Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blood and Guts

For science this winter and spring, we are using Blood and Guts: A Working Guide to Your Own Insides by Linda Allison. This is A Brown Paper School book, a series that also includes some great math titles like Math for Smarty Pants, The I Hate Mathematics! Book, and The Book of Think.

Blood and Guts covers the major body systems and has a nice handful of experiments and activities to do, including dissections. The physiology is good, though the simple line drawings don't really capture anatomy well.

I am pairing this up with The Body Book by Donald Silver. This book is filled with reproducible pages to be used to make large organ models. This book better covers anatomy, especially if you decide against dissection. It has more activities and some physiology as well.

Together they make a nice middle school human body unit.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ursids burst

This is for you night owls in the northern hemisphere. Ursids is an annual even causing a few shooting stars to come from within Ursa Minor. This year, however, the show could be spectacular in the earliest hours of Dec. 23. Ursa Minor remains above the horizon in the northern hemisphere for the entire night, thus the event cannot be seen from the southern hemisphere.

Here is a NASA article about it. It predicts the most likely time to see the 8P/Tuttle debris, shed in 1405, is 0229 EST. Here is more information from Meteor Showers Online. If it wasn't so incredibly cold up here I might consider getting up for the event, but don't hold your breath.

On the west coast it will only be 11:30 pm on the 22nd and probably a bit warmer, though my sources in WA tell me it has actually snowed out there too!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ice storm

What happens when a southern rain storm meets a northern cold front right over New England? You lose power for 6 days. I am certainly glad my husband bought that generator 15 years ago so we could have heat, light, and refrigeration, sometimes even water (when we shut everything else off.)

It was like luxury camping with no packing and a real bed. Still, I think I would like to schedule things like that.

Now we are getting a foot of the ol' fashioned white stuff. White Christmas anyone?

The ice storm caused quite a bit of damage, but a bit of beauty as well:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Game Review posted for Totally Gross

I just posted my review of Totally Gross! The Game of Science at Games for Homeschooling.
The boys and I certainly laugh a lot and learn quite a bit of trivia playing this game. It does have a good measure of the gross and impolite.

The game ends with a little hands-on experiment, I feature I really like. Today, ds#1 had to weigh himself and figure out how much he would weigh on the moon (the card tells you that it would be 1/6th of your weight on Earth.)

As you will see on my gaming blog, I gripe a bit about the cheap components of educational games. I buy many other board games in the $20 price range with far more durable and aesthetically nicer parts, and they are more interesting games to play. Unfortunately, we pay for the educational value alone, which, in some cases, can be achieved with a home made game for far less money. I can't imagine writing up all those trivia questions, though.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Butterfly Award

Rockhound Place awarded this to me--thank you so much!

Here are the rules for this pass-it-along award:

1. Link to the person who gave you the award.
2. Post the graphic.
3. Pass the award on up to ten other bloggers whose blogs you consider cool.

Here is my list of 8 cool blogs that (mostly) are "small" in that they don't have thousands of visitors each month and dozens of followers. May they all some day be so blessed!
  1. Adventures on Beck's Bounty
  2. Alasandra's Homeschool Blog
  3. Tonya's ...Everything I've Got
  4. Laura's Four Little Monkeys
  5. Prince Andrew and the Queen Mum's Growing Fruit...part 2
  6. Shez's Homeschooled Twins, the host of Cool Homeschoolers
  7. Cheryl's Talking to Myself
  8. Jessica's Trivium Academy

Friday, December 5, 2008

Living Science for middle school?

A cornerstone of a Charlotte Mason education is the "living book." What are the elements of a living book?

Books written by a single author with expertise and enthusiasm for a subject;

Books well written in an engaging style such that they are an enjoyment to read;

Books with high quality information, both in morality and depth.

Any book that does not contain these elements is considered twaddle. As ds#1 comes to the end of his elementary school years and I search for more engaging science material, I have come to find that the living science book selection for middle school is quite meager. Yes, nature books you can find in abundance, but as Comstock points out nature study is not science. It is the difference between bird watching and ornithology, the magnifying glass and the microscope. And what about the physical sciences?

Browse your local library collection for the older age group and here is what you are likely to find:
  • Experiment books galore. Most of them do a poor job of putting experiments in context, or explaining the "informing ideas" as Miss Mason would say. These are but reference books for us.
  • Biographies. Many of these are living books and are a must on our list; most, however, contain little actual science.
  • Textbooks and other similar compilations. These are antitheses of living books.
  • Nature books.
  • Books about the human body, a lot of them, and rarely with any experiments.

The industry is clearly more excited about glossy photography and eye-popping illustrations than it is about content and writing. What concerns me most about content is that the middle school literature contains little more depth than the elementary literature, and is thus far behind high school textbooks.

You can search the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks (standards) by grade and subject. I compared the grades 6 through 8 standards with those for high school. Is it my imagination or does there seem to be a huge gulf between them? Perhaps I should start eyeing those high school standards more often and searching for books that will bridge that gulf.

A good way to get living books is to be quite specific about a topic. While a search for "ocean" is apt to get you a whole lot of twaddle, looking specifically for "tides" or "currents" will more likely turn up something more in depth and engaging. Don't be afraid of "feeding" your children these advanced concepts. Just like literature, children "hunger" for interesting learning. Don't settle for the Great Illustrated Classics version of science!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hand-held microscopes

A few years ago I bought this pocket microscope (NOT the ones pictured)for ds#1. It broke the first time he used it. Home Training Tools replaced it, but not long after the lens in the replacement became dislodged.

My boys are not very gentle with things; in fact, they are down right rough and careless despite my warnings. I decided to stick to a pocket loupe magnifying glass with a 10x magnification.

The kids are a couple of years older now, and they do like to use the microscope. I know they would really enjoy a pocket microscope to bring on our nature walks. After Laura's question and with Christmas coming I decided to do a little looking.

I suggest getting one with illumination otherwise you will see very little without bright sunlight or someone else holding a flashlight. I was pleasantly surprised to find several models that had up to 100x magnification with very affordable prices. Do they really magnify to 100x though? I am sure the optics are mediocre quality; still, these are something MY three boys will be carrying around in the woods.

I am deciding between the 100x Pocket Microscope from Home Science Tools for $13.95 (top picture) with the detachable (read: prone to be lost) base for viewing slides or the MicroMax 100x from Edmund Scientific for $14.95. I am leaning toward the latter because it is smaller especially for little hands. The slide-viewing attachment is a nice feature, but since we have a microscope we don't really need it.

Edmund Scientific has a variety of models, like a less expensive 30x model and some pen microscopes. Also I found a 30x loupe for $4.70. It has no illumination but it likely has better quality optics, so in the long run it may be the best value. Just don't leave it in the sun...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Living Science Series: Williamson's Kids' Can! books

For upper elementary and early middle school kids, I really like books from the Williamson's Kids' Can! series, which incidentally has much more than science titles.

Click on any of the book covers to see them at

While the series has several nature titles, I particularly like their physical science books. These books are divided into sections with several fairly easy experiments to choose from, plus just enough background, vocabulary, and concept explanation (often missing in pure experiment books) to make these not quite spines yet much more than topic books. You could easily build a year's worth of science around each of these titles.

It looks like Super Science Concoctions has been released in a new format, so I've included both covers. I don't know if all these books will have their format changed; so long as the contents don't change much, I am glad they continue to be published.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cheap customizable dice

While browsing through our local Michael's store, I came across these in the woodcraft section and I immediately thought, "Wow, 24 6-sided dice for $4 that I can customize!"

They come in larger and smaller sizes, too. (Kids gravitate to unusual sizes.)

This has endless math applications, and I am sure I can think of some science ones, too. Maybe something with elements on it? Please comment if you create something interesting!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Backyard finds--downey woodpeckers

We are having major repairs done on our house, so we have a large dumpster in our driveway, along with lots of other eye-catching things (my MIL says it looks like someone bombed the place, LOL.)

During school the other morning, my boys' eyes could not be helped but be drawn to these male and female downy woodpeckers checking out the wood debris in the dumpster.

They are such striking birds! I of course suspended whatever school work we were doing at the moment to get the camera. I shot these moments before they flew away for good, and we have not seen them since.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Living Science Author: Gail Gibbons

Gail Gibbons is a prolific, award-winning author of children's non-fiction, including many science titles. Her colorful books are filled with all kinds of interesting information about whatever topic she is writing about, whether that be coral reefs, turtles, boats, the solar system, or St. Patrick's Day.

Her web site has a complete list of her books, as well as her recent titles. Also available are two free downloadable teacher's guides (pictured above): A Year with Gail Gibbons and Explore the World of Science with Gail Gibbons. Our family enjoys her titles and they are very easy to find.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Enzymes and gelatin

This is a fun and easy experiment that demonstrated the properties of enzymes.

You need a fresh pineapple (canned with not work) with the skin removed, three bowls, and a box of Jello gelatin.

Crush the pineapple in a blender until you have a fairly smooth but pulpy mixture. Place one tablespoon of the pineapple into the first bowl labeled, "Fresh pineapple." Label a second bowl, "Heated pineapple" and set it aside.

Prepare the Jello as directed on the package. Pour it into the three bowls leaving a little room in the Heated Pineapple bowl (I needed a fourth bowl because mine were small.)

Cook the rest of the pineapple on the stove for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. It will boil, which is fine; just keep stirring it. When done add 1 tablespoon of the cooked pineapple to the bowl labeled, "Heated pineapple" and stir thoroughly.

Place the bowls in the refrigerator for 4 hours. What happened?

The bowl with the fresh pineapple did not harden into Jello while the bowl with the heated pineapple did. Pineapple contains an enzyme that breaks down protein, and gelatin is protein. Heating the enzyme destroys it allowing the Jello to harden.

Canned pineapple cannot be used because it is heated before it is canned.

This experiment will work with papaya as well. The enzyme in papaya is called papain and is so potent that it is the active ingredient in prescription debriding ointments. My Blue Goo Cracked Heel ointment I get at Walmart also has papain in it, but not for long. As of November 4, 2008 the FDA has banned papain from all over-the-counter products. I better stock up now and make sure I don't rub my eyes after applying it to my feet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bird Cinema

Bird-Watching meets You-Tube at Bird Cinema. You can upload your own clips or view other amateur and professional videos about birds. I find this great for matching bird sightings with bird sounds, and other informative videos are available, too. Here is one of a downey woodpecker:

Friday, October 17, 2008

More backyard finds--caterpillars

We have come across some interesting caterpillars crawling around our backyard this fall. This first one looks to be a banded tussock moth (Dasychira obliquata.) Here is what it looks like as an adult moth (not as aesthetically interesting.)

This critter is a polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus.) The moth this will eventually become is enormous! We will have to keep watch for them in the coming weeks. If I find this caterpillar again we may keep it until it metamorphoses.

It just looked to us as if it were Eric Carle's inspiration for his Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Science Kits

I like to keep science kits around. My kids always enjoy the thrill of opening and using them. I like having something complete to pull out when I've had too busy of a week to plan a project. My remind my relatives that they can browse Home Science Tools around holiday or birthday times if they don't know what to get for the kids.

I often find kits for a decent price at discount resellers like T.J. Maxx or Marshall's, and warehouse stores like Costco or BJ's Wholesale Club. These are hit or miss, but usually the hits are pretty good. I am already looking, buying, and putting away for Christmas.

This photo shows ds#2 with a Sensory Dome he got for his birthday, which is a terrarium with plants that appeal to the various senses. The boys had a great time putting this together, and ds#2 in particular took keen interest in reading about the plant information on the planting tags.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Finished classification project

We finished our classification project last week. I put each collage into a sheet protector and made them our title pages for the respective sections of our nature commonplace book. Each section corresponds to a section in the Handbook of Nature Study.

I even found an online classification game that the kids had fun with. They are excited about their new knowledge and wanting to apply it whenever possible.

Curiously, I found this quote in Comstock's book:

Nature-study does not start out with classification given in books, but in the end it builds up in the child's mind a classification which is based on fundamental knowledge; it is a classification like that evolved by the first naturalists, because it is built on careful personal observation of both form and life. (p. 6)

My friend is teaching Mammal Menagerie for our co-op, a program she got from a relative that works for the public school system. It comes with a video, newspapers, and other activities. One of the first things ds#2 did was to place a list of mammals into their appropriate Orders. This did not have the same appeal at all as our basic classification activity did. The kids found it interesting, though, that our large animal encyclopedia was organized by kingdom, then phylum, then class, and then order. That made it easy to find what we were looking for and the kids had fun seeing what other mammals were in each order.

To me, that was the key take-home message--that classification is a way to group all living things and that this system is used even in the books in our home. To be required to learn the various mammal orders demonstrates the point about "book" classification, and about "stuffing facts" into kids. How much more meaningful it is to discover these things through our own observations.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Comparing microscopes offered at Homeschool Buyer's Co-op

First let me mention Homeschool Buyer's Co-op. They arrange group discounts from various companies for their members, and membership is free. Discount amounts go up as more members purchase a product.

They have a lot of science offerings, some of which have purchased.

Currently they are offering discounts on several Bolden microscopes through October 13th. Only now that all of them have reached the maximum discount are they worth the price. Shipping is $15 per scope.

My First Lab Microscope, now down to $83, is comparable with Kids' Microscope at Home Science Tool for $95. No fine focus. The optics are O.K. (some of my biology students use this model.) It will do the trick.

The Premiere Student Microscope, now at $131, is comparable with Great Scope's SF3 for $149. The SF3 has fluorescent lighting but no coaxial focus ($179 for that option.) Bolden is also offering a cordless version with LED lighting now at $137.

The Premiere Advanced Student Microscope, now at $197, gets you the 100x oil immersion lens and a mechanical stage along with the coaxial focus nobs. Bargain Microscopes has a $175 model with the 100x lens, but without a mechanical stage (a very nice feature costing $25 at Home Science Tools) or coaxial nobs (makes little difference to me.) Bolden's LED cordless version is $203.

Next closest model is Great Scope's SF4 for $209 (+$10 shipping) with coaxial nobs and fluorescent lighting; add a mechanical stage and the price goes up to $248. Home Science Tool's comparable model is $240 with a mechanical stage and fluorescent lighting.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Handbook of Nature Study

Many Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, especially those following Ambleside Online, know about this fabulous living science book. Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, at 887 pages, is an indispensable resource especially if you live in Eastern North America.

Handbook covers many common flora and fauna in the Eastern US. It also discusses how to teach nature studies and includes many interesting activities in each section. While this is certainly a teacher's resource more than a read aloud, Comstock is very interesting to read.

It is not very helpful for identifying backyard finds, but that is not what it is designed to do. Good nature study goes far beyond identification, and this book is rich in information about your finds.

You can download a free electronic copy or purchase a softcover copy through Rainbow Resource for around $20.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fantastic Contraption

This is one excellent interactive physics game called Fantastic Contraption.

The object of the game is to move a pink wheel from the blue design box to the pink goal box by building your own fantastic contraption with only wheels and rods.

Be careful--you may find yourself spending a lot of time playing this one...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nature around the yard

My kids enjoy catching creatures that happen to enter our yard. We take the opportunity to examine and identify them. Simple lessons like these are the source of much learning.

This is a very small ringneck snake.

It is very easy to identify especially with the Snakes of Massachusetts site.

This is ds#1 staring at an enormous bug the kids saw sitting on our glass door.

It's a true katydid. I can't wait to show them the picture in the guide tomorrow.

We have many dragonflies in the yard (they eat mosquitoes so they are both beautiful and helpful) and my kids love to catch them by their tails. The large ones are tough because they are fast, but ds#1 was able to get a huge green one today.

After looking at the delicate wings and the large, powerful mouth parts, he let it fly off into the woods.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


We're studying biology this year, beginning with classification. We started with the book Benny's Animals and How He Put Them in Order, by Millicent Selsam.

Before I read the book to the boys, I had them cut pictures of living things out of old My Big Backyard magazines. I asked them to try and sort them in any way they wanted. Ds#1 had some idea of grouping them as birds, reptiles, mammals, etc. but they had trouble.

Next we sat and read the book up through the part where the professor asks Benny to separate his pictures into those with spines/bones and those without. Next week we'll finish the book having them sort the vertebrates into mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Maybe we'll put it together as a collage or lapbook.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Compound microscope update

I rechecked the prices and links for the post about buying a compound microscope, so if you are in the market for one or think you might be, I hope you find the guide helpful.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Yet Another Cool Interactive Periodic Table

The Visual Elements Periodic Table is a great interactive resource. Clicking on an element in opens another page with a quick "fact sheet" about that element. It lists the name, discoverer, the origin of the name, and some properties about each element. It makes a neat guessing game, too, since the element names are not listed on the table, only when you mouse over the element on the table.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More About the Golden Ratio: Zomes

The folks at Zometool have created a very sophisticated "toy" using Φ. Vaguely reminiscent of Tinker Toys, it is far more elegant and mathematically designed.

Basically, it consists of struts and nodes. In a basic set, the struts are blue rectangles (representing 2,) yellow triangles (representing 3), and red pentagons (representing 5.) 2, 3, and 5 are part of the Fibonacci sequence.

Each strut comes in 3 sizes--small, medium, and long--and guess what the ratio is among them? That's right, Φ. You can easily build golden rectangles with them like those overlaying the chameleon's tail in the previous post.

The struts connect to the nodes. These are white with carefully placed rectangular, triangular, and pentagonal holes such that structures can be built that demonstrate mathematical and geometric principles. That is what you see in the Zome logo.

They also have green line struts, which are advanced pentagon struts that have angled ends, that can build additional geometric structures. Here's the strut catalogue:

Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio are abundant in nature. In fact, I noticed the ratio while admiring a dragonfly. I went to work and eventually built one out of Zomes.

I actually needed a few extra small struts--these, too, maintain the golden ratio in relation to the other struts. I didn't have enough struts to make the second wing.

The website and kits have a wide range of geometric models, from simple Platonic solids to a complex taurus (doughnut) and even a large DNA model. You can download a set of challenge cards, or lesson plans for grades 1 through 12.

This makes a great math and science manipulative especially if your kids like to build like my boys do. Their imaginations are their guides!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Math, Science, Art, and Fibonacci

Science, Math, and Nature are so closely related one can scarcely separate them. So while this is a science blog, and not a math blog, math will come up from time to time.

An excellent example of the intertwined existence of Science, Math, and Nature are Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Ratio. And yes, there's Art, too.

The Fibonacci sequence is easy to construct. Starting with 1 (one) and 1 (one), you add the previous two numbers to get the next in the sequence. 1, 1, 2 (from 1 + 1), 3 (from 1 + 2), 5 (from 2 + 3), 8 (from 3 + 5) and so on.

You can then construct a spiral by creating squares with each side the length of a Fibonacci number and put them together such that they go around in a circle, as in the picture to the left. See the two 1x1 squares stacked one on the other in the center? There's a 2x2 box attached to the left of those, a 3x3 box below that, a 5x5 box to the right of that, an 8x8 box above that, and so on. Using a curved line through each box, a spiral is created.

It turns out that these numbers and spirals occur frequently in nature. A nautilus shell and flower seed head exactly spiral in this way. The number of petals on a flower are almost always a Fibonacci number. Wild Fibonacci by Joy Hulme is a wonderful introduction to this connection for young readers.

Also notice that with the addition of each new square, the final drawing forms a rectangle. The ratio of the long side to the short side in this rectangle (which is the ratio of two consecutive Fibonacci numbers, a Fibonacci number and the number before it in the sequence) is the Golden Ratio, or Φ (Phi) and equals 1.618. O.K., enough math.

Besides appearing so much in Nature, this rectangle seems to be appealing to people, too, for we often use it in our art. Check out Fibonacci Numbers and Nature and Fibonacci Numbers and The Golden Section in Art, Architecture, and Music, both full of more details, pictures, links, and fun activities.

This is a great way to combine Nature Study, Math, and Art Appreciation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Periodic Table of Videos

The Periodic Table of Videos

The University Of Nottingham has put together a series of videos about each element in the Periodic Table, and they are quite entertaining and very informative. Some are unavailable but hopefully they will return soon.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Living Science Author: Simon Winchester

I have seen Mr. Winchester several times on C-SPAN BookTV, though I never wrote down his name or his titles. He is on again now (watch any time here) talking about his new book, The Man Who Loved China. I love listening to him speak, and his books sound fascinating, but I have yet to read any. It is high time I get one from the library and see if he writes as well as he speaks--and I imagine he does.
Here is a list of Simon Winchester's books. Most of them look like great living science, and history, for high school.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Living Science Author: Robert E. Wells

Giving children a sense of perspective can be challenging. Robert E. Wells has written a series of colorful, engaging, and detailed books that demonstrate a variety of perspectives in a fun and lasting way. What's Smaller Than A Pygmy Shrew? is about size, from atoms to the universe. His other titles include Can You Count To A Googol?, What's Faster Than A Speeding Cheetah, What Is Older Than A Giant Tortoise?, How Do You Know What Time It Is?, Is A Blue Whale The Biggest Thing There is?, and Did A Dinosaur Drink This Water? And then there's more science-based How Do You Lift A Lion? about using simple machines to move heavy objects. These are family favorites!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Science Books from the 50's and 60's

When you shop at library book sales, where often children's books are 25 to 50 cents each, you pick up a lot of books that might be interesting. As it turns out, by serendipity I have found a surprisingly high number of really great science books published in the 1950's and 1960's. Perhaps only the better written or more popular books survive, or maybe it was a heyday for children's science, or possibly books have been dumbed down today, or it could be that I have not looked at enough modern science books; I don't know. All I know is that some of my best science books are from this era. Even searching "juvenile physics" or "juvenile chemistry" in the library catalogue, which lists results by publication date, shows that the older books seem to be the more interesting ones.

Some of the gems I have found include:

Authors like Jeanne Bendick, Millicent Selsam, Franklyn Branley, and Jerome Meyer.

Series like the How and Why Wonder books of Grosset & Dunlap, AllAbout books from Random House, the Golden Library of Knowledge, and Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science (still published today.)

Oddities like Arnold Roth's Crazy Book of Science ('71), with its cartoons and funny stories that make information memorable, and Our Wonderful Earth by Herbert Townsend that introduces geology and earth science, natural science, and world culture to young children all in one book. Even classic authors with a single science title, like Holling C. Holling's Pagoo and Virginia Lee Burton's Life Story.

Of course you have to stick basic information, otherwise the books are hopelessly dated--though you can find some interesting historical information. For example, in The Wonder of Light by Hy Ruchlis, I found out that housewives had hung clothes to dry because of UV light's germicidal power and that special UV lamps were used in hospital operating rooms to kill harmful germs. "A moderate amount of exposure to ultraviolet light is healthful," he states because it creates vitamin D. We now know how harmful UV rays are, though, so we put vitamin D in our milk and took those lights out of the operating room!

On the other hand, science history books are very informative; they were much more common and interesting than they are now. Clocks, Calendars and Carrousels by John Navarra and A Short History of Science and Scientific Thought ('49) by F. Sherwood Taylor are two excellent examples.

Many contemporary books seem to have more interest in advancing political agendas than advancing scientific ideas, which leads to a decrease in quality. Whether it's making Christians look bad, or making sure something relating to Evolution or the age of the earth is in every book, or trying to be more "cool" than informative, or dumbing down the contents...well, it dilutes the book pool. Still, we have authors like Gail Gibbons and Robert Wells; series like Magic School Bus, One Small Square, and Kids Can!; other gems like Tibaldo and the Hole in the Calendar by Abner Shimony, Galileo for Kids by Richard Panchyk, and How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer. I'll be writing more about authors and series in future posts; keep an eye on my reviews on Shelfari for other great science titles.