Friday, October 31, 2008

Website of the Week: Science News for Kids

Do you want to keep up with the latest science news but you aren't sure where to start? Try Science News for Kids, a website dedicated to providing science news for children and teens ages 9-14. You can search the article archive by topics such as animals (learn about a newly discovered blind ant), chemistry and materials (discover how bacteria can "eat" plastic) or technology and engineering (read Hubble trouble doubled to find out what's been plaguing the Hubble telescope lately). You have the option of rating the articles and you can also search to find those articles that are most popular.

Science News for Kids
is also broken into zones of interest, including a Puzzle Zone with a weekly brainteaser, a SciFi Zone for you science fiction writers, and a SciFair Zone for anyone needing tips or ideas for science fair projects (FYI: This section links up with Science Buddies, another great site if you need help with your science fair project). Teaching materials, like question sheets to accompany the articles, can be found in the Teacher Zone.

P.S. Happy Halloween, everyone! :D

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Home remedies

In the early 90's, a friend of mine went to South America to perform community service. As part of her stay, she lived with a host family. One day, I received a letter from her in which she told me that she had been ill. I don't remember what was wrong with her (she recovered, thankfully), but I do remember the prescribed cure: she was supposed to drink her own urine.

Which brings to mind an important tip: try home remedies at your own risk!

How popular are home remedies? If you conduct an internet search on the topic, you can unearth over one million pages devoted to these "sure-fire" cures. Barefoot Lass has compiled a list of unusual (although slightly more palatable than my example above!) home remedies, including wet tobacco compresses for bee stings, banana peels for bruises, and rubbing 1/2 of a lime on your head to cure a headache.

Do these cures work? I'm not sure. Overall, I suspect that a small number of home remedies are truly effective, a large percentage do nothing, and a few are downright dangerous.

But some home remedies have actually undergone scientific testing to gauge their effectiveness. For example, Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center conducted a 1993 study that showed that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties that help you recover from a cold.

More specifically, chicken soup with vegetables was shown to inhibit the activity of neutrophils (white blood cells that fight infection), which in turn was thought to retard the spread of the cold through the upper respiratory tract. Interestingly, the broth alone did not have this property, and the researchers couldn't isolate exactly which ingredient or combination of ingredients in the soup caused this effect. (Dr. Rennard also shares his wife's chicken soup recipe, but notes that other chicken soups have similar properties, although they do vary in their effectiveness.)

So, should you try a home remedy the next time you are sick? Always remember to use common sense and be careful out there!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Walking House

What if the next time you needed to move, you simply picked up your house and took it with you? Unlike a traditional mobile home, however, the Copenhagen-based collective N55's Walking House (built in conjunction with MIT) doesn't need a road. This "modular dwelling system," commissioned by the Wysing Arts Centre, is said to be a re-design -- and unique interpretation -- of an 18th century horse-drawn carriage.

To me, Walking House resembles a giant ant, with its six autonomous legs and hexagonal, tubular body. The unit is equipped with a "composting toilet system", solar cells, and small windmills. Its inventors say that this design "enables persons to live a peaceful nomadic life, moving slowly through the landscape or cityscape with minimal impact on the environment."

You can watch the YouTube video (below) of Walking House, but the speed is so slow that the clip is almost unwatchable. The house moves at a snail's pace of 60 meters per hour (0.037 miles per hour or about 4/100 of a mile per hour), which seems to fall short of the designer's intent to have the house "move at a slow pace similar to the walking speed of the human body."

Nonetheless, there's a lot to love about this little ant-like house. treehugger has been following this project from its inception, and it's fun to see how the project has evolved from prototype until now.

As a temporary dwelling, Walking House truly takes the fun of a treehouse to another level. But I can't imagine living full-time in such a structure. What do you think? Could you live in Walking House? If you were going to design a walking house, what would it look like?

Friday, October 24, 2008

OT: Hugs to the lonely

Like many bloggers, I use a statistics tracker on this website to get a better idea of who my visitors are and what they are searching for. Most of the time, this information is mildly interesting, letting me know, for example, that "weird animal names" is a popular search string. Sometimes, people are searching for things that make me wonder too, like "How many ping-pong balls would it take to fill the Grand Canyon?" Only rarely do I see a search term that makes me sad.

A couple of times now, I've read "my child/son/daughter never gets invited to birthday parties" as a search string. And I've felt terrible. Do you know where they've landed? On one of my pages about ants. How useless is that? So, I want to write a post for my friends who are feeling sad because they are missing out on parties.

First of all, as a mother, I can relate. There's nothing worse than watching your child in pain. And I can relate to being a lonely child. When I was nine, we moved to a new state and I started a new school. It was a terrible, horrible experience for me. I spent the next four years -- 5th through 8th grade -- as the scapegoat of the class scapegoat. So, while the rest of the class was teasing her, she was teasing me. Sixth grade was brutal and ranks right up there as one of the worst, if not the worst, years of my life.

For my young friends who are struggling in school, please keep this in mind: this is a temporary situation. I wish I had realized that. I went on to make new friends in high school, successfully move to an out-of-state college, graduate, get a job, get married, go back to school, have babies ... you get the picture. This time of your life feels like hell on earth and like there are no options and you are just stuck. But everything has a season and if you give up now, you aren't going to make it to the good stuff. So hang in there.

One of the things that got me through that awful time was that I had a separate circle of friends outside of school. So, my advice would be to try out a number of activities where you can make new friends: boy/girl scouts, church groups, karate classes. Don't berate yourself if these social activities don't work out either, but do keep looking until you find a place where you fit in. Find yourself a haven from your troubles and remember that you are a good and valuable person, no matter what anyone else says.

For those giving care to someone in this situation, have a talk with the school. My older son's kindergarten and grade school both instituted rules that if you don't invite the whole class to the party, you can't use school time to distribute the invitations. I like this rule because it takes some of the sting out of not being invited.

Reassure your child that they are not to blame and project the confidence that they don't feel -- remind them that they will get through this and show that you believe it and believe in them. And, if you are so inclined, pray for them to make new friends. I've heard wonderful stories about the power of prayer in these kinds of situations.

And remember that Mama Joules is thinking of you. :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Using bad science for the greater good

These days, you can't open a newspaper or magazine without bumping into bad science: poorly explained topics, unsubstantiated claims, theories touted as facts. And the web isn't helping any -- anyone can put up a website and claim whatever they choose. So, how do we separate bad science from good?

Ben Goldacre is a British doctor who writes a weekly column in the Guardian devoted to the topic of Bad Science. He also teamed up with Planet Science to develop a series of experiments to test some of the crazier claims.

I like the idea of taking bad science and using it for good. Testing crazy or unproven claims (as long as they aren't dangerous) can be fun. It's also a good opportunity to practice setting up an experiment.

For example, instead of rolling your eyes at the next television commercial -- the one that promises that this new and improved breakfast cereal is tastier than the leading brand -- why not put the claim to the test? Set up your own scientific trial at breakfast. Blindfold your family, put two bowls of cereal (one bowl of the old brand, one of the new) in front of each person, and record their responses. Do they like the new cereal? Could they taste a difference?

Or, if a new dishwashing detergent claims to make your dishes less spotty, do your mom a favor and run a load of dishes. Compare the newly washed glasses to the previously washed ones. How do they compare? Do you get a different answer if you count the spots in a new way? Do you get a different answer depending upon how many dishes you examine?

Questioning the world around you is the hallmark of a good scientist. And that applies to everything you read -- including this post!

(My thanks to CricketB for pointing out the benefits of Bad Science!)

Monday, October 20, 2008

OT: Blogging Scholarship

Well, this is somewhat off-topic, but I hope that someone can take advantage of this opportunity. I found out about this scholarship from one of my mailing lists (thanks, Kai!). College is offering a $10,000 scholarship to a full-time student (U.S. citizen or permanent resident only) who writes a blog. According to their website: "Your blog must contain unique and interesting information about you and/or things you are passionate about." If this sounds like you, check out The Blogging Scholarship ASAP because the submission deadline is October 30, 2008.

Good luck!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Website of the Week: ZooBorns

Newborn Black Bear Cubs
Photo credit: Mark Betram, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Are you looking for adorable pictures of newborn wildlife? Drop by ZooBorns, a brand-new website from the minds behind Zooillogix. According to their website, "ZooBorns brings you the newest and cutest exotic animal babies from zoos and aquariums around the world." What a great idea!

ZooBorns already has pictures up of nineteen kinds of animal babies, with plenty more to come. The Red Panda Cubs might be cute, but my favorite is the tiny pink Six-Banded Armadillo (I wonder if that picture shows baby Beauregard or Ed?) .

Got a photo or video of baby wildlife to share? Be sure to check out ZooBorns' Submission Policy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October is Fire Safety Month

In many communities across the United States, October is fire safety month. The official National Fire Prevention Week ran last week, from October 5-11, 2008. If your kids (or you) are in school, they probably brought home some great tips that they learned about preventing fires. If not, check out Sparky the Fire Dog's® fire-safety Scholastic website. You can Hunt for Home Hazards, create a home fire escape plan, or print out lesson plans to use with children in grades K-5. Teachers can submit student art or speeches to be presented on Scholastic's fire safety webpage. But you've got to hurry -- entries must be postmarked by October 20, 2008!

Sparky the Fire Dog® also has his own website through the National Fire Protection Association. You can learn all about fire trucks, dalmatians, or check out coloring pages, fire safety tips, and more. Sparky® even has his own arcade!

[Updated 10/10/10: Added a current link for National Fire Prevention Week.]

Monday, October 13, 2008

Caterpillars change colors ... who knew?

Two instars of the Common Mormon caterpillar
(This photograph,taken by Sindhu Ramchandran, is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license).

Recently, my 3-year-old was delighted to find a fuzzy black caterpillar crawling across the sidewalk in our front yard. We took it inside and put it into his brother's bug house, which resembles a tiny pop-up hamper with a zippered lid. Both boys took to feeding it leaves and soon we had an interesting puzzle -- our caterpillar is now turning orange.

I never knew that caterpillars could change colors. Poking around on the Internet, I learned that some caterpillars change color in response to temperature (like the Tomato hornworm)(1). Others are affected by diet and crowding. Some species, like the caterpillars of the American Peppered Moth, can even change color to match their host tree twigs. This ability to hide, known as crypsis, allows them to avoid being eaten by birds (2).

Caterpillars can also change colors when they shed their skin. Christmas Notebook has an amazing set of pictures of caterpillars molting (and then eating their own skin!) in butterfly babies.

Each stage between skin-shedding is known as an instar. Monarch Butterfly and Milkweed Mania has a great set of pictures showing the size and color differences of caterpillars at various instars in Life Stages: (determining instars).

Along the way to learning about caterpillar colors, I found this great page from the Royal Alberta Museum on how to keep butterfly and moth pupae over the winter, advice that just might come in handy!


(1)Abstract of "Hidden Genetic Variation Yields Caterpillar of a Different Color" by Elizabeth Pennisi as presented in the February 3, 2006 issue of Science.

(2)"A Reversible Color Polyphenism in American Peppered Moth (Biston betularia cognataria) Caterpillars" by Mohamed A. F. Noor, Robin S. Parnell, and Bruce S. Grant, published online September 4, 2008 at PLoS ONE

Friday, October 10, 2008

Website of the Week: Growing With Science

I found this family-friendly science blog through Nature Blog Network and I was immediately drawn to its slogan -- Putting the fun back into scientific exploration. I also like its easy-to-use (not to mention bug-friendly and color-coordinated!) layout. Unlike my science Website of the Week, Roberta of Growing With Science presents a Bug of the Week. (Her October 1st entry was the Smoke Tree Sharpshooter, what an awesome name!) She also has a tag for Fun Science Activity that includes tips for activities like building a birdhouse, exploring fall color, and learning about guinea pigs. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Waste Reduction Week: October 19-25, 2008

I was tickled to learn that Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street has been tapped as the official "spokesperson" for Canada's 2008 Waste Reduction Week. According to their website, Waste Reduction Week focuses on "education, engagement and empowerment" by pointing out the "environmental and social ramifications of wasteful practices." (Or, in other words, think before you pollute.) My favorite was their Activities page, which gives directions for building a composter, making recycled paper, and helping you conduct a home energy audit.

Not in Canada? Check out Oscar's public service announcements on the September 18, 2008 entry of The Muppet Newsflash.


[Updated 10/16/09: Fixed two broken links.]

Monday, October 6, 2008

Keep a science journal

Last night, my 7-year-old son came to me and began to describe his idea for a new robot.

"It would pick up toys and put them away," he told me, and he proceeded to describe the mechanics of robot in great detail. (Let me tell you, I *want* one of these robots!)

I suggested that we buy a journal. "Let's get one with WALL-E on the cover," I said. "And then you can write down all of your ideas for new robots. Later on, when you're older and enter a science fair, you can read about your plans and pick one to work on."

A science journal doesn't have to be about robots, though. Pick any topic that you like. Give yourself the freedom to explore your interests.

Do you watch clouds? Write down the shapes that you see, draw them in your journal, and look them up in a cloud identification book later. Would you rather study bugs? Draw the insects in your journal and describe their behavior. Have a great idea for an experiment? Plan it out on paper before you put it into practice.

Remember, this is your journal. You can be as detailed or as simple as you want. Similar to a diary, you don't have to share your ideas about science with everyone. Let yourself dream ... and don't forget to give yourself the permission to dream big.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Website of the Week: Dig It! The Secrets of Soil

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is currently featuring a new exhibit called Dig It! The Secrets of Soil.

What is Soil? Here's a handy definition I learned in graduate school -- Dirt is dead. Soil is alive. Soils are dynamic ecosystems filled with living things like insects, worms, bacteria, and fungi.

How do soils form? Check out this handy chart to learn more about the five soil formation factors: Climate (Is the surrounding area rainy or dry? Salty or devoid of minerals?) , Biota (Which plants and animals live and use the soil?), Slope (Did the soil form on a mountainside or in a valley?), Bedrock (What kind of rock has contributed to the soil?) and Time.

How many different types of soil are there? "Scientists recognize about 70,000 soil types in the United States alone ..." according to Paul Reich of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA, as quoted in this exhibit. His Global Soil Regions Map is shown on the NRCS Soils Website.

Check out the Educators Activity Page for fun ways to learn about soils both at the museum and at home. Learn More about soils by visiting these websites recommended in the exhibit.

(My thanks to Soils Professor Dan Richter for letting me know about this exhibit!)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cyberchase: Spheres of Fears

I received this information today from Donna Williams, Senior Publicist for Thirteen/WNET (thanks, Donna!):

"On CYBERCHASE this Halloween, join Digit and the CyberSquad on [Monday] October 27 as they try to evade the eerie creatures called the Creepers. Yikes! ..." (This new episode, Spheres of Fears, will be repeated on PBS on Halloween day!)

"Want to host a CYBERCHASE-themed Halloween party?" asks Ms. Williams. If you'd like .pdf copies of a coloring page and invitations, drop her a line at williamsd [at] or let me know and I'll forward the copies I received to you. You can also download CYBERCHASE face masks (But where's the mask of Slider? He's my favorite!).

CYBERCHASE also has tips for parents to sneak a little math into Halloween -- things like having the kids decide how much candy your family should buy using an estimate of the likely number of trick-or-treaters to visit your home multiplied by the number of pieces of candy you plan to hand out (Good idea!). To check out more tips, download the .pdf file here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Food Detectives

As a fan of the Food Network, I'll watch most any show they broadcast at least once. But Food Detectives, hosted by Ted Allen, caught my eye and is worth a second look. Ever want to test those food myths you've heard about? Is the last drop of soda in the bottle really all backwash? (No, only about 2%, according to their tests). Can you really fry an egg on your car engine? (Yes, but it looks so horrid afterward that you might not want to eat it). You can upload your most pressing food questions to Ted Allen via video clip or drop him an E-mail here. Food Detectives reminds me of Mythbusters lite, but it's a charming show that's worth a view.