Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Play Dough Scat Animal Poop Lab

Cold Scat Creamery Lab: Free Student Lab: Find, Study, and MAKE animal poop using playdough and "mix-ins."

Poop and Ice Cream....Ah....all the makings of an amazing day learning science! Katie Fisk wrote a WONDERFUL article in NSTA's Science Scope that had students using playdough and mix-ins to create scat (or poop).  I borrowed and built on her idea and designed two student-versions that are two levels of inquiry.  A link to my free downloads are at the bottom of this post. My objectives for this lab include: 
  • Practicing observation skills by categorizing scat into "like" groups
  • Addressing misconceptions of scat and the animals from which they come
  • Applying knowledge of scat to food chain and food web
  • Deductive thinking to match diet type vocabulary with appropriate terms
  • Construct scat out of playdough and mix-ins to demonstrate understanding of the connection of what animals eat and what is "left behind."

Two Versions of this Cold Scat Creamery Lab

The activities for the two student lab versions I've written are similar. In the higher-level inquiry, its best for students to go out into nature, find, photograph, and then identify the animal from which it came. Classroom teachers might be able to combine this activity with another "field day" lab since it wouldn't take much time to do, if you're already out in nature. Homeschooling parents, vacationing families, or informal science providers will have no trouble doing the inquiry version. If you do have students go on a scat hunt, be sure they don't touch the scat! And they should carry with them a digital camera (phones work great) a coin and a ruler. Show them how to take close photos (using the macro function) and to include the coin or ruler to help with scale later.

Identifying Animal Scat

At the end of this post, I reference some great sites, and even online dichotomous keys students can use to identify the scat they photographed.   If getting out into nature isn't possible, I've provided "scat activity card" of 15 varying types of scat. These cards will allow you to do either inquiry level of the lab with students.

Sample Scat Activity cards for Scat Lab: Students match scat with appropriate animal.
My students used my cards to try and match animal to its scat. Even though the boys live on a Ranch with dogs, cats, cows, horses, racoons, etc... most had never really looked at scat objectively. I know...right? That's crazy.

When you've downloaded the teacher lab, print on card stock, laminate, and then cut.  Here is the answer key:

A: Earthworm
B: Cat
C: Deer
D: Crow
E: Opossum
F: Horse
G: Squirl
H: Robin
I: Skunk
J: Cow
K: Rabbit
L: Mouse
M: Coyote
N: Racoon
O: Cockroach      

In this photo, students are observing the scat cards and determining their own category names! That's right, scientists are objective AND creative!

Categorizing (observing) scat samples; Free activity cards at

Categorize Scat

Once data have been collected (photos have been taken) students should REALLY observe the scat and compare them to one another. I have found that asking them to categorize them into like groups helps them to really think and talk about what they are observing. Since the official scat categories aren't all that profound (didn't come from Latin root words) I have students categorize and name the categories themselves. I then have them exchange their category names, and have another group try and place the scat according to the groups. Inevitably students argue about what "large" or "tubular" really means. This is exactly what you want. Have students hone their categories so it is abundantly clear which scat belongs to what categories. Trial and error is good here!

Here are the Official Answers: (from the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management)
  • Pellets (Deer, Elk, Llama)
  • Plop (Cow, Bear, Buffalo)
  • Tubular--large (Dog, Cat, Fox, Coyotes, Bobcats, Geese)
  • Tubular--small (Mouse, rat, bat)
  • White (Birds and reptiles)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Grace from Outer Space -- Guest Post

I am proud to introduce to you Jenna Bryson, the author of the book, "Grace from Outer Space." I'll let her tell you her story. Please welcome Jenna with open arms, and be sure to visit her site!
by Jenna Bryson

Grace from Outer Space Graphic:  guest post on STEM Mom

I am a woman of many hats. In my life, I have been a singer, a songwriter, a children's party princess (more on that in a bit), an actor, a business owner, a producer, and most recently, an author. 

I create content, I perform, I entertain, and I dream-up ideas, but mostly, above all else, I consider myself a storyteller. I love a good story and I love telling stories. 

For most of my life, I've been trying to figure out a way to make my own dreams come true, but by mid-2012, I had an epiphany of sorts: I realized I wanted to empower the dreams and expand the possibilities of others.

As a storyteller, I knew I wanted to create an original character to help me achieve this goal. As a professional party princess (yes, I'm one of those weird grown-ups who still likes to wear costumes and play pretend with five-year-olds), I knew children would be the target audience. And as a science/space enthusiast, I knew I wanted the project to advocate S.T.E.M. education.

Let me go back to that party princess thing for a minute: while I love performing for children, and seeing a child's face light-up at the sight of a "real" princess is one of life's priceless experiences, my heart is often conflicted by the messages of most fairy-tales  As an advocate of science, reason, exploration, and self-discovery, I want little girls (and little boys) to see that there is more possible for them than simply a life of physical beauty and peer acceptance.  

And sure, there's that whole thing about internal beauty which princesses also represent, but I want to go even further and suggest that the word "beauty" not even be part of the equation. I want girls to be curious, I want them to hunger for knowledge... I want them to be comfortable in their own skin and to pursue whatever interests they like, despite whether or not these interests are perceived as "cool" by their friends... and I want to teach them how to think

I let this mission statement, if you will, bounce around in my brain for quite some time. I got to thinking about how much power fictional characters have over children. In fact, young children don't separate fictional characters and stories from reality. This is something I experienced first hand, as I would read little girls a fairytale and I would point to the picture on the page and ask them, "Who's that?" and they would unanimously shout "That's YOU!"

And then it hit me like a red-hot sun flare: Grace from Outer Space. The title alone was enough to send me zooming around my living room with excitement, but then the rest of the idea burst to life and I knew I was in for a ride.

It would be a story about a futuristic female heroine, who lives in outer space on an intergalactic ship. 'Grace' would be a child, about the same age as the demographic I would be writing for (approx. 4-8 years-old), which was very important to me because, since the book would be filled with space-science facts and theories, I didn't want for children to feel as if they were being talked-down to; 'Grace' would be a curious character, one children could aspire to be like and, therefore, children would learn through her eyes and experiences. And she would represent a futuristic ideal of an interstellar society by living on a space ship with her scientific family.

Solidifying my idea for the concept of 'Grace' was a paper I read about a study conducted by the US Dept. of Commerce entitled "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" which summarized that a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping may be factors contributing to the discrepancy of women and men in STEM jobs. 'Grace' would be a breakthrough in gender stereotyping, in a marketplace where most "science-y" merchandise is geared towards boys, and give little girls a role model they could look up to. Literally. Into outer space! 

From the outset, I knew that this idea was powerful, and had the potential to be more than just one book, and even more than a series of books; it could be an animated series, a live show with music, and so much more, all in the name of showing kids that science and space exploration is for everyone, boys and girls. 

With this in mind, I wrote the initial story as a slice-of-life introduction to the character. Stylistically, it's a rhyming picture book. It's fun, imaginative, and contains plenty of space-science facts and theories. The picture below contains actual writing from the book along with concept art by illustrator Mike Davis, just to give you an idea of what the spreads might look like.

Inline image 1

I am currently running a fundraising campaign via Kickstarter to turn this first story into an interactive eBook app. Book two in the 'Grace' series is already written as well, but in this story, readers will get a deeper look into our heroine's "universe", if you will. Where does 'Grace' go to school? What's her teacher like? How does she get around in space? And most importantly, what is she excited to learn about today?! 

Because I myself like to live by this philosophy, as stated perfectly by astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, "Know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others," in every subsequent story I write in the Grace from Outer Space series, these ideals will be exemplified by the main character.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The point of all of this, is to say that there is truth in fiction. Stories can teach us so much. Stories can show us how to live, how to think, and who to be. And although girls can't be a princess (well, not a really-real princess) when they grow up, they can be astronauts. And I hear the pay is great. 

So, of all the things I have been or will be in my life, a scientist is not one of them. What I am, however, is a storyteller, and I am storytelling in the name of science.

You can connect with Grace from Outer Space in several ways!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Alka-Seltzer Rocket Challenge

Alka-seltzer Rocket Design Challenge from STEM
I love labs that challenge students to think. If its loud and makes a mess, all the better! This challenge accomplishes all of these goals. 

The Alka-Seltzer Rocket Challenge: 

The Challenge: Using the basic construction suggestions below, and using any of the available materials, design a rocket that will propel the greatest monetary value to an elevation of at least 1 meter above its start location.

Here are the materials you set out for students:

  • Alka-seltzer tablets
  • small clear plastic cup (I prefer clear so you can see what's happening)
  • film canister
  • water and/or club soda
  • meter stick
  • various coins
  • tape
  • hotplate
  • thermoeter
  • balance
  • mortar and pestle
  • graduated cylinder
  • safety goggles

Put water in a film canister, add an alkaseltzer...quickly put on lid, and add a cup...stand back!

Here's the basic design:  The coins are taped to the cup. Any given amount of liquid inside a film canister, alka-seltzer dropped in, film canister lid to cover and a plastic cup upside on top. The CO2 will pop off the canister lid, and push the cup into the air. Its AWESOME.    

Given the basic design, set students free to explore. Concepts include force, lift, gravity, propulsion, and fun. They'll need a few "free-bees" as the surprise factor is so enjoyable, student have a hard time focusing at first. Allow them to tweak their procedure and change materials to meet the challenge.    

Alka-seltzer rocket going up 1 meter! from

Depending on your goals, you can focus students on the aspect of the scientific research project you want them to experience. For example, maybe this activity will help your students see how important it is to record observations in a laboratory notebook. Or maybe you want them to focus on problem-solving and critical thinking determining how to change their design to make it work better.

As you can see in the photo below, some students wanted to see how high they could get the cup to go without any coins on it. Impressive huh?

Alka-seltzer rocket going over 1 meter from

Most students determine that it is best to work together, one drops the tablet, one puts on the lid, and then the first puts on the cup. 

Working in pairs to shoot off an Alka-seltzer rocket from

It doesn't seem to matter that you know the cup is about to fly into the air, its EXCITING every time!
Surprise!!! Alkaseltzer Rocket goes off! from

Here are the post lab questions included with the student lab. I emphasize the process, by asking about what went well, what they learned from their successes and failures! You could have students write these out in their lab notebook, or just explain verbally to one another and the class. It leads to a rich discussion regarding the scientific method. 

1.     What design issues did you run into trying to get your rocket to propel higher?
2.     What modifications made the biggest impact on improving your rocket design?
3.     Can you explain why that modification worked better than others?
4.     Describe a modification you made that didn’t have a big impact. What did you think it would do? What happened instead?
5.     Draw AND label your rocket design and measurements that performed the best.
6.     If you had more time and more materials, what would you do to improve your rocket?

Feel free to download the student Alka-Seltzer Rocket Challenge Lab Sheet. It lists the materials, shows the basic design, and has a list of post lab questions students can answer regarding the design process. Enjoy!

Alka-Seltzer Rocket Challenge: Student Lab from STEM Mom