Friday, February 27, 2009

Website of the Week: North American Moths Backyard Inventory

If you've read my previous posts, you know that Kerm and I have a soft spot for caterpillars. So, as I was drifting about the Internet today, I was pleased to find a new blog devoted to moths.

The North American Moths Backyard Inventory , or NAMBI, aims to coordinate citizen scientist observations and photographs about the habitat and range of moths. If you choose to participate, your data may be included in an upcoming Peterson's Field Guide to the Moths of Northeastern North America.

New to studying moths? NAMBI has that covered too: you can find books and tips to help you learn to identify moths. And if you enjoy writing about your nocturnal moth-chasing adventures, consider contributing to The Moth and Me blog carnival!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Where in the world?

I took this photo last summer during a family trip. Do you know where I was? What does the landscape tell you? Notice the elevation differences and the color of the soil. Is this an arid or damp climate? Where in the world can you still find American bison? Any guesses? Here's a big hint.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OT: Celebrate Fat Tuesday with Free Pancakes!

Well, this post is off-topic, but I wanted to share it with you anyway. :) The International House of Pancakes is celebrating National Pancake Day today until 10 pm. Stop by your neighborhood IHOP and enjoy one free short stack of pancakes per party. IHOP only requests that you consider donating to Children's Miracle Network. According to the IHOP website, this event raised more than $875,000 for charity last year!

(My thanks to my friend Maria for letting me know about this event.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Learn Bird Songs!

Photo credit: Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As we're getting ready for spring here in the northern hemisphere, it is the perfect time to start birding. I found a nice resource today to help you identify the birds in your neighborhood. Lang Elliott's Learn Bird Songs! provides photographs and recordings of nearly 40 birds common to North America. You can listen to birdsong by habitat (click on the bird pictures to find the audio files) -- countrysides, forests, cityscapes, and wetlands -- or pick a species from the main page, like Blue Jay Song and Sounds. Be sure to check out How to Learn Bird Songs for tips on memorizing the sounds made by different birds and enjoy the sounds of spring!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Website of the Week:

In honor of Engineers Week, this week's website is If you are between the ages of 8 and 18 and are considering a career in engineering, this website is for you! You can Ask an Expert what it's like to be a working engineer or engineering student. You can learn what courses to take to prepare, what engineering specialties are available, and check out 101 different Pre-University Student Activities (like camps, competitions, and projects) on your way to Becoming An Engineer. Be sure to Play Games while you are there!

If you're a parent or educator looking for engineering lesson plans, there's something here for you, too. Check out over 50 Lesson Plans on topics like flashlights and batteries, solar panel design, and building a canoe.

(A tip of the hat to the 2009 Chicagoland Engineers Week website for pointing me toward this site!)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thoughts on George Washington Carver

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."
--George Washington Carver (1864? - 1943)

Traditionally, February has been known as Black History Month. This got me thinking about my favorite African-American scientist, George Washington Carver, and his rise from slavery to esteemed professor and agricultural researcher.

I'm not sure why it influenced me so much to read a profile about Carver in the late 1970's. I'll be honest, back then I didn't think much about science outside of school. Maybe it was because President Carter was in office and their names were so similar and they both were peanut farmers.

But I remember thinking that it was really cool that Carver thought of so many different things to do with peanuts. In the truest definition of a scientist -- he saw the world in a different way. Dr. Carver seemed determined to squeeze every possible type of peanut product out of this simple crop. Along with numerous foodstuffs (like peanut butter!), he found the peanut could be used to make paper (from the skin and vines), wall boards (from the hulls), axle grease, laundry soap, laxatives, and hundreds of other products. In addition to his work with peanuts, Carver taught crop rotation and developed new uses for soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. As a result, cotton farmers devastated by the boll weevil were able to find new crops to replace cotton in the American south.

I like that Carver patented very few of his inventions, instead making them available to help everyone. He could have become discouraged early in his career -- he faced discrimination while trying to pursue his education -- but he didn't. He kept on trying. Both humble and persistent, he was a man on a mission. Carver turned down jobs for higher pay so that he could continue his agricultural work and help the southern farmer.

In these bleak economic times, I thought this quote of his especially relevant:
"Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable." George Washington Carver

P.S. You can print out a cool Coloring and Activity Book about Carver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Giant frog gets new friend: Titanoboa

Well, the ancient giant "frog from hell" finally has some company! As reported by Nature, scientists have recently unearthed the world's biggest snake fossil. The snake, thought to have been about 42 feet long and have weighed 2,500 pounds (!), lived about 60 million years ago in northeastern Colombia. Primarily aquatic, the snake could slither on land and is thought to have crushed its prey like a modern day boa constrictor.

So what did this mammoth monster eat? Probably crocodiles or fish, according to an article written by TimesOnline environment reporter Lewis Smith. Based upon the size of these cold-blooded creatures, scientists are hypothesizing that the earth must have been quite warm back then, over 7 degrees F hotter than today's average temperatures.

Now, I realize that the giant frog was hopping around Africa some ten million years earlier than the giant snake went cruising along in South America. But doesn't it make you wonder what our planet looked like so many millions of years ago? (How big were the bugs?!)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Website of the Week: Urban Science Adventures!©

Now, here's a blog that I can relate to. Described as "An Urban Ecology & Environmental Education Web Reference for young people," Danielle Lee of Urban Science Adventures!© blogs about a variety of things close to my heart like diversity in science, nurturing the scientific mind, and science blogging. She also has a recurring theme of reviewing science books for children (check out the label science literature). And I learned some interesting tidbits from her other posts, including that hairy is scary (at least when it comes to vines in the winter) and that there is a such a thing as Squirrel Appreciation Day. Check it out!

P.S. Good luck with finishing up your dissertation, Danielle! If I lived closer, I'd offer to take you over to Ted Drewes to have a coffee concrete. Mmmm.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Science & stuffed animals

The next time that you and/or your kids are snowed in or just bored and stuck inside, try this simple science lesson. (This one's especially for my youngest readers!)

First, find a book about animals complete with pictures. If you don't have one, look for a website or two devoted to animal photography like the Animal Photo Galleries at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park or National Geographic's Photo Galleries: Animals.

Next, gather all of the stuffed animals in your house and put them into one big pile. I'm talking everything, from Big Bird to baby alligator (both favorites of my youngest). If your family is anything like mine, you will be surprised at the sheer quantity of stuffed animals living in your house!

Then, have everyone separate the stuffed animals into two piles: those that look realistic and those that don't. Talk about why some stuffed animals don't look like real live animals. Is the teddy bear wearing a dress? Do real bears wear dresses? How about that stuffed snake? Do real snakes have pink, orange, red, and blue stripes? (The coral snake does come pretty close!)

For the animals that look realistic, you can talk about the ways in which they do and don't resemble living animals. Is your alligator the same color, shape, and size as a real one? Do tree frogs really grow to be nine inches tall? For the realistic stuffed animals, you can look up their real-life counterparts online (or in your animal book) and compare the two.

In our house, our stuffed snakes and frogs tend to look the most realistic, while the teddy bears and "cuddly" stuffed animals don't look anything like live animals. Some of our stuffed animals were purchased at nature centers, and those tend to come the closest to resembling real animals.

How about you? What kind of stuffed animals live at your house?

Monday, February 9, 2009

World Science Festival 2009

The 2009 World Science Festival will be held in New York City from June 10-14, 2009. Last year's inaugural event included a fun array of sold-out Youth & Family Events, including The Science of Disney Imagineering, Mathemagician Arthur Benjamin, and Science Sunday at the Met. (I would also have been drawn to Toil and Trouble ... Stories of Experiments Gone Wrong.) I thought it interesting that both Alan Alda and Sam Shepard had a hand in last year's festivities.

To get a jump-start on 2009, you can sign up for festival updates and view video clips from some of the 2008 presentations. Happy planning!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Website of the Week: Immersion Presents

This week's website is the not-for-profit Immersion Presents, an organization founded in part by Dr. Robert Ballard, the scientist who discovered the Titanic.

Bringing "ocean adventures and discoveries" to children is the focus of the organization, and the website comes complete with video clips of ocean exploration, interviews with scientists about their careers, and science videos by kids. Online games include puzzles, making a map of a shipwreck, designing a remotely-operated vehicle, and learning how to behave like a dolphin.

Immersion Presents also has information about a Marine Art Contest for children ages 5-13 sponsored by the International Marine Environment Protection Association. The deadline for entry is February 13, 2009; please check the website for more details. (I couldn't find a detailed description of the rules; you might call Immersion Presents -- try their contact us section -- for more information.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How photography brings science to life

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Photo credit: Ansel Adams
Source: The National Archives and Records Administration

Recently, my husband took our younger son to the bookstore. The little one was fascinated by a coffee table book about the solar system. Isn't it amazing, how the power of photography can grab us and pull us into a scientific subject?

I recently purchased Cloudman John A. Day's The Book of Clouds. I could give you some long-winded explanation of how I need this book to accurately identify different cloud formations, but let's face it, I just like looking at the pictures.

When I was very young, my favorite book was a guide to nature, complete with a photograph of a snake devouring a frog. I thought this was endlessly fascinating. Fast forward a few years and I was skimming a magazine in a doctor's office when I saw an Ansel Adams photograph for the first time. I remember the sensation of flying through the clouds, feeling the cool mist of condensation on my arms. The photograph gave me goosebumps, along with a lifelong appreciation of Adams' work.

The next time you are at the book store, drop by a display of those oversized hard-cover tomes filled with photography. Let your mind wander over various topics and pick out images that interest you. You might be surprised at what catches your eye -- and that of your little ones.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Walk your way to mental clarity

Photo credit: Leon Brooks

Do you want to improve your ability to concentrate? Take a walk!

But wait! Don't just walk anywhere.

In the paper "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature" (Berman, et. al, 2008), published in Psychological Science, the authors discuss how a walk through a natural setting can refresh your brain. A walk in the city seldom does; it requires too much directed attention. Car horns force you to focus on not getting run over. You have to consciously ignore billboards, ringing cell phones, and other mentally jarring intrusions just to get some peace. Natural settings, on the other hand, give your brain some much needed breathing room. You might see and hear interesting things, but they aren't urgently forcing your brain to pay attention.

(Mama Joules' digresses: OK, so I have to wonder about this. What if your natural setting isn't so peaceful? Maybe you are hiking through an untamed forest complete with stinging insects, the threat of extreme weather, and the potential for attacks by large hungry wildlife? Would you still feel refreshed and restored afterward?!)

The authors conducted a study among college students and sent them for walks under different conditions. The students were able to concentrate better on a memory test after a walk along a wooded path (as opposed to the densely populated city street). This effect held true even if the participants were in a bad mood or the weather was foul.

So, the next time that you or your child are stuck on a hard problem -- be it homework, a tax question, or how to seat your relatives at the dinner table so that they won't fight over the rolls -- take a time out and go for a walk in the park.

(But take my advice: If you're seeking solace and mental restoration, go for a relatively tame natural setting. No bears!)