Noelle Swan

Archive for the ‘Science Education’ Category

Not all Seaboard communities are battling cicada infestations, but what if yours is?

In Science Education, Wildlife and Ecology on June 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on June 7, 2013.

Photo Credit: MorgueFile Dodgerton Skillhause

Photo Credit: MorgueFile Dodgerton Skillhause

For months now, East Coast residents between North Carolina and Connecticut have kept a watchful eye on the cicada forecast. Bug lovers eagerly awaited one of nature’s biggest—and arguably weirdest—coming out parties, while more squeamish residents dreaded the impending infestation.

It seems that many areas, such as BaltimoreWashington D.C. and parts of New Jersey have been spared, while others are positively overrun with the flying critters. It turns out that the cicadas have spent the last 17 years burrowing in rather sporadic clusters. If you have not seen any cicadas yet, chances are you won’t see them this time around, though it’s possible they may hit your area in 2021 when Brood X make their debut; this year’s crew is known as Brood II.

If your area is teeming with cicadas and the idea of a swarm of insects sends shivers down your spine, a little background knowledge can go a long way to take control of those emotions. Framing the event as a fascinating phenomenon for kids could help calm their fears and prevent lasting insect phobias.

So, what are cicadas anyway?

Cicadas are herbivorous, flying insects that grow to be about 0.75 to 2.25 inches long. There are over 1,500 species of cicadas around the world and more than 150 different species in North America. The particular species making headlines this spring is the periodical cicada, or Magicicada.

While many species of cicadas are present throughout the year, periodical cicadas spend the majority of their lives underground. This particular species surfaces only once every 17 years, for four to six weeks in a mad dash to mate. .

What’s all that racket?

Cicadas are best known for a high-pitched buzzing sound that males make trying to attract a mate. The din created by a swarm of cicada suitors can be highly distracting and downright annoying; however it can also be a useful prompt for families to explore the properties of sound.

Male cicadas have plate-like membranes on their abdomens that vibrate like the skins of drums. Young kids can experiment with vibration and sound by placing the palm of their hands on their throats while humming, plucking a rubber band, or rubbing a comb back and forth over different surfaces. Older children can explore how different vibrations produce different sounds.

Cicadas don’t initiate their telltale symphony right away. First they emerge from small holes in the ground, about 0.5 inches in diameter. Then they climb onto tree trunks and shed their exoskeleton before they are ready to mate. If the timing is right, you might witness a newly emerged cicada wriggle free from its old skin during its final stage of metamorphosis. If you miss it, don’t worry, you’ll likely find many discarded carapaces, for kids to collect and examine.

Adult cicadas take shelter in the treetops for about five days while they wait for their new skins to harden into protective exoskeletons. Then they begin their noisy mating rituals; and they are hard to miss. Having lived most of their lives underground, they are somewhat bumbling fliers and tend crash into people, windows, and other objects. If you get caught in a swarm of cicadas flitting about to find mates, it helps to remember—and remind kids—that they are harmless. If you can move indoors until they pass.

When no amount of humor can quell the annoyance factor, remember that cicadas play a vital role in the ecosystem. While living underground, they tunnel through the earth in search of plant roots to munch and help to aerate the soil. Their decomposing bodies and discarded exoskeletons help to replenish the natural nutrient cycle of the soil.

And if you just can’t take it anymore, remember that they’ll soon be gone for another 17 years.


Horseshoe crab spawning: Take the kids on an after-bedtime adventure

In Marine Ecology, Science Education, Wildlife and Ecology on May 20, 2013 at 10:43 am

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on May 20, 2013.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons author Hayden

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons author Hayden

Every year, ancient sea creatures resembling miniature armored tanks invade East Coast beaches with one mission — lay and fertilize as many eggs as possible before disappearing back into the sea.

For three nights, curious onlookers will have the opportunity to witness one of the oldest mating rituals in the world as scores of horseshoe crabs scuttle up onto the shores of Delaware BayCape Cod, and the coastal beaches along the East Coast.

The horseshoe crab, officially known by its scientific name, Limulus polyphemus, has been making annual pilgrimages out of the sea for hundreds of millions of years. Most wait for the full and new moons of late May and June to perform their mating dance.

This year marine biologists expect that the biggest horseshoe crowds will emerge on May 24, June 9, and June 23.

While some horseshoe crabs come ashore during the day, the majority will wait for the cover of night. Then, scores of them will emerge from the sea to begin their moonlit dance on the beach. The females will come first, many with males already in tow in search of a bit of sand to lay their eggs. The females are considerably bigger than males to accommodate the thousands of eggs beneath each helmet-like shell. The females dig nests in the sand before they drop off their young and return to the water. The males pace back and forth over the nests, fertilizing as many eggs as they can before they too return to the cool shallows of the water.

For families interested in gaining a front row seat to the show, Delaware Bay is the world’s largest spawning ground, but they have been spotted up and down the east coast. Citizen scientists can report sightings online to the Ecological Research and Development Group. InDelaware and New Jersey, volunteers can help count the horseshoe crabs as part of a survey during the several weekends this spring and summer. Some horseshoe crabs have already been tagged as part of monitoring projects conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. If you come across a horseshoe crab with a circular or square white tag attached to the corner of the shell, make note of the number on the tag and report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Services online or by calling 1-888-LIMULUS.

Not really a crab at all, Limulus polyphemus is actually an arthropod and is more closely related to scorpions and spiders than any crab.

Limulus is a favorite species for marine biologists and teachers to share with children. The helmet-shaped shells, or carapaces, that protect them from predatory birds in the wild also make them hardy enough to thrive in aquarium touch tanks. While their blade-like tails may look menacing, they serve solely as a rudder for steering in the sand and helping the horseshoe crabs to right themselves should they become overturned by the tide.

Observant beachgoers may come across the discarded shells of horseshoe crabs that have outgrown their carapace and molted. These ghostlike shells can be great fun for kids to explore.

For families that cannot get to the shore, there are many non-fiction books for children describing these prehistoric creatures. Children’s book author Ruth Horowitz offers some moonlit magic in “Crab Moon”, a picture book illustrated by Kate Keisler and recognized by the National Science Teachers Association as an outstanding science trade book.

Retired Scientists Return to Elementary Classrooms

In Science Education on April 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

This article was first published in Science Magazine on April 26, 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6131 pp. 446-447.

Donald Rea and Ron McKnight

Donald Rea and Ron McKnight

After earning a Ph.D. in atomic physics and spending nearly 20 years managing a U.S. Department of Energy plasma physics program, Ronald McKnight has returned to the seventh grade.

McKnight is one of 70 retired scientists, engineers, and physicians heading back to the classroom in Maryland and Virginia through the Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE) volunteer program sponsored by AAAS.

SSE first started sending Ph.D.s like McKnight into public school classrooms in 2005, as an extension of its mission to give senior scientists opportunities to continue contributing to society after retirement.

Retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory chemist and current coordinator of the SSE volunteer program Donald Rea is now encouraging fellow retirees to establish similar programs around the country.

Rea has presented the SSE model, which is based on two earlier programs started in the 1990s, at various science and education conferences, including the International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference (ITSPC) in Boston this February and the American Chemical Society National Meeting in New Orleans this April.”

“Many of our members are concerned about the state of K-12 STEM education, and this is an opportunity for them to make a meaningful contribution,” said Rea. “We are very eager to encourage communities elsewhere around the country to start up their own programs like ours.”

According to Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR) and former co-chair of the National Science Board Commission on 21st Century Education in STEM, the most efficient way to boost STEM education is to connect teachers and students with real science and real-life scientists.

To this end, retired scientists are “an untapped source of talent and potential,” according to Malcom.

In an effort to foster these relationships, EHR joined forces with the University of California, San Francisco Science & Education Partnership to host 400 teachers and scientists at the ITSPC during the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Program organizers invited Rea to share the success of SSE with teachers and scientists from all over the world. During a panel discussion, Rea stressed that volunteer training is the key to a successful program.

“Generally, what goes on in the classroom is very different from when [volunteers] went to school,” he said.

SSE volunteers attend a daylong training where they learn from experienced volunteers and the school district’s science supervisors, who advise them on matters such as fostering discussion and inquiry rather than lecturing, and leaving discipline to the teacher.

In the classroom, volunteers can answer questions during small group activities, help to troubleshoot failed experiments, and give teachers license to step out from behind the teacher’s edition of their textbooks.

The results are undeniable, Rea told the panel audience. Teachers eagerly sign up to participate year after year, volunteers report a great deal of personal satisfaction, and the students reap the rewards.

Citizen science: How families can contribute to real science

In Science Education on April 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm

This article first was published as a guest post on The Christian Science Monitor blog Modern Parenthood on April 4, 2013.

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

Credit: Dennis Ward, Project Budburst, National Ecological Observatory Network

What do early radar images of hurricanes, handwritten ship logs, and backyard rain gauges all have in common? More than you might think.

Each of these types of meteorological records represents one small piece of our global climate history. They all hold clues as to how our climate might be (or might not be) changing. And each one offers an opportunity for average citizens of all ages to make meaningful contributions to science.

For many kids, science class means slogging through textbooks, memorizing the discoveries of others, and performing pretested experiments that come with preconceived answers. On the other hand, citizen science projects can offer kids the chance to not just study science but also actually participate in and make a real contribution to science outside the constraints of the classroom.

Citizen science is certainly not new. The Audubon Society has called on amateur birders to conduct its annual Christmas Bird Count since 1900. For centuries, backyard astronomers have recorded their observations of the night sky, helping astronomers map the galaxy.

Today, many scientists are calling on everyday citizens to help understand the scientific issue of the century, global climate change.

When trying to develop a solid picture of the current climate, climatologists have to look at not just large weather patterns, but at individual microclimates. As the old saying goes, “Rain doesn’t fall the same on all.” Farmers and skiers can testify that hail and snow do not either. Piecing together detailed precipitation maps takes an extensive array of data, far beyond the existing weather monitoring infrastructure. So, rain networks around the country have turned to everyday citizens, families, and classrooms to collect and report rainfall measurements.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, (CoCoRaHS) coordinates local volunteer groups in every state and parts of Canada with sponsorship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CoCoRaHS participants commit to spending a few minutes each day recording measurements taken from rain gauges, or plastic cylinders used for measuring inches of rainfall, placed outside their homes. Volunteers later upload their data to the CoCoRaHS website. The tasks are simple enough that even children can participate with minimal adult assistance.

In the process, kids get practical experience that reinforces several concepts taught in science class, including taking precise volumetric measurements, following consistent protocols, and organizing data.

Unraveling climate change requires not just an understanding of what is happening right now, but also of historic climate data. Fortunately, citizen scientists have collected weather statistics for centuries. However, much of that information must first be teased out of some unlikely places.

Researchers at Boston University recently plotted observations made in flower journals by Henry David Thoreau, the famed existentialist writer, philosopher, and naturalist, against temperature records to reveal the correlation between the onset of spring and bloom time. The researchers published their findings in the scientific journal PLOS One earlier this year.

Not all of these kinds of records are as manageable.

The British Royal Navy holds extensive daily records that date back to the middle of the 19th century. These detailed logs include wind speed, temperature, barometric pressure, and wave height around the world and across two centuries. Researchers have acquired millions of pages of handwritten logs and need help processing them.

This data holds valuable information about oceanic and arctic weather patterns. However, before climatologists can properly analyze these records, someone has to transcribe them into a digital format that computer modeling programs can read.

That’s where everyday citizen scientists can help.

Volunteers can sign up with and pour through scanned images of ship logs. Since the site’s initial launch in 2010, citizen scientists have helped to transcribe over 20,000 log pages, an impressive number but still only 14 percent of the pages waiting to be recorded.

To help break up the tedium of data transcription, has made the project something of a game. Volunteers can join a specific vessel, focusing on logs from a particular journey. Volunteers sign on at the rank of cadet. As they complete additional pages, they earn promotions. The volunteer who completes the most pages for that vessel becomes the captain of the ship. Those who continue with the project consistently soon find additional rewards hidden within the logs.

Sailors recorded much more than weather data in these log books. As volunteers sift through several pages, stories begin to emerge. Some logs detail the effects of the Spanish flu. Others talk about new pathways opening up in the Arctic as ice formations changed. Many detail happenings of the ship’s daily life, from reprimands for drunken sailors, to the tragic loss of a ship’s chocolate stores that were swept overboard. For kids and adults, these kind of stories help bring history to life.

These are just a couple of the many projects searching for citizen scientists. Meteorologists at the Cyclone Center need volunteers to help classify early infrared and satellite images of hurricanes in order to help understand if current storms are more intense than historic storms. Biologists at Nature’s Notebook need amateur naturalists to submit observations of phonological data, such as first leaf out, bloom time, bird migration, and insect emergence. Many more projects can be found on the Citizen Science Alliance website.

Leap to the Top in Science Class

In Science Education on February 15, 2013 at 11:26 am

American Association for the Advancement of Science

AAAS 2013 Annual Meeting News
Noelle Swan

teaching scienceOften, in the daily grind of slogging through a difficult science class, students see fully formed scientists and their discoveries as a distant blur. Remote men and women somehow make advanced science happen.

New efforts aim to bring students face to face with creative, imaginative scientists right in their classroom.

With a lifetime of scientific contributions at their back, many retired scientists, engineers, and physicians are returning to school, not as pupils or as instructors, but as classroom volunteers in public elementary, middle, and high schools.

This week over 400 teachers and scientists gathered in Boston for the first International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, organized by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the University of California, San Francisco Science & Health Education Partnership, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Presenters are scheduled to share a range of partnership models over three days, from scientists generating digital education tools, to teachers participating in research.

Throughout the first day of the conference, the conversation turned to the idea of bringing scientists into the classroom to work directly with the students.

Virginia Shepherd from Vanderbilt University shared a comprehensive analysis of the university’s nearly 20-year-old Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program. Presentation attendees duly applauded the success of the program but said that they had trouble establishing similar programs in their state for lack of funding.

A handful of organizations represented at the conference have found that an affordable way to bring scientists into the classroom is to recruit retired scientists.

Volunteers at Northeastern University’s Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations program, or RE-SEED, spend at least one day a week in an elementary, middle, or high school classroom in Massachusetts helping students conduct experiments as part of the existing curriculum.

“Retired scientists and engineers have a lot of experience from a lifetime of working in laboratories. They can make what the students are learning relevant,” said Christos Zahopoulos, a professor of education and engineering at Northeastern University.

Since founding RE-SEED in 1991, Zahopoulos has helped to start similar programs in 15 states, conducting on-site trainings for volunteers. While such programs start out strong, many of them have since faded, with only a handful remaining, he said.

Even though retirees are offering a free service to the schools, getting them trained and placed takes a certain amount of funding, Zahopoulos says. He has been fortunate to fund RE-SEED with private donations. Many programs were not so lucky.

AAAS’ Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE), a service-oriented organization for retired scientists and engineers, has managed to sustain a similar program for seven years. In 2005, Zahopoulos helped SSE establish its own volunteer program.

Donald Rea, a former research chemist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SSE volunteer coordinator for Virginia, hopes that helping to reinforce science education will enhance the public understanding of science in years to come.

“If you want to have an influence on science literacy, you want to get [kids] while they are young. So we work in classrooms as young as second grade,” Rea said.

This kind of investment takes many years to fully mature. So, how do Rea and Zahopoulos measure success? They look to their teachers, volunteers, and students.

Rea said he measures success by the eagerness of schools and teachers to participate year after year.

For Zahopoulos, hints of success sometimes come in the mail. He says one student wrote in to RE-SEED upon graduating from high school, several years after any contact with a RE-SEED volunteer, to say that she had decided to major in biology and had enrolled in a pre-medicine program.

Both Rea and Zahopoulos said they have been amazed at the dedication and eagerness of volunteers.

“When we first started, we asked volunteers to commit to one day a week for one year. Now we have volunteers who have been with us for 18 years and some volunteer as many as 4 times per week,” Zahopoulos said.

Ron McKnight, a former Department of Energy physicists and SSE volunteer has recently taken on the task of coordinating volunteers living in Montgomery County, Md. He still volunteers in middle school science classrooms and is considering taking on another assignment.

When asked what he loves about volunteering, he replied, “Whenever a kid I’m working with asks a really good question, that’s when I have a really good day.”

Winter storm Nemo: Take the kids out, charge their creativity

In Science Education on February 8, 2013 at 5:07 pm

This blog post was first published on Modern Parenthood, a CS Monitor blog on February 8, 2013.

file0001668013836Winter storm Nemo threatens to bury the Northeast in two feet of snow this weekend, initiating the obligatory pre-blizzard blitz on the grocery store as families scramble to stock up on cases of toilet paper, gallons of milk, and snacking provisions before schools close on Friday. The storm is likely to shut down much of New England, however for families, being snowed in does not have to mean the family has to be trapped inside.

It may seem like a distant memory for many New Englanders, but walking in a winter wonderland is what the Northeast is all about. So this weekend, as the snow piles up, bundle up the family, head outside and have a snowball fight, build a snowman, or just take a walk and enjoy the hush that freshly fallen snow brings. The kids may grumble at first, but in the end, you will all be surprised at how much fun they have. Beyond that, recent studies suggest they will learn a lot too.

In December, researchers from the University of Utahoffered up a study that says spending time in nature and away from electronic tethers to the civilized world actually boosts people’s ability to solve problems creatively.

The study’s psychologists took adults backpacking into the Utah canyons for four days without their electronics. At the end of the trip, the participants actually scored higher on tests designed to measure their creative problem solving skills than they did before starting their hike. While this study focused on adults, there is good reason to believe that quality time outside could provide a similar benefit to children.

In the age of electronics, kids have access to more information than ever before. They can look up photos, articles, and videos about any topic that interests them. However, this often obsessive pursuit takes away much of the need for creative thinking. Want to build a fort? No problem. Google will readily supply tried and true schematics. Want to tweak the flavor of a recipe? No problem. Extensive recipe sites offer endless variations

These vast stores of information can be extremely valuable. On the other hand, such access reduces the need for creative problem solving. Why try to work out a solution by trial and error when you can just look up the answer?

In the non-virtual world (aka the real world!)  kids are likely to face many problems that don’t have concrete answers. Navigating the complex social tangles of adolescence while juggling academic and extracurricular responsibilities requires a strong set of creative problem solving skills.

So how does spending time in nature help?

A big part of the equation is likely removing the distractions of smartphones, electronic tablets, and televisions.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

Study authors speculate that the effect may be linked to attention restoration theory, the idea that spending time away from the noisy distractions of everyday life and experiencing nature. Spending time away from the noise of traffic and the bustling pace of everyday life promotes a sense of calm and mindfulness.

Families do not have to completely disconnect themselves from civilization for days at a time to benefit from experiencing nature. Spending an hour strolling along a river’s edge, an afternoon hiking through the woods, or even a few minutes playing tag in a field may help families to connect with each other and the natural world.

Orionid Meteor Shower: Wake the kids, make a memory

In Science Education on October 20, 2012 at 9:43 am

This blog post first was published by The Christian Science Monitor as part of the blog, Modern Parenthood on October 20, 2012.

Photo Credit: NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center

This weekend astronomers at NASA have promised Americans a rare glimpse of a heavenly event – the Orionid meteor shower – and with it, the opportunity for parents to join their children in a sense of wonder they may not have experienced since their own childhoods.

Some parents undoubtedly remember, as kids, waking up in the middle of the night, stepping outside into the forbidden dark, wrapped in robes and blankets for a once-in-a-lifetime view of Halley’s Comet passing across the sky. That was 1986 and Halley’s Comet won’t be visible from earth again for 50 years.

However, this week, fragments of the famed comet have started to splash across the night sky. They started appearing on Oct.17, but are expected to peak tonight and early into Sunday morning dropping as many as 60 visible meteors an hour (visibility, of course, depends on weather).

For families, the shower brings a chance to break from routine and share a profound experience.

It does not matter if parents know that the shooting stars are chunks of frozen rock that originated somewhere past the distant star Betelgeuse as part of the annual phenomenon called the Orionids.

Kids always ask questions – that’s what children do. While adults frequently feel that they should be ready with answers, sometimes a simple “I don’t know,” can be just as instructional as a researched response.

The admission of ignorance from a respected adult can be liberating for children who spend a large portion of their day memorizing facts. Those three little words, “I don’t know,” are a reminder that the world as a whole is unknowable. While children easily learn to regurgitate facts that have been handed to them in neat little packages, true learning, and ultimately understanding, is a process that begins with inquiry.

Happenings in the night sky have piqued human curiosity for centuries, providing our ancestors with temporal scaffolding and a celestial backdrop for ritual and religion.

Today, however, in a world where it seems that the answer to everything lies at the end of a Google search, the heavens have receded into the distance. The pinpoints of light shed by stars pale in comparison with the lure of the glowing screens of televisions, laptops, and cell phones.

Tonight, parents have a chance to recapture their children’s attention.

Because light from the moon makes it difficult to see the meteors, the best view will be after the moon sets around 11 p.m. EST; a time children rarely get to see. Waking them up in the middle of the night in and of itself creates a tone for the event, setting the stage for a magical moment that will probably last their lifetimes.

That moment, however brief, when parent and child gaze in awe as remnants of a distant world cross over into theirs, sharing gasps, locking astonished eyes, squeezing hands in exhilaration, that is the stuff that memories are made of.