimentation, they gather data through more observation and measurement.  Finally, they analyze the information obtained, re-evaluate the hypothesis, and start the cycle again.  Also, at some point communicate their observations, findings and conclusions.

From this assessment of the process, three things stand out:

1) Observation skills are necessary.

2) Communication skills are necessary.

3) Measurement skills are necessary.

Hopefully, the first two skills are readily addressed through many aspects of the educational process.  Even very small children are making observations about their surroundings and are trying to communicate about what they see.  Parents and teachers are always working to improve these skills. These skills have to be refined a bit for the scientific process, i.e. note taking and scientific writing, but there are being worked on throughout the learning process.

Measurement is another matter.  For many of us, measurement comes naturally.  How many yards of fabric is needed for a pattern?  How many miles is it to the next town?  How tall am I?  Or, the old adage: measure twice cut once when building something.  However, due to changes in our society, measurement is not as routine as it once was.

Think about it.  We buy prepackaged sandwich meat, and don’t go to the deli counter.  Thus, if you had to cut/slice a ham for two pounds of lunch meat (and actually calculate how much that would be at certain price per pound), would you be able to do it?  How many people make a recipe from scratch?  (Do you know how many teaspoons there are to a tablespoon?)  When was the last time you bought nails, not to mention nails by the pound?

Even when we do measure, we don’t necessarily worry about precision.  If we are a little over or under, it usually doesn’t make a big difference.  But, in scientific measurement; precision is important.  Thus, those skills associated with measurement become very important.  Precision in measurement is communicated by the use of significant figures.  And, the concept of significant figures is lost on most individuals.

A number is written to communicate the measurement; 3 is fundamentally different from 2.54.  These numbers are communicating a different level of precision.  (2.54 is the number of centimeters to an inch; 3 is a rounded 2.54.) For most measurements, the level of precision is not of particular note or issue – unless we are paying for the difference.  For example:  Today’s price per ounce of gold is $1246.01.  This means every one tenth of an ounce is worth $124.60.  So, the difference between 3 and 2.5 is $623 – which is not trivial.  Thus, precision is important.

Measurement and the precision of the measurement are extremely important.  Thus, measurement and the precision of the measurement need to be taught and perfected as they are incorporated into both the language and the process of science.

So, get those students out there measuring with devices – rulers, thermometers, measuring cups, graduated cylinders, scales, balances, tape measures, protractors, etc.  Look at the precision, i.e. the markings on the devices.  Look at how precision impacts the result.  A little error in our measurement can result in huge problems later.  So, how that error gets magnified over time.  Look at the implication of error.  And, learn this essential skill.

Oh, My where has the time gone! – Preparing to Learn Science

Life has a tendency to catch up with all of us.  And, it even becomes more challenging when spring is in the air.  I started this blog to help those that wanted a bit of enrichment to add to their science curricula – whether a home school or a classroom situation.  Also, wanted it to be fun for the whole family.  My intent was to do something weekly – but as with all good intentions things happen.  And, so with me.

A little background – in January I took a position as an instructor of science (physics, chemistry and Earth science) at two year college.  I am now teaching full time – lecture and laboratory.   This has definitely helped me with topic areas for the blog and insight into new ways of communicating science.  However, April became a bit busier than I thought as I have been actively working on my college curricula.  With the semester winding down, I am able to pick up where I had left off – and hopefully bring some new insights in preparation for taking and teaching science.

During this past semester – I have learned a great deal about student preparation for their first two years of college – or the preparation of the returning student to college.  Hopefully, I will be able to incorporate and share some of these through this blog.  So, while I will continue to bring fun science activities to this space – I am also hoping to help parents, teachers and even students to prepare to learn science.

For most people there is a perception that science is hard.  (In reality, all learning in any form or subject can be considered “hard.”  Science is no different but the attitudes about science are.)   It has been my observation that there are two fundamental reasons for this and they are both related.  It is the language of the scientist – i.e. the terminology and the math.  Math is the language of the physical scientist – it shows the relationships and communicates specifics.  This mixed with the terminology, the names and jargon, and scientists and practitioners of science tend to “scare” people.  It is because of your human nature – people fear what we don’t understand. And, thus because the language being used is outside of the norm for most individuals – science is hard.

But, stop and think for a minute – what is science?  Science at its most fundamental level is observing your surroundings and trying to understand how things work or why the physical world is the way it is.  Why is the sky blue?  Why is the grass green?  How do plants get the energy they need to grow?  Why does the ball fall to the ground when you drop it?

I have always said it is much harder to teach science to a bunch of preschoolers or kindergartners than high school students. The first is because you have to teach the science in a terms that are understandable for the age group.  But the biggest reason is because they are not conditioned to ask the “right” questions, i.e. a preschooler will ask a very difficult question where a high school student may not even ask a very simple one.

As I mentioned previously – it is the learning that is hard – not the subject matter.  And, what we are seeing particularly in science is that students have yet to understand how to best approach the process of learning.  Sure, in most public or private schools; students have been exposed to the subject matter, have been taught how to prepare for the test, and how to meet the expectations of the course.  But, because of the changes in our systems – note taking skills, using technical literature, practical application of the material, etc. are not as emphasized.  These skills are vital to success at the next level.

Over the next three months, Sophic Pursuits will be working on developing tools, resources, and reference material to help prepare students for the transition into the college and/or upper level course environment.  The focus will be on utilizing the resources that are now available to the student such as virtual laboratories, youTube short lessons, simulations, ect.  As well as focusing on the more traditional type of resources – note taking, “how to read a chapter in a science text”, or “how to succeed in science”.

For those of you in this transition phase or those working with someone in that transition – I would love to hear from you to learn what challenges you are facing.  I would also like to know what questions or concerns that you may have.  And, would love to know what resources you have found helpful.

Stay tuned and hopefully there will be something that helps you take the next steps.  And, you can be better equipped to take those first science courses in college.

Exploring Weather and Other Fluids

It is spring time in Oklahoma – so that means weather (severe weather) is just around the corner. And, it also means some really cool science that can be done to explore concepts like Archimedes’ Principle, Bernoulli’s equations and principles, and Pascal’s Law. Here are few links to keep you busy:

Here is a quick weather book of experiments

One for Archimedes’ Principle

And another for Pascal’s Law

Teaching Earth Science – Oh Boy am I behind!

For many homeschoolers – the phrase “Oh, Boy am I behind!” is a frequent one.  In January and February – the world seems to get fully back in swing – indoor sports, scouts, Church socials, a couple of holidays, and winter weather.  We get caught up in these day to day activities – Wham! March is hear and we realize just where we are exactly and say – I am behind!  Well, as you can see it happens to all of us.

This semester I have been teaching Earth Science and have been very busy looking for resources to make some parts of the curriculum more interesting. For me – rocks aren’t the most exciting.  And, well the rock cycle is only so interesting.  However, I have come across a number of resources that may benefit your programs, no matter what age group you are teaching and whether or not you have access to interesting rock formations in your area.  Here are my suggestions:

From the West Virginia Geological Society – I particularly like the Adaptive Earth Science Activities.  Most of their resources are in downloadable PDFs so you can use them right away.

Those of us teaching anything Earth related – Earth Science, Environment, Ecology, Science in Society, etc.  The United States Geological Survey is a must have link and resource.  Their educational materials are located here. They have videos, pamphlets, lesson plans and a host of interactive features.

Geology.com has a number of resources as well.  Their site has links to experiments, resources and various interactive materials.

You might also try virtual museum tours such as the one at the Smithsonian’s Dynamic Earth or follow the Series How the Earth was Made from the History Channel.

Volcanoes – Beyond baking soda and vinegar

Are you working on a volcano lesson plan?  Want to do something more than just the traditional baking soda and vinegar eruption?  How about exploring the properties of liquids?

When studying volcanoes, the topics of molten rock, lava flows, lahars, and pyroclastic flows are typically included.  Depending upon your lesson plan, you might have a brief mention of how different materials “flow” at differing rates, or how different lavas have different flow properties based upon the silica content.  This flow property is called viscosity – i.e. the property of a fluid that resists the forces causing the material to flow.

Everyone has some hands-on knowledge of viscosity.  Think about the difference in the flow of water versus maple syrup or motor oil on a cold morning versus a hot day.  Yet, we typically don’t do any hands-on science related to this physical property of fluids.  An Earth Science – Volcano lesson is a wonderful place to add this hands-on activity.

Now for your recommendations.

From SEED – A laboratory on the Viscosity of Liquids

From the Royal Society of Chemistry – Viscosity

Or, from Sophic Pursuits – Viscosity Explorations

Some safety precautions.  Know the materials you are using.  The Viscosity Exploration uses dish soap, vegetable oil, corn syrup and water.  It also looks at the change in viscosity with temperature.  So children need to work with an adult to make sure there are no burns.  But, the experiment can be done using ice water, cold water and hot tap water.

Just remember to be safe!