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?








Yellowstone and Grand Teton – Wildlife

We wrapped up our Yellowstone unit study – WITH A TRIP TO YELLOWSTONE!!!   I have wanted to go to Yellowstone forever!  Last year I finally quit wishing and planned a trip for this fall.  It was AMAZING!  Mama Bear w/ Cubs

One of the best parts of the trip was seeing 6 Grizzly Bears in our first hour!  I had prepared the boys that we would be extremely lucky to see a bear so you can imagine our excitement when the ranger at the entrance gate said there was a bear family on a carcass about 18 miles into the park.  The picture is a bit blurry because they were really far away.  Our binoculars allowed us to see an incredible scene.  The mama and her three cubs were feeding on this carcass with ravens all around.

Lamar Valley - Male Grizzly Approaching

Then we spotted a male grizzly approaching.

Male Bear circling Mama Bear with cubs and carcass

He circled around and eventually challenged the mama bear.  We actually  heard them vocalize!Mama Bear nursing cubs

She decided to give up the tasty bit of carrion, led her cubs a short distance away and began nursing them.

Lamar Valley - Bears

One last picture of the beautiful Lamar Valley, so my mom knows we weren’t in any danger.  The bears were out beyond the trees.  Good thing we had binoculars!

Once we were about another mile down the road E spotted another grizzly headed in the general direction of the scene.  The boys were so excited.

Bald Eagle - Upper Falls of Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The next morning we saw a bald eagle nesting in the canyon.  We watched it for several minutes before it flew right over our heads.

Osprey and Raven in Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

In the afternoon we spotted a young osprey defending its nest against a raven.


Another day we took a side trip to the Grand Tetons where we saw a  PIKA!!!  We had seen them in a documentary, so I was thrilled when I heard one peeping high up in a rocky area.  Just like in the documentary, it was busy bringing grass back to its burrow.  These little guys are amazingly fast and completely adorable.  It sort of reminded me of a chinchilla.


As we were leaving that evening we saw several cars pulled over to watch something which turned out to be a few moose.  Again it was a good thing we had binoculars but the kids were very excited.

Coyote Hunting Dinner

Further up the road we spotted a coyote hunting his dinner.  C really wanted to see a wolf, so he is holding on to the possibility it was a lone wolf.   Unfortunately we didn’t see a wolf pack.

In Mammoth Springs we saw lots of Elk and we even heard them bugle in the early morning.  Of course there were lots of bison, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and pronghorns.  No marmots this trip, but the pika more than made up for it.

It was such a thrill to actually go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton and see so many of the animals we have been studying.  Seeing the animals free in their natural habitat is so much more exciting than viewing them in a zoo.  We really had to use our knowledge to help us stay alert for the animals we might see.

Stay tuned for posts on the thermal features and hiking the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”.

Thanks to Kris for hosting the Weekly Wrap-Up!




Salamander Surprise

This morning we headed over to one of my favorite parks for a nature walk.  I almost didn’t take the camera because the trail we were going to hike doesn’t usually showcase many animals.

For the first half mile we didn’t see anything beyond the normal fast moving squirrels and chipmunks.  Then to our delight we spotted a tiny red salamander.

Red-spotted Newt on trail



Then two together.

Two Red-spotted newts on trail


Then another.

Red-spotted Newt compared to 8 year old hand


And another.

Red-spotted Newt headshot


Then we went down to the creek.  We found a cool rock, eroded from the flow of the stream.

Rock eroded by water

A large rock in the middle of the stream held a circular pool that reflected the trees above us.

Reflection of trees in rock pool

We turned over a rock next to the stream and found a tiny salamander.  Closer inspection revealed two salamanders.  They looked very young.  At first it was difficult to even see their legs.

Immature Northern Two-lined Salamander

The boys wanted to take the same path back to the car in hopes of finding more salamanders.  We did manage to find a couple more salamanders.

Alert Eastern Red-spotted Newt


Now that our eyes were looking for salamanders, we saw lots of small creatures.  I have no idea how we saw a black wooly bear on brown dirt.  We put it on a leaf for some contrast.

Catching a caterpillar


Did you know millipedes have stingers?

Millipede with stinger


We found a spider web under a bridge…

Spider in web under bridge



and one up in the trees.

Spiderweb in the woods



Chipmunks rarely sit still long enough for a photo, but I was lucky today.

Chipmunk @ South Chagrin


C saw a squirrel that blended so perfectly with the trees I thought I would never see it.

Camo squirrel eating nut


The red salamanders are Eastern Red-spotted Newts.  The ones by the creek with a stripe down each side?  Those are Northern Two-lined Salamanders.  Of course.

It was fun to research the salamanders, once we were home, to figure out which types they were.  The boys were very enthusiastic about finding NINE salamanders.  You just never know what you will find on a nature walk.  Some days exercise is the main thing we achieve on our  walk.  Other days we learn about species of plants or animals that are new to us.

Wishing you many delightful walks this summer!



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


Linking to:

Weekly Wrap Up @ Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers




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?