Poetry, STEM Mom

Exploring Rocks – A Creative Interpretation

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Abigail got ready

It was a new day

Time for adventure

To get on their way

She packed her notebook

And magnifying glass

Off to explore

Maybe look at the grass

Her mom packed some lunch

A change of clothes too

Never too prepared

When you don’t know what you’ll do

Off they went

To a field by their house

Out in the grass

Quiet as a mouse

Abigail bent down

And picked up a rock

She looked at it carefully

It reminded her of chalk

“Ahh” Mom said

“Good observation my dear

That is limestone

You can write but it might smear”

“Limestone is shells

From creatures long ago

They used to swim here

Going to and fro”

Mom and Abigail

Kept walking on

Kicking up rocks

The color of dawn

“Why is it red?”

Abigail curiously asked

“That’s iron oxide

In there that’s amassed”

“It’s the same as our blood”

Mom smiled down

“It’s amazing the same

In nature all around”

Thin slabs under foot

“Now this is called shale

Thin and flaky in layers”

Mom put some in the pail.

“Shale is layered

In strips so fine

If you look carefully

There is many a line”

They unpacked their blanket

And sat on the ground

Looking at all

The rocks that they found

“Rocks are cool!”

Abigail said

“They come in grey,

Brown, yellow, and red!”

“Nature is cool

And it’s abundantly clear

We need more adventures

Both far and near!”

STEM Mom

Why Do The Leaves Change Color?

Photo by Autumn Mott Rodeheaver on Unsplash

If you live in the northern temperate regions around the world the leaves are changing colors and falling. This causes many people to put away their lawn mowers and break out their rakes and leaf blowers. I remember jumping into freshly made leaf piles as a kid, much to my father’s dismay, spreading all the leaves we had just raked into a neat mountain, so we’d have to rake them again. But what is the scientific process happening that’s resulting in leaves changing color and falling off the trees? Why does it happen during “Fall y’all”? If you, or your child(ren), have ever wondered why we suddenly have this beautiful array of colors during this season read on and I’ll try to explain it.

If you remember there are types of trees; we could classify them in lots of different ways but for the purpose of this explanation we’re just thinking about trees that lose their leaves (deciduous) and trees that don’t (coniferous). The deciduous trees are trees like oak, maple, elm, and linden trees; these turn a beautiful mix of colors during Autumn and coniferous trees are needle leaved trees that make cones and are typically green all year round like pine, fir, spruce, and cedar trees.

Trees are green because of a chemical called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the pigment that absorbs the energy from the sun. I’m not going to get too involved in photosynthesis, but chlorophyll is the molecule that can absorb the light energy and use it to push photosynthesis along. Chlorophyll is what makes plants and leaves green. It is also the pigment that works the best for harnessing sunlight so during the spring and summer when sun is plentiful plants and trees make a lot of it.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Chlorophyll is very good at trapping the energy from the sun to use it but it’s also a very expensive molecule for the plants to make; it takes a lot of resources: you need a lot of sun and photosynthesis happening to make chlorophyll. Once the seasons shift and the amount of sun is starting to wane deciduous trees stop making chlorophyll because they must put energy into preparing for the upcoming winter when photosynthesis isn’t going to be happening as much. That means the trees will stop putting the energy into making the expensive pigments. Once they use up the pigments that means it won’t be replaced with new pigments and the leaves are slowly going to lose their green color.

But the magic of beauty of Fall reminds us of something, the trees are also making other pigments at the same time as chlorophyll — they’re just not nearly as abundant. It would pretty short sighted for a plant to only make one color pigment because that doesn’t give it full access to the colors of the rainbow, so plants make other pigments that help them get energy from all the colors in the rainbow. While we only see the green during spring and summer, the beautiful colors of Fall that have been capturing our imagination for generations remind us of all the other pigments that work with chlorophyll to feed plants.

The yellow leaves are caused by a group of pigments called xanthophylls. The orange leaves are caused by the carotenoid pigments first identified in carrots and anthocyanins are the beautiful reds of the maple leaves. All these molecules work together to help plants get the most bang for their buck from the sunlight. 

As the sunlight fades, so does the chlorophyll and we’re reminded of all these other players behind the scenes.

Here is a simple experiment you can do with your child(ren) to see the different pigments in plant leaves:

Materials:

1. A fresh, washed spinach leaf per child. I don’t recommend baby spinach from a bag

2. A small glass or container like the size of a yogurt cup per child

3. Rubbing alcohol

4. Knife to chop the spinach with (I recommend these as kid safe knives or make sure the adult does this part)

5. Spoon or something to gently stir the leaves once they’re in the container

6. White coffee filter that is cut into a long enough strip to hang out of the container

Steps:

1. Chop up the spinach (make sure to supervise this part) and layer it in the bottom of the container. You don’t need very much; you’ll need less than a quarter of an inch in the bottom of the container

2. Pour the rubbing alcohol on the leaves and make sure you cover the leaves entirely

3. Stir the mixture gently, just enough to get the leaves in contact with the alcohol

4. Place the coffee filter in the alcohol-spinach solution and drape it over the side of the container

5. Let it sit for at least an hour, the alcohol will travel up the coffee filter using some of the magical properties of water

6. During this hour would be a great opportunity to ask your child(ren) to make some predictions. What do they think is going to happen? What are they expecting to see?

7. After an hour you should see bands of color on the filter paper and your child(ren) can see the different pigments in the spinach leaf.

If you have a particularly curious kid interested in learning more about pigments, you can try these other activities:

1. You can pick up leaves from outside that have fallen and do the same prep to see if the color bands are the same.

2. You can also draw a line on the filter paper with a marker (one color per strip of paper) and just put them in the rubbing alcohol to see what pigments make up your child(ren)’s favorite colors.

With some simple household supplies your child(ren) can investigate the natural phenomena that makes Fall such a beautiful time of year.

Have fun!

STEM Mom

Questions to Ask Your Kid

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

From personal experience and interactions with other parents we want our children to grow up to be the best people they can be. And sometimes it is exhausting; there are definitely times where it is easier just to give them the answers or do it for them but ultimately that makes it harder on them in the long run.

In this short read I’ve compliled a list of easy questions to ask your children to get their brain flowing and make sure they are taking ownership of their observations in this world.

  1. Why? The easiest way to get your kids thinking and processing what they’re saying or doing is asking them why. Why do you think that? Why will that work? Why won’t that work? Asking them why (similar to the way they ask you when they’re trying to figure the world out) makes them truly think about what they’re saying/doing instead of them just blinding moving forward.
  2. What do you think will happen? Asking them to predict the outcome and then following up with a “were you right or wrong?” helps them begin to make connections between actions and consequences. It will take some time before this part of their brain is fully formed and functional but you can start building those neural pathways as early as 2 by having conversations with your kids about what they think will happen when they do x, y, or z.
  3. How would you solve this problem? Whether it’s the “new” math, an issue with friends or a problem with a teacher asking your child(ren) how they would solve the problem and then walking them through their predictions about it (see number 2) you give them agency over their choices and decisions. You can guide the discussion to help get them to the right answer but ultimately this allows them to feel confident in making decisions or solving problems when you’re not around.
  4. How would you feel if you were in her/his/their shoes? We are naturally self-centered beings. It’s what allows us to stay safe and quickly identify potential dangers because we have a lot of “me, me, me” on the brain. However when it comes to being a functioning member of a society whether that means as a global citizen or as a member in a family it is critical for kids (and adults) to develop empathy for the way things we say or do will affect others. It’s not always perfect and we do screw it up probably more often than we’d like but by asking your kid(s) to put them in someone else’s shoes that helps them understand how to be a better person.
  5. How did you (or can you) figure that out? When our kids come to us with issues or questions sometimes it is super easy just to fire off the answer but in the long run that doesn’t help them become comfortable at finding the answer themselves. There will always be questions to answer or problems to solve but when we offer up the solution to our kids right away in the name of being tired, making it easier, or having to get something done (or out of the house) it will be harder on them (and us) in the long run.
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash

When you engage your child(ren)’s critical thinking skills at a young age you start building the neural pathways they need to be better people in the long run. School will be easier and life will be easier if you discuss and let your kids come up with some answers on their own — even when you know their wrong. Wrong answers or failing at something isn’t a bad thing until you, as the parent, make it so. Wrong answers are just an attempt at gathering more information about the world around us and stepping back into the fray to try and get the right answer will give your child(ren) much more confidence as they move through this world.

Don’t be afraid to get messy, make mistakes, and ask questions. This is how we all learn but sometimes adults forget that magic.

STEM Mom

Trying to Avoid Microaggressions When Teaching Genetics

If you’ve been part of this world for the past few years and you’re not hiding under a rock somewhere (while I might understand that desire, I know it is impractical) you have heard of political or societal impacts of trans rights.  As I was teaching genetics this year to first year high school biology classes during a pandemic I realized that the way we teach genetics in school is rife with microaggression land mines and the language we use to teach genetics could be more up to date and inclusive.  As a cis/hetero female I realized that the terms used or the way questions are posed to students don’t fully encompass the lived experience any more due to medical advancements in IVF and artificial insemination or the fact that the 1950s idyllic nuclear family has never truly been representative of the lived experiences for students.  Add in the growing visibility, understanding and acknowledgment of LGBTQIAA+ individuals and our genetics curriculum really needs some updating.

To begin transforming my language in the way I teach genetics I decided to delve into the genetic component and physiological expression of those genes when determining sex or gender identity.  In this research what I found was an incredibly complex interplay between what the genes say you are and how they interact or are read by other code to create this balance between hardwired genetic code and the much more variable system of gene expression (in order not to bog this down too much if you’re more interested in gene expression go here). 

While I’m attempting to include some of the scientific research in this field it is vastly complex, still not completely understood, and I’m just scratching the surface of the science so please seek out other more complete resources if you still have questions. 

There are primary sexual characteristics which are directly related to the gonad development of a fetus and secondary sex characteristics which are things like breasts, Adam’s apples or body hair.  Primary sex characteristics are generally determined by genetic composition whereas secondary sex characteristics are often determined by hormones.  The genetic composition influences the hormonal release but changes in a genetic composition can dramatically affect the physical manifestation of those genes. 

For a small taste of the complexities in understanding this area I just want to point out there are chromosomes such as the X and the Y that we teach and you’ve probably heard about that determine a person’s sex but the differentiation between these chromosomes being expressed involves genes like Sox9 which is found on chromosome 17; a chromosome that also contains genes that could code for colorectal and ovarian cancer as well as osteoporosis and myocardial infarction (AKA heart attack). 

Sox9 is activated by the male determining factor SRY on the Y chromosome to inhibit the ovary production and actually begin the degradation of the female Müllerian duct in a chromosomal male embryo.  However, it has been shown that Sox9 can create male gonads in an embryo even in the absence of SRY (AKA the Y chromosome). In essence someone may be XX but have XY primary sex characteristics.

The RSPO1 gene, located on chromosome 1 (which can code for cataracts, hypothyroidism, and migraines FYI), also plays a role in ovary determination and creation but mutations or disruptions in the RSPO1 gene can create physical males also in the absence of SRY genes and the Y chromosome. 

Sox9 is considered an anti-female gene and RSPO1 is considered a female promoting gene so mutations in either of these genes or changes in time or intensity of gene expression can alter the physical appearance of the XX or XY chromosome pair.

If that hasn’t totally lost your mind that’s great!  The take away though is that sex determination and gender identity are a balance between many factors and not as cut and dry as anyone would have you think.  It is a constant tug of war between genes that operate to promote maleness or femaleness and genes that operate towards “anti-maleness” or “anti-femaleness” and this tug of war can create a seemingly infinite spectrum of phenotypes or physical manifestations of sex and gender.  If that wasn’t enough another compounding factor to the sex determination and differentiation schematic is that this balance changes over the course of time.  It is not set in stone during embryonic development and then just continues that trajectory until death.  There are changes to this balance from both internal and external factors; certain dietary or environmental factors have been labeled as “hormone disruptors” that can cause changes to how hormones operate even when the genetics is “normal.” 

As pointed out in the 2009 article “A Question of Gender” Ludbrook identifies three components to physical sex development: chromosomal sex determination, gonadal sex, and anatomical sex that “for a typical woman or man all of these features are in concordance….for intersex people, chromosomal, gonadal or atomic sex is discordant.” 

All of that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of how to re-write questions like “a man with brown hair and a woman with blonde hair have kids, what’s the probability of having a kid with brown hair?”  Or things like “a woman who is heterozygous for hemophilia has children with a normal man, what is the probability that one of their children will have hemophilia?”  By using words like “man” or “woman” and “boy” or “girl” we are continuing to perpetuate the fallacy that sex and gender fall into binary categories where the science, even with questions still to be answered, clearly point to that is not the case.   

While this is an ongoing process I have decided to add “chromosomal” in front of any sex identifier I give when discussing genetics problems.  I am also going to change terminology to just indicate the gametes (egg and sperm in humans) that fuse to create a zygote instead of using “man” or “woman” and “mom” or “dad”.  My hope in just using the names of the haploid cells will also be more inclusive of students who may not have relationships with biological parents or may be products of other reproductive strategies where their biological lineage may not be the same as their familial unit.  My goal is to help affirm both student identities and relationships while also showing that sex, gender, and gender identity are a lot more nuanced than the chromosomal composition of any one cell (which, by the way different cells in the same organism can have different chromosomal makeups…who knew?! But we’ll save that discussion for another day).

Sources:

Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature, vol. 518, no. 7539, Feb. 2015, p. 288. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/518288a. 

LUDBROOK, LOUISA. “A Question of Gender.” Australasian Science, vol. 30, no. 10, Nov. 2009, p. 21. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sch&AN=44726541&site=scirc-live. 

“Human Genome Project Information Archive1990–2003.” Chromosome 1: Human Genome Landmarks Poster, web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/posters/chromosome/chromo01.shtml. 

“Human Genome Project Information Archive1990–2003.” Chromosome 17: Human Genome Landmarks Poster, web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/posters/chromosome/chromo17.shtml. 

Sekido, Ryohei, and Robin Lovell-Badge. “Sex Determination Involves Synergistic Action of SRY and SF1 on a Specific Sox9 Enhancer.” Nature, vol. 453, no. 7197, June 2008, p. 930. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/nature06944. 

Trevor Project, The. Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth. 

STEM Mom

What is the new moon?

Do you ever look up into the night sky and wonder? What is going on up there? Are there aliens? Still looking. Are we made up of stardust? Yes. Are we the center of the universe? In a manner of speaking. Is the moon made of cheese? No. And lastly, why does the moon look different over the course of the month? In this post I include a simple demonstration to help show you the moon phases and discuss what the new moon is since the moon seems to magically disappear and reappear throughout the month.

Continue reading “What is the new moon?”
STEM Mom

Five STEM Women You Might Not Know

Women have made incredible contributions to the science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively known as STEM) fields since the earliest we can recall or have on record but their names have often been left off their contributions or been glossed over in favor of their male contemporaries who used women’s research or contributions to solidify their own work.  As a woman in the sciences myself, I find it’s important to show that STEM is for everyone.  I tell my students that science was the only place where I could ask questions, be wrong, and it still be important to understanding what was going on. 

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STEM Mom

No Bad Weather, Just Bad Clothing

Disclaimer: There is UNSAFE weather. If the weather is potentially dangerous (i.e. hurricane) then no type of gear is good enough.

Disclaimer: I promise this is not an ad, but I do have quite a few recommendations for gear that we use here at the Messy house.

I’m reminded of a phrase my ecology professor and my advisor once told me in college: “A bad day in the field is better than a good day in the lab.” It was something that always stuck with me because being outside doing field work was always more fun for me than being stuck inside the lab either doing the analysis of said field work or working in one of the other labs on campus (i.e. genetics or microbiology).

I started my college career thinking I would be going into forensics. I had wanted to be Dana Scully but when I realized I had to be an MD to be an ME (like actually go to med school and work with live patients) I decided that wasn’t for me so then I thought I would be a forensic scientist (think Abby from NCIS before Abby from NCIS existed) but then realized I’d spend too much time staring at a microscope which wasn’t my strength. My college was a little strange in the fact that as first year students we had to conduct research under a professor so I worked with the professor who would be my first advisor on small mammal tracking, habitat fragmentation and I loved it. Being outside, didn’t matter the weather, setting and looking at tracking plates for small mammals was the best time I had during my first year at college and that set me up for my degree in environmental sciences and my senior research project on small mammals published and presented at the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting.

That’s what made me want to write this. I think many of us have gotten too comfortable and unwilling to go outside when it’s not “perfect” weather. Sometimes that means it’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too wet; it’s too SOMETHING. I want to encourage you to go outside and take children or other loved ones in your life outside even if the weather isn’t perfect. Start with a few minutes if you can’t manage a whole walk, sit on your front stoop or your back porch. Nature changes when the weather changes; you hear different sounds, you see different animals and you can appreciate nature’s variety.

I am known for taking the Munchkin out in all sorts of weather, especially when it’s rainy. I spent 10 days hiking the Costa Rican rainforest when I was a first year high school student (thanks to my parents and my older brother for that experience) so I had to get comfortable with getting wet and it has translated into being able to take the Munchkin out even when it’s uncomfortable.

The trick is having some good rain clothes and our favorite is the Oaki suit:

I call it her hazmat or Oompa Loompa suit; we bought it a couple years ago quite a few sizes too big because it’s got lots of ways to tighten it up and she has worn it on so many outings. She can even wear it over warmer clothes like a snow suit and it keeps her dry no matter what she’s doing. I chose bright orange so she’s easy to see no matter what environment we happen to be in (and if we accidentally end up in hunting territory). My personal favorite for low key nature walks is my Hunter boots:

I can handle my clothes being wet and I can handle getting rained on but I just cannot handle wet feet and I’ve found the Hunter boots keep my feet nice and dry (thick socks if it’s cold out) through the puddles, mud, and muck of exploring.

When you get outside in different weathers and different times of the day you’ll hear and see a different crew of living things. Not all living things like being out during the heat of the day, not all things like to be out in the rain either but you’ll hear different buzzing on a rainy summer day than you do on a dry, spring day or even a clear and cold winter day.

Each season, time of day, type of weather, wherever you live is going to have it’s own complement of critters. The only way you can experience them is if you’re willing to get out and experience the world on their terms. Human beings are lucky because we’ve created ways for us to participate in life despite whatever the natural world is doing; we’ve taken over almost every area of land, we’ve been able to modify materials to make shelters, we’ve created clothes (by the way, why did we lose the body hair just to make clothes?), we’ve found ways to heat and cool ourselves so suit up and go experience the world in all the different and wonderful ways it can be.

If you are so inclined or your child is old enough to write and interested, you can buy a Rite in the Rain notebook which is an amazing field notebook and you can jot down observations the different times you go out. This allows you (or your children) to practice making observations, you can go back and compare, see what’s different. You can compare the living things across the seasons, you can compare across times of day or types of weather.

We’ve become nature blind, we don’t see the things that are all around us and we hide from the elements when it’s not to our liking. Don’t be afraid to take some time and step outside every day, even when it’s not perfect out you’ll be amazed at the beauty you can still see outside as nature continues to buzz along even in the rain, sleet, cold, or heat.

Get outside and don’t worry, it’s ok to get a little messy!

STEM Mom

STEM Mom Introduction

As readers may already know I am a high school biology teacher.  However you may not know that I have a bachelor of science in environmental science and a master of science in biology.  I worked for public non-profits and the private sector on my way towards becoming a biology teacher.  I have a passion for science education because at my core I am a scientist; I graduated college expecting to pursue the scientific fields and not the field of education but after the fact decided to turn my interests towards education so I ultimately took another class pursuing the “alternate route” program in my state to earn my teaching certificate.  I think this has made a difference in how I approach science education in my classroom and also with the Munchkin.

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