Atmospheric Science – Part 2

We are continuing our study of atmospheric science using lesson plans from UCAR with our own twist.  The activity today closely followed Introduction to the Atmosphere – Activity 3.  

Today’s activity was short, but packed with important concepts.

First we watched the following short videos from the Canadian Museum of Nature:

Part 1

Part 2

I emphasized to the boys that not all molecules are polar.  The polarity of water gives it properties that are important.  The polarity is introduced due to an uneven sharing of the electrons that create the bond between hydrogen and oxygen.

After viewing the videos,  we used paper plates and M&Ms to make models of water in it’s solid, liquid and gas states.


C chose to use single M&Ms to represent each water molecule.  This representation allowed us to shake the plate rapidly to represent gas molecules and more slowly when representing molecules in the liquid state.  He glued the molecules to the plate when representing ice and drew in the hydrogen bonds.

We briefly discussed that it is a combination of pressure AND temperature that effect the state of matter, but for our purposes we would be discussing water at a constant atmospheric pressure.  We also reviewed the temperatures at which state changes begin to occur in both Celsius and Fahrenheit at atmospheric pressure.



E chose to emphasize the  H2O structure of water.  The disadvantage was we couldn’t shake the gas and liquid plates, but we were more clearly able to see the need to line up the hydrogens facing the oxygen in the solid state.

Both boys used a roughly equivalent number of molecules in their solid and liquid representations.  We ended up moving a couple of molecules from solid over to liquid to emphasize that ice is less dense than water, which they knew but just didn’t think to count the number of molecules in each plate.

The shape of the arrangement and hydrogen bonds didn’t turn out exactly right in the models, but they did understand the concept of attraction between slight positive and negative charges that are easily overcome at higher temperatures (faster vibration).

Between the videos and the models the boys were able to clearly understand why ice is less dense than water and why that is a “special” case.  They were also able to grasp that hydrogen bonding between molecules is a much weaker force than the sharing of electrons between atoms, yet the hydrogen bonds are important in creating the structure of ice and causing it to float.

In addition to the lesson plan I think it is worth pondering some of the ways our world would be completely different if ice weren’t slightly less dense than water.  How would that impact life in ponds?  What about polar bears?  What about the planet as a whole?

Periodic Videos offers some thoughts on the importance of the density of ice:

Hope you are having a great day exploring the world around you!



Atmospheric Science – Part 1

This summer as I was trying to find a good answer to a particular science question,  I found a lesson plan that really did a great job answering the given question and giving a hands on activity that illustrated the concept well.  Then I realized the lesson plan was part of an entire set of Atmospheric Science lesson plans from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research designed for middle school teachers.  The more of the plans and activities I read through the more I thought –  “These will be great to use with the boys! ”  There are lots of suggestions for hands on activities that will appeal to a variety of learning styles.

Today we started out with the boys telling me what they already knew about the atmosphere.  Then we read through about the first half of the Intro to the Atmosphere lesson.  After that we were ready to start with one of the suggested hands on activities.

Atmospheric Science - Sorting the M&Ms

What could be better for the first day of school than counting M&Ms?

Atmospheric Science - Representation of Earth's Atmosphere

First we counted out 78 Blue M&Ms to represent the amount of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere. Then 21 green M&Ms to represent oxygen and 1 brown piece to represent Argon.  There is a fleck of red in there somewhere to represent the 0.03% carbon dioxide.

Atmospheric Science - Earth, Venus, and Mars

Next we used the same color system to represent the make up of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars.

In addition to the planned topics, we had some great discussions about the contribution of plants to our environment, the water cycle, and ozone.  Then it was time for the best part:

Atmospheric Science - Eating the M&Ms

Eating some of the M&Ms!

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The Great Outdoors


It’s been a great couple of weeks here.  We took a nice weekend trip to do a little cabin camping.  We went to a wonderful wildlife preserve,  “The Wilds”, near Columbus, OH.  It was a really incredible place.


The animals live in large pastures and they keep some endangered species in addition to the normal giraffes and zebras.

Sichuan Takin

I was particularly fascinated by the Sichuan Takins.  They are currently listed as vulnerable and share the same habitat as Giant Pandas. We first saw one from across a small lake and it looked like a bear.  They are actually relatives of goats and antelope.


We also had a chance to see Pe’re David’s Deer, which are now extinct in the wild.  In addition to the large pastures containing mixed herbivores, The Wilds also has a carnivore center where they keep African Painted Dogs, Cheetahs, and Dholes.   We really enjoyed the chance to see the animals in such a natural setting and look forward to visiting again when the boys weigh enough to do the zip line tour.


Across from the Wilds, Appalichia Outdoor Adventures has created a system of mountain bike trails that are fantastic for a family ride.  The trails are designed for a variety of riding skills, but frequently loop together.  I promise it gets easier after the initial two hills.  We also enjoyed riding trails at Dillion State Park.  I managed to catch a picture of my husband riding next to the lake at Dillion while the boys were playing at the playground.

We’ve set a goal to go camping at least once per month during the summer/fall.  During college and for a few years post, we enjoyed tent camping and mountain biking.  We used to have a well oiled tent camping routine.  Honestly I’ve never managed to adjust to tent camping with kids, so I’ve made plans for cottage camping and mountain biking this summer.

Hope you’re having a wonderful summer!




A visit to Old Woman Creek Estuary


This week is one of our first truly beautiful weather weeks.  We’ve had a great time birding and generally exploring the outdoors.


Tuesday we took a “field exploration” day and spent the entire day birding and walking at Magee Marsh and Old Woman Creek Estuary.   We thought the tessellated pavers at the OWC visitor center were really neat.  It was so much fun to just walk and look for nests and signs of wildlife.  We were sitting on a little bridge taking a rest for several minutes before we noticed the raccoon prints. Wildflowers@OWC

The woods are finally starting to green up and it is really beginning to feel like spring.


The highlight of our trip was seeing 4 bald eagles in one day.  While we were at the estuary, there was an observation point where we could see one eagle perched in a tree while another was soaring around.  We could also see their nest, but not all from the same angle.  In a world where so many animal populations are in decline, it’s nice to see a species that is recovering.

These are the days I really love homeschool.  We’ve done plenty of math, reading and grammar.  Now during these nice weather days we have plenty of time to be outdoors adding experience to our learning.  In turn, the experience we gain on days like these helps us ask fresh questions and spurs us on to learn even more about the world around us.

Check out the Magee Marsh post for more pics – including a bald eagle on its nest and lots of warblers.

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Spring Migration at Magee Marsh

By now you know we are always trying to learn more about animals and nature here at Learning with Boys.  We’re fortunate to live near Lake Erie, which happens to provide us some fabulous birding opportunities.  I’ve never been a birder, but the boys are curious about all types of animals.

Magee Marsh Bald Eagle in parking lot

Nesting Bald Eagle picture taken by one of the boys

This week we visited Magee Marsh and Old Woman Creek Estuary.  We were thrilled to see bald eagles at both locations, plus a bonus sighting along the highway before we even reached our first destination.

Black-throated Green Warbler (?) @ Magee MarshMagee Marsh is a hot spot for warblers this time of year.  In fact, the local tourism boards and birder associations put on a big festival that draws people from all over the US.

Blue-winged Warbler (?) Magee Marsh 5/6

If you don’t know anything about birding this is actually a great time to go.  The board walk at Magee Marsh is filled with people who have some serious optics and considerable bird knowledge.

Tennessee Warbler @ Magee Marsh 5/6

Normally I’m the type of person who likes to avoid crowds, but as an amateur I found it really helpful to clue in on where other people were looking and ask what type of bird they were seeing.  Magee Marsh - UFO 1

Most of the time we didn’t have to even ask what type of bird people were watching, because when they saw children, they asked, “Have you spotted the…..?”

Magee Marsh - UFO 2

Photographing the birds was exceptionally challenging.  Many of them stay on a branch fractions of a second less than what it takes me to center and manually focus the camera. The black and white warblers are exceptionally cute, but they hop around branches so quickly I ended up with photos of empty branches.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In addition to warblers, we saw a rose-breasted grosbeak, a winter wren, and some thrushes.  We also saw lots and lots of robins and red-winged blackbirds.


We’ve been learning about migratory flyways and the importance of marshes and estuaries, so the boys were delighted to get an entire day devoted to a field trip.

To top off our great week of bird watching we put out our hummingbird feeders and saw the first ruby throat of the season!  Maybe this year I’ll succeed in getting a picture at our feeder.  If you have a chance to visit Lake Hope, Ohio they have a wonderful hummingbird program where you can “hand-feed” hummingbirds starting in July.

Rainy Nights

Not to talk about the weather but…..


I super love this time of year, when the weather warms up, and we are doing field studies for biology and geology.  Monday we set off for Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio to see if we could find any migrating warblers.  I promise I checked the forecast – Rain in the late afternoon, high near 60 F.  I may have missed the wind speed.  When we got there it was 40 F with the wind howling off the lake at 30+ mph and steady rain.  The drive home was steady rain too.  SO… Our hike was a very short mile.  We did see a few warblers.  The warblers can’t to fly across Lake Erie in that kind of weather, so they were tucked in some low branches.  I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the warblers – I hope to remedy that within the next two weeks while the migration is still going.


The trip wasn’t a waste – We saw a couple of bald eagle’s nests (pictured) and actually saw an eagle land in the nest, disappear, and leave again about 5 minutes later.  We saw lots of egrets and what we think was a cormorant.  We are looking forward to making a return trip next week hopefully with warmer weather.

Egret at Magee Marsh

We spent some time reading Marvels in the Muck  by Doug Wechsler.  It’s a great book about salt water marshes and estuaries.   Of course now we are wondering, “What are the differences between salt water marshes vs. the marshes and estuaries around Lake Erie?”

FLL CollageAll the stormy weather this week was a great reminder how much E’s team learned during this past year’s FIRST LEGO League (FLL) season.  The theme for 2013-2014 was Nature’s Fury.  Each team selected a natural disaster, researched it and presented an innovative solution.  The solution isn’t just for FLL competition.  The kids share the solution with the community it is designed to help.  E’s team researched tornadoes and developed a Debris Protection System.  There’s no substitute for a safe shelter but the Debris Protection System can help because – “Wearing a helmet during a tornado is a no brainer.”

I was working on my end of year summary, and it was great to see how FLL contributed to some really great unit studies.  I love that these kids are encouraged to research, reach out to experts, use their creativity, and make a contribution to their community in addition to developing programming skills.  Sign up for the 2014 – 2015 FLL season begins May 5th.  The theme will be:


The promo says, “Teams will teach adults how kids want and need to learn.”  I’m really excited about this challenge.  I hope educators and policy makers are paying attention, because the kids are going to come up with some great ideas.

Speaking of great ideas – if you didn’t have a chance to check out the finale of the Angelic Scalliwags  Medieval study it is amazing.  Claire does such a great job guiding her kids through project based learning studies.

Much of our week was spent shivering beside soccer fields.  I really appreciate the coaches and all the time they put into coaching and encouraging the boys.  Wednesday night practices were rained out and I found myself walking around the house singing, “I love a rainy night.”  It was such a joy to have a relaxed dinner with the kiddos.

What places are you exploring?

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Rock On!

Tree Roots @ Ledges

Isn’t that tree amazing?  I love how the seed for the tree somehow found it’s way into a crevice and managed to grow with its roots exposed.  It’s unexpected and beautiful.

Running Through the Ledges

We had a great time this week exploring local geology.  After a hike at the beautiful ledges, E had questions about the formation of Sharon Conglomerate.   I found another park with outcroppings of the conglomerate, so we went hiking there and visited the nature center.  Just as I was hoping, the nature center had a display that explained how the rock was formed.

Pebble Layer in the Ledges

This part of Ohio was once a river delta.  As the river(s) reached the ocean and slowed, sand, small rocks, and even small shells precipitated out.  Those deposits of sand and quartz pebbles eventually compressed and formed the Sharon Conglomerate.  When you touch the rock it is very obviously sandstone.

Rocky Holes - LedgesSometimes softer rock erodes away leaving a “honeycomb” pattern.

In some areas we see massive sections of the conglomerate “slumping”.  We learned this is usually caused by the softer shale layer underneath giving way.

When we set out on our hike last Friday, I wasn’t expecting the interest in the rock formations to emerge the way it did.  The trail is actually among the boys favorite places to hike, but they hadn’t given much thought to how the rock was formed and why the crevices exist.

We had a nice time finding answers to our questions and “spending time in the field.”  In addition, this made a nice extension of our previous geology studies this year.  This fall, between our Yellowstone trip and FIRST Lego League research, we did a lot of study on volcanoes, thermal features and igneous rocks.  I love how it is all coming together to form a really nice unit study of geology.

In other news, Learning with Boys blog turns 1 year old this week.  Thank you for making this such a fun adventure.  If you didn’t get a chance to check out  “Signs you MIGHT be a bit nerdy”,  please do and leave comments.  I’ve had a great time reading the comments and nodding my head in agreement!

Hope you are having a great week!

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Real Science with Tadpoles

As many of you know we are busy again this year investigating vernal pools.  Today we’ve come up with an observation that hasn’t been easily solvable.

One of the sites we frequent isn’t actually a vernal pool (in 7 years we’ve only seen it dry up once).  We call it “turtle” pond and it supports a large population of turtles and bullfrog tadpoles.  Today we were doing some catch and release of bullfrog tadpoles when we came across two unusual specimens:

Bullfrog tadpole with wormlike protrusions from mouth

The first one had several worm-like protrusions from one side of its mouth and some redness around its fins.  At first we thought perhaps it tried to eat something a bit too large to swallow, but it really looked more like intestines hanging out of its mouth.

Bullfrog tadpole with wormlike protrusion from side

We found another smaller tadpole this time with a few protrusions coming out one side.  We also observed some redness of the protrusions and the tail wasn’t in the best condition.

We released both tadpoles after taking pictures.

Given our zombie caterpillar experience from this fall we thought maybe it was some sort of tadpole parasite, but I haven’t been able to find any similar pictures.

We’re still following a couple of leads to try to find an expert who might be able to explain this.

The boys are of course a bit concerned about a parasite harming the tadpoles.

Do any of you have any insight into what might be the problem? Do you know someone who might be willing to help a couple of young citizen scientists?

UPDATE:  Our contacts at the Akron and Toledo Zoos were SO helpful.  They let us know that it probably IS intestines hanging out caused by the tadpoles being smashed or damaged.  We were really happy to find out it wasn’t anything contagious to the other tadpoles in the pond.  A special thanks to Ms. Carrie!



With Easter coming up it’s a great time to do some egg-perimenting.


Egg in a Bottle – I’d been wanting to do this experiment forever, but hadn’t been able to find a jar with a neck the correct size.  I finally discovered that Starbucks Fraps come with the perfect egg-sized neck.   We used a candle held upright in a pinch of play dough as the combustion source in the bottle.  Light the candle and top the bottle with a PEELED boiled egg.  As the air inside the bottle heats and the pressure increases the egg will dance around releasing air from the bottle.  Once the flame goes out and the air cools the egg should be sucked down into the bottle.

Egg Spin

Spinning Eggs – This one is so wonderfully simple!  Spin a hard boiled egg and an uncooked egg and observe the difference.

Egg Toss

Egg Drop –  Use plastic grocery bags, sponges, strings, balloons, tape and/or pipe cleaners to make parachutes for eggs and then toss them off the play set.

Illuminated Naked EggNaked Egg – Soak a few uncooked eggs in vinegar for a couple of days.  The vinegar will eat away the shell but leave the membrane.  The vinegar also permeates the membrane and swells the egg.  As a follow up try soaking the egg(s) in corn syrup.

Natural Egg Dyes – You can find a list of natural dyes to try at Better Homes and Gardens.    Red cabbage is supposed to produce a nice blue color on the eggs.

Color MixingUse regular egg / food coloring to do color mixing experiments.

Use Egg Shells as containers for Seedlings 

Egg Walk



Walk on Eggs – We saw this one posted somewhere and I thought why not give it a try.  The key is to go quickly and stay well balanced.  One of the boys did it effortlessly without any broken eggs.  The other…..well let’s say we all had a terrific laugh and the kitchen floor got mopped.








That’s the end of our list for now.  So break out the eggs and have some fun!



Vernal Pools in Winter

It’s still winter here.  It’s was warm for a few days and melted some of the snow.  Then it snowed several inches again.  Ah well, spring will be here soon.  Maybe you live somewhere warmer and spring has already settled in. Icy vernal pool in early March

This week we took a walk to check out some of our favorite vernal pools.  We learned about these cool ecosystems last year and have been observing them off and on through the changing of the seasons.

If you aren’t familiar with vernal pools, they are seasonal ponds.  Over the course of a year they fill and dry out.  The fact they dry up at times is essential to these unique systems.  Fish and other predators can’t survive when these pools dry out, so the vernal pools become the perfect place for frogs, salamanders, fairy shrimp, caddis flies, and dragonflies.

Winter vernal pool as seen from walking path

We started studying the pools last spring to find salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers.   Now we make sure to take an occasional trip by our favorite spots to check the water levels and notice which animals are hanging around.


Despite a couple of days of temperatures in the 50s, we found the pools were still filled with ice, but the ice was starting to get slushy on top.  All around us, the squirrels and chipmunks were busy, and the birds were singing.

Pointing to the deer along the trail

In the distance, the boys spotted some deer.

Deer along the trail - early March

At least a few of the deer spotted us as well.  We watched them for several minutes, and were surprised to realize there weren’t 3 or 4 deer, as we had counted, but 8 tails running down the hill.Early March on the Spring Peeper Trail Time to head home and wait for a few more warm spring days!

If you want to learn more about vernal pools, I highly recommend Frog Heaven by Doug Wechsler.   The book follows the yearly cycle of a vernal pool in Delaware. The pictures are vivid and helpful for identifying the different creatures found in vernal pools. We checked it out from the library last year to learn about spring peepers.  We ended up buying a copy to keep as a reference.

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