For the first official installment of the “STEM Mom” content I wanted to give you an easy opportunity to investigate important organisms in the natural world: FUNGI! As my dad would say “of course I’m a fun guy!”
Fungi (or fungus in the singular, yes, Latin is weird) is an important group of organisms. They are however NOT plants. Students often mistake them for plants for some reason, maybe because you can buy mushrooms in the produce section of the grocery store? Maybe because mushrooms seem to stand still like plants but either way, fungi are not plants. They are so important and numerous they have their own kingdom. If you don’t remember scientists like to classify things, we’re big fans of putting things in categories because it makes it easier to understand or study them. The boxes are currently under going some rearranging as we understand more and more about genetics but ultimately all fungi belong to Kingdom Fungi (humans belong to Kingdom Animalia).
Yeast, molds, and mushrooms are the main categories of fungi that we come across. We use fungi to make wine, create fluffy bread, fight of bacteria and season some of our foods (it happens to be one of my favorite pizza toppings). The main job of fungi is to break down material and return it to the environment keeping the cycle of matter going. They’re a huge part of making the “matter cannot be created and destroyed just rearranged” mantra work that you may have had drilled into your heads when you were younger. They help break down the matter so it can be reused and recycled. Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae – scientific names always have two names and the first one is always capitalized, they’re usually written in italics and very hard to pronounce), the same little fungi that is used to make wine, beer and fluffy bread has also contributed a lot to understanding genetics and more specifically human genetics because we have a lot in common.
Fungi are so universal to the functioning of nature that they can be found in almost all places so you can probably find some walking through your own neighborhood or maybe even in your backyard. You can find mushrooms, which were the first identified fungus until humans invented the microscope, just about anywhere there might be some stuff that needs to be broken down: leaf piles, tree trunks, mulch and the lawn.
One day we took a walk around our neighborhood; we were enjoying being outside when the Munchkin pointed to this:
And asked the usual question: “What’s that?” I explained that it was a fungus and it was breaking down stuff so it can be used again. Just like when we put stuff in the recycling bin instead of the trash, just like the compost we put on our (4 foot x 4 foot) garden so the vegetables we’re growing can use it to grow big and strong. I said “like how you can break your blocks apart and build something new with them” and she looked at me and nodded. “Let’s find more!”
And as simple as that, my daughter is excited to look for fungi; she even took it upon herself to turn it into a game, whoever found one first would “win”. Win what? I’m not exactly sure but the rest of the walk she wanted to spot mushrooms and was so proud of herself when she did. A few more we saw:
You can find fungi any where and every where if you just take a look around. If you have your phone you can search the image and try to identify it or you can just take in the wonder and appreciate all the variety of fungi out there and the important job they are doing for our ecosystem. The Munchkin was so excited that searching for fungi kept going for a few days, including on a nature hike we took through a local forest:
That’s what makes exposing kids to science and the natural world so rewarding; answering kids’ questions in kid friendly terms as truthfully as possible allows them to create some form of connection and gets them excited because they’re not being brushed off. Take some time this weekend and see if you can find some fungi!
Keep exploring and investigating! It’s not always clean but it usually is interesting.