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?








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 www.SnowCrystals.com.   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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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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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?

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Pikas and Tornadoes – Weekly Wrap-Up

IMG_4435 “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better” – Einstein





Pikas continued to be a hot topic at our house this week.  We saw this cute little pika in the Grand Tetons during our Yellowstone trip.  At the time we only knew a little about pikas from a documentary.  This week we read the two books I was able to find in the library system about pikas.  C actually read both books twice!  Interesting fact: Pikas are cousins to rabbits and hares, so they are lagomorphs not rodents.

Both boys worked on creative stories with pikas as the main characters.

res Fury Logo SM

We’ve also done a lot of weather research over the last couple of weeks, E in particular.  It is part of his research for FIRST LEGO League.  He is especially interested in tornadoes.  We have occasional tornadoes here and we used to live in the heart of tornado alley.  I’m always amazed by the amount of information kids can digest when they are really interested in something.  During our research I found a very nice article in the November 2013 National Geographic about Tim Samaras.  It is well worth a read if you remember Tim and Carl Young from Stormchasers on the Discovery Channel.



This week our free time didn’t seem to match up well with sunny weather, but I’m looking forward to getting in some great fall hikes with the boys now that soccer is wrapping up.  I’m always sad for the days to grow shorter, but I adore the beautiful colors of autumn.  I’m hoping for campfires and family time.


Hope you and your family are enjoying some beautiful fall weather together!


Thank you to the wonderful Friday hosts:

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Every Day Science – The Metric Kitchen

Does anyone else find the gram measurements on food labels abstract?

I truly would like to see the U.S. start using more metric units.  All scientific measurements are taken using metric units.  It is easier to make conversions between units by simply multiplying by 10 or 100 or 1000 instead of multiplying by 12 or 3 or 5280 or 16.   Not only is it easier to make conversions within length or volume,  did you know that a mL is 1cubic cm and 1 mL of water weighs 1 gram?

When we have a solid understanding of what a gram looks like, it makes food labels so much easier to understand.

With the above in mind, we’ve started taking advantage of our digital scale in the kitchen. Cooking with Scales

We started by taking the boys favorite cookie recipes and measuring the ingredients first in English units  then weighing out and recording the weight in grams.   Liquid measurements were easy because our measuring cup is marked in both mL and cups.

The next time we made cookies we used the metric measures we previously recorded.  So instead of saying, “I need a cup of sugar” we said, “I need 200 grams of sugar,”Chocolate Chip Cookie


This simple “experiment” :

1. Develops an understand of metric units by making concrete connections.

2. Develops a greater understanding of volume v. weight.  A cup of sugar weighs more than a cup of flour.

3. Provides a chance to practice good lab skills.

Plus,  we get to eat cookies!


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Philosophies of Learning

Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a tidy answer to “What curriculum do you use?”  We do use a couple of programs but those programs don’t define us.  Instead I find myself coming back over and over to the following principles.

Reading should be interesting.  Children should spend their time with books they personally desire to read.   Nothing kills the desire to read as much as being required to read for the sake of being evaluated.  We spend a lot of time reading about animals and scientists. We also like mysteries and books that are funny.  It’s okay to read books that are “below your reading level” if you find them funny, interesting, or relaxing.  When kids read books that are easy they develop fluency and  feel a sense of accomplishment knowing it is easier this year than it was last year. DSC_0048 Children need to move.  Frequently.  Sometimes every one is getting tense or squirrelly and I know we need to move.  Some days we have to set aside a lesson for a while so we can take a walk or swim.  Sometimes I try to push through just a little more book work even though I know they need a break and it doesn’t go well. DSC_0143 Play.  Every day.  In play children explore their world.  They make hypotheses and test them.  Their hypothesis is either confirmed or re-evaluated.  The scientific method develops organically through play.  Play allows children to create and test a multitude of things.  Developing plays and dialogue allows children to explore social reactions.  Play allows a child to compete against herself and develop mastery of skills  that lead to confidence.   (The skill might be off the wall and not have any practical value to the observer but the child is still benefiting.)   Play is not the exclusive domain of preschoolers.  If you know some one who continues to tinker as they get older you know they are most often very knowledgeable in their field of interest.  Even as adults we learn through play. DSC_0019 Nature is necessary.  Spending time in nature allows us to understand our place in the world.  Nature allows us to feel big compared to an ant and small compared to the vastness of the ocean or the universe.   When we study nature we begin to understand its cycles and the importance of time.  We see the incredible abilities of small creatures like the monarch butterflies to travel thousands of miles. We can marvel for days over the fact that if ice were more dense than water our world would be vastly different.   Nature creates a sense of awe and wonder.   DSC_0032 Curiosity is a wonderful teacher.  I have noticed unit studies that start with a child’s question last longer, have more depth and more staying power than studies initiated because they match up with the core standards.  Seemingly small events (a cicada molting on our soccer net, the call of spring peepers, a cartoon episode) can launch investigations if we take the time to follow our curiosity. Curiosity is powerful and motivating.

Grow the whole child.  The goal of our learning environment is to grow physically,  spiritually, emotionally, and in wisdom of the world. Each child has a unique personality with individual strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. As parents and teachers  we need to listen carefully to their desires and provide guidance on the path toward maturity.   We must meet children at their points of need, find the resources they need, and help them get the practice they need to develop new skills.


Those principles are the things I keep coming back to.  That and the evidence of happy, confident, growing children.

Finishing Up

Even though today was our last official day of school, we have already mostly transitioned to our summer schedule.  We are still reading, writing a tiny bit each day, and doing some math.


We found time to build some Lego kits and make pop rockets.

Sunday we had an informational meeting at our house about FIRST Lego League.  It is a great program that introduces kids to the fun of programming.  The competition includes researching a problem, designing a solution, and playing the robot game.  E participated last year and had a great time.


Early in the week when the weather was nice we went on several hikes.  We are planning a vacation to Yellowstone in the fall and I want to make sure we are ready to explore.  We saw lots of chipmunks, a baby squirrel, and a few caterpillars.

We started a positive reinforcement program this week.  Each time one of the boys displays a good attitude or is particularly helpful he gets a pebble for his jar.  It has been great.  It has really helped me to see all the good stuff they are doing and let them know.  Each of them has his own jar.  When he fills it there will be a reward for both boys (like a trip for ice cream or mini-golf).  I designed it that way so they will root for each other; but, there will also be a certain amount of pride in filling your own jar.

Today I took E to the cemetery to place flags on veterans graves.  It was only 45 degrees and so not the most pleasant day to be out there, but the VFW men appreciated the boys coming.  When I thought of all those men had given for us, it seemed a very small thing to be out in the weather for an hour.

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Grist Mill Visit and Camping Trip

This time of year I get a lot more relaxed about official “school” time.  With one exception we have accomplished or exceeded all our curriculum goals for the year.  The weather tends to be beautiful and we are all longing to be outside again.  The learning doesn’t stop, the balance just shifts even more to interest led learning.

For Mother’s Day we went to Mohician State Park in Ohio.  It was very beautiful.  We had a cottage right next to a scenic river.  Unfortunately it was very chilly and kind of rainy while we were there.  We are all looking forward to going back when the weather is warmer.


The sound of the water rushing past was so relaxing.  We were excited to see a heron(?) come to feed.  A few people floated by in canoes.

Lyons Falls

We took a hike to Big Lyon Falls.  It was so nice to be out in the woods with the leaves back on the trees.


Adjacent to the park, a volunteer group has restored a grist mill from the 1830s.  We frequently find grist stones on some of our hikes but had never seen them in action.  It was very neat to see old equipment and the massive size of the gears.  Thinking about all the machinery in use before electricity was amazing.


On the grounds of grist mill there was an old wagon.  We spent a few minutes marveling over how brave/desperate/adventurous the pioneers must have been to fit everything they would need to start a new life into such a tiny wagon and head west.  I thought of how full we loaded the mini van for a weekend trip!



Orchid Mantises by Andrew Hipp

The Mysterious Universe by Ellen Jackson  from the Scientist in the Field Series

April Adventure by Ron Roy from the Calendar Mysteries series

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder


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Vernal Pool Unit Study

A local vernal pool

A local vernal pool

We continued our study of vernal pools this week.  We’ve had so much fun with this unit study and learned so much about these unique ecosystems. Vernal pools are filled with water part of the year but dry up for at least 2 months every year. Because these pools dry up completely fish can’t survive in them and that makes them the perfect breeding ground for many amphibians.

A little spring peeper singing at night.

A little spring peeper singing at night.

Spring peepers and wood frogs come to vernal pools in late winter/early spring to lay their eggs.

This is a spotted salamander we observed during a night hike.

This is a spotted salamander we observed during a night hike.

During the first warm rainy nights of spring, salamanders emerge from their underground burrows to make their way to these shallow pools and lay their eggs.

Fairy shrimp, caddisfly larvae, and water beetles also make their homes in these pools.

Salamander underwater during the day.

Salamander underwater during the day.

On one recent trip we were delighted to see a young salamander during the day. There was a lot of reflection on the water but if you look closely you can see the salamander.

Ribbon Snake

Some predators do of course enjoy visiting these pools. On a recent trip we came across a few ribbon snakes.

“Frog Heaven” by Doug Wechsler was a very helpful resource for this study and I am very grateful to our local naturalist for leading salamander walks on rainy spring nights.

What ecosystems have you explored near you?