Favorite Science Unit Studies of 2013

I love looking back at all the stuff we do in a year.  As I sat down to write this post I thought, “We really haven’t done much science since school started.”  I guess I forgot just how long some of these studies lasted.

Vernal Pool Collage

This past spring we heard the spring peepers calling late one afternoon and it started a very lengthy study of vernal pools.  We learned a lot about spotted salamanders, spring peeper frogs, wood frogs, and caddisflies.  We had a great time visiting the same pools over and over to check the water levels and watch the changes over the seasons.  Frog Heaven: Ecology of a Vernal Pool  was a great book that helped us with this study.


2013 was the year of the salamander at our house.  Our night hike to the vernal pools introduced us to the spotted salamanders.  Then we found several baby (Northern Dusky?) salamanders  hanging out in a stream during a creek hike.  There was one amazing day in late May when we spotted 7 red-spotted newts and 2 northern two-lined salamanders during a single hike.  Each discovery prompted us to learn more about the salamanders we encountered.

Yellowstone Unit Study

Yellowstone Unit Study – Going to Yellowstone had been on my to do list for at least 15 years.  Seeing the mud pots and hot springs on tv, they seemed like something out of a science fiction film.  This fall we finally made the trip. There was so much to learn about the park before we went.  We studied the thermal features and learned about the super volcano that lies under the surface.  We learned about the wildlife we might encounter during our visit including wolves, bears, bison, coyotes and moose.  Our trip really enhanced our studies and gave our learning purpose.


Turns out our favorite animal from our Yellowstone trip was a pika we saw in Grand Teton.  Pikas are adorable mountain dwellers that pile up haystacks during the summer to eat during the cold winter months.  We had seen them in documentaries and when we heard their squeaking noise in a rocky mountain area we were able to spot this one.

Nature's Fury PicMonkeyFIRST LEGO League – Nature’s Fury Challenge – Over the summer E read several books and watched a variety of shows about different types of natural disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, and tsunamis.  Once the challenge was released his team selected tornadoes as the disaster they would study in depth.   E’s team skyped with a meteorologist about tornadoes and severe weather, conducted surveys of 3rd-6th graders about their tornado awareness, and e-mailed other experts in the field.    E spent quite a bit of time learning how tornadoes form in the atmosphere and finding out about the instruments scientist have used to study tornadoes over the years.


Jr. FIRST LEGO League – Disaster Blaster – Volcanoes.  C’s Jr. FLL team chose to study volcanoes.  Each team member learned about a specific volcano and gave a report to the team.  C read a few books about volcanoes and watched several documentaries as well as gathering information while we were in Yellowstone on vacation.  The team worked together to build a model of a volcano and nearby island.  There was so much to learn in this study.  We learned about magma, lava, pumice, and obsidian.  We learned about ash clouds, lahars, tectonic plates, and the Ring of Fire.  We found out about ways technology is helping scientists map volcanoes and predict eruptions.


Cold Weather Science:  This fall we did a short cold weather unit study.   We learned about snowflakes, icebergs, and glaciers as well as the insulating properties of fat.  They also chose to read more about polar animals.  Anytime we learn about the polar regions we do a quick review of the earth’s tilt and seasonal differences.

Nature's Fury Table

Computer Science: The boys are learning about computer science in a variety of ways.  We included some computer science in our “engineers week” last spring by playing around with Scratch and Light-bot.  Through his FLL team E has learned quite a bit about programming the Lego NXT robot and this summer both boys took a week long programming class through the local science center.  They worked through the lessons offered through the Hour of Code website during Computer Science Education Week.

Zoo Class Collage

Zoo Classes:  My boys love to learn about animals and we learn a tremendous amount of world geography through animal habitats.  This year we were incredibly lucky to have the chance to attend zoo classes.  These have been great!  The boys are so excited to learn more about the behind the scenes operations of the zoo.  I enjoy touring the zoo with E and C while they tell me new and interesting facts about the zoo and the animals.

Not all of our science learning is neatly contained.  In fact most of it probably isn’t.   The boys are always watching informative shows from PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Channel.  We celebrate the beginning of the school year by launching a solar bag.  Finishing a workbook earns a trip to the science center or children’s museum.  Reading time is filled with non-fiction books.  It is fairly common to find E watching shows about military history.  I had never considered how much science and engineering a kid could learn from military history; but military uses lead to development of new technologies, which then become part of civilian life.

What did you enjoy learning with your kids this year?








5 Christmas Wishes

Sometimes I feel a bit confounded by the way our culture celebrates Christmas.  We go to church and listen to the story of a humble savior who came into the world surrounded by shepherds and rejoiced by angels.  Then we go to the stores in a frenzy of materialism and shop for sweaters, electronics, and toys. Don’t get me wrong –  I love Christmas and the feeling of generosity that abounds this time of year.  I love the stories of people who dress up as Santa and spread Christmas  cheer.  The focus on the joy of children and the appreciation of family is wonderful.  I enjoy buying gifts for those close to me.  If someone would like to give me a Bluetooth heart rate monitor to help me track my workouts I would be delighted.  But Christmas is about more than slippers, or toys, or phones or fleeting acts of goodwill.

What about the gifts of Christmas that can’t be wrapped in gift wrap or tucked in a stocking?  What are the things I really hope for in the coming year?

1. Peace – I wish to have a peaceful spirit that is not quickly drawn into petty conflicts. I desire to have a quiet confidence that acts as a shield against stress and criticism.

2. Patience – Patience with my family and myself and the world around me.  I think every mother, regardless how she looks to those around her, would like a little more patience.

3. Kindness – I know over the years I have grown in kindness, but it is a long road.  My younger self wasn’t afraid to tell someone when I thought they were wrong or could do better.  Over the years I hope I’ve gained a better understanding of what motivates people.  My complaints or demands, when presented without kindness, are not likely to bring about change.  Responding with kindness can change a person’s day for the better and start an uplifting change of events.  Besides it feels great to be kind.

4. Better control of what I say – In a society that values wit and humor, it can be difficult to think things through before speaking or blogging.  If we aren’t quick to form an opinion and write about it, the “moment” might be gone.  Checking the facts and the source of information seems to be a lost art as we throw around the latest posts we find agreeable.  In the coming year, I hope to seek the truth and be teachable when my perception isn’t true.

5. A joyful spirit – For many years I wished my first name wasn’t Carol.  The only Carols I knew were at least 30 years older than me and sometimes kids would call me Christmas Carol.  Then I really thought about the meaning, “A song of joy” and I decided to do my best to bring joy to other people’s lives.   It doesn’t mean I’m always happy or that I can leave behind my serious concern about certain issues,  but it does mean I can strive to be a source of encouragement.

My hope for each and every one of us is that 2014 will be a year of personal growth.  That at the end of next year,  you and I can look back and say, “I really did a better job of being patient with the kids and enjoying my life and showing compassion to other people.”  What better time to embrace the gifts of Christmas!

Merry Christmas and may your New Year be joyous and bright!




Almost the end of the year!

Congrats to the Lego Dragons and RoboTigers!  I’m working on a post all about Jr. FLL and FIRST Lego League (FLL).  1acTw+oUSXm6KgM5fiTxCw

The Lego Dragons were awarded the Picasso Award for model and poster design.  It was a privilege to coach the Lego Dragons and I’m looking forward to everything we are going to learn together this coming year as we move up to FLL.


jhicifdhA huge congrats to the RoboTiger team.  They won an award for Best Mechanical Robot design and the Ambassador Award at their regional tournament.  As a result they will be advancing to the District competition.  E’s coaches are wonderful.  The kids are  learning so much from this program.

Having concluded our FLL tournaments this weekend we are taking a break from “school” this week and celebrating the holidays. That means we are mostly doing science and art.  The boys really enjoyed the Hour of Code activities last week and continued doing those on their own.


We celebrated “Christmas at Our House”, our annual immediate family Christmas, and I wanted to share a super cool gift the boys made.  This year they made a replica of the building where my husband works.  He was very involved in the construction project, so when the boys saw a Lego Architecture set of the United Nation Headquarters they thought they could modify it as a Christmas gift for dad.  This is just the perfect art project.  There were parts of the building they couldn’t express with Lego but the overall representation is really impressive.

I hope to get a post or two in next week but you never now how busy things might get so I hope you and your family have a blessed and wonderful Christmas!




Christmas, FIRST Lego League, and Code

IMG_0077We took the boys to see the Nutcracker for the first time last weekend.  It was a nicely done production.  Afterward we went to check out a light display.  E was trying to be good about having his picture taken while C was busy interacting with the display.

We put up our tree on Sunday, but I still haven’t finished decorating it.  Honestly it just hasn’t been a priority.  It’s lit and there are quite a few ornaments on.  We have some jingle bells scattered throughout the house and we’ve been listening to Christmas music and making some Christmas treats and that’s really all we need right now.  Oh and I mustn’t forget the boys are using their Christmas Minecraft skins and I believe they have a tree up in their Minecraft world.

Lego Dragons

C’s Jr. FIRST Lego League team has their expo this weekend.  They completed their model and just have a couple of finishing touches to go on their poster.  They designed a volcano that is forming a tropical island close to another island.  There’s a volcanogist inspecting the volcano, someone tending to sheep, and another guy with a shop.  The sea turtles represent ocean life and there is a skull in the lava to emphasize the deadly results of some volcanoes.

I think E has had a Lego League meeting everyday this week as they prepare for their tournament on Sunday.  In addition to preparing for their tournament the kids made time to present their solution to a Cub Scout Pack and speak to the City Council.   I’m very thankful for his wonderful coach.

I’ve been busy doing “party planner” treats for the kids to hand out at their tournaments.  It  reminded me, I don’t miss all the room mom type activities from traditional school.


We’ve had a great time this week participating in “Hour of Code” tutorials.  Even though they both have done quite a bit of programing with the NXT they are enjoying the doing the graphic tutorials.   If you haven’t checked it out yet it’s a nice portal to lots of good programming sites and great information about the importance of computer science.


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5 Reasons to Teach Programming

I still remember the very first computer program I wrote.  Back in 6th grade, I programmed an Apple IIe to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  It probably took all semester to complete and I’m not even sure there were any graphics to go with it.  I couldn’t wait to share it with  my parents on parents night.

Mindstorm NXT

This week, Dec. 9 -15,  is National Computer Science Education Week.  The challenge is for students across the nation to participate in an hour of code. Head over to code.org and check out the tutorials.

MIT’s Scratch project is perfect for the holidays.  Program a snowman to sing jingle bells and send it to Grandma and Grandpa.  You can include a personalized message.

Here at my house, we will be spending several hours programming with the Lego Mindstorm NXT in preparation for E’s FIRST Lego League tournament this weekend.  Programming robots is particularly rewarding for kids because of the physical world interface.

If you need reasons to teach programming beyond the fact that most kids WANT to learn programming here are a few reasons:

1. Programming develops patience and resilience.  Troubleshooting and debugging are as much a part of programming as writing code.  Sure sometimes you might actually have everything work right the first time on a simple program, but most of the time there will be some bugs.  Finding errors and working them out is part of the challenge.

2. Programming teaches kids to break problems down into smaller more manageable steps.  This skill isn’t just useful in programming, but in most aspects of life. When writing a research paper or working on a team project, it’s essential to have an overall goal that is then broken down into manageable parts.  Those parts can then be worked on by different team members individually or in smaller groups.

3. Programming builds confidence.  Having a program work correctly is a very rewarding feeling, especially if you’ve been through a few rounds of troubleshooting.  Programming is a great opportunity to create a “safe fail” environment.  Many aspects of schooling teach us to be afraid of failure, there is one opportunity to get the “right” answer.  Programming provides an environment where failure is part of the process and resilience is rewarded.

4. Learning to program teaches kids to be producers not just consumers of technology.  It gives kids creative ways to express themselves.  It gives them ways to be in control of their world.

5. Programming rewards logical thinking.  Programming teaches essential skills used through out life.  Managing a large project and writing a program have a lot of similarities, both require a certain progression of steps with some elements being worked on simultaneously.


Will you participate in the Hour of Code?


Penguins, pandas, and lots of science

We are still officially having school this month, however we are making  time for crafting, experiments, watching documentaries, and prepping for FLL.   It doesn’t always make for the neatest house but we are having a great time.


The boys had an afternoon zoo class this week.  They were anxiously awaiting December class because I promised we would go early to feed the penguins.  Turns out the day we went was nice and warm. Between the warmth and being more interested in mating, the penguins weren’t interested in our food.


We did however see the red panda being more active than we’ve ever seen.  He has a really cute face.

We’ve been reading about the polar regions and the animals that live there.  Antarctic Ice by Jim Mastro and Norbert Wu has some really great photography as does DKs Arctic and Antarctic.


It seems like the month of December always sparks our creativity.  We are looming, making homemade lotion and lip balm, and making candy.  C made some cute Christmas perler bead creations.

As part of our relaxed schedule we’ve been watching lots of documentaries.  The boys learn and retain tremendous amounts of information through video.  E found the Smithsonian Channel on the Apple TV.  This week we’ve learned about flying cars, the state of Maine, WWII and Amazing Plants.  We got quite a kick out of seeing an experiment that uses moisture sensors to trigger a phone call from your plant if it needs water.  “This is plant #9.  I’m feeling very dry.”

We also spent a little extra time checking out Scientific American and PBS:It’s Okay to Be Smart.  This video of scary kittens was a hit.

Oh and so you don’t miss it,  my friend Alicia was kind enough to remind me next week is Computer Science Week.  Celebrate by participating in “Hour of Code”.  Find more information at Computer Science Education Week.

Speaking of computer science.  If you are considering a Lego Mindstorm EV3 I recommend ordering from Lego Education instead of Lego Retail.  The main difference is that the Education model comes with a rechargable battery, slightly different firmware that is capable of data logging, and some additional sensors.  You can download the retail software for free regardless which unit you purchase (you might have to do an update for a couple of the sensors to work).


One last photo.  E’s Lego League team came over during Thanksgiving break to conduct some experiments.  They were testing a Debris Protection System they are working on.  Several of them were wearing goggles and hats.  What a great time!


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Candy Making: Snow and Cold Weather Science Part 3

Want a science activity your kids will love?  Try making candy!  It’s more of an observation experiment as the hot sticky syrup requires adult handling, but it’s fun and tasty.


The first time we did this activity the kids were amazed that pure sugar candy was really just sugar with a tiny bit of flavoring.   We’ve used just sugar and we’ve  used the kit from Hobby Lobby that comes with some powdered corn syrup.  I thought it went faster when we used the kit but I didn’t time it.


The nice part about the kit is that it comes with a couple of reusable molds.



I added blue food coloring and raspberry flavoring.  Somehow before the process was done the blue reacted with the flavoring and turned green.



The trays that come with the kit are really handy.  Once we tried making candy without using the molds and we ended up with lots of sharp edges.

If you are using the kit there is more mixture than what fits in the molds so have some aluminum foil or wax paper handy to make extra shapes.

This activity ties in well if you are studying crystals, saturation, or phase changes.  It is also a good time to review melting and boiling points in F and C and emphasize that 0 and 100 C are the melting and boiling points for water at 1 atm pressure.  Other substances have different melting and boiling points.

Wishing you many happy science experiments!



11 Favorite Holiday Traditions (Normal and Not so Normal)

I love holiday traditions!  I’m not talking Pottery Barn perfection.  I’m talking real families with jokes and laughter and warmth and love and silliness.


1. “Christmas at Our House” – Ever since the boys were small we have celebrated “Christmas at Our House”.  Because we have BIG family celebrations on the 24th and 25th, we carve out some time just for us and the kids ahead of Christmas.  We completely pretend it is Christmas Day. We wake up early to open presents and fix a special breakfast.  For Santa believers, we ask him to come early.  Then we spend the whole day putting stuff together and playing.   If you are hosting a party on Christmas Day, it lets you enjoy your family time without worrying about cleaning up and hosting duties.  If you are traveling, it gives you time to enjoy the presents without trying to get everyone out the door.  The kids think it is a huge bonus because they get to open presents earlier than most of their friends.



2. Photo Ornaments –  Each January I make maybe 6-8 photo ornaments.  It is so fun to share memories as we decorate the tree.  I usually pick up the frames at Micheals.  I can’t put this one up without thinking of how many times a certain little boy fell asleep in his high chair (or lots of other places).


3. Reading the Christmas story – When I was a girl we always read Luke 2 before opening presents at my Grandmas house.  The tradition continues with my family.  I love hearing my brothers deep voice reading the passage.  After the reading we have a circle prayer of thankfulness.

4. Cinnamon Rolls – My mom always made overnight cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning.  I have continued that tradition for our celebration.

5.Playing with the cousins –  Video games / Monopoly / Pool / Fuseball – Which game depended on who was hosting, but the cousins were always playing games together.  Monopoly for some reason was a favorite and hotly contested match that went on for hours and included trading sessions, partnerships, and shady back room deals.   Now my kids are the ones chilling out with their cousins playing games for hours.  I recently asked the boys what their favorite part of the holidays is and the both answered, “Playing with the cousins.”

6. Soup Day – The day after Christmas is “Soup Day”, declared by my sister-in-law.  It’s a refreshing way to get back to healthy eating.

7. Chocolate pie for Santa – I seriously don’t know how this got started, but the boys always leave chocolate pie for Santa.  One year I was making pie at 10 PM because they were so adamant Santa wanted pie.

8. Mixing up the chocolate box –  For years my parents bought a box of chocolates that had a diagram showing where each piece was located.  By about noon it would start getting a bit picked over and someone would move the least desirable pieces (orange cremes) so you never knew if you might get the unpleasant surprise.  One year my dad cleverly substituted something we liked in place of the orange cremes before the “official” opening.  We were all so confused when the offensive pieces never surfaced.

Growing Borax Crystals

9. Homemade Christmas Ornaments / Science Experiments –  Borax snowflakes!  Gotta love these.  We also enjoy salt dough ornaments and polymer clay ornaments.  This year I’m hoping to make some snow globes.


10. Gingerbread Houses –  Candy and frosting and construction?  Yes please.  I have a friend whose family drives over their gingerbread houses on Jan. 1st.  Smashing them with the car, I like that.

11. Calendars – The grandparents look forward to a calendar with photos of the grandkids each year.  Putting together the calendar is probably my favorite part of getting ready for the holiday.  I love looking back at the pictures from the last year and remembering all the fun we’ve had together.


What are some of your holiday traditions?  Do you have any quirky or unusual ones?


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