Friday, August 31, 2012

Learning to Compost

The other day I posted about teaching my daughter to recycle.  At the same time, I'm teaching her the basics of composting.  I say basics because even I know very little about the science of perfect composting.  Several years ago I built this compost box next to our garden.

I built two sections to setup a rotation throughout the year.  I basically throw all compostable material into the box.  Some examples are banana peels, orange peels, grass, rotting fruit, etc.  I stir it every once in a while with a shovel/rake and let it break down.  By the time the spring rolls around most of it has broken down into a nice compost mixture that I toss into the garden as organic fertilizer.  I then till it in to the dirt before planting.  I can't say that my garden is doing any better or worse as a result of the compost but it gives me the feeling that I'm doing something environmentally sound.

Lately I've been working with my 5 year old daughter on teaching her what goes in the compost and what goes in the recycle bin/trash can.  Each night we usually fill up a small bowl of compostable material and she takes it out to the compost box and dumps it in.  She loves to do this and in the past has been disappointed when I didn't wait for her to dump the stuff into the box.

If you have a garden, consider adding a compost box.  It's a great way to teach your children that in addition to recyclable material there are other things that can avoid the trash can.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Are Blue Moons Really Blue?

In the last 24 hours I've been hearing the term "blue moon" mentioned by multiple people.  I haven't been paying attention to the lunar calendar, but it turns out that tomorrow, August 31, there is a blue moon.  I'm not one to destroy another's hopes and dreams, but I'll be very blunt right now.  Blue moons are NOT blue! Repeat, blue moons are NOT blue!

If  blue moon isn't blue, then what is it?  A blue moon refers to the second full moon in a calendar month.  The moon goes through a cycle of phases (new, first quarter, full, third quarter, etc.) over a period of 29.5 days.  Since a calender month is slightly longer at 30/31 days, there is a possibility for a phase to repeat itself in a month.  For example, if the moon is in a particular phase on the 1st or 2nd of the month, it will have the same phase on one of the last 2 days of the month.  Expect a blue moon whenever the moon is in its full phase on the first or second of the month.  The next full moon, the blue moon, will occur on the 30th or 31st of the month.

Full Moon
Can the moon appear bluish in color?  The answer is yes.  Normally the Moon appears whitish/grayish in color as seen in the picture above.  The Moon can also appear reddish/orangish in color.  The moon appearing different colors is a result of atmospheric effects.  A red/orange moon occurs when a full moon is rising/setting.  This is not all that rare.  More on this later in a future blog post.  A true blue moon is very rare.  Here's a direct quote from a article on a blue moon.

"If there's been a recent forest fire or volcanic eruption that pumped significant smoke or ash into the upper atmosphere, it is possible for the moon to take on a bluish hue. Just such an event made the moon turn blue in late September, 1950, when smoke from a forest fire in Canada drifted down to cause a blue moon over eastern North America. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 created blue moons from various perspectives around the planet."

The moon appearing blue happens on very rare occasions, but has nothing to do with the definition of a blue moon.  A blue moon, as in the second full Moon in a month, occurs roughly every 2.5 - 3 years.

It's very possible that your kids may ask about blue moons.  It's something they are likely to hear in school.  As a parent, do your best to clear up this misconception.  Good luck!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Teach Your Kids the Importance of Recycling

It's very common for towns and cities across the United States to provide curb-side recycling pickup.  In some towns it's even mandatory that each citizen recycle.  I wish that was the case in all towns.  As an adult, if you value the environment and want your children and grand children and great grand children to live in the same beautiful world that you grew up in, then it's crucial that you teach them the importance of recycling.  In the town I live in we have curbside recycling.  For the last year or so my wife and I have been working on teaching our daughter which items are recyclable and which are not.

Our recycling bin.  Not sure why it is so small when there is so much that can be recycled.

Just the other day I was thinking to myself that my daughter has a pretty good idea of what is recyclable, but does she understand why we recycle?  I asked her and she didn't know, so we had a short chat about being able to reuse paper, plastic, and glass.  There's no need to throw something away when it can be used again and again and again.  This seemed to make sense to her and she smiled at me.  :-)  If you haven't had a recycling discussion with your kids, now's the time to do it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Intelligent Life Outside our Solar System?

I came across a cool activity that you, as a parent, can work together on with an older (middle/high school/college) child.  The question, are we alone in the Universe, is often asked.  It's a very difficult question to answer.  In my opinion, the answer is no, we are not alone in the Universe.  The conditions for life to develop on Earth are very specific, so the odds of a randomly selected planet supporting any life, let alone intelligent life, are very small.  But there are billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the Universe.  Given the large numbers it seems impossible to me that intelligent life doesn't exist somewhere else in the Universe.

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake devised what is now known as the Drake Equation to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.  The equation is below.

The Drake Equation is useful in creating an estimated number of advanced civilizations, although several of the numbers plugged into the equation have a large range of acceptable inputs.  We'll probably never know the answer to this question, but it's fun to play with.

I encourage you and your child (most suitable for older children) to mess around with an interactive version of the Drake Equation that was published on the BBC website last week.  This interactive tool further explains the equation and the inputs and helps you decide what is an acceptable range.  After you put in your own numbers, it pops out the number of advanced civilizations in our galaxy and the number in the Universe with all galaxies included.

I plugged in my own numbers and came up with 38 advanced civilizations in our galaxy and 5.6 trillion advanced civilizations across the entire Universe.  What will you get?  Have fun!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pizza Box Oven Success

A few days ago I posted a picture of the pizza box oven my daughter and I made last weekend.  We weren't able to test it out last week due to the weather, but we had an excellent opportunity to do so yesterday.  We were going to make s'mores, but soon found out we had no marshmallows or graham crackers.  Chocolate by itself doesn't make for a good s'more.  So we searched the kitchen and with some help from my wife we decided on chocolate banana boats.  

Ready to place in the pizza box oven

We put all four banana boats in the pizza box oven, closed the inner lid, then set it up such that sunlight reflected off the aluminum coated outer lid into the box.  


Since this is not a regular oven, the air temperature only reaches 175 - 200 degrees, but warm enough to slowly cook some foods.  I left the bananas in the 'oven' for about 45 minutes.  The bananas were warm and the chocolate had melted to the point where it was gooey and ready to eat.  

A ready to eat banana boat!

They were delicious!  Great times had by all.  Science is always fun, but it's extra fun when food is involved!

Friday, August 24, 2012

What is the Brightest Star in the Night Sky?

It's a very common misconception that Polaris (the North Star) is the brightest star in the night sky.  As a grad student, I once had a phone call from a random person asking if the very bright star they saw setting in the west was the North Star.  There were several things wrong with that question.

1.  The North Star is in the north, not the west.  
2.  The North Star remains stationary in the sky.  It doesn't rise or set.
3.  The North Star is not particularly bright, at least compared to other stars we see in the night sky.
4.  The 'star' the person was referring to wasn't a star.  It was a planet.  Venus was setting in the west.  

So why is there a big misconception concerning Polaris?  If you ask me, it's because the random person is not familiar with the names of stars.  If you ask anyone to name a star, the first, and possibly only star name that comes to mind is the North Star.  It's then easy to leap to the conclusion that if the name is recognized it must be important.  And the North Star is important, but not because it's bright.  It's important because it sits on our sky directly above the North Pole (directly above Earth's axis).  As Earth rotates the other stars appear to move east to west across the sky, but the North Star remains stationary.  

There are a couple of other interesting facts about the North Star.  It's part of the Little Dipper in the sky.  It's the star at the end of the "handle".  In terms of brightness relative to other stars, Polaris is 50th by brightness rank.  Given that on a dark night you can see hundreds if not thousands of stars, Polaris is indeed bright.  It's just not at the top of the list.  There are 49 other stars brighter than it.  

So if Polaris isn't the brightest star in the sky, what is?  The Sun, duh!  Okay, trick question.  Let me give you another chance.  What is the brightest star in the NIGHT sky?  The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius.  Sirius is about 24 times brighter than Polaris.  Sirius is relatively close to the constellation of Orion.

The best time to observe Sirius is in the evening after sunset in the winter months.  If you find the 3 belt stars of Orion's belt, move a bit south and toward the east and you'll see a very bright star.  This is Sirius.  This is a great activity to introduce your kids to the night sky.  Learn about a few bright stars/constellations that are easy to find and point them out.  Your kids will be amazed!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Nook Removal Battle

We're currently going through the process of weaning our 2 year old off the nook (pacifier) at bed time.  As a parent with two kids I can tell you there are advantages and disadvantages of the nook.  On the plus side the nook is an excellent way of soothing your child, especially at nap/bed time.  On the negative side, he/she gets attached to it very quickly and requires it at bed time.  Removing the nook at bed time can create problems.

The nook (or nuk as it is properly spelled) is both a problem solver and a problem creator.

We never had to fight the battle of weaning our older daughter off the nook because she never accepted the nook when she was a baby.  From day one she would spit it out immediately.  Since she never accepted it, we never thought about the best method to wean her from it.  I must say, however, that there were many days where my wife and I both wished that she would just take the nook to calm her down.  There were many nights where our daughter cried herself to sleep.

My two year old accepted the nook immediately and it was a great relief to us when it came to nap/bed time.  She never had a problem falling asleep with a nook in her mouth.  The silence was wonderful.  Now that she's 2, it's time to wean her off the nook.  We started this process a couple of months ago, but then she caught a cold and we let her have it again.  We've now begun the weaning process for good.

It's been several nights since we started this process and I've learned that my daughter follows the 5 basic levels of grief each night:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

1.  Denial - At first she's not sure what to think about losing the nook.  I think she considers it a hide and seek game and that she'll eventually get it back before bed.

2.  Anger - Once she realizes that bed without a nook is real, the full out screaming begins.  Some nights she skips denial and starts right in with anger.

3.  Bargaining - She can't speak full sentences yet, so bargaining is difficult but screaming eventually turns into loud yells for "Mommy!" and "Daddy!".

4.  Depression - After yelling and screaming for awhile she calms down a bit and whimpers and sobs lightly in bed.

5.  Acceptance - Following the whimpers she calms down further and begins to talk/babble in a happy voice.  This is shortly followed by sleep.

The weaning process is going good so far, given that we know there'll be a 10 - 15 minute period of screaming and yelling.  Hopefully that will diminish soon and she'll go to bed beginning at the acceptance stage.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pizza Box Oven

About two weeks ago my daughter and I set out to build a pizza box oven.  Our masterpiece is shown below.

 The point of this pizza box oven is to trap solar energy to increase the temperature of the air inside the box.  Similar to a regular oven, if the air temperature is high enough, food inside will cook.  We've lined the inside of the box with foil to both reflect solar energy into the box and created a good insulator to trap the energy.  The clear saran wrap material acts to create an air tight seal that prevents warmed air from escaping.  The bottom of the box is lined with black construction paper to absorb the solar energy.  Unfortunately we have no results to show at this point.  We had plenty of days this summer where this experiment would have worked wonderfully.  Several days topped 100 degrees F in our area.  However, it took me several weeks to get around to buying a pizza and then remembering to save the box.  I tossed the first pizza box before remembering it was needed for a science experiment.

Since building this box a cold front has passed through and temperatures have remained below normal.  We're waiting for the next hot, sunny day to do this experiment.  It looks like we'll get that this weekend.  Temps are supposed to reach the high 80s and the sky should remain cloud free.  Our plan is to cook a few smores inside the box.  If that goes well, we'll see what else we can cook.

Wish us luck!  I'll post pictures next week if the weather conditions remain appropriate for this experiment. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sleeping and Children

As adults we know that sleeping is important but we have a tendency to ignore our bodies and forgo the necessary number of hours our body needs.  According to the Mayo Clinic an adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.  Fortunately I'm able to do this most nights.  Although an adult may feel fine after a few hours, studies show that they do worse on mental tasks.  Sleep is just as important, if not more important for kids.

With my 5 year old starting kindergarten 2 weeks ago we had to adjust her bed time and her wake up time.  In order to get dressed, eat breakfast, and catch the bus in the morning her wake up time was pushed an hour earlier than she normally wakes on her own.  As a result we had to push her bed time earlier too.  Thus far she's been pretty good at getting up in the morning.  There were a couple of days where she was slow to rise, but overall I'm impressed with her morning efforts.  Given a full day of school and lack of a true rest time, she gets cranky and non-cooperative around dinner time.  She hasn't napped on a regular basis since just before she turned 4.  Normally we give her a true rest period each day where she sits on the couch and watches a movie or reads books quietly.  Now that she's not getting that true rest period, she's trying to adjust.

The fact that it is still light outside when her bed time hits doesn't help matters.  Nor do the neighbor kids (same age give or take 2 - 3 years) playing outside way past a time when they should be in bed.  When it's light she wants to continue playing in her room.  She's gotten quite good at quietly sneaking toys, books, puzzles, etc., into her bed.  Kids playing outside keep her up if they are being loud, which they usually are.  But I'll admit that overall she does pretty well going to sleep at night.  We've had several talks with her about the importance of sleeping and how it helps your body recharge.  I recently found a neat website for parents and kids that discusses the importance of sleep.  If you and/or your child are struggling with sleep, check out Sleep for Kids.  This site has a great deal of information plus games and activities for you and your child, all on the topic of sleep.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Toddlers and Puzzles

My two year old loves to go to the library.  Her method of picking out books is usually tearing a random collection of 10 or 15 books off the shelf.  Not Daddy's favorite method but it gets the job done.  Our local library has a relatively large kids area with a play kitchen, doll houses, train sets, puppets, and several other games.  My kids love to spend an hour playing and reading every time we go to the library.  One of my two year old's favorite activities is putting together puzzles.

My daughter working on a puzzle.

The library has several 8-10 piece toddler puzzles with large, hard pieces.  She loves to grab these one by one and put them together.  She always brings them over to me and wants me to help her.  This melts my heart some knowing that she wants her Daddy's help.  I let her do as much of the puzzle as possible, but she hasn't really gotten that pieces can be rotated to make them fit.  In fact, she can get a bit frustrated at times when a piece doesn't go where she wants it to go.  I help her out by getting the puzzle piece close and then she puts it in place.  The best part is when she says "I did it, Daddy", every time she successfully places a piece.  

Puzzles are also a great way to develop critical thinking skills in young children.  Kids have no idea they are actually learning and developing these skills.  All they know is that they're having fun!  If you have puzzles around the house or puzzles at the library, make it an activity to put them together with your son, daughter, nephew, niece, etc.  Puzzles are a great replacement to TV on a rainy day or a ridiculously hot day.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Trouble at the Dentist

I had the "pleasant" experience of taking my 5 year old to the dentist yesterday after school.  Note my sarcasm.  My daughter has been going to the dentist every 6 months since she was 2.  The first 3 or 4 trips were rough.  Like most 2 year olds, she screamed and kicked and my wife and I had to hold her down with every ounce of strength we had.  You feel horrible as a parent doing this because it seems like you're torturing your child, but it's very important that kids see the dentist as soon as their teeth come in.  If there are problems, catching them early can offer more treatment options.  As my daughter approached 4 we were able to explain the purpose of visiting the dentist and she was able to understand.  Dentist appointments were no longer a problem.  She sat in the seat calmly and left with a smile on her face.

That all changed yesterday.  Everything went fine during the normal cleaning.  She was also scheduled for x-rays, but since she had them a year ago with no issues I didn't anticipate any problems.  At the end of the cleaning the dental hygienist sprayed some water in her mouth which wasn't an issue.  The problem developed when the hygienist turned the air tube that sucks the water out of your mouth.  My daughter wasn't prepared for this and the noise of the air tube scared her.  Not just scared her, but freaked her out!  She started kicking and screaming and refused to put the air tube in her mouth.  After that it was time for the x-rays but she was already freaked out that doing the x-rays was not going to happen.  I tried explaining to her the the x-ray doesn't make a noise.  There were two methods she could select from for her x-rays, but she refused both.  I had a 15 minute chat with her about how the x-ray machine works and why it's important, but it was still a no go.  I believe that if she wasn't already scared from the air tube noise that x-rays would not have been a problem.   Hopefully she'll be in a better position mentally to take x-rays at her next appointment in 6 months.

Not the expression on my daughter's face when she left the dentist yesterday.  

I have to admit that I was a little annoyed with her, but I couldn't get mad at her.  Everyone of us is afraid of the unknown.  How many people skip doctor/dentist appointments because they are afraid of what they might learn or might have to go through?  How many people refuse to donate blood because they are fearful of the process?  Even I'm apprehensive when it comes to medical procedures I've never had before.  Usually once we are educated on the procedure we feel better about things.

In the end, yesterday's dentist appointment was a learning process.  I'll talk to my daughter ahead of time about x-rays and the air tube, hoping that if she understands ahead of time what will happen, she won't be as freaked out.  And I can guarantee you that I'll talk with my 2 year old when it's time for her to have x-rays and use the air tube.  Right now she's still at that "I'm screaming and kicking regardless of what you say or do" stage.  It's a "fun" stage.  :-)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Picking Tomatoes with my Two Year Old

If you're a reader of this blog you've probably noticed that most of my posts focus on science activities between me and my older daughter (5 years).  A few have touched on my two year old but not many.  I'm not intentionally ignoring my youngest on this blog, but she's still a bit too young to participate in many of the science activities I've found for young kids.  As she approaches 3 and then 4, she'll become much more active in science.

There are times, however, where I've come across an opportunity to share science with my 2 year old.  One occurred the other evening when she and I were outside picking tomatoes from our garden.  She's been a great helper this summer in the garden, but usually she's content to hold a container and put in the tomatoes that I've just picked.  She is particularly cute when she gets mad at me for not picking fast enough!  The other evening she was not content simply putting the tomatoes in the bucket.  She wanted to pick her own tomatoes!  Of course she didn't tell me this right away and I didn't notice until she had already picked a couple.  At that point I had to have a conversation with her about the color of a ripe tomato!  The ones she had picked were green.

Unripe tomatoes.  Not ready to eat.

Ripe tomatoes.  Ready to eat.

It was probably more confusing to her since I have more than just red tomatoes in the garden.  I have plants that produce red, yellow, orange, purple, and blue tomatoes.  I took her over to one of our Black Cherry tomato plants (purple) and showed her which color she could pick and which not to pick.  She understood very quickly and proceeded to pick away with a big smile on her face the whole time.

It wasn't earth-shattering science my 2 year old learned, but she did learn the difference between a ripe and an unripe tomato.  Science in action!  It's not always about the big things.  The little things are just as important as the big when introducing science to kids.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Where is the dark side of the Moon?

The other day I gave my students an astronomy misconception quiz.  One of the questions asked was "where is the dark side of the Moon?"  The common misconception that many people have is that the dark side of the Moon is the side of the Moon that faces away from the Earth.  People tend to recognize that we only see one side of the Moon.  In more scientific terms, due to gravitational and frictional forces between the Earth and the Moon, the Moon is tidally locked with the Earth and the same side always faces us.  This is relatively common in our Solar System.  There are many moons tidally locked with their planet in some way. For some reason the knowledge that we always see the same side of the Moon leads many us of us to conclude that if we can't see the other side it must be dark.  This, of course, is not true.  

If this isn't true, then where is the dark side of the Moon?  The answer is everywhere.  Every position on the Moon experiences periods of sunlight (day) and periods of darkness (night).  This is no different than the Earth.  Right now it's night for half of the Earth and day for the other half.  It's just matter of where your located.  Take a look at the diagram below, remembering that the same side of the Moon always faces the Earth.

Moon Phase Diagram

The Sun is located to the left on this image.  Notice that half of the Earth is lit and half of the Moon is lit for each Moon position.  Start with the Full Moon on the right.  The half of the Moon that is lit is facing the Earth.  So we the Moon fully lit as you can see in the image below.  

Full Moon

Now look at the New Moon in the first picture.  The side of the Moon that is lit is facing away from the Earth and the dark/night side is facing Earth.  So we see the following.

Technically a crescent Moon but very close to a New moon 
Technically this is a picture of a crescent Moon but it's very close to a New Moon.  During the New Moon phase, no part of the Moon's surface that we see on Earth is illuminated.  

To conclude, there is a dark side of the Moon, but it's not the side of the Moon facing away from us.  The dark side of the Moon changes as the Moon orbits around the Earth.  My daughter hasn't asked me this question, and it's not the type of question I expect a child/student to ask unless they've already been confronted with the misconception.  If you or your child are confronted with the misconception that the dark side of the Moon is the side facing away from Earth, now you have the knowledge to combat and destroy this misconception.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Astronomy Misconception Quiz

Yesterday I started the my 7th year at my current institution by teaching an Astro 100 class.  My students are all juniors and seniors in high school, but this is a dual credit college course taught at the freshman/sophomore college level.  Every year I begin with a short discussion on misconceptions but this is the first year I've started the semester with a short non-graded misconception quiz.  Each student completed an anonymous 6 question quiz that focused on common astronomy related misconceptions.  The questions asked were:

1.  What is the cause of Earth’s seasons (summer, winter, fall, spring)?
2.  Why is the sky bluish in color?
3.  Why does the Moon have phases (i.e. full moon, first quarter, new moon, etc.)?
4.  Where is the dark side of the moon?
5.  Approximately what century was it determined that Earth was round?  Who is credited with this discovery?
6.  Which star is the brightest in the night sky?

Each student response on each question received a score of full understanding, partial understanding, or no understanding.  As expected, there were many more "no understanding" scores than "full" or "partial understanding" scores.  Below is a graph I quickly put together illustrating all student responses of the 6 questions asked.

Number of responses on y-axis vs. score on x-axis.

Across all 6 questions, 62% contained a misconception, 17% had a partial understanding of the concept, and 21% had a full understanding of the concept.  This is not surprising on the first day of class and shows that there are many misconceptions that students have been taught in the past and continue to stick with them.  It's my job this semester to remove those misconceptions and replace them with the truth.  

Can you pass this test with full understanding on each question?  I've addressed a couple of these questions already.  You can read about lunar phases, and the blue sky in previous posts.  The other questions I'll address in future blog posts.  

You an help your children avoid these misconceptions in high school by working with them now.  I wouldn't give them the misconception quiz, but if they ask questions about the moon or the sky or seasons you can slowly work with your child and introduce the truth to them.  The more it comes up early in their lives the greater likelihood they'll recognize the misconception when it's presented to them.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

All Good Things Come to an End

I had a blast the past two weeks watching the Olympics with my daughter.  She was introduced to a number of sports she had never seen before, and I had the pleasure of teaching her a bit of science and answering her questions.  I hope she's just as interested to watch 4 years from now when the next summer Olympics begin.  

Of course, I don't have to wait 4 years for the next Olympics.  The winter Olympics take place in 2 years and I'm already excited to share with her a number of new winter sports she's never seen.  On top of that, my younger daughter will be old enough to watch with us.  Right now she doesn't have patience to watch TV, which is probably a good thing, but in 2 years at the age of 4 I'm guessing she'll have a greater interest in what is taking place.  

I hope you had as much fun as I did watching the Olympics this year.  I loved every bit of them, but it's probably good that they are over.  Now I can get back to going to bed at a decent time!!!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Don't Break the Ice

Do you remember playing the kid's game, Don't Break the Ice?  I vaguely remember playing this game as a kid.  It's a game that my five year old started playing when she was three.  She loved it then and she still loves to play it.  If you're not familiar with this game, below is a picture of the game "board". 

Don't Break the Ice game board.

The board consists of fake ice cubes holding a person.  The game begins with each player taking turns knocking down one of the ice cubes.  The goal is to NOT be the player who lets the person fall.  Believe it or not, there's quite a bit of strategy involved, making this an excellent game for young kids to work on their higher order critical thinking skills.  There's much more to this game than just randomly knocking out an ice cube.  Take a look at the in-game picture below.  

Don't Break the Ice in mid game.

This is my daughter and I in the middle of the game.  As you can see, we've knocked out several of the cubes.  Here's where the strategy comes into play.  If you can look ahead several turns you can put together a plan of attack.  Which cube should I knock out to give me the best chance of winning?  My daughter is getting pretty good at this.  Granted, she's not really using much strategy early in the game, but she's able to catch on with 3 or 4 turns left.  

The last two turns of our game.  I lost.
It's a fun game to play and it helps develop critical thinking skills.  If you have this game, the next time you play it with your kids, take time to ask them about their moves.  What made you choose that cube to knock out?  Which do you think is best to knock out next?  Have fun!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lunar Phases - Misconceptions

We've all observed the Moon and noticed that it doesn't always look the same.  Sometimes it is in its full phase where we see all of it.  Sometimes it's in a quarter phase where we see half of it, and at other times we see more than half or less than half of the Moon.  These are referred to as the lunar phases.  

Lunar phases from waxing crescent (upper left) through first quarter, full moon, third quarter, waning crescent, and new moon (lower right).
 What causes the moon to appear differently?  The common misconception is shadows.  Take a waxing crescent, for example.  The misconception states that the reason we see only a sliver of the Moon is that Earth's shadow is blocking the rest.

Is this waxing crescent moon caused by Earth's shadow?  No.

Let me state this very clearly.  Lunar phases are NOT caused by Earth's shadow.  At no point during the regular lunar month does Earth cast its shadow onto the lunar surface.  So if phase are not caused by shadows, what is the cause?  

The cause is geometry.  It's all about where the Moon is located in its orbrit relative to the Earth and the Sun.  See the image below.  

Lunar phases are caused by the geometry of the Earth/Moon/Sun system.  They depend on the location of the Moon relative to the Earth and the Sun.  

Stated in another way, half of the Moon's surface is lit at all times.  This is the same as Earth.  On any given day at any given time, half of the Earth experiences day, while the other half experiences night.  Your location on Earth determines if you are experiencing day or night.  The same is true on the Moon.  Half of the Moon is experiencing day and the other half is experiencing night.  When we look at the Moon in the sky, sometimes we see the entire half of the Moon that is experiencing day and thus we see a Full Moon.  Sometimes we only see half of the half of the Moon that is day.  In this case we see the Moon has half lit or a first/third quarter.  At other times we only see a small sliver of the Moon, so we are only observing a tiny portion of the Moon that is lit.  

The length of the lunar month is about 29.5 days, or about one Earth month.  So over the course of this month you will see the month go through an entire cycle of phases from new to crescent to quarter to gibbous to full, back to gibbous, quarter, and crescent.  

If you didn't know before, now you know the truth behind lunar phases.  If you encounter someone stating that the Moon's phases are caused by shadows, you can confidently step in and correct them.  

When are shadows important?  Occasionally Earth does cast a shadow onto the Moon.  When this happens we observe a lunar eclipse (to be discussed in a future post).  Lunar eclipses are somewhat rare, so again, when you only see part of the Moon during a non-eclipse time, no shadows are involved.  

My daughter is a good spotter of the Moon.  It seems like she is always spotting it, day or night.  She's a bit young to discuss lunar phases, but she is old enough to understand what is a shadow and what isn't.  So depending on the age of your child, talk to them and ask them questions about lunar phases when they point out the Moon.  This will help prevent misconceptions from forming later in their education.   

Thursday, August 9, 2012

First Day of Kindergarten

Today was my daughter's first day of kindergarten!  Watching her walk onto the bus this morning was such an amazing sight!  It seems like just yesterday that we were dropping her off at day care for the first time.  Five years later and here we are!  She was super excited last night and this morning.  Despite the early hour, she jumped out of bed the moment her alarm rang.  Within two minutes she was dressed and ready to eat breakfast.  Then it was time to parade around wearing her new school back pack.  I'm so proud of her and the way she's handling this new step in her life.  I can't wait to watch her walk off the bus this afternoon and ask her how her day went.  

"First day of kindergarten" sign my daughter is holding.  

As she heads off to school I wonder how I will handle certain teacher/student situations.  As a teacher of science myself, her science education is very important to me.  How will I handle it when I learn one of her teachers is unintentionally spreading a science misconception?  In that situation I'll most likely bring this up with the teacher in a polite manner.  A bigger question is how I will handle teachers who are lax in providing feedback to my child.  In my classes I stress feedback and I make sure I'm returning graded assignments ASAP.  In my case I probably go a bit over board at times and grade and return work back in the same day.  I don't really expect this quick of a turn around, but how will I handle teachers who take 2 weeks, 3, 4, 5 weeks, and sometimes months before returning graded work back to my daughter?  How will I handle teachers who go an entire semester without recording an official grade until the very end?  I won't know for sure until this actually happens, but I'm guessing I will be an angry parent and I won't sit quietly on it.  I hope that day never comes.  I hope she has amazing teachers every year, but chances are that somewhere along the line she'll have what I consider a sub par teacher.  

Today is a special day for my daughter.  It's a special day for my wife and I.  If my daughter is half as excited about school in the future as she was this morning, she'll love it each and every day.  That's my hope.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Homemade Lava Lamp

A couple of week ago my daughter and I attempted to make a homemade lava lamp.  The basic idea here is to fill a two liter bottle with a 50/50 mix of water and vegetable oil.  Put in several drops of food coloring.  Then drop a tablet (or 1/2 tablet, you can experiment) of Alka-Seltzer into the mixture.  The tablet creates carbon dioxide bubbles that cause water and food color to rise.  As you can see below, this did not work very well for us.

A few of the food coloring drops rise and fall, but nothing that I would describe as lava lamp like.  I realized later that I put the water in first and then the oil.  The food coloring drops didn't have much of a chance to drop and dissolve into the water before I dropped in the Alka-Seltzer tablet.  At the time I didn't want to waste another half bottle of oil, so I let it be.  We may have to revisit this experiment in the future.  My daughter still thought it was cool.  You can hear her excited voice say "It exploded!"

Give this one a try.  Your goal is to a better job than we did!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Unusual Spare

As you may know from a previous post, my 5 year old and I have spent several days at the bowling alley this summer.  One cool thing about the alley we go to is that the screen lets you know when you have an unusual spare.  In other words, if the pins remaining after the first throw are statistically uncommon, it tells you.  I've noticed, however, that my daughter and I tend to throw more "unusual" spares than "usual" spares!!!  I'd like to think it's because we are both so awesome at bowling that we are too good for "usual" spares!  :-) Here are a couple pictures of unusual spares from our last game of bowling.

Unfortunately I don't have a picture of my favorite unusual spare that my daughter rolled earlier this summer. Below is the standard pin arrangement.  After the first throw my daughter left standing the 5, 7, and 10 pin. Now that's an unusual spare!

So if you and your child roll a large number of unusual spares, don't fret, you're in good company!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympics, Double Amputees, and Science

Each night for the past week my daughter has stayed up for the first 45 - 60 minutes of the prime time Olympic broadcast.  She doesn't get to see everything, but has been pleased with what she's seen thus far.  Her favorite event was the women's rowing event with the U.S. taking the gold.  On Saturday night she had the opportunity to witness Oscar Pistorius run the 400 m in track and field.  If you're not familiar with this athlete, he has a unique disability for an Olympian.  He's a double amputee with no legs.  He runs on what are called "cheetah" legs.

While NBC was doing their story on Oscar I talked with my daughter about this.  Naturally, she had a lot of questions that I wasn't able to answer.  Why did he lose his legs?  Where did his legs go?  How does he walk?  How does he run?  Does he wear the legs to bed?  She was very confused as to why the "cheetah" legs were called cheetah legs.  She promptly informed me that cheetahs have furry paws and his legs are not fury and they don't have paws.  :-)  Even though I wasn't able to answer all of her questions, this was an excellent opportunity to show her that even if things go bad in life, you can still achieve success through hard work.  To see an Olympic athlete accomplish what Oscar Pistorius has is amazing.

It was also an excellent opportunity to share with my daughter the power of science.  Science was able to take this person from a wheel chair to an Olympic athlete.  Science may not be the solution to everything, but it can definitely improve the quality of one's life.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Valuable Slip and Slide Lesson

Last night my daughters and I learned a very valuable slip and slide lesson.  We last used the slip and slide this past Monday.  This was the second time we've used it.  The first time we used it I set up the kiddie pool in the morning to let the water warm up and then laid out the slip and slide just before using it.  On Monday, I set up the kiddie pool and the slip and slide in the morning thinking nothing of it.  We used it in the afternoon and then as soon as we were done I drained the water, rolled it up, and put it away.  Last night while checking the garden, I noticed the following in my yard.

Dead grass where the slip and slide was!

I never thought that the slip and slide would kill my grass!  It didn't kill the grass the first time, so I've come to the following conclusion.  Monday was a hot 90+ degree day.  Setting the slip and slide up a couple of hours before using it provided the time for the Sun to warm the slip and slide material, creating an "oven" beneath it.  Water on the slip and slide keeps the material cool, but with no water for a couple hours the temperature underneath must have reached a high enough temperature to kill off the grass.  It did an excellent job killing the grass too.  In the middle of this patch there are no green blades of grass.  None!

A very valuable science lesson was learned by the entire family.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Take Your Kids to Work Day

The official take your daughters and sons to work day was April 26 this year.  That shouldn't stop you, however, from taking your daughter or son to work on another day, assuming you're not pulling them out of school to do so.  Taking your child to work is important for dads with daughters and especially for dads who work in science, engineering, math, or any other field that is male dominated.  Doing so shows your daughter that it doesn't matter if your male or female as long as you have the desire and the drive to achieve success.  

As a teacher in the male dominated science field of physics and astronomy I'm placing a greater emphasis on introducing my two daughters to science.  At my daughters' age, taking them to an actual work day would be very boring for them, but there are other work related things I can do with them.  For example, yesterday I took my oldest daughter to my two physics lab rooms to clean and organize.  She brought along a backpack of toys and coloring books, but barely touched them.  She was much more interested in the science equipment we were putting away.  We spent 4 hours yesterday afternoon cleaning up and not once did she complain and ask to leave.  In fact, she spent more time asking what things were and asking what she could carry to help.  I was definitely a proud daddy yesterday.  

I should add that these two lab rooms have not been cleaned in several years so there were piles of "junk" in the back of the rooms.  I even found this, buried at the bottom of one of the piles:

What TV's used to look like.
My daughter asked what this was and I told her it's a TV.  Her response was "it doesn't look like a TV"!  

We both had fun yesterday afternoon and bringing my daughter to work with me turned a sucky job into a fun experience.  So if you can, find time to take your daughters and sons to work with you from time to time.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Solar System Section in Elementary School Library

Last week my wife and I took our 5 year old daughter in to her elementary school for kindergarten registration and evaluation.  During the evaluation my wife and I waited in the school's library.  There wasn't much to do so I walked around checking out the collection of books.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this:

Solar System section of the library.

My daughter's school library has a section devoted to the solar system!  At first I thought the entire section was filled with solar system books, but it's really only the bottom shelf, with a few solar system books scattered throughout the top 3 shelves.

I think this is really cool!  I wish my elementary school had a whole shelf devoted to the planets.  There are sections devoted to the other sciences as well.  They weren't labeled biology, chemistry, etc, but had elementary friendly names such as animals, cars, trains, etc.

I can say that I will be a very excited Daddy on the day she brings home her first solar system/science book. It may not happen right away, but I figure at some point she'll find one of these books interesting, right?  Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Olympic Fun

A couple of days ago I published a blog post discussing how watching the Olympics with my daughter has been a fantastic experience.  I wanted to reiterate how awesome these past four evenings have been.  There's no better way to spend an evening than cuddling on the couch with my daughter watching the Olympics and explaining to her some of the science.  So here's a message to all dads (and moms):  Find some time over the next 2 weeks to watch the Olympics with your child.  They'll experience sports they've never seen before and they'll begin to understand how much work goes in to becoming a successful Olympian.

Last night we watched diving, swimming, and a bit of women's gymnastics.  I let her stay up a little later than normal so she could watch the U.S. women do the vault.  She was very eager from the start to watch gymnastics.  For those of you who don't know me, this was a big sacrifice on my part.  I'm very much a sleep nazi and find it very important that my daughters have a set bed time that we stick to.  But how could I deny her last night?  Next week she starts school, so it will be back to a set bed time, but since there's no school right now, I didn't see the harm.

The women's gymnastics final went very late so my daughter only watched the first rotation (vault), but she was super excited in the morning when I told her the U.S. women won the gold.  She had a huge smile on her face when she found out.  That smile confirmed that I made the right choice last night.

Again, dads, moms, guardians, take time out of your schedule and sit down with your child and watch the Olympics.  They only occur every 4 years (or 2 years for the summer to winter switch).  In 4 years your child may have no interest at all in the Olympics.  Or maybe your daughter will be a teenager and sitting next to mom and dad on the couch is no longer "cool".  Take advantage of the time while it's still there.