The LARGEST organism on Earth

I have always been fascinated by what I couldn’t observe with my senses. During my experience in science I’ve focused on things that are so small that I couldn’t even see them. I’ve investigated microscopic parts of the human brain, and tiny organisms like bacteria and roundworms called C. elegans.

                         

Bacteria: (www.bacteriamicroscopes.com)                                                            C. Elegans: (https://qbi.uq.edu.au/research/area/celegans)

 

This recently had me wondering the opposite: What are some of the largest organisms on Earth? 

I remember learning in school that the largest mammal is the Blue Whale. A blue whale’s TONGUE weighs more than an elephant and a blue whale can grow to be bigger than 3 SCHOOL BUSES. One blue whale can weigh more than EVERY adult and student COMBINED at East High School in Rochester, New York (1). That’s massive.

Image result for largest mammal

(Scale of Animals: https://www.quora.com/Why-cant-mammals-grow-as-large-as-the-largest-dinosaurs)

What if I told you the blue whale weighed 30 times LESS and is 500 times SMALLER in length than the largest organism on Earth?

 

Image result for pando

(Pando: https://imgur.com/gallery/1kZAZ)

Pando is a tree. Well, it’s actually a clonal colony. A clonal colony is made up of IDENTICAL trees all coming from the same central tree, connected by ONE root system. Imagine if the streets in your neighborhood were all like the roots of one tree. Some streets are longer than others, others are shorter. Some are wide and some are skinny. Same thing with the roots of Pando. The roots all connect to the trees of Pando much like how roads connect to buildings like houses, schools, and stores. Here’s a visual idea of another large clonal colony called the Honey mushroom.

 

Image result for clonal colony

(Honey mushroom: https://www.zmescience.com/other/science-abc/largest-organism-world-mushroom/)

Pando and other clonal colonies like the Honey mushroom are incredible to me because just like the really tiny parts of biology that I’ve studied (bacteria, roundworms, or microscopic parts of the brain), clonal colonies are also hard to observe but for different reasons. How do we even measure how big clonal colonies are? How do they transport water and nutrients across hundreds of acres? What happens when one tree in the colony dies and how do new trees grow?

It doesn’t matter if you study things that are large, small, or in between in science. We’re all curious about the parts that we can’t easily observe. The amazing process of science involves building or figuring out the right tools to use to study things 6 million times bigger than you and me or 1 million times smaller than the cell phone you’re holding.

I loved this video on the scale of the universe. It made me think about all of the wonderful parts of science that I usually don’t think about because they’re normally unobservable either because they’re too small or too big. And it also made me curious about how scientists developed tools to observe all of these microscopic or humongous parts of our world.

What is something you want to know about something really BIG or really SMALL in science?

Sources:

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/b/blue-whale/

Tasty science

Imagine the best piece of fruit you’ve ever tasted.

What did it taste like? What made it taste so good? What makes it so memorable?

 

Source: https://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/blogs/why-is-whole-fruit-healthier-than-smoothie

We (Loyal to Soil) asked middle school students the same question at Sodus this week. The response was amazing.  Apples, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, bananas… on and on. One of the students, Willy, said that his favorite fruit was a mango.

Lisa, a fellow aspiring teacher asked Willy if every mango he had ever tasted was that good. “No”, he said. Some mangos are better than others. We asked this to encourage students to wonder why do some [insert your favorite fruit] taste better than others? 

We wanted the students to bring their own experiences in to their learning. We learned that there are small farms all throughout the Sodus region including apple and berry farmers. What did the students know about local fruit that we didn’t? Is there a “go to” berry farm? Does berries from grocery stores taste different?

Our goal was also to give the students a chance to think about on their own terms why they think some strawberries (for example) taste better than other strawberries, before we showed them what we thought about the question. Here is how we investigated that question and the tools we used to try to figure out why some berries taste better than others.

After doing our own science investigation, consulting with our experts – Kendra, Ed & Jan Burnap from Burnap’s Farm, getting student feedback at Sodus, here are a few takeaways I’ve learned.

  1. Embodied and experiential learning about real world happenings leads to better learning. We experienced as scientists that being out on the farm, taking samples ourselves, and learning about the living experiences of real farmers made this a scientific issue in an actual time and place – that impacts real people everyday. For the students, we tried to mimic this in our short time with them by having them imagining fruit for themselves and giving them strawberries from Burnap’s Farm to get them to think about the science in their community happening everyday.
  2. Context matters for teaching about science ideas or processes. Part of our video had some science potential science jargon – Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K) – that out of context could mean nothing to someone watching it. Do these chemical elements mean anything to you? I did not have a deep understanding of N, P, and K as it relates to plants – but instead have learned about them in the air, in drugs, or in the human body. I had some context but what about for our students who didn’t? We tried to provide more context by showing how N, P, and K can be important for all different parts of the plants – from leaves to roots to growth to fruit. Our hope was that we could develop science ideas in a context for plants, considering how nutrients and other factors are needed for general health.
  3. Science here, there, and everywhere. Often times science was presented to me as this investigation far off in a fancy lab or at a fancy university. For students in Sodus, I worried about the idea of them seeing science as something that happens out at the University of Rochester or in the city. Instead, they have a rich history and culture of science practices especially within the farming community. We hoped that our activity would help them have multiple avenues to access science either through relevance of interests, way of life, and personal experience in their own community.

 

What are the ways that you have learned science the best? What are the ways that you have learned science through experience? And of course, what’s the tastiest fruit you’ve ever had and why?

 

Science for All

It’s 1985. You’re laying outside staring up at the stars. But tonight is different than other nights. Tonight, Halley’s Comet soars across the night sky.

Source: NSSDC’s Photo Gallery (NASA)

Halley’s Comet is a spectacular  example of how scientific discoveries don’t go away. Over 2,000 years ago it was seen by the Chinese and Ancient Greeks. Then, William the Conqueror may have interpreted it as a sign that he was meant to invade England in 1066. The comet might have even inspired a part of one of Shakespeare’s plays (Space, 2017).

What’s so incredible about Halley’s Comet is that it has influenced people across the Earth and across time. The reason why might be that Halley’s Comet comes back into view from Earth every 75 years. The last time that it was seen was 1986 making 2061 the next time it will be visible with the naked eye. The story might seem to end for you there. You might be thinking, why do I care about what happens in 41 years? One reason might be because what we do now affects our future – ourselves, our community, and our planet.

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) also cared so much that in 1986 they made a 75 year plan to think about a couple of interesting questions in regards to the public and science:

  1. What should Americans be learning about in science that will equip them for the future – at home, in their community, and across the globe?
  2. How do we cultivate “scientifically literate” Americans?

These are excellent questions to think about. And I’m not sure we’d all agree on what this looks like in practice. But I’m really inspired by one way that the AAAS began to redefine and reshape “who can do science” and “what science is”. They reframed “the scientific method” to “scientific methods” and began to break down constraints and limitations to who can do science and what science is. In my opinion, they really challenged the culture around science in the US.

A quick search of Twitter hashtags reveals the way that this has manifested. The community of science on Twitter has challenged the identity of scientists.

 

(Source: Clipartpanda.com)

 

The idea of a scientist as an old, white, man in a lab coat not only doesn’t represent who scientists are but it also limits who identifies as a scientist. Here are some hashtags that I found surrounding a campaign to challenge who can be a scientist and what a scientist does. Follow #scientistswhoselfie and you’ll find that the image above isn’t the only scientist around.

The hashtags attached to these scientists tell us about what their identity is in science:

#WomeninScience, #LatinainSTEM, #BlackandSTEM, #PhDMom, #QueerSTEM, #PhDShawty, #DisabledScientist

So I decided to think about the same for myself. What makes me identity as a scientist? Why did I think about pursuing a career in science? Did science ever seem inaccessible to me? Pretty much all of my identity markers like being white or identifying as a man made me never question the idea of becoming a scientist.

I collected some items that are a part of my science identity. In some cases they have served as my “lab coat”, my “safety goggles” or my “pipette” and in other cases they’ve acted as a means to explore the world and ask questions about it even if I didn’t conduct an experiment or gather results. So what I mean is lab coats, safety goggles, and pipettes don’t mean science is happening or define a scientist. They’re just some of the tools we use to do some types of science or be safe when doing science. Here are some of my tools that enable me to participate in the world of science or what AAAS might define as my tools to make sense of “how the world works; to think critically and independently; and to lead interesting, responsible, and productive lives in a culture increasingly shaped by science and technology?”

Some of these don’t make me a scientist or mean science is happening. But sometimes they do and sometimes they have. Regardless, they are ways that I think about and make sense of my health and life, the science of my hobbies and interests, the health of our environment, and the impact that I have on plants, animals, and people. It’s my “Halley’s Comet” that inspires me to think of science in the world around me during the next 75 years of life.

My jacket, tights, and gloves are like my labcoat. They don’t protect against chemical burns, but they sure do protect against frost bite. My snowshoes are like protective boots that scientists may use when exploring volcanos or rivers. They also help keep me from slipping and falling. This day I was only going for a run and thinking about my physical and mental health. But snowshoes have also been a part of me collecting data about average snowfall and animal migration.

My canoe allowed me to explore Assateague Island to observe wild horses in the water. I had only ever seen horses on a farm or on land before. Boats and other water tools have been used to ask cool questions about how and why horses travel.

I also have science tools in my kitchen. I love making meals, trying new spices and new foods. Sometimes the food I make doesn’t taste great. That means I return to the “drawing board” or in this case, the cutting board to think about things like: how long I cook something for, how hot of a temperature it’s cooked at, and what amount of ingredients I add. While everyone’s taste is different, cooking is highly scientific in the sense that you can change parts of the experiment and get wildly different outcomes. It’s also highly scientific because it rarely comes out the same twice.

My snowshoes, my canoe, and my spatula. They’re all just tools I use to think about science, ask scientific questions, and even sometimes conduct experiments. They’re not the only science tools that I use, and they’re not the only science tools that you might use. But what they provide for me is a joy and an identity in science outside of the “lab”.

I hope you also can think about the tools that enable you to do or think about science everyday.

What are some of your science tools that aren’t lab coats, goggles, and pipettes?

When good science = failing

Failing has always terrified me and I hate letting people down.

Somewhere along the way school taught me that failing is bad and that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to do science or be a student. I didn’t learn how to get something wrong, how to ask questions, or even feel safe to try something because I was curious until college. I’ve had a fear of failure because I’ve never wanted to let others or myself down. But reality (and science) is full of failure, rebuilding, disappointment, perseverance, defeat, and hope –  so our schools should encourage the messiness of this process.

I enjoy this picture because the words: fail, end, and no have often been walls that I have been too afraid to climb instead of the sledgehammer I need to break the wall down or the rope to climb over.

(Source: https://twitter.com/mccoachcoach)

Why do we teach kids how to be instead of asking them how they think they and the world should be?

I’ve been wrestling with all of the ways that I can passively and accidentally teach kids the same thing that I learned. Will I focus on good test scores or only applaud the experiment that goes well? Or will I encourage the best part of science which is tinkering with something that isn’t working or having your mind blown about a result you couldn’t have imagined?  I hope that I can be a teacher that gets excited when a student shows me how they approached a problem, why they asked the question they did, or has their own way of knowing that challenges how I have thought about science. Maybe my fear of failure hasn’t left and I’m afraid of a classroom that teaches kids how to be instead of learning about who they are, what they care about, and then equipping them to solve questions and problems meaningful to them.

I guess the best way to overcome this fear is to share how awesome it is to do “good science” meaning: have almost nothing turn out as planned. Robin, Ms. D, and I were inspired by a student that we met, Amelia, at Sodus Jr./Sr. High School who wanted to know why apples she had from the store tasted chemically. She wondered if what we put into the ground has anything to do with it. We thought and talked about local fruit compared with shipping fruit from across the United States and decided that we better consult the experts. We spent time with the owner and founders of Burnap’s Farm Kendra, Ed, and Jan who graciously welcomed us and shared their time and expertise with us.

(From left to right: Kendra, Robin, Ms. D, me, Ed, Jan)

We could have stayed on the farm for hours and learned from Jan, Ed, and Kendra for months. But in our short couple of hours there we learned so much from them and got to do our own science investigation. Inspired by Amelia’s question we wanted to know: does the soil affect how many berries grow, and of course what everyone is wondering – does it also change how the berries taste? Now we know that farm fresh fruit tastes tremendously better than store bought fruit, but does soil composition (what is in the soil) on different parts of the farm change how many berries there are and how they taste?

I’m not going to answer that question for you today. I probably won’t even until July. And even then I’ll probably be sharing about new fascinations and troubles that we’ve run into. So for today I just wanted to share two of Robin, Ms. D, and I’s experiences of GOOD science that gave us no promising results and a whole lot more questions.

 

  1. The plan: We have been trying to build onto a balloon or kite so that we can take really cool pictures from up in the sky, looking down at the farm.
    The actual: I lost a balloon immediately into the sky before even getting started. Our camera dropped out of the sky and fell to the ground. The wind made it hard for the balloons to get up high enough and made the camera bounce around.
    I said “Good” science = failing, right? We’ve got to figure out how we can get our camera to stay more steady up in the air. We’ve got to secure it better. Maybe we’ll use a kite? Maybe we’ll use the balloons in a different way. Maybe my team will have me tie the balloons together and to myself so that I don’t lose them 🙂
  2. The plan: We want to test the soil for chemical elements – phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium to name a few. I’ll write a future post on why these elements are important for soil, but I like to think of them as different parts of different food that I like to eat. I need protein like meat or beans, carbs like pasta or rice, and fruits and veggies to keep me healthy. Plants need food too. Our plan was to take soil and soak it in water. We thought the water would then hold the chemical elements in it and then we could test for those elements in the water.
    The actual: Soaking the soil in water made mud, not water. We tried to separate the water from the mud using a coffee filter – that didn’t help too much. Almost all of our tests except for two came back with no result.
    Good science means failing because now we can ask WHY we didn’t get the result we thought we would. Maybe the chemical elements from the soil didn’t get into the water? Maybe we need to let the water and soil sit together longer? Maybe we’ll use a different test for the soil? Maybe we’ll measure something different in the soil?

I hope you’re not disappointed that we didn’t solve Amelia’s mystery of what makes our food taste good or bad? But I hope you’re encouraged by good science meaning failure, rebuilding, disappointment, perseverance, defeat, and hope. We have more questions than answers and that’s what makes science beautiful: it’s never ending meaning you can explore forever, you can redo it or try a new way, and you have friends that sometimes have better ideas than you to help you figure out your problem.

I probably won’t use the word failure too much again. But it’s okay to be stuck. It’s okay for things to go wrong. It’s okay to fail.

 

New beginnings

May has been a month of new beginnings. This last week I have gotten to know some of my new science pals: Alyssa, Ellen, Ellie, Kristi, Lisa, Madeline, Robin and Sam. I am so impressed by this new cohort in the Get Real! Science program at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. Everyone is welcoming, brilliant, passionate, and intentional and I am looking forward to spending 15 months getting to know this crew better – and growing along the way.

Right now science education to me is loaded with my ideas of what science looks like and what classrooms looked like for me. I am trying to imagine a blank slate, but my classroom will be far from it. The baggage that I carry into the classroom and that each student in the room has to hold the weight of will make science education messy. Add on standards, expectations, and requirements that in a perfect world would make me accountable to my students and their families, but instead can cripple curiosity, genuine inquiry, and make school about conformity and learning how to take a test well. This task terrifies me: that I could end up failing my students at what I believe real science education for the sake of metrics. This task also inspires me: education is a human right and science education is a tool to empower voices that our society tries so hard to silence.

Here is one of my major goals that I hope I explore in this program and beyond as a teacher. I hope you’ll help hold me accountable.

Who can do science?

Science in school for me was memorizing facts. I found the facts interesting, and thankfully because of my dad who cared more about asking questions about why or how something worked, I grew up wondering more than being satisfied with answers. However, I always thought that I could do science or be a scientist. Everyone can be a scientist, right? I truly believe that everyone can be a scientist but our society does not demonstrate that everyone can be a scientist. Racial minorities and women hold a far fewer percentage of science degrees and science jobs according to the National Science Foundation.

(National Science Foundation, Scientists and Engineers working in the U.S, 2015).

When looking at graphs like that I wonder why our scientists lack diversity. There are historical, political, and social reasons why, but there are also schools and classrooms that contribute to “who can do science”. Even academia has its own system of weighing who does science “best” or “better” based on things like publication record, journal published in, university attended, tenure, and university they are employed by. That is why one of my major goals is to create a space where every student can have an identity in science and see themselves as able to be scientists.

Most importantly, I hope that this goal leads to student voices, student-led change, and challenges to injustice that they see in their life, in their community, and in their world. There is so much that I hope to accomplish and that I will share through this blog about my own ideas, frustrations, fears, and dreams – but I want to begin to be a better listener, advocate, mediator, and empower others to be agents of change for their own ideas, frustrations, fears, and dreams.