Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Magic of Chemistry

It is almost magical that a Mr. & Mrs. Science exist. They are also known as Dr's. Phil and Tina Bailey, chemistry professors* at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California. The university that is also known as Cal Poly. Cal Poly's educational philosophy is "Learn by Doing" and Professors Phil and Tina Bailey certainly know how to get kids interested in science and math.
They have been perfecting their Chemistry Magic Show for almost 40 years. Every year, local fourth grade classes are invited to a live show at the university.

If you are curious about the show..... let's just say that things explode, catch fire, change color, disappear, reappear, crunch, munch, stink, expand, shrink, foam and goop. There is a taste test, flowers that shatter and some very unusual balloon manipulation. The demonstrations help kids understand air pressure, the three states of matter, acids and bases, chemical reactions and more. Mr. & Mrs. Science make chemistry exciting and full of fun. Smiles are mandatory.

With a grant from the Cotchett Foundation, a phenomenal 50 minute video was produced of the show. A free copy is available upon request. Please email Dr. Tina Bailey: cbailey@calpoly.edu for your copy.
The DVD was designed for third, fourth and fifth graders. But really any elementary school aged child would enjoy the demonstrations. The video also has some Cal Poly science major students explaining why they chose their field of study.

The Chemistry Magic Show video would be great for teachers and parents who want to encourage a love for science and math for their kids. Our country is in dire need of scientists. Getting kids interested in science at a young age is key to increasing the chance that they will pursue careers in science and engineering.

There is a downloadable Magic Show Handbook which is full of fun photos of kids enjoying the science activities. It includes explanations for all the demonstrations, plus some fun experiments that can be done at home with parental supervision using common household items. Also included are some science fair project ideas. Check it out :)
I want to personally thank Dr's. Bailey for showing kids that science can be fun and easy to understand. For showing kids they can ask questions and find answers. For having such fun and passion with science. And for all of this, they earn a Smart Girl Fun Award.
**they get extra credit for having boys and girls participate equally in the magic show**
* Phil Bailey, PhD is Cal Poly's College of Mathematics Dean and Tina Bailey, PhD is the Chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Garden-Based Learning

Last time I blogged about donating a barn owl box to one of the local elementary schools for their new school garden. I have since done some research into garden-based learning for elementary schools. It is a growing trend nationally. A good summary on Wikipedia in part states:

Benefits of garden-based learning among children and youth

Landscape designers, teachers, and others consider children’s gardens to be one of the most notable positive trends in the nation today. These environments can foster science literacy and social skills, while enhancing an awareness of the link between plants in the landscape and our clothing, food, shelter, and well-being. Gardening projects provide children and youth with the carefree exploration of the natural world that occurs rarely in today's era of indoor living; it can also give young people the chance to develop a wide range of academic and social skills. Noted benefits of garden-based learning programs among youth include increased nutrition awareness, environmental awareness, higher learning achievements, and increased life skills

Increased nutrition awareness Research indicates that youth who participate in garden-based learning programs have increased their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and gained new enthusiasm for fresh, nutritious vegetables they grew. Teachers also regarded the garden to be very effective at enhancing academic performance, physical activity, language arts, and healthful eating habits.

Increased environmental awareness Research highlights that high school students gain more positive attitudes about environmental issues after participating in a school garden program. Gardening has also been shown to increase scores on environmental attitude surveys of elementary school children.

Higher Learning Achievements Studies indicate that students that participated in school gardening activities scored significantly higher on science achievement tests compared to students that did not experience any garden-based learning activities. Other research has indicated that weekly use of gardening activities and hands-on classroom activities help improve science achievement test scores.

Increased Life Skills Research has highlighted the increased life skills attributed to children's garden programs: enhances moral education, increases appreciation for nature, increases responsibility, develops patience, increases in relationship skill, increases self-esteem, helps students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, and helps foster relationships with family members.

That all sounds good, especially considering today's kids are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Kids can participate at all levels: planning the garden, getting donated materials, garden construction, garden maintenance, pest control strategies and harvesting of food and flowers. Kids can learn about sustainable development, nutrition, garden critters, weather and so much more. Schools can even have older kids can participate in market gardening, which could teach them basic business, marketing and money management skills. A simple school farmer's market once a week would be fun. School gardens can be a source of pumpkins for Halloween, flowers for Valentine's day and Mother's day. The produce can be served in the cafeteria. Kids can learn how to make healthy and nutritious snacks. One lucky school had guest chefs show the students how to make fresh pizza dough and sauce and use fresh veggies for toppings!

Our local elementary school was fortunate enough to have a few master gardeners volunteer their time. Of course, parents and community members need to donate time and materials for garden construction. Our school garden is still under construction, but all of the grades have had a chance to plant their section of the garden. The children could also bring in a smooth, fist-sized rocks to school to paint and place in the garden. This garden has different sections including: a bird/wildlife garden, pumpkin and native american garden, compost area, butterfly garden, weather station, annual flower bed, native garden and green house. One of the teacher's has a garden blog on the school website. The school sends out Garden News (including a wish list for supplies and garden work dates) with the monthly school newsletter.

There are several resources for schools/volunteers on how to develop your school garden. Start by looking at the resource list at the end of the Wikipedia article. If you are in northern California, UC Davis has a Children's Garden Program at their Student Farm. They offer workshops for creating and sustaining school gardens. There is also the California School Garden Network and they have an excellent resource section on their website. You can download CSGN's Gardens for Learning - Creating and Sustaining Your School Garden guidebook.

If your school does not have, or have plans for, a school garden, think about taking that first step and inquire about the possibility of starting a garden for your school.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Barn Owl Valentine Beauties

Barn owls are found throughout the United States and in many other parts of the world. They look quite different from other owls because they have a heart-shaped face and no ear tufts. They usually have some freckles and have soft white and brown coloring. They also have quite a screech!
Our local elementary school is building a school garden. They will be installing a barn owl box to attract their own resident owls. Barn owls are great for rodent control. They eat lots of mice and gophers. Other than installing the nesting box, the only upkeep is cleaning out the box once a year. Having natural predators is so much better than using poisons to get rid of rodents on your property. One family of owls can easily eat more than 3,000 rodents a year, basically for free!

Backyard Barn Owls is a website created by a couple in California that basically fell in love with their resident barn owls. Be sure to check out the video clips they have on their site.
Another incredible cool fact is that the owls eat all of their prey, fur, bones and all! They can not digest all of it however, so they also produce owl pellets which look like big fur balls. These pellets are regurgitated and they fall in the nest, or sometimes on the ground. Here is a lovely video from the London Zoo. Their barn owl Willow is quite the charmer and you can watch him eat some mice.

Owl pellets may not be pretty to look at, but they can give people interested in owls a good opportunity to see just what an owl eats. One group of scientists studied the owl pellets from the nest of one pair of barn owls. They examined 200 pellets and they found 406 mice skulls, 20 rat skulls and 20 shrew skulls!
There is a virtual owl pellet dissector you can try. You can also buy sterilized owl pellets to dissect at home. You only want to handle pellets that are properly sterilized, so don't pick up any that you may find on the ground.
If you are lucky enough to be able to dissect a pellet, there will probably be several rodent skeletons in each pellet. It is fun to count all the different bones and estimate the number of rodents in each pellet. Those barn owls are great hunters! Did you know they are completely silent when they fly? They have specially designed feathers that are soft enough to not make a sound. This comes in very handy when they are swooping down on their prey. They are also extremely graceful when they fly.
If you are interested, there are several owl cam sites you can visit. As with all of nature's creatures, sometimes the barn owl/owlets becomes prey for another predator. But checking in on an owl family is a wonderful experience in general. Please read the information on the web cam sites to see if viewing their web cams is for you.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Smart Girls Have More Fun

Comedian, actor Amy Poehler gets a Smart Girls Fun Award for developing her web series Smart Girls at the Party . She hosts the show with two of her real life friends. How novel for girls to be encouraged to make lasting friendships.

Here Amy celebrates and interviews preteen smart girls. The girls are allowed to just be themselves. They talk about their lives, their interests and their talents. They are the girls next door. They get to have a little dance party at the end of the show. How refreshing to see girls just being girls. They smile and giggle! They are confident! They are having fun! They are intelligent! They aren't chasing boys around!

Here is one of my favorite episodes. A young writer with a terrific personality.

Wonderful, playful, intelligent interviews Amy!!

I was a little worried when I saw the Barbie ads for Smart Girls at the Party. But seeing the latest marketing of Barbie (and considering Bratz dolls have probably and finally ended their reign) I am hopeful that Barbie is finally getting a wake up call. I hear rumours that the new Barbie (in all her marketing glory, including not only the traditional dolls, but also Barbie Girls virtual game world, the Barbie website and Barbie movies) is becoming more and more adventurous, independent, athletic and goal-oriented. I still see mostly fashion, decorating and gossip on these websites. I don't think a little fashion will hurt anyone, but I really want to see girlhood being mostly about creative fun and adventure. You know, like boyhood.

But maybe, just maybe I will take my dear five year old Barbie into a little Barbie Land. I would love to see dentist Barbie reintroduced wearing something other than just a lab coat. A pair of pants would be great. I think my daughter is smart enough to pick out the fun and adventure from Barbie. And she will definitely be watching the Smart Girl at the Party webisodes.

Hug Your Smart Girl Today!!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Volcano Construction

Dear daughter got a Young Scientist Club science kit for her birthday. She made and exploded her very own volcano. Absolutely loved the entire project!! You actually can make your very own volcano from materials at home:


1- shoe box lid
1- ~16 oz. plastic bottle- empty (we used a Gatorade bottle)
2 pieces construction paper
mixing bowl
2 cups flour
2 cups warm water
black paint and paintbrush
baking soda
red food coloring
liquid dish soap


1. Tape the plastic bottle upright in the center of the shoe box lid. Wrap a piece of the construction paper around half of the bottle so it is a cone shape. You may have to trim the bottom of the paper. You want the paper to meet evenly with the top of the bottle. Tape the other piece of construction paper on the other side of bottle so that the bottle is completely surrounded. Tape the paper down securely on the shoe box lid.

2. Cover your work area with newspaper. Tear one section of newspaper (or magazine paper) into one inch strips. Combine water and flour in mixing bowl. Use this flour paste right away by dragging a piece of newspaper strip through the paste and remove extra paste by running your fingers down the strip. Place coated strip on the volcano and repeat until volcano is completely covered in the paper mache'. You can make it as thick as you like. Once the volcano is covered, it will need to dry. This may take a day or two.

3. Once dry, paint the volcano with the black paint. It should be nice and sturdy and able to used for many eruptions.

4. Once the paint is dry, you can prepare the lava. Here is a starter recipe for the lava, but your young scientist can be a real chemist and experiment with different combinations and amounts. Just make sure to place all ingredients in the bottle except the vinegar- which should be added last. We mixed everything but the vinegar in a mixing bowl and then poured this into the bottle/volcano using a funnel. Then we poured in the vinegar.

Tell your young scientist that mixing vinegar and baking soda produces a gas and this causes the explosion. You can pour out the remaining lava after eruption and start again.

Happy Exploding!!


4 teaspoons of baking soda

1/4 cup of warm water

5 drops of liquid dish detergent

5 drops of red food coloring

1/4 cup vinegar

Friday, September 12, 2008

Photography for Kids

These pictures were taken by an amateur photographer. My then eight-year old son. All my kids are interested in photography. They love to capture images when we travel, or take goofy shots of themselves and their friends. What an easy and expressive way to be creative!!
I found a couple of great websites today. Big Learning Photography for Kids has much information and links. I think any beginning photographer (myself included) can learn a lot about photography from this site. BetterPhoto.com is a fun site with lots of help to take better pictures. Fun photo assignments and tips too.
There are lots of cheap digital cameras today. My kid's photos help me appreciate their view of the world!! As we know, sometimes a photo is worth a thousand words. And it is much quieter too ;)