Snow and Cold Weather Science (Part 2)

How do arctic and antarctic animals stay warm?  In many cases it’s blubber.

Can blubber really be that insulating?

Yesterday we investigated the effect of melting ice on water levels.

Today we added more ice and made a “blubber” glove to test the effectiveness of blubber.


"Blubber" Glove Experiment


  • Solid vegetable shortening or fat - like Crisco
  • 2 large ziploc bags
  • Duct tape
  • Large container of ice water
  • Stop watch or timing device
  • Thermometer (optional)


  1. Fill one of the ziploc bags with the vegetable shortening, making sure to leave some space around the top.
  2. Try to make sure to smash the fat into the corners and coat both sides of the bag.
  3. Turn the other bag inside out and insert into the bag of fat. If you can zip the two bags together.
  4. Use the duct tape to seal the bags together. Make sure the fat is fairly evenly distributed.
  5. Measure the temperature of the water.
  6. Place an unprotected hand in the cold water and time how long until it feels cold.
  7. Protect the other hand inside the blubber glove and place in the water making sure to keep the top of the glove above the water level.
  8. Place thermometer in glove and measure the temperature each minute.

We’ve read that vikings may have coated themselves in fat as protection against cold waters.  So, the boys coated a finger with fat and one without to feel how much difference it would make.

Check out  National Geographic Education for an explanation of the ways blubber benefits arctic and antarctic animals.

Have fun making this experiment your own.


Snow and Cold Weather Science (Part 1)

We are still finishing up our volcano studies, but interest is waning.  They did enjoy watching Nova’s Deadliest Volcanoes and C worked on a volcano model with his Jr. FLL team.


This week I picked up some books on snow and polar regions.  These were greeted with enthusiasm!

First up was The Secret Life of a Snowflake by Kenneth Libbrecht.  The photography in this book is amazing!!!   I love the explanation of “The Right Way to Make Paper Snowflake”.

We looked through the incredible catalog of snowflakes in Wilson Bentley’s “Snow Crystals”.   Wilson Bentley was a Vermont farmer, who was fascinated by snow crystals.  Back in the early 1900’s he purchased a camera capable of microphotography and cataloged thousands of pictures of snow crystals. We read “Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Martin.  It is written picture book style, so it feels a bit young, but it is the only kid biography of Wilson Bentley I could find.  I’m also reading a biography of Wilson Bentley myself.  It doesn’t seem like it would make a good read aloud, but maybe I will find some good tidbits to share.

We set up an “Iceberg” experiment.


We filled an aquarium with 10 cm of water (Make sure to do your measurements in cm) We placed our “icebergs” in the aquarium to observe how they floated in fresh water.  Then we removed the icebergs back to the freezer.


E calculated the volume of water in the aquarium in cubic cm.  Once we had the volume we converted it to grams.  This is the beauty of the metric system.  For fresh water at atmospheric pressure and a temperature of 4 C, 1 cm3 = 1 g = 1 mL. (and yes it is annoying me that I haven’t figured out how to superscript the 3 in my blog editor)

Next we calculated how much salt we needed to add to replicate ocean water based on 3% salt by weight.


We mixed in the salt and then floated our icebergs again taking note of the water level.  The addition of the ice caused a 3 cm rise in water level, however we did not observe any significant difference in buoyancy of the ice comparing fresh to salt water.

As the ice melted we measured the water level to verify there was no change.

The purpose of the experiment is to show that melting icebergs don’t raise ocean levels, because they are already displacing water.  The melting of glaciers does raise ocean levels.  When glaciers break apart and fall into the ocean they become icebergs so glaciers add volume to the ocean when they either break apart and fall into the ocean or when they melt.   This experiment happened to fit very well into E’s math studies this week as he was working on both volume and percentages.

Next week we will be using benzoic acid crystals to make snow globes.  If you ask a mom to order benzoic acid, she will get a good price from the soap making supply store.  Once she is shopping soap supplies, she will want to make her own lip balm.  When she orders the supplies to make lip balm, she will also order lotion making supplies.  Since Christmas is coming she will order enough to make gifts.  Once her cart is full, she will suddenly notice she forgot the benzoic acid.  Now we will be making snow globes,  lip balm, and lotion.   All of these make great winter science projects, even if they don’t directly involve snow.

Now if I can just remember where I stored my molecular modeling kit…… we can explore WHY snow crystals have 6 sides.

Check out this list of Fun Holiday Science Activities.

Also Kenneth Libbrecht has a website that has an AMAZING gallery of snow crystal pictures as well as physics explanations of snow flake formation and ice spikes.

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9 Fun Holiday Science Activities for Kids

Looking for some fun science activities for the holidays?  Try some of these ideas to keep the learning going during the holidays!

Borax snowflake1. “Snow ornaments” –  Make ornaments using pipe cleaners and a saturated borax solution.


2. Bake cookies –  Everybody loves Christmas cookies.  Take some time over the holidays to get the kids in the kitchen.  The skills kids learn in the kitchen transfer straight into the chemistry lab.  At Learning with Boys we’ve even converted some of our favorite cookie recipes to metric units.  Check out our “Metric Kitchen” post.


3. Snowflake science – Maybe you will be lucky enough to get snow over the holidays  to view the crystals with a magnifying glass.  If not check out The Secret Life of a Snowflake – by Kenneth Libbrecht.  Libbrecht is a physics professor at Caltech but his book is suitable for all ages.  The photographs are just incredible and he does a great job explaining the formation of snowflakes.  He also has a website   Of course no snow study is complete without studying Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.

4. Circuits – Let kids explore circuits with an old string of Christmas lights.  Depending on their age set them up with a AA battery pack, wire cutters and old lights.

5. Mini-mythbusters – Pine tree preservation – Let the kids use any leftover branches to determine the best way to keep the tree fresh.

6. Set up a taste test.  Is your favorite brand based on taste or packaging?  Find out what your families favorite brand of hot chocolate really is.

7. Do a germ study.  Winter is prime for spreading germs.  Use Glo Germ Gel and a UV light to test how well your family or class mates wash their hands.  Prepare some Petri Dishes and Agar and find where bacteria lurks in your home or school.

8. Make gingerbread houses – Everything from the thickness of the dough to the consistency of the icing affects the final outcome.  Have the kids use graph paper to plot out their designs.

9. Make homemade lip balm, soap, or lotion.  Kids love to make things they can give as gifts and natural ingredient lip balm is a must have item for winter.  Salt scrubs are also easy to make and a good gift.


What science activities do your kids enjoy when the weather is cold?


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World Class Challenge

Check out the FIRST Lego League challenge for 2014



The challenge is going to involve kids explaining how they need and want to learn!

I’m looking forward to hearing their voices!

I will do some posts come April 2014 on starting an FLL team.

FIRST Lego League qualifying tournaments will be going on for the next month so check your area.  Many events are open to the public.  Please contact a regional contact to ask about tournaments in your area.

Weekly Wrapup

FIELD TRIP!!!!    Field trips are probably at the top of my Favorite Things list.  Field trips when dad can go along are even better!

IMG_0024 We had a blast hanging out together at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.  The Children’s Museum is absolutely one of my favorite places, it is so full of creativity.  On exhibit right now is Tapescape, miles of packing tape transformed into an interactive play space.

I’m so excited, because I got a new computer this week.  My first MacBook!  I’m still trying to find my way around things like photo apps.  If anybody has recommendations let me know (particularly a photo app that does collages and watermarks).  I love the way my calendar syncs across all my devices, I feel so productive!

Over the weekend the boys  did Yard Charge with the Cub Scouts.  They spent the morning raking leaves.  I had a couple of wonderful hours all by myself.  It would be fun to say I went to the coffee shop or had a manicure, but I’m not cool like that.  I stayed home, purged a few paper piles, cleaned the kitchen, and enjoyed the quiet.  It was great!


We had the first “real” snow at our house this week.  We did some lessons but also had time for throwing snowballs, sipping cocoa, making Minecraft creations and baking cookies.

This week I reviewed our reading list for the year.  Check out some of our favorite read alouds.   Taking time to laugh through a good book together is such a joy!

What are some of your favorite books to read together?

Hope you are having a wonderful week!


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On the Bookshelf – Fun Read Alouds

I don’t know how it is at other houses, but my boys are much more willing to tackle challenging reading material when it is non-fiction. I think we might be the odd house here.  I was probably the opposite as a kid, I enjoyed getting lost in a novel.  Most of the non-fiction books I read were biographies.  My boys like to read non-fiction books about animals, history, and inventions and share facts with each other.  They do however really enjoy fiction as read alouds.

Mr. Popper’s PenguinsI actually read this to E a couple of years ago and he insisted we read it again this year so his brother could enjoy it.  The book is from the 40’s and bears little resemblance to the Jim Carey movie.  It is delightfully silly and ridiculous.


How to Train Your Dragon series   This fall we’ve read 5, 6, and 7 from the series.  I just bought books 8 and 9.  The books tell the tales of Hiccup the Horrendous Haddock the 3rd as a young teenager in the land and time of Barbaric Vikings.  The storyline is slightly different from the movie or cartoon series.  The tales are completely engaging and at times absolutely side-splitting hilarious.  The boys always beg for another chapter.   I do a slight bit of editing of some names, so doing these as read alouds is great.

The Phantom Tollbooth  I was really glad we read this out loud, because I think the boys would have missed some of the humor on their own.  It was delightfully clever and witty.  It’s been a month since we read this and they are still occasionally pondering situations from the book.


Rabbit HillThis book tells the story of a community of animals facing hard times after people move away and the garden is left barren.  Hope spring anew when new owners buy the home.  The story is kind and gentle and uplifting.  My boys love animals and this book really appealed to them.  Rabbit Hill was the winner of the 1945 Newberry Medal.


What books do you enjoy reading aloud?  Do your kids read more fiction or non-fiction?





Snow Days



Today was the first real snow at our house.

It’s days like today when the freedom of homeschool isn’t a distant ideal but a wonderful reality.


The beauty of the day wasn’t lost in a list of obligations.  Instead it was savored and enjoyed.


Carpe Diem!

10 Ways to Promote STEM Learning

STEM – Science, technology, engineering and math.  It can sound so serious, which is really a shame.  STEM learning is fun!

This past week we went to the Children’s Museum in Pittsburg.  It is a wonderful place.  The kids love it and I feel inspired every time we are there.   I happened to notice this Mr. Rogers quote on the wall:

“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
― Fred Rogers

I thought, “That’s what science is all about.   It’s about discovery.  It’s about playing around and pushing the limits.”

Promoting STEM learning in the elementary years isn’t about lists of vocabulary terms.  It’s about play and discovery.  So today I provide a list of tips to promote STEM learning in your home:

1. Allow failure.  Failure is part of the science experience.  Sometimes things don’t work out and we have to figure out why.   This is tough for parents.  We see a mistake and we want to correct it before our kid fails, even if it’s a 2 year old building a tower or a 9 year old hooking up a circuit.  It’s okay to ask the child, “What could you do differently?” and brainstorm after a failure.  But try to let them choose the solution.

Mindstorm NXT


2. Play with Toys –  Invest in toys that promote learning.   Buy snap circuits, radiometers, hand boilers, and plasma balls.   Bouncy balls, marble runs, and Newton’s cradles all teach principles that can be explained later with physics.  Magnets are wonderful play objects.  Marble runs and wooden train sets build a great foundation for understanding potential versus kinetic energy.  Robots, like the NXT, are a great starting point for learning to program.


3. Watch TV.  Not just any TV.  There are great programs on PBS for kids – Cyberchase, Fetch, and Wild Kratts come to mind.  Discovery channel and History channel both have some good shows.  PBS NOVA has some great episodes.  Modern Marvels is fantastic.  If you don’t mind a little innuendo Myth Busters really reaches kids, although you might find yourself explaining to relatives how your 7 year old knows the exact temperature that causes rapid frost formation on the outside of a beer bottle.

Ribbon Snake


4. Nature Walks / Observation – Whether it’s birds at the backyard feeder or a trip to the beach, nature provides a rich learning experience.  Many an inventor has found his/her inspiration in nature.  I also feel it is absolutely critical to teach our future scientists and engineers to be nature lovers. Nature teaches keen observation skills.  We frequently have to listen for what we hope to see.

5. Play games – Play games like Blockus, Battleship, Mastermind, Checkers, and Chess to name a few.  These games promote critical thinking skills, but mostly they’re fun.

The Family with the Penquin

6. Visit zoos, science centers, museums, and botanical gardens.  Most of these places do a great job rotating exhibits, so there is always something new to learn.   It’s one thing to read about space exploration, but actually seeing the size of the capsule the early astronauts used is mind boggling.  Taking the elevator from the feet of a apatosaurus up to its head really brings home the scale of these dinosaurs.  Even mom can learn something new when she gets to pet a penguin.


7. Do science experiments / activities.  It’s okay to do science activities multiple times if you find them fun.  We keep the plaster volcano in the  basement and sometimes we break it out to play with it.  It’s more an activity than an experiment, because we know what will happen. We also do all sorts of egg experiments the week before Easter, because it’s tradition.   If you have trouble thinking of experiments buy a few experiment books or buy a science kit.

Apple Picking 2013

8. Cook – Bake cookies together, make soup, make apple pie.  There is so much to learn in the kitchen – everything from good measuring technique to acid / base reactions.  You can teach nutrition and talk about why you chose the ingredients you do.   Baking bread introduces the importance of temperature on yeast growth and the properties of gluten.   Kids are really proud of their accomplishments in the kitchen.

9. Read non-fiction books and magazines–  I think too many of us have come to associate non-fiction reading with testing.  Personally I became a non-fiction reader about 7 years ago when I discovered books like, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”,  “For All the Tea in China” and “Freakonomics”.  It can be so pleasurable to just learn a little more about the world or think of things from a new angle.   I began to understand why my boys were selecting stacks of books about animals, inventions, weather and geology.  They wanted to learn more about their world.


10. Share your discoveries –  Kids are great at setting up their own experiments and testing hypotheses. They also tend to be keen observers when we give them time and don’t rush them.  When they make a discovery celebrate it!   My kids love sharing new observations like zombie caterpillars on Learning with Boys and through social media posts. When we found several off cycle cicadas in our yard, they were delighted to make a report to a website that tracks cicada emergence cycles across the country.


How do you keep the spark of discovery alive in your children or students?


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Weekly Wrap-up – Pebbles of Encouragement

I’m happy to report that good attitudes are back again!  We hit a bit of a rough patch, but it was quickly fixed by pulling back out the pebble jars.DSC_0008The pebble jars remind me to offer positive encouragement.  I can’t tell you what a difference these jars make.  I remember to give praise and the boys feel like their actions are acknowledged.  We’ve made two rounds of filling the jar and it takes about 6 weeks or so.  The reward is simple, ice cream at a spectacular ice cream shop or a field trip.   The real reward is the daily difference.  You can check out how the system works in this post.

To add a little enthusiasm, I started the week with bagels for breakfast, a huge favorite for one of the boys.  When we’re in a funk, a little STEM learning always helps. We decided when our book work was done we would be “Food Process Engineers”.  We baked raspberry oatmeal bars and discussed what we would do differently if we were making big batches to sell at the store.

Our school friends had the day off Tuesday for election day.  Normally we would just have school but E’s FLL team met.  I didn’t tell the boys the public school had the day off until 10:45.  By that time we already had our reading and math done.  They enjoyed the FLL meetings and we spent part of the afternoon at the library.


Wednesday was a zoo class followed by barely making it home in time for Jr. FLL at our house.   I really enjoy coaching the Jr. FLL team.  There are 4 boys on the team including C.  This week two of the boys gave a report on a volcano.  They also worked in teams to start building a crane and a crazy floor machine.    Last week they chose LEGO Dragons as their team name.  Each of them is making a dragon for our team picture.

Here at Learning with Boys we love non-fiction science books.  E has read several books from the “Scientists in the Field” series.  The series has several different authors and is designed for kids 9-14.  Each book profiles a scientist and their work.  One of the things I like is that each scientist tells what inspired them as a kid to become a scientist.

We’ve been reading several books about life in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 – 1621.  This week we read “1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving”.  The pictures were very well done.  The boys enjoyed the book Samuel Eaton’s Day by Kate Waters describing a day in the life of a young boy in 1621.

It was a really good book week at our house.  We read an abridged version of Treasure Island.  E finished Mystery at Yellowstone National Park.   C read about marine mammals and dolphins.

DSC_0960-001We finally made time to take care of this situation. I pay very little attention to fashion, but I do want the their clothes to fit.  The pant situation had gotten so bad.  They had longer pants but they insisted those were too big in the waist. We spent the weekend trying to find another brand that was long enough, skinny enough, wind-resistant, and soft on the inside.  Finally we found one pair in a store and I was able to order more online.    Yeah!



Just a little more fall beauty before it’s gone for the year.


Do you have any favorite non-fiction book series?

How do you hit the “reset” button with your kids?

Thanks again to the Friday hosts!  Linking to:

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*This post contains affiliate links.  No products or services were obtained by the author in exchange for this post, however this blog may benefit from purchases made as the result of outbound links contained in the post.

Toys and Gifts for Science Fun


Here at Learning with Boys we are all about making science fun and accessible.  Here are some of the toys and tools that make it happen.*


1. Snap Circuits –  Snap Circuits are great for teaching the fundamentals of electricity.  The directions include several projects and can be followed even by children who aren’t reading completely independently.  The sets allow plenty of room for experimentation.

2. Microscope – Every home needs a microscope.  The Duo-Scope is really nice for kids because it can function as a compound microscope, where the light shines up from underneath for viewing slides, or it can function as a dissecting stereo microscope, where the light shines down for observing solid objects.  This allows you to look at slides and every day objects.

3. Catapults and Trebuchets – Great lessons in machines.  The particular one in this link is a size that matches up well with LEGO minifigures.

4. Hydraulics Kits  – These kits are great for developing an understanding of mechanical motion and how hydraulics are used.   Again the scale works well with Playmobil and LEGO creations.

5. Newtons Cradle – I still remember questions about Newtons Cradles on my Engineering Physics exams.  This simple desk toys is a great demonstration of transfer of motion.

6. Handboilers – These are fragile and sometimes get broken, but they are a hit with our friends.  I keep a couple on the entry table and kids gravitate to them.  Great stocking stuffer.  (You might want to order an extra or two.)

C watching sand blow @ Science Center7. Science Center, Museum, and Zoo Memberships –  An afternoon spent at the science center or museum provides hands-on experiences we just don’t get at home.  Whether it’s a giant pendulum, a high wire unicycle, a giant water table, a visit to the planetarium, or walking through a life size replica of a whale – these experiences create memories that can’t be matched by a book or video.

8. Science Kits –  Kids love getting science kits especially when there is unstructured time to enjoy them.  We enjoyed both Magnets and DNA from ScienceWiz.

9. Magazine Subscriptions – Ranger Rick, Big Backyard, and Zoobooks are a wonderful way to promote literacy and science at the same time.   MAKE magazine has some neat ideas for the DIY crowd.

10. LEGO EV3 – This is the only item on the list we don’t actually have yet.  We have the predecessor NXT version and really enjoy it.  The great thing about the LEGO robots is the combination of programming and mechanical action of the device.

11. Building Toys – Lincoln Logs, KEVA planks, LEGO sets, K’Nex, Erector sets, Zoob.  There are so many great building platforms out there.

12. Spirograph –  Remember this from when you were a kid?  Gear ratios and cool patterns combined!  Unfortunately they stopped making these for a while and none of the knock offs were very good.   The original is back so get it while you can!

What is the best science toy you ever gave or received?

*This post contains affiliate links.  No products or services were obtained by the author in exchange for this post, however this blog may benefit from purchases made as the result of outbound links contained in the post.

List_it_Tuesday   HHH