Tag Archives: biology

Specimen Collecting

BalletBoy and I caught an awesome shiny green tiger beetle on our nature walk.  We examined him in the specimen jar then let him go.

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We also collected one of each of the wildflowers we saw for a total of eight specimens, from buttercups to violets, and pressed them in the flower press when we got home.  We’ll see how they come out.

Overall, we’re having such a blast with biology this year.

Life Science

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I usually try to keep science contained, but right now we have so many collections and experiments going for life science that the entire mantle has been completely taken over.

I am finally admitting to myself and to you, dear readers, that I simply have not kept up the Science Without a Net section.  Alas.  However, my enthusiasm for doing science is unflagging.  Sometimes we hit a lull where not much is done, but we have recently revved up again, as you can see.  I was especially excited that we began doing zoology.

When we studied physics, chemistry and earth science we struggled to find good books.  There were some stellar options.  However, there aren’t multitudes of choices.  On the other hand, there are a number of experiment books.  Now that we’re on to life sciences, there are so many good books about the topics that I’m overwhelmed.  But there are almost no good experiment books.  I had to search high and low and find some, but I got some good recommendations and found a few gems.

Grocery Store Botony by Elma Joan Rahn
This older, out of print book has wonderful, simple ideas for how to raid the grocery store for useful plants and then dissect and investigate the way plants work as a starting point.  It’s a very simple book and best for elementary school, but it has the type of open-ended discovery that I look for in a science experiment book.

Biology Experiments for Children by Ethel Hanauer
This is another older book, but one which has been reissued and is widely available.  It contains sections for plant, animal and human body experiments.  Many of the experiments are simplified versions of the experiments you might do at a higher level in biology and would be appropriate for elementary or middle school, depending on how much depth you went into with them.  Our hay infusion experiment, in which we spotted real protozoa swimming around under the microscope, came from this book, as did a recent dissection of mushrooms.  It has many ideas of ways to take easy to find things and use them as jumping off points for exploration.  It’s yet another book that asks open-ended questions about the experiments and asks kids to observe and think.

The Amateur ZoologistThe Amateur Zoologist by Mary Dykstra
This book is a real treasure.  It is full of great experiments that I’m very excited to tackle and would be appropriate for upper elementary to middle school.  It uses insects and occasionally other small animals in simple explorations, such as observing how they respond, such as which color bugs will gravitate toward and which food mealworms like best.  Yet again, these experiments don’t have a set result.  Instead, they’re mostly jumping off points for thinking and observing.

Janice Vancleave's Biology for Every Kid (Hardcover) ~ Janice Pr... Cover ArtBiology for Every Kid by Janice VanCleave
Finally, it’s no surprise that there’s an Every Kid entry for life science.  It’s exactly what you would expect from the Janice VanCleave books.  Each experiment is relatively easy, most are short and she has provided the “right” answer for every single one of them and a clear explanation of why it happened that way.  Many of the ideas in here are good, especially for elementary school.  However, don’t let the kids see the book as it really robs the observation element from them.  Instead of looking to see what happens – which food will the bugs prefer or what is inside that mushroom – they’re waiting for the right answer.  Can you tell that I’ve grown a bit disenchanted by these books?  I’m trying not to let it deter me from using them though.  She has a nice idea about capturing a spider web with hairspray and examining the geometric patterns that I’d like to try, for example.  However, many of the ideas are just flat, such as watching your breath fog up a mirror as a way to think about camels or checking the temperature underground to understand why desert animals burrow.  These are so simple, quick, and predictable, even to eight year-olds, that they seem pointless, especially when the connection to the topic is tenuous at best.


Struggling Through New Science

One of the things that I find challenging about teaching science is that it’s a subject for which I have great enthusiasm, but which I have only a lay knowledge of.  After all, my formal training in science ended in college with intro to geology my freshman year.

I try my best to understand what I’m teaching, but I often discover things with the kids as we read together.  This is a mixed blessing, of course.  On the one hand, I’d love to know enough to be able to pick out and elaborate on anything and everything or to spot every error instead of just occasional ones.  On the other hand, I know at least I’m modeling interest and enthusiasm.

We just hit up against a perfect example of this with biological classification.  Nearly all the books and resources about this are outdated.  In case you’re not aware, biologists have been busy totally messing up the classification system you learned in school.  Now, instead of five kingdoms, we’ve got three domains.  And while kingdom comes under domain, I found some interestingly conflicting sets of categories.  Basically, I think what it boils down to is that they’re not totally sure yet, especially when it comes to the multitudes of tiny life forms out there.

So, what to do?  We began with a pile of clip art of all kinds of life forms, from single celled organisms to mushrooms to polar bears.  I asked the kids to come up with their own system of classification.  They immediately came up with one worthy of the ancients.  There were a few categories that showed that they knew things went together such as invertebrates, but many of the categories were things like, “things that fly” and “things that climb” and “tiny things.”  I explained that this was exactly the sort of categories that the first scientists used to organize animals.

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But then, I said, scientists looked inside animals and realized things – so, for example, in the “things that swim” category, the jellyfish doesn’t have a backbone so it belongs with the invertebrates, and the dolphin has live babies so it’s a mammal.  So we divvied up the larger life forms and showed the basic kingdoms system.

But now, I said, scientists have new information.  After a moment of discussion, the kids knew that was DNA.  We talked about how that has changed our understanding of how everything should be organized.  Mostly this has effected the smallest life forms, but it has also effected others.  For example, at the zoo the other day, the volunteer told us about how the orangutans had been reclassified into two species not too long ago, meaning that the zoo can no longer let some of them breed that they had before.

As we took notes, I did the best I could, pointing out how much these categories may change in the near future.  And I hope that this sense of change and discovery with science makes it more interesting and compensates for my own lack of information and the outdated nature of many of the textbooks.  At least for me, this is what’s so interesting and fun about science.  We get to see how our understanding of the world changes and deepens.

Indoor Ecology

Hey, it’s my turn to teach science again!  I couldn’t be more thrilled.  Seriously.

Here’s some books to start us off on our ecosystems unit.  Since I know that my readership may be somewhat diverse, I’ll note that pretty much every book we’ve looked at for this unit so far accepts that both evolution and climate change are accepted scientific theory (and, it probably should go without saying, so do we).

Janice VanCleave's Ecology for Every Kid: Easy Activities that M... Cover ArtOur Living Earth: A Story of People, Ecology, and Preservation (... Cover Art

I thought that Earth Matters from DK was appealing and interesting in the way that DK books generally are.  The photos in Yan Arthus-Bertrand’s book Our Living Earth were stunning, having been mostly taken from above and giving a sense of the scope of the place being shown.  The Janice Van Cleave book about ecology gave some starting points for experiments and explorations.  I didn’t find one, great narrative book about ecosystems and biodiversity for kids.  However, that’s in part because the book I was sure would be great, the book Biodiversity by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, who wrote the book Shaping the Earth, which we loved for earth science last year, couldn’t be gotten at the library after all!  I’ve ordered it instead, so hopefully it will live up to my expectations.

It was soggy out when we got together to start our studies, so my original plan to take us outside and actually, you know, see some ecosystem action, didn’t seem right.  Instead, I started us off with some metaphorical Jenga.  The kids built a giant tower of blocks that I then told them represented biodiversity.  We slowly removed blocks until the whole thing came crashing down.  I think you probably get the metaphor.  So did they.


That idea came from the “Biodiversity” episode of Bill Nye, so I followed that up by showing them the episode, then bombarding them with vocabulary notes.  I usually don’t do that, but I wanted to get all of us on the same basic page so we could actually go outside and observe and use our shared vocabulary.  Much of the terms were things I knew they had picked up from watching TV shows like Wild Kratts or attending nature programs over the years, like food chain, habitat, or predators and prey.  Others were things they’ve covered slightly in their study of plant life over the last few months, such as producers and consumers or adaptations.

Finally, I wanted to see them do something to apply their understanding, so I spread the table with giant paper and art supplies and asked them to pick a biome to illustrate.  I had written the terms we just learned on sticky labels and told them that I had to be able to come along after them and add the labels.  After some discussion, they decided to do a desert – a weird conglomerate desert with bits of wildlife from the American southwest (which everyone knew a bit about), the Namib (which my kids obviously knew about), and the Australian outback (which our friends knew a bit about).  I’m pretty sure wolves and hyenas have never actually met under a saguaro cactus, but they met on our giant desert mural.

Despite the geographic amusements, the kids got the concept really well.  They drew little habitat burrows for animals in the sand, birds nesting in the cacti, human trash littering the ground, food chains of various sorts, and a great deal of biodiversity.  I came along after them with the labels, adding bits of information that they told me, giving the whole thing the feel of an Usborne look inside book.

At the end, they were so thrilled with their art that they asked could they do the same thing for other biomes, especially a rainforest.  I said yes, though I do really want us to get outside.  We ended by listing all the tools we have for exploring our world: measuring tapes, thermometers, microscopes, magnifying glasses, pH paper, and so forth.  I encouraged them to think about the ecosystems we can access and come up with some questions that we could ask and find the answers to by using our scientific toolkit.  Part of our goal this year with science has been to get the kids to ask their own questions and find ways to answer them through the scientific method.  So we’ll see what they come up with.

Tiny Worlds

We have been ramping up our microscope use lately as we’ve gotten into our biology year.  The kids have been studying plants at the Botanic Gardens and with a friend and we’re about to turn our attention to biomes, ecology, and then genetics.  In the meantime, we’ve just been peeking through our microscope more and more lately at little things.  We’ve looked at bugs, pollen, plant parts, dust, mold, onion cells, blood cells, and various other things in recent weeks.  Wild orchids have been the best winner.  The picture below is of the drawing BalletBoy made after looking at the insides under the microscope.

Our microscope is the Celestron 44104, which was a gift from the Husband’s parents several years ago as we got started on our homeschool journey.  I did some research before I wish listed it and I’ve been very happy with it.  The price is even less now than when we received it.  And I’m hoping to add this attachable digital camera before the year is out, which will let us capture what we see.  I think that will just make it more fun.

We’ve found a number of microscope books useful.  First of all, we’ve had the Usborne book The World of the Microscope for awhile.  It has diagrams, explanations, and simple starting projects.  It’s a decent first book.  On recommendation, I also got the older book Adventures with a Microscope by Richard Headstrom.  I love the style of this book, with its talkative narrative and explanations.  We haven’t done many of the projects yet, but it’s really great at suggesting what to look at with the microscope as well as how to mount and dye.

The book we’ve actually found most exciting was a large picture book called Hidden Worlds by Stephen Kramer, which covers the work of scientist Dennis Kunkel, whose amazing images you can see on his website.  This book does many things.  It introduces the importance of microscopy and shows different ways it can be applied in a way children can understand.  It also explains different types of microscopes and their uses.  Most importantly, it is a biography of a scientist who has an enthusiasm that comes through the narrative so clearly that it’s catching.  Both boys came away from this book wanting to look under the microscope more.  I highly recommend it.

The Life of Trees

I know I haven’t been as vigilant about science posting.  Still, we’ve been at it, studying plants, including taking advantage of the National Botanic Garden’s new homeschool classes, peering in microscopes at onion cells and flower pollen, measuring trees and, as always, reading books and watching videos.

By far the best tree books we found were the four Tree Tales by Barbara Bash.  Each book covers a different tree in a different place: the saguaro cactus, the douglas fir, the baobab, and the banyan.  The books show a tree’s whole life span and how the tree fits into its ecosystem, both as a home for animals and, in some cases, a useful tree for humans as well.  These books hit the sweet spot for me with science books.  They were long enough to feel substantial, but not so long that they were overwhelming.  They were narrative instead of blurby.  And, so rarely these days, they had a beautiful writing style that was both informative and evocative.  The author’s background is as a calligrapher, so even the lettering was lovely.

For videos, we greatly enjoyed Climbing Redwood Giants, which you can find on Netflix streaming here.  The kids were captivated by just watching people climb these enormous trees.  Can you imagine that some animals live their whole lives inside them?  In case you don’t have Netflix, there’s a clip from the film here on Youtube: