Thursday, November 29, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Elemental Ornaments

In this week's book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, one of the ways Eddy calms himself down is by reciting the elements from the periodic table. Some of the words he recites like chlorine and iron) are probably familiar, while others (scandium!) are...not so familiar.

All matter (everything that takes up space and has mass) is made up of the elements that Eddy recites. (Check out this video for a very catchy and kid-friendly introduction to this concept.) They're the building blocks of everything around you, the building blocks of YOU. It's just simple differences in the way they're connected and combined that make H2O (water) a vital part of life, but H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) highly hazardous.

So let's build a few models to see what they look like! For this week's activity, you'll need large gumdrops (or colored marshmallows, or foam balls) and toothpicks. We'll use the same color code that chemists do for their models:

Black = carbon
White = hydrogen
Red = oxygen
Blue = nitrogen (Okay, these are purple in the photos since I didn't have blue.)
Green = chlorine
Yellow = sulfur
Orange = phosphorus

Here are some easy ones you can try:

And here are a few that are a little trickier:

In these models, each gumdrop represents one atom. Almost all atoms have tiny particles called electrons that they can use to connect to other atoms. In these models, the toothpicks represent bonds that hold the atoms together. The bonds are formed by the atoms sharing those electrons with each other.

For advanced learners: Notice how every different element has a certain number of bonds. For hydrogen, it's always got just one toothpick coming out if it. For carbon, it's always four. Three for nitrogen, one for chlorine, and usually two for oxygen. Sulfur gets tricky (two or four) and phosphorus usually has three.

Can you design your own molecule that follows these rules? Can you make bigger, more complicated molecules like sugar (sucrose)? How many gumdrops would you need to model even a small section of DNA?

Have fun making molecules!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jacqueline Houtman Interview and Giveaway!

I'm so thrilled that Jacqueline Houtman agreed to be my first author interview ever! I've been a fan of Jacqueline's work since The Reinvention of Edison Thomas first came out. She's a talented author with a great love and gift for science, and I think you'll agree that she gives a great interview as well. And since she's as generous with her books as she is with her time, Jacqueline has offered to give away a signed copy of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas! Read to the end for more details...

EV: The Reinvention of Edision Thomas is a great story about a really endearing character. Which did you come up with first: Eddy the character, or his story?

JH: Eddy definitely came first. The book started off as a series of scenes. I put Eddy into situations that would be difficult for him and see what he did. I came up with situations where he would react differently than most people, but in ways that were entirely consistent with the way he saw things. As I wrote more and more scenes, a story began to develop. Some of those scenes ended up in the book. Some were cut from the book, but stayed in my head as part of Eddy’s character.

Is Eddy based on anyone you know? Are any of the other characters based on real people?

Eddy’s not based on any one person, but he has the characteristics of several people I know, including me. He is a fictional character. Jim, the crossing guard, on the other hand is based on a crossing guard named…wait for it…Jim. He’s the only real person in the story.

One of my favorite things about Eddy is that the way his mind works is so unique. How did you come up with all of the Random Access Memory facts that you use throughout the book? Do facts get stuck in your brain too? (They do in mine!)

My brain attracts obscure facts like a magnet. In fact, it’s sort of a joke around my house. Eddy stores facts in his brain and he accesses a fact when something happens in his life that is somehow related to that fact. I inserted the facts at transitional points in the story and each fact has something to do with the preceding scene. Some of the facts came straight from my head. Some I had to research. All of them were verified.

This book was first published in 2010. If we could fast forward two years in Eddy's life, what would he be up to?

I think he’d be comfortable with a small group of friends. He would continue to find strategies to help him get along in the world. My hope is that a science teacher would take an interest in Eddy and help him put his great mind to use on interesting and useful projects.

Can you tell us what you're writing next? Will any of the characters from The Reinvention of Edison Thomas show up in future books?

I’m working on a couple of manuscripts. They both have boy protagonists, and—surprise!—they both have a lot of science in them. As for future Eddy books, I don’t have any plans for that right now, but I’m not ruling it out.

What advice would you give to young writers?

 Read and keep a journal. Read everything, even outside your favorite genre. If you like what you’re reading, figure out why. If you don’t like it, figure out why. Write down your ideas. Play with words. Make a habit of writing.

What advice would you give to young scientists?

Same answer: Read and keep a journal. Read about things that interest you. Read about people who do interesting things. Write down observations. Make connections. Ask questions. Don’t just accept facts that are handed to you. Dig deeper. Find out why.
Thank you, Jacqueline! To enter the giveaway, make sure you're a follower of the blog (click "Join this Site" on the right sidebar) and then leave a comment below. As always, bonus points for Facebook and Twitter links/mentions, and double bonus points if you refer a friend who becomes a follwer! :) The giveaway closes Wednesday, December 5 at midnight MST.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman

From Goodreads: Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book, but he can't read the emotions on the faces of his classmates at Drayton Middle School. He can spend hours tinkering with an invention, but he can't stand more than a few minutes in a noisy crowd, like the crowd at the science fair, which Eddy fails to win. When the local school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy is haunted by thoughts of the potentially disastrous consequences and invents a traffic-calming device, using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. Eddy also discovers new friends, who appreciate his abilities and respect his unique view of the world. They help Eddy realize that his "friend" Mitch is the person behind the progressively more distressing things that happed to Eddy. By trusting his real friends and accepting their help, Eddy uses his talents to help others and rethinks his purely mechanical definition of success.

My Two Cents: There's so much here to love. A protagonist who is totally unique and instantly earns our loyalty. Clever chapter titles and fun facts from Eddy's "Random Access Memory." Natural and poignant lessons on problem solving, community, and friendship. And, as a bonus, a pretty decent helping of science. There are a growing number of books about kids with autism and Aspergers, and this is among the best.

Grade Level: 5-8

Additional Resources:
Jacqueline Houtman's website
A fun activity that demonstrates eddy currents
Interactive animation showing position, velocity, and acceleration
A useful site for kids who want to learn morse code like Eddy, and a game to test their skills
A fun photographic periodic table
A printable guide from Indiana University to help kids understand autism

More to Read:
Another book for middle grade readers that deals with autism from a kid's perspective: Rules by Cynthia Lord
Another book about a kid who would rather spend time doing scientific research than anything else: Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head by Nancy Viau
Another book about a boy who has a learning disability (but absolutely isn't defined by it): Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

Also, I'm thrilled to say that I've scored an interview with Jacqueline and a signed (!) copy of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas to give away here! Check back Wednesday for the interview and details about the givaway, and click back here Thursday for a fun holiday science post that Eddy himself would enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you'll forgive me for getting a little personal on this post. This seemed like the perfect time to take a moment to thank all of the people who have helped me out with this blog.

Thank you, Robbie, for being so supportive. And also hilarious, handsome, smart, and strong.

Thanks to my kids, for giving my life so much more meaning, and for being the main reason I'm passionate about education in the first place.

Thanks to my parents for teaching me and supporting me all my life, and in every way possible.

Thank you, guest posters past and future, for making this blog so much more than I ever could on my own. Helen Boswell, Heather Hawke, Tasha Seegmiller, Jacqueline Houtman (coming next week!), Laura Cotts, Natalie Clark, Jayne Moraski.

Thank you, middle grade authors, who write the kind of books that make a difference. (See sidebar for many, many links.)

And finally, thank you, supportive readers and followers, for making me feel like the work that I've put in to this blog means something to somebody. Lori Clark, Jenilyn Collings, Tasha Seegmiller, Kate Birch, Rosalyn Eves, Helen Boswell, Bridget Lee, Charmayne Orton, Deanna Romito, and everyone who has read the blog or shared it with others. You are wonderful!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Here Comes Science


Happy Thanksgiving! Since we've got a holiday this week, I thought I'd mix it up a little by reviewing a great science album for kids, Here Comes Science by They Might Be Giants. If you're like me, you remember They Might Be Giants from the days when they were recording songs like Istanbul for adults. Now they have several albums for kids that are fun, educational, and often very funny.

This CD is also available as a DVD that contains videos for each song. The videos have been posted on YouTube, but I hope that you'll support these artists if you love the songs as much as I do by purchasing some form of the music.

Some of the songs on this album actually seemed vaguely political and/or seemed to be more interested in proving a point or persuading people that, for instance, "Science is Real." (Although I agree with their viewpoints, I don't know that anybody who discredits scientific principles is going to be persuaded by kid rock songs, no matter how catchy they may be.) And things get confusing when they have a song about how the sun is a ball of gas, followed immediately by a song about how the sun is NOT a ball of gas. Which I understand from a scientific point of view thanks to this NASA link, but why confuse kids?

My favorite songs were the ones who dispensed with the politics and persuasion (and gas ball confusion) and went straight for the science in the most understandable way possible. So, without further ado, I give you my top 9 songs from Here Comes Science:

1. Meet the Elements

2. Bloodmobile

3. Roy G. Biv

4. I Am a Paleontologist

5. What Is a Shooting Star?

6. Photosynthesis

7. Speed and Velocity

8. Solid Liquid Gas

9. Cells

Are there scientific inaccuracies in each of these videos? Probably. (One that jumped out at me was that the stars are in front of the clouds in What Is a Shooting Star.) But parents and teachers can use any errors as just one more teaching tool. "What is wrong with this picture?"

My bottom line: Anything that makes science more accessible, understandable, and fun to kids gets my stamp of approval.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Feed the Birds

For Groovy Robinson in The Year the Swallows Came Early, the best time for birdwatching was in March. But in many parts of the world, winter is a great time for birding!

Birds around a bird feeder made from a Coke bottle in Johannesburg, South Africa. From left to right, a male Southern Masked Weaver, a male Cape Sparrow, a female Cape Sparrows, and two male Cape Sparrows. Photo credit here.

If you want to be an amateur ornithologist (even for a day), you'll probably want a bird feeder, a pencil and notebook, and a sharp pair of eyes.

Don't have a birdfeeder? Not a problem! All you need to make one is an empty plastic bottle, a pair of sharp scissors, and a few dowels, chopsticks, or twigs. And don't forget the birdseed!

1. Wash, dry, and remove the labels from an empty plastic bottle. Cut four dime-size holes about 3 inches from the bottom of the bottle. These will be the holes that the birds feed from. Cut four pea-size holes about 1 inch from the bottom of the bottle. Slide your chopsticks (or twigs or dowels) through the holes. These will serve as perches for the birds. If you want your feeder to be extra fancy, you can cut off the tops of other bottles and attach them to the feeding holes as shown in the picture above.

2. Fill your birdfeeder with birdseed. A standard mixture will usually work, but black-oil sunflower seed is the best attractant in many areas. (Click here for more information on what birdseed to use.)

3. Find a place to hang your feeder. Look for a tree or overhang where the feeder will be well off the ground, visible to the birds, and inaccessible to other animals like cats and squirrels.

4. Step back and observe! Count the number of birds you observe each day and graph the results. (Math!) See if you can identify the different species of birds using an online field guide or these posters. (Science!) Sketch the birds you see most often (Art!) or write a story about them. (Language Arts!) Listen for the bird calls and see if you can identify the birds by sound as well as sight. Keep a field notebook and record what types of seeds work best and what times of day birds come. The possibilities are endless!

Most importantly, get outside and appreciate those birds!

Additional Resources:
Fun birding games and activities from the National Audubon Society
Record your results on Cornell's free birding calendar
Sign up to get a Project FeederWatch Research Kit and join Cornell's team for $15 (or download their free guide)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing

And now for something completely different...

I'll be back tomorrow with a science activity for The Year the Swallows Came Early, but today I get the chance to talk about my own book! I was asked to participate in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop by the lovely Jayne Moraski. Jayne's website is called 365 TV-Free Kid Activities, and you should definitely go check it out!
A replica of a 1672 Isaac Newton Telescope
Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing Blog Hop:
1. What is the working title of your book? Discovering Isaac
2. Where did the idea come from for the book? I was reading a brief history of Isaac Newton (who overcame a terrible childhood) and thought, "This would make a great middle grade book!"

3. What genre does your book fall under? Contemporary Middle Grade (Translation: a book for kids ages 9-12 with no fantasy, ghostly, or magical elements. Just fun, regular kids.)

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? There isn't anybody who jumps out at me for the main character, Isaac, but I can picture Eva Mendes as his mom (possibly because the character is named Eva) and Luke from Modern Family as Isaac's friend Connor. (Confession: I don't watch many movies. At all.)

5. What is the synopsis of your book?
Eleven-year-old Isaac Sanchez didn’t know what to expect when his deadbeat mom came back, but it definitely wasn’t this: a secret code, a new best friend, and a strange connection to the greatest scientist of all time. Isaac’s experiments sometimes end in disaster, but he may discover what he was looking for all along: his own place in the universe.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? I've got several agents reading it right now, so I'm hoping to go that route!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I drafted it in a summer, then did almost nothing with it for a year (and had a baby in the meantime.) When Rosalyn Eves invited me to be in her writing group (thank you, Rosalyn!), I pulled it out and got serious about being a writer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? Agents have compared it to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Chasing Vermeer, both of which are books I really, really admire.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book? Reading about Isaac Newton and wanting to tell the story of a kid who finds his own potential (and loves science.)

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? I hope it has relatable, endearing characters and a great plot, but I think the science and history woven through the story might be what make it distinctive.

Whew! That was much more fun to write than I expected it to be. :) And the fun continues next week on Kate Birch's blog. I'm so excited to see how she'll answer these questions. (And which of her awesome books she'll answer them for!)

If you would like to read some more blogs about writing, go to Barbara Bockman’s blog or to read more about new books, go to Penelope Ann’s blog and work backward:

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

From Goodreads: Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson loves cooking and plans to go to culinary school just as soon as she's old enough. But even Groovy's thoughtfully-planned menus won't fix the things that start to go wrong the year she turns eleven--suddenly, her father is in jail, her best friend's long-absent mother reappears, and the swallows that make their annual migration to her hometown arrive surprisingly early. As Groovy begins to expect the unexpected, she learns about the importance of forgiveness, understands the complex stories of the people around her, and realizes that even an earthquake can't get in the way of a family that needs to come together.

Kathryn Fitzmaurice's lovely debut novel is distinctively Californian in its flavor. Her rich characters and strong sense of place feel both familiar and fresh at first meeting--and worth revisiting, again and again.

My Two Cents: This is a lovely book that's not loud or overbearing, set firmly and beautifully on the California coast. Groovy has a realistic set of problems and a realistic set of strengths, and the way both develop over the pages of this book are really touching. A great lesson in loving, accepting, and forgiving imperfect parents, being a loyal friend, and pursuing your passions.

Grade Level: 3-6

Additional Resources:
Kathryn Fitzmaurice's website, including discussion questions
An article for kids on the swallows--and how they're starting to skip San Juan Capistrano
Recipe for Chocolate Covered Strawberry Pops (I think Groovy would approve!)
Earthquake overview, facts, and activities
A fun migratory bird game--it's like Oregon Trail for birds! :)

More to Read:
Another book with a strong heroine where both animals and a complicated parental relationship factor in: Notes from a Liar and Her Dog by Gennifer Choldenko
Another seaside story about a young girl figuring out her place in the world: Junonia by Kevin Henkes
Another book with a strong sense of place and a girl who finds strength beyond her family: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Power of Audio Books (Plus a Giveaway!)

I'm breaking from the normal schedule of science posts on Thursdays. One reason is that M.E. Castle (the author of Popular Clone) already has lots of great experiments that you can find here. So I've called in another guest poster, the lovely and smart Tasha Seegmiller. You can find her blog here and follow her on Twitter here. I highly recommend both! Tasha is an English teacher who has a really great personal story of instilling a love of reading in her son. And it even involves Popular Clone! Take it away, Tasha!

(not Tasha's son)

There seems to be a strange phenomenon happening in the world of boys and books. If the boys like fantasy books, their love of reading tends to be high. If they don’t, often they don’t read at all. 

And I have a son who doesn’t like much fantasy.

This was the case with my son. He only wanted to read comic books, but often didn’t really read them, and his reading level was dropping with each parent teacher conference from above level to on level to below level. When he left 5th grade of elementary school at the end of last year, his reading level was 4.2. Yup, he was almost two grades below reading level. I couldn’t get him to read at all. I visited with him and he said he liked listening to the books be read in school, but didn’t like reading things to himself.  

My mother in law suggested letting him listen to audiobooks while reading, and I was ready to try anything. The first book we tried this with was Popular Clone. And within a chapter or two, I heard something I had not heard from my son ever when reading. He laughed. And again. And after the reading, my son wanted to tell me what had happened in the book. 

Sold on this idea, we started frequenting the library, trying to find audiobooks and hard copies of books to let him get his reading in over the summer. We worked through the “Fudge” books and he remembered he didn’t mind The Ranger’s Apprentice series.
Soon, the amount of times he asked how much longer to read decreased, and several times I had to tell him he had to go to sleep after the chapter. 
Not long after this started working for us, I heard him try to read something in a store out loud to me and I realized the reason for the success. His vocabulary, his ability to sound out the words, had him pronouncing letter combinations and diphthongs in such bizarre ways I couldn’t figure out the word. By having access to the audiobooks, he was able to build the vocabulary while still understanding and finding enjoyment from the stories he was reading. 
Remember that 4.2 reading level at the end of his 5thgrade year? When the same assessment was given at the beginning of his 6th grade year, it came back as an 8.3. 
My son’s reading level went up FOUR grade levels in the months over summer.
If you have a reluctant reader, I highly recommend this technique. And I’m not going to lie to you and tell you he loves to read any chance he can get, but it provides a way for him to access the world of reading, to find enjoyment in it, to realize it doesn’t just have to be the thing he has to do for 25 minutes a night to get a good grade.
And that’s enough to bring joy to the heart of this book-loving mom.
Thank you, Tasha! To enter to win a copy of the AUDIO book of Popular Clone, just make sure you're a follower of the blog and leave a comment below!

Amended 11/20: The winner of the Audiobook is barrettandaudrey! Congratulations! Send me an email and I'll give you the details.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Popular Clone by M.E. Castle

From Goodreads: Meet Fisher Bas: 12 years-old, growth-stunted, a geeky science genius, and son of the Nobel Prize-winning creators of the Bas-Hermaphrodite-Sea-Slug-Hypothesis. No surprise: Fisher isn't exactly the most popular kid in his middle-school, tormented daily by the beefy, overgrown goons he calls The Vikings. But he senses relief when he comes upon the idea of cloning himself--creating a second Fisher to go to school each day while he stays at home playing video games and eating cheetos with ketchup. It's an ingenious plan that works brilliantly, until Fisher's clone turns out to be more popular than him--and soon after gets clone-napped by the evil scientist Dr. Xander.

My Two Cents: This is a fun, sometimes silly book that reluctant readers will probably love. There's plenty of zany science fiction here that's rooted just enough in real science that it might make kids curious enough to experiment themselves.

Grade Level: 4-7 (some challenging science vocabulary and middle school themes)

Additional Resources:
The Clone Chronicles website--especially the Experiments section!
Do your own cloning experiment: How to Clone a Potato from the Biotechnology Learning Lab at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
History of Vikings (for kids) Why do you think Fischer called the bullies at his school Vikings?
Insight into Gassy Greg: The Science of Farting (Proceed with caution)

More to Read:
Another unlikely hero who triumphs in spite of industrial espionage: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
More smart kids whose curiosity gets them into trouble: The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
Another self-described wimp who'd probably be happy to eat junk food with Fischer Bas: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

I always love comments! Have you read this book? Any activities, resources, or companion books to recommend? Let me know!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Giveaway Winners!

It's time to announce the winners of the last two giveaways!

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate goes to Tasha Seegmiller

How Oliver Olson Changed the World goes to Lori Clark

Congratulations to the winners! Send me an email or leave a comment to let me know whether you'd like a paper copy or an ecopy (and if electronic, what format). If you didn't win this time, don't worry. There will be many, many more chances. Keep those comments and new followers coming. :)

Stay tuned for a slightly different giveaway with our next book!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Exploration and Observation: Solar System Model

In this week's book, Oliver Olson makes a solar system model for his school project. So let's make one too! Here's how to make a scale model of the solar system using stuff you probably have left over from Halloween.

     Materials needed:

     2 small pumpkins
     2 mini pumpkins
     3 suckers (Tootsie Pops, etc. You can cut the sticks off.)
     1 Whopper candy
     1 Skittle candy
     2 Nerds candies

The planets and objects in our solar system are very, very different sizes. Which is the biggest? Which is the smallest? Which four items do you think represent the gas giants? Which four are the terrestrial planets? Which items do you think represent our moon and Pluto? If we added more Nerds to our solar system, what could they represent?

Write down which planet (plus the moon and Pluto) you think goes with each item and why you chose it on this Solar System Recording Sheet.

Why isn't the sun one of our items? Because we'd need a pumpkin that was as tall as a grown-up! On this scale, the Earth would revolve at a distance of about two football fields from the sun, and the moon would revolve around the Earth at a distance of about 30 inches. Jupiter would be about 1 km away from the giant pumpkin sun, and Pluto would be about 8 km away!

Adapted from NASA's Solar System Scale and Size lesson plan. For NASA's full lesson plan, click here.

Additional resources:

Solar System Scale Model Calculator
Planet Size Comparison

Don't forget to click "Join this site", then leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of this week's book, How Oliver Olson Changed the World!