A Predictive Weather Modeling App for Students and Teachers
I usually don't mix my professional life with my personal blog, but I wanted to share with you a neat interactive weather app that I helped develop. It is a tool that can be useful for weatherphiles, teachers, and students. It is called the Weather Lab, an online and mobile application from the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) in association with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). The Weather Lab helps students visualize how weather is formed though the complex interactions of ocean currents and air masses in North America.
Hummingbirds are one of natures miracles of flight. Here in the East our most common humming bird is the Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). They are bright emerald green (the males) or a muted green (females) and are about 2-3" in size. The males have a patch of iridescent feathers on their throats for display. Amazingly Ruby-throats weigh about 2-6 g. To give you an idea of how light this is, the standard penny weighs about 2.5 g, so a hummingbird can be about 1-3 pennies in weight! Their wings beat so fast (up to 53x per second) that they make a humming sound. When they fly their wings actually make a figure 8 motion. Check out this slow motion video below.
As the fall approaches, and corn crops are coming in, this is a timely post. Thanks for author Anne Littlewolf for this fun and whimsical guest post.
There is an old saying that the more complex the mind, the more important the need to play. This is probably one of the truest axioms of our world and so let's look at some of the traditions and treasures of toys and playing. In this post we will revisit the incredibly versatile corn, which you can read more about kernels and ears of corn in our previous post, and see that this amazing plant offers even more than just good nutrition. ...continue reading →
As an Educator, working in the field, or looking to fill conversation, I frequently turn to subjects that are close at hand. Often it's cumbersome to carry objects on a trail, you can't always find certain plants or animals when you need them (a general rule of thumb), and sometimes you just need to keep people's minds busy to avoid kids wandering off, people losing attention, or just "losing" your audience all together. One of the constants you can always talk about, especially at dawn, dusk, or for evening programs is the Moon. No matter where you are in the world, there it is. On top of this, the new Next Generation Science Standards have a strong component of space literacy too. Specifically they are targeting 1st and 5th grades, middle school, and high school. This program includes determining phases of the moon and determining distances in space. In this blog post we'll explore some quick moon facts, a fun exercise in proportion and size, and I'll provide you with some books and lesson plans that I like for teaching about the moon.
Toad houses are a great way to encourage natural pest control in your garden or around your home, but you don't need to buy a toad house, like this one, you can easily make one (Photo: Paxabay shared images).
How to Build Toad Houses
If you're like me you don't like to use pesticides or harmful chemicals to prevent insects from entering your home or chewing all the plants in your garden. One of the most effective ways to reduce pest insects is to encourage their natural predators. Toads are one of the predators that do a great job helping clean gardens of insects and harmful pests.
Here in the Eastern US we have the common American Toad (Anaxya americanus). There is also the Eastern American toad, the dwarf toad, and Fowler's toad in our region. In the Western US there is the Western toad. Regardless of the species, they all play an important role in their ecosystem, they LOVE eating insects!
A common American toad (Photo: Karen McDonald).
As you know toads are amphibians, but unlike frogs they can move farther from water, because they do not rely on moist skin to breathe. However, they do need water or ponds to reproduce. To support a population of toads in your area you need to provide the standard food, water, and shelter. The food will be the insects around your house or garden, but you will still need to provide water and shelter.
Water is required for toads to reproduce, but they can travel much farther from water than frogs (Photo: Karen McDonald).
Water can take many forms, from damp vegetation to shallow dishes of water (changed regularly to prevent mosquitoes), or even nearby ponds and streams, but toad houses are where you can get very creative!
How to Identify and "Call" Lightning Bugs or Fireflies
Photinus sp. (Photo: James Jordan, Flicker Sharing).
An "Enlightening" Conversation
As summer rolls around, it's time again for the emergence of fireflies or lightning bugs. They are the bug all kids love to chase and catch. These benign insect ambassadors have been many children's introduction to the world of beetles and friendly insects. For today's post I want to introduce you to the three most common groups of fireflies in the Eastern US, and how you can use LED flash patterns to call the fireflies to you. It makes a great lesson plan for evening programs, or just something fun to do with the kids on a summer night.
Fireflies, or lightening bugs, are beetles in the order Coleoptera, and there are about 170 species in North America. Unlike their cousins, that have hard-bodied elytra (or wing coverings), their bodies and wings are relatively soft, with leathery wing coverings. Their bodies are usually about 2 cm long, and blackish, with reddish or yellow spots on their head covering (also called the pronotum). Around the world, there are over 2,000 species of fireflies, and most live in tropical, moist and damp areas, in part because of their soft bodies. Lightning bugs are called this because their abdomens glow or light up, using a chemical process called bioluminescence. We'll get more into this in a bit, but first, let's look at their life cycle.
In the Eastern US there are three common families of fireflies that we see, Photinus, Pyractomena, and Photuris. You can distinguish them apart by looking at their pronotum (big segment with dot behind their head) and their wings.
Naturalist's Apprentice Books: Exploring Unsung Naturalists and Inspiring Young Readers
Pond Watching with Ann Morgan is one of eight books in the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.
Delve Into the History of the Founders of Natural History
As a naturalist I've always prided myself in being self-taught, then going to school, later to teach, and then continuing my learning through teaching. However, I was never taught much about the people that made being a naturalist a possibility. There are many, many unsung heroes that contributed to the study of natural history that we have never been told about. Do you ever recall learning about the first woman to scientifically study aquatic invertebrates, or learning about one of the first Native American wildlife biologists and doctors, or maybe hearing about a famous African American entomologist? In the history of science, these important people are often glossed over. If you're like me and countless other naturalists, you were probably never given a history of your own natural history interests. This is why I want to share with you a wonderful series of books called the Naturalist's Apprentice Series by Michael Elsohn Ross.
An ant keeping his aphid "cows" safe. (Photo: K. McDonald)
Free and Low Cost Resources
As many of you know, I lead a double blogging life with my Citizen Science in the Classroom series on the umbrella citizen science site called SciStarter. If you haven't checked out their plethora of citizen science activities that you can get involved with, then head over to their site. In my series, I focus on specific citizen science projects and then help teachers figure out how to conduct those projects to meet grade specific, Next Generation and Common Core teaching standards. While writing my last post about a project called School of Ants, I was amazed at how little there is out there for teaching about ants. I had to do a great deal of digging to find teaching resources. But when I did, I found some great ones that I thought I'd share here. You can also check out my SciStarter blog post with Next Gen. and Common Core connections.
My favorite resource so far is Dr. Elanor's Book of Common Ants. This is a great free resource with wonderful illustrations, large ant pictures and close ups, and clear text. It's written for adults, but it's also kid friendly (4th-12th Grade). This book, along with a magnifying glass, is all you need to get yourself started with basic ant ID (or toss your kid outside with it and get them busy discovering on their own). I loved learning facts about pavement ants, winter ants, and the common little black ants called the "Odorous House Ant." Odorous house ants are the tiny little black sugar ants that come into the house. She suggests the "Squish-n-Sniff" for these guys because when you squish them, they smell good! This is how they got their names. How fun is that? If you are a naturalist at heart and want to learn more about ants, then this is the go-to resource.
Dr. Elanor's book is an amazing resource. (Photo: Your Wildlife)
Arizona State University has a great website on ants (Photo: ASU)
I also stumbled across a great video about ants on YouTube. It's called "ANTS-Natures Secret Power." It is a bit long to show in class (about an hour), but you could use segments or assign it as homework to the students.
I'd also like to suggest some of the following books:
There are many more books out there that are great, these are just a few. If you need magnifying glasses, ant farm kits, or other supplies, you can find resources on my "Nature Gifts and Teaching Supplies" page. The wonderful thing about ants is that they are everywhere and require very few materials to study and observe. Happy "anting" (this is actually a term used by birders when birds rub ants on their feathers for some unknown reason, but I think it applies here).
It's Spring, and with the emergence of the crocus and daffodil it's also time to think about Easter and egg dying. If you're like me then growing up then you probably used the little colored pellets dissolved in vinegar and water to dye your eggs. It was the tradition. Long before there were pre-made dye pellets people used natural coloring for eggs. Today's post is all about how you can make your own dyes from foods and household objects. The nice thing about natural egg dying is that you can compost all of the materials you use to make the dyes and it's OK to eat the eggs after they are dyed.
Here are some examples of naturally dyed eggs (Photo: Karen McDonald)
An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North
Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone
Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes
Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.
Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.
Salamander Emergence is Coming Soon, Reptile and Amphibian Hunting Tips
Spotted salamander (gravid) found during nocturnal survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)
Herp. Hunting Etiquette Tips for Safe Nocturnal Searches This Spring
Spring thaw is just around the corner, and although it's hard to believe the salamanders will be moving soon they will be coming out withing the next few weeks. Conditions have to be just right for salamanders to migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding ponds. Some of the earliest movers for the Eastern US region are the spotted salamanders though marbles and others are close behind.
To view these early emergent visitors you should look for the the perfect conditions (often nocturnal, including at least 45-50 degree temperatures (Fahrenheit), light rain, and lengthening days. Usually these conditions in our region (Maryland) are met around the second or third week of February though this can be variable from year to year. It's not unheard of to see salamanders moving through snow piles to reach their ponds.
There are environmentally friendly ways to look for salamanders and early herps (meaning the study of reptiles and amphibians, short for herpetological), and methods that can cause major harm to an ecosystem. This post is about spring herp hunting etiquette.
In a classroom discussion about magnets, one student wonders, “Will magnets work under water?” Over the next few days, the class debates the question and designs and executes an experiment to get some answers. Okay, yes, they will work underwater. But then they continue, “What about this statement in our text that says some materials WILL block magnets?” If water won’t do it, what about plastic, or glass, or wood, or rubber, or cloth, or another magnet? And they are back to the drawing board, designing more experiments to test these materials, wondering if magnets work through gases and liquids, but not solids, trying ice in place of water and on, and on, and on. Finally, as a class we cry uncle – we can’t find anything that will block our magnets, and a very eager class is finally given permission to do a little research on the topic.
Another class is looking at a chart in our science text which illustrates the classification of animals by using the example of a wolf. It starts at the kingdom level and works its way down, gradually dropping all the organisms that don’t cut it as a wolf. After a few levels, we’re left with the cats and the wolf, the dog, and the fox. The cats get dumped in the next round. Makes sense. But in the next level, the fox is dropped with the explanation that this level contains only “dog like” animals. Now we’ve used this chart for years and years, and most of the time, the students smile and nod, and we move on. But this class is different – they’ve been “inquiring” all year long, and are used to questioning their text, their teacher, and themselves! When it seems like the fox has just been ousted from the club randomly, they start to wonder. “What is it about the fox that makes it less doggy than the wolf?” “If it’s not a cat, and not a dog, what is it? Where does the fox fit in?” For the next several days the class passionately debates the issue and delves deeply into the process of scientific classification. What specific traits make a dog a dog, and a cat a cat? Where does the fox fit in with these other animals? What traits make the cut into “dogginess” or “catness” and who decided all these rules? It is a fascinating journey
Do you know students in grades 7-12 that love science and nature and conducting their own science experiment? The American Museum of Natural History, in New York, is hosting its annual Young Naturalist Awards challenge for students around the US. It is open to traditional students as well as home school students.
There's a movement afoot called urban guerrilla gardening and its goal is to "green" unsightly vacant lots, sidewalks, neglected planters and run-down areas. This is done by using some stealth, seed bombs (earth truffles), and sometimes a slingshot. If you're tired of ugly urban deserts this may be the solution for you. Although it's not really time time of year to be planting it's the perfect time to be thinking about gift giving. Why not give the gift of greening with seed bombs?