Tag Archives: life science

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.


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.