Do you remember our marine mystery? We’re investigating why gray whales are dying and washing ashore along the Pacific Coast in record numbers this year. Other than an emaciated appearance, there are not many clues as to the cause.
But, because the whales look emaciated, our brilliant students have wondered if the mystery has something to do with the gray whale’s food.
Gray whales are baleen whales. They feed by turning on their sides and scooping up sediments from the ocean floor. The baleen acts like a sieve to capture the small sea animals while the water, sand and other sediments are expelled. The sea animals they eat are mostly Amphipoda crustaceans.
Could something be happening to the Amphipoda crustaceans that the gray whales rely on? To understand what could happen to them, we need to understand what type of habitat they live in and what conditions could stress them.
To do this, we turned to brine shrimp eggs. Brine shrimp are Artemia crustaceans, and not precisely what gray whales eat, but they are close enough in characteristics to give us an idea of what the Amphipoda crustaceans need to survive.
The students researched the appropriate conditions for the brine shrimp, created habitats, and added the eggs on Monday. After an agonizing wait, they examined the habitats on Wednesday and saw that the eggs had hatched! Their task now is to monitor the conditions of the water in the habitat, feed the brine shrimp, and keep careful record of what happens to them.
Through this investigation, we can gain insight into the habitats of the Amphipoda crustaceans and hopefully come clues as to what could affect them, and consequently, affect the gray whales.
For the next month and a half, my cohort and I are running an after school club at World of Inquiry School called Science STARS. Our team of 7th and 8th graders are attempting to solve the marine mystery explained in the video below:
As we search for clues, we will learn about underwater ecosystems and what they need to be balanced and healthy. We will also discover what happens when an ecosystem becomes imbalanced, and the consequences of that imbalance. Hopefully, we can apply this knowledge to local bodies of water and understand how our communities impact them.
Along the way, we will create a film that chronicles our investigation, the knowledge we gain from it, and the actions we intend to take based on that knowledge. My wildest film-making dreams include:
The students showing highlights from the science we performed, and how that connects to the Gray Whale Mystery.
Animations and other creative endeavors from our students. They are amazingly talented, and their work needs to be shown!
Connections to local ecosystems, with on site investigations (field trips!)
Action items! Specific things each person can do to help keep our underwater ecosystems healthy.
A call to arms. Inviting EVERYONE to change one habit that is unhealthy for the environment.
All of the above combined into a magical, smoothly-flowing, motivating masterpiece!
This coming week, July 22-25, the Get Real! Science cohort is running a science camp for middle school students in Sodus, NY. One of our challenges is to find authentic ways to integrate technology into our camp investigation.
Our cohort is divided up into teams and each team, with their group of students, will perform an investigation about something that is important to the Sodus community. Our team is the Playground Posse and we are investigating the effects of outdoor play on the human body. After speaking with members of the community, we learned that the opportunities for outdoor recreation for kids in Sodus is limited. This is something we will help the students to research and advocate for in their community.
To investigate outdoor play, our team will examine how play affects the heart, lungs, muscles, skin and brain. In the activities associated with this investigation, we hope to incorporate the use of technology. Our current plan (which may change as we go) is to use finger clip pulse oximeters as a quick and easy way to measure heart rate. The students will use the pulse oximeters to measure their heart rates after a variety of different exercises, and then record them into a spreadsheet.
Why use technology? Students are surrounded by and use technology every day (probably mostly in the form of games and social media), and are very comfortable with its use. Technology has been shown to increase student interest and engagement. Havlik (2014) saw “levels of engagement from his students he had rarely seen before.”.
How should technology be used in a scientific investigation? Flick and Bell (2000) state that “The purpose of technology in science teaching is to enhance science teaching and learning (rather than for the technology’s sake alone)” Our lessons should not be crafted around the use of technology, rather technology should be used when it enhances or adds something to the content. As we research the effect of play on the heart, our use of the pulse oximeters will give us accurate heart rate readings, and by entering our data into a spreadsheet, we will be able to create graphs to analyze trends.
The implementation of technology is authentic when it affords the students the chance to perform science, rather than simply learning the concepts. For example, we could tell the students that their heart rate increases with play, but the learning is more authentic if the students measure their own heart rates at various levels of activity. This serves to “provide students with opportunities to do science, in addition to learning the facts and concepts of science.” (Flick & Bell, 2000)
In addition to engaging the students, helping them to learn the concepts, and assisting with the gathering of data, technology can “extend instruction beyond or significantly enhance what can be done without technology.” (Flick & Bell, 2000). In addition to measuring heart rate, a pulse oximeter measures oxygen saturation levels. It is our hope that this measurement will lead the students to make connections between heart rate, the lungs and breathing, and the circulatory system.
At the end of our investigation, we hope that our students will see the value in outdoor play, and will construct a way to share this knowledge with others. One (very powerful) option to do this is with social media. Havlik (2014) has found that “Some of the most creative and engaging science conversations are happening in informal, online forums.’. Social media can also give students access to mentors and collaboration.
However the students decide to share their findings with their community, we hope that they make the connection that sharing and collaborating with peers and the community is part of the scientific process. And that they will see themselves as scientists who had a question and were able to answer it through scientific means (and had some fun along the way!).
Flick, L. & Bell, R. (2000). Preparing tomorrow’s science teachers to use technology: Guidelines for science educators. Contemporary issues in technology and teacher education, 1(1), 39-60.
Havlik, B. (2014). How Social Media Can Support Science and Digital Literacy http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/education/2014/08/how-social-media-can-support-science-and-digital-literacy/ Retrieved on July 12, 2017.
Over the weekend, I met up with five friends to hike a twenty mile section of the Appalachian Trail from Harper’s Ferry to Bears Den Rocks.
It was wonderful and difficult and green and hot. We saw butterflies, flowers, bugs, worms, deer, a snake and, most of all, trees. So many glorious trees.
When you’re hiking all day, there’s a lot of time for your mind to wander. While much of that time on this trip my mind was daydreaming about ice cold beverages (it was hot, remember?), I also found myself trying to remember the details of a podcast I had listened to a few years ago. I remembered vaguely it was about how trees communicate through a vast network in the forest. When I returned home, I had to look it up and give it a shout out here:
It’s a fascinating look at how the organisms in a forest are a complex interdependent network. So, carve an hour out of your day and listen while you go for a walk or weed the garden or shine your shoes or wash the dog.
We were sitting on the front steps enjoying some well-deserved popsicles and gazing at the freshly mown lawn. I was thinking about how the grass trimmings had gotten everywhere (the front walk, the flower beds, my clothes, my hair), but my daughter Matilda had other thoughts.
“Is that why clouds turn green when there is a tornado?”
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“Do the clouds turn green because the wind picks up grass and stuff and they end up in the clouds?”
I love her curiosity and the connections she was making. We talked about it a bit more, and decided to try to find out the answer together.
There are many theories and common wisdom about green clouds. Some say they are always associated with tornadoes, some say that it is caused by hail, and others say it is simply the clouds reflecting the ground below.
Through observation, scientists have been able to determine that green clouds are associated with severe thunderstorms (Bohren & Fraser, 1993). Severe thunderstorms also often produce hail and tornadoes. This perhaps explains why common wisdom has connected the two.
To test if the clouds appear green due to reflection from the ground, Frank Gallagher (2001), while working his thesis at the University of Oklahoma, joined a tornado-chasing research team. He used a spectrophotometer to record the wavelengths of light from storms in Texas and Oklahoma. With data gathered over various landscapes (desert, freshly plowed fields, grassland), he determined that the green light observed in severe thunderstorms is not caused by light reflected from green foliage on the ground.
So, if not a reflection of the ground, why do severe thunderstorms sometimes look green?
Bohren and Fraser (1993) present two hypotheses, both related to the absorption and reflection of visible light. The color that we see with our eyes depends on the wavelength of the light. In the visible spectrum, shorter wavelengths we see as blue and then they run through the rainbow to red at the long wavelength end.
Fraser explains that the sky itself is green near sunset. During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. But, conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air. The blue (shorter wavelength) light is scattered, while the longer wavelength light travels further, creating the beautiful red, orange and yellow sunsets. The green observed may be caused by the red (longer wavelength) light illuminating particles which scatter the light into the green wavelengths. The thick clouds associated with severe thunderstorms provide a dark backdrop, allowing the green light to be visible.
Bohren’s explanation is that the green observed is due to the intrinsic blueness of clouds. Water in the clouds, liquid or solid, selectively absorbs the longer wavelengths (red) of visible light. Most clouds are so thin that the light passing through them is not colored . Only the severe thunderclouds —large both vertically and horizontally—are thick enough to shift the color of sunlight. When that sunlight is reddened at sunset, the light passing through the cloud can appear to be green.
These two hypotheses do not seem to conflict, and to my untrained eye they are reasonable explanations. Matilda was less impressed, and skeptical of my assertion that visible light can be absorbed and scattered. Perhaps we’ll explore this further over the summer…
Bohren, C. F., & Fraser, A. B. (1993). Green thunderstorms. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 74(11), 2185-2193. doi:10.1175/1520-0477(1993)074<2185:GT>2.0.CO;2
Gallagher,Frank W., I.,II. (2001). Ground reflections and green thunderstorms.Journal of Applied Meteorology, 40(4), 776-782. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezp.lib.rochester.edu/docview/224630878?accountid=13567
This past Monday, June 10, was my daughter Matilda’s 7th birthday. She’s been looking forward to this for a month or two, and working hard to ensure her birthday is everything she would love it to be. You know: detailed gift wish list, special dinner requests, treats for her classmates. And most notably, she emailed me the link to the chocolate cake recipe she wanted me to bake.
Now, not to reveal too much here, but I’m not really a baker. At least not an adventurous always-trying-new-recipes type of baker. I find the things I like to bake and a recipe I love and I stick to that. So far, chocolate cake isn’t one of those things. But you don’t say no to your daughter on her birthday, at least not where cake is involved. So, I gathered the ingredients and set about baking the cake. If you click through to the recipe, you’ll see that at the very last step before you pour the batter into the pans, you stir in a cup of boiling water. What? I’ve made cakes before, but I had never encountered this step. Why does the water need to be boiling? Let’s see if we can find out.
The first thing to note is that this recipe is made with cocoa powder, not baking chocolate. That turns out to be important. Cocoa powder is the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter, cocoa solids.
When cocoa powder is mixed with cold liquids, it remains in solid form, and you end up with a gritty mixture. When mixed with boiling liquids (some recipes for chocolate cake call for hot coffee), the cocoa powder dissolves and you have a smooth liquid. That seems pretty simple, right? Just a matter of reaching the melting point of the cocoa powder, allowing for the physical change from solid to liquid?
Yes, but it’s probably not that simple. It is reported that adding the boiling water to the batter also changes the flavor, releasing more of the deeper, richer chocolate flavor. This flavor enhancement seems to suggest that a chemical change is also occurring.
Cocoa powder contains both volatile and non-volatile components that contribute to the complex cocoa flavor. The non-volatile components include alkaloids, polyphenols, proteins and carbohydrates (shown below). Also, there are about 600 volatile components in cocoa that have been identified, including compounds of several chemical classes such as aldehydes, ketones, esters, alcohols, pyrazines, quinoxalines, furans, pyrones, lactones, pyrroles, and diketopiperazines.
These are the components that are responsible for the deep, complex flavor of cocoa. Does adding the boiling water to the batter allow for some chemical change in these components, thus deepening the flavor? The short answer is: I don’t know. But, after spending some time researching it this week, I’m not sure anyone else does, either. This would be a fascinating and delicious area to investigate further. And one thing is for sure, Matilda would volunteer to be the taste tester!
A couple of weeks ago, over Memorial Day weekend, my husband Ross and I took our kids on a two night backpacking trip. We love backpacking, it was a long weekend, and the weather looked…..okay, so we decided to seize the moment. We knew from prior (very itchy) experience, that May and June is black fly season in the Adirondacks, so instead we headed south to Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.
It was our first time there, and it is very beautiful in an old-growth-forest, ferns-carpeting-the-ground sort of way. The trail was well marked and maintained, and not crowded at all. Did I mention it was raining when we started?
It was about noon on the second day (when the weather cleared, and the sun was finally hitting us as we hiked) that we first started to notice the tiny flies. Or were they gnats? Or no see ums? Whatever you call them, they bite and it stings! We endured through covering up and using bug spray, and made it through the rest of our trip just fine. Not without bites, though, and I have to tell you, the itchiness sets in around day 2 after the bites, and it’s pretty intense!
Not knowing what they were bugged me (ha! see what I did…), so I did a little bit of research. It turns out that they are of the Family Ceratopogonidae or the Biting Midges. The Family Ceratopogonidae includes over 4, 000 species in 78 genera worldwide. Over 600 species in 36 genera have been described in North America, only a small number of which feed upon vertebrates. But we were lucky enough to meet some of them…
In Pennsylvania, they are commonly called punkies, or no see ums. Punkies undergo a type of development called complete metamorphosis. Their eggs are laid in aquatic habitats like streams, marshes, ponds, and swamps. The eggs hatch and larvae develop in the moist habitat for varying lengths of time (depending on temperature and food supply). Next is the pupa stage, and then a few days later the adult emerges, and will live for two to seven weeks.
Both males and females feed primarily on plant sap and nectar. But the female requires protein for egg production, and so she feeds on mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibian blood, leaving those wonderful, red, itchy spots.
While these bites are annoying, punkies are not known to spread disease among humans in North America. They do have an impact on livestock, however, through the spread of the Blue Tongue virus. This virus is a major cause of disease in livestock in the western United States.
Now that we know about the punkies, it definitely won’t stop us from backpacking there again. We’ll just go in with eyes wide open, and all skin covered.
We tell stories to make sense of our world and our experiences in it. And to share that understanding with others.
As I share the experiences I have as part of the Get Real Science program with you on this blog, I hope it will solidify and clarify those experiences and lessons in my mind. And perhaps entertain you along the way.